I hope every player on Juventus is angry heading into Friday’s matchup with Lyon.
Angry for losing three of their final four games, angry for playing dismally since a 4-2 defeat to AC Milan after leading 2-0 back on July 7, angry for being 1-0 down on aggregate to a seventh-place Ligue 1 side.
If the players aren’t angry, I hope, at least, that they’re not satisfied. Serie A champions, sure, but the Bianconeri did not bring Cristiano Ronaldo to Turin for another Scudetto — at least, that’s what we’ve been led to believe. But after months and months of pandemics and cancellations and the loss of fans, the Champions League has finally returned.
This game, though, is anything but straightforward. A combination of injuries, poor form, and the existing deficit means Maurizio Sarri is certainly in a pickle with the players at his disposal and the situation confronting him. If I were the manager, this would be my starting XI:
Wojciech Szczęsny; Juan Cuadrado, Matthijs de Ligt, Leonardo Bonucci, Danilo; Rodrigo Bentancur, Miralem Pjanic, Adrien Rabiot; Federico Bernardeschi, Gonzalo Higuain, Cristiano Ronaldo
Leaving ammunition for later in the battle
The 1-0 deficit is tricky perhaps mostly because it both means that Juventus are under pressure to score two goals — or score one and win via penalties — and also have some time to grow into the game. I.e. facing a two- or three-goal deficit would mean that a guns-blazing attitude would be required from the opening whistle, but I don’t think that’s the case in this situation.
So here’s the first premise directing my starting lineup: you need substantive firepower on the bench.
Both Paulo Dybala and Douglas Costa are somewhere on the recovery train. There was the suggestion that maybe the Brazilian’s injury a short while back was season-ending, but when the club sent a Champions League update to their roster No. 11 was included. Of course, there’s very little real information given in that inclusion; it could simply be a red herring for Lyon.
Dybala seems the more likely of the two to feature, if not start. But again, my conviction is that Juventus shouldn’t go full-throttle from the first minute, as that would leave Sarri’s men vulnerable to the counter-attack, and that therefore being able to draw on some sort of offensive punch later in the game would be helpful. The Flash often plays that role, but I simply doubt his health is up to snuff for his customary role.
A front line of Bernardeschi, Higuain, and Ronaldo isn’t bad at all; if that attacking trio can’t manage some scoring chances and hopefully a goal without Dybala, then Sarri has bigger fish to fry. If Juve are losing or tied 15 minutes or so after halftime, put No. 10 in the game.
Danilo over Sandro: a defense of offense
All that said, Juventus do need to be offensive-minded. Danilo is far from the perfect fullback — I think we’re all aware of the issues we have with this collective unit — but he’s consistently offered more going forward than his compatriot, and he’s also seemed to gel a bit better with CR7 than Sandro.
Sandro is supposed to offer solidity more than anything else. He’s not Marcelo blazing up the left flank, but he’s rarely going to have a lapse, rarely going to get bested in the air or via a dribbling attacker. That has not been the case lately; he’s been out of position on numerous occasions in recent weeks, at fault for a couple of goals, and a far cry from the usual defensive solidity that we expect of him. So if Sandro still doesn’t offer much moving forward and also has made some pretty terrible mistakes at the back recently, why field him?
Even an out-of-form Sandro is probably better defensively than an in-form Danilo, which is all the more reason why it makes sense to have Sandro on the bench. If, knock on wood, Juve find themselves up 2-0 in the second half, a Sandro-for-Danilo swap would add energy and a superior defender.
The other more offensive-minded player Sarri could think about inserting into the lineup might be Aaron Ramsey. The Welshman really doesn’t hold the position of a typical midfielder very well. That’s his blessing and his curse, I suppose, but I fear that sort of sensibility in the first few minutes of the game, fear the over-eagerness and the vulnerability that might therefore happen.
If the game goes on, however, and Juve haven’t scored at some point in the second half, or perhaps even at halftime, then inserting Ramsey for Bentancur or Pjanic is probably the play Sarri will make; it’s the play I would make. If things do not go well in Turin for the first 45-60 minutes, there obviously will be a guns-blazing necessity, and Ramsey plays into that tactical mentality.
As I mentioned above, I honestly doubt that Douglas Costa is even a viable option at all for this game, but maybe I’m incorrect and he’s slightly available. If, miraculously, that is the case, I don’t think Sarri uses the Brazilian unless things are extremely dire — say Juve tied or losing with 10-15 minutes remaining.
If Sarri finds his side up 2-0, 3-0, or 3-1 in the final third of the game, he’s got Blaise Matuidi he can throw on the pitch or the ability to substitute Sandro on for an attacker, move Danilo to right back, and Cuadrado to the right wing, possibly morphing into more of a defensive 4-4-2 than anything else, even a 4-5-1 if we could get some actual defending from one of our star attackers.
This approach leaves plenty of defensive-minded players at Sarri’s disposal (Merih Demiral, Giorgio Chiellini, Sandro) as well as enough offensive-minded players (Dybala, Douglas Costa, Ramsey), not to mention the fairly balanced but goal-hungry squad on the pitch.
Now is the time for Sarri to prove that he is worthy of Juventus. The form over the last month has been mediocre in the most generous viewing and, more realistically, quite awful. This side lost the Coppa Italia, this side relied on faltering competition to secure the Scudetto, and this side is currently losing halfway through the round of 16 in the Champions League.
Depending on Andrea Agnelli’s current disposition, this game might be now or never for Sarri.