It’s not often that words like “exciting” are used in connection to a preseason friendly, but you could definitely put that tag on Juventus’ final International Champions Cup game of the summer against Atletico Madrid in Stockholm on Saturday night.
While there is still technically one more game to go before Juve are ready to kick off the season in two weeks — TWO WEEKS, British announcer(s) on the world feed — as there is still the traditional game against the Primavera at Villar Perosa to come on Wednesday, but that’s more of an exhibition for the fans than a true prep game. This was the last real game for Maurizio Sarri to see how the players at his disposal have taken to his system and fine tune for the opener against Parma on Aug. 24.
The game definitely had its moments, especially in a wild first half, which saw two insane goals by 19-year-old phenom Joao Felix sandwich in between a good turn and shot by Sami Khedira. But the score didn’t tell the story. Juventus dominated open play, creating 27 shots, earning 14 corner kicks, and controlling 60 percent of possession. Atleti’s goals were very much smash-and-grab affairs, and their new-look defense was pinned back for long stretches. It was about as good as you could have hoped the team would look in their last preseason contest.
What really stood out from this performance? Let’s take a look at some talking points from Saturday’s match.
Saturday’s game said a lot about the installation of Sarri’s system, and the speed with which it’s happening.
It was really impressive to see the progress that had been made in the two weeks between Juve’s Asian tour and now. That three-game swing of the Far East was characterized by slow starts, with Juve suffering in the early stages before growing into the game and moving the ball far better in the second half.
There was no waiting period at the Friends Arena. Juve started moving the ball with aplomb right from the get-go, pinning Atleti back and earning numerous corner kicks. Just after the 10-minute mark, Giorgio Chiellini nearly opened the scoring but was denied by an impressive Jan Oblak save, a phrase that would be used multiple times later in the game. This pressure was kept up through the entire match. Atleti never really put together a sustained period of attacking threat, taking both their goals very much against the run of play. Had their finishing been any bette r— 12 of their 27 shots were off target and another nine were blocked — the scoreline would have looked a lot nicer.
Still, after the vapid performances that characterized Massimiliano Allegri’s final season in Turin, this was a welcome change. Not only did the team demonstrate the ability to take the game by the scruff of the neck, but they showed that they’re getting the hang of sarrismo — a system that takes a notoriously long time to install — at a pretty quick pace.
THE FLASH RETURNS
Two years ago, Douglas Costa led Serie A in assists and, with Cristiano Ronaldo on the other side waiting for deliveries to that powerful head of his, was expected to be one of the league’s best players last season.
Unfortunately, things didn’t go that way. Between injuries and a four-game suspension after the now-infamous Federico Di Francesco incident, Costa never got into a groove, and he was missing for an important stretch of the season during the spring.
Saturday showed just how much we missed The Flash last year. In full flight, there is no one on the team — indeed, there are few people anywhere — who can combine pace and technique the way the Brazil international can. In his first appearance since coming back from extended vacation following the Copa America, he sliced through Atletico’s back line at will, dribbling through defenders like they weren’t there. There were a few moments when he could have been a bit more selfish, but he’s a provider first and foremost, so you’ll get that from him. But if this performance is indicative of what we’ll end up seeing from Costa this year, opposing defenses are going to have a hell of a time on Juve’s attacking right.
Chiellini missed the Asian tour with one of his ever-present calf injuries, but made his (pre)season debut in this game and looked ready to make up for lost time. As mentioned before, only a fantastic save by Oblak prevented him from opening the scoring, and moments later he hit a thunderous shot that would have given the Slovenian more problems had it not been blocked.
Chiellini surprised many by having one of his best seasons last year, and even though he’ll need frequent rest in his age-35 season — NOT 38, British announcer on the world feed! — he doesn’t look like he’s slowed down one bit. His on-field performance, as well as his leadership, will be keys to this season.
Paulo Dybala looked good in his return from his post-Copa America vacation as well. Coming in on the hour mark, he played as a false 9 and forced Oblak into three saves, one of which was quite good. While it is perhaps worth noting that those three shots all came after Ronaldo left the game, it was still a good performance from the No. 10.
Whether or not this influences his future with the club remains to be seen.
If this series of tweets by Mina Rzouki is accurate, the team may still try to force him out simply for financial reasons. Sarri himself may have intimated as much when he said in his post-game press conference that his evaluation of whether Dybala can play the role of false 9 “counts for zero” against the forces of the market. In purely sporting terms, Sarri said his evaluation of Dybala is not complete, given the lack of training time he’s had, and it will remain to be seen how that develops as time passes.
If he remains with the team and plays at a high level through the middle — this writer’s opinion is that he most definitely can — there won’t be a need for any expensive ... or potentially destructive additions.
JUAN ... FULLBACK?
When he came on at the hour mark, Juan Cuadrado — another of the players who was making his return to the squad after an extended break for international duty — was installed as the right-back.
This ... is going to be interesting.
If Luca Pellegrini is, as is increasingly likely, loaned out for the year, Juventus will only have three true full-backs on the roster. It may be that Mattia De Sciglio would be the main backup to Alex Sandro on the left and Cuadrado ends up in the mix on the right flank along with the newly-acquired Danilo.
That could be good or bad. Allegri tried the Cuadrado-as-terzino experiment a few years ago, and it came out about how you’d expect: He added some punch going forward but was also guilty of some egregious defensive mistakes. This was immediately apparent in Stockholm, when Cuadrado was beaten on a rare Atleti attack within 45 seconds of entering the game.
If Cuadrado becomes part of the full-back group, he’s going to have to up his defensive skills in a big way, otherwise right-back might become a major uncertainty. This will likely cue the rending of garments from people over the sale of Joao Cancelo, but this is essentially the same problem with different people, and it comes down to whether the front office decides to loan Pellegrini — which looks more likely considering the youngster was an unused sub on Saturday.