After the whirlwind January transfer window that Juventus had, it was easy to foresee that the first game back from the international break was going to be eagerly anticipated by Juventus faithful everywhere.
An early indicator was the lively scene on Sunday night at the Allianz Stadium pregame — something that between the limited capacity mandates and a general apathy towards the performances the team was putting forth recently was a welcome change.
I think the fans got their money’s worth with Juventus convincingly winning 2-0 against Hellas Verona and having both new signings, Dusan Vlahovic and Denis Zakaria, be key parts of said victory and getting in the scoresheet.
You couldn’t have scripted it better.
After a 2021 in which Juventus’ form oscillated between below average to solid-but-unexciting, it’s fair to say that the second half of the season has the potential to be a whole more than that.
MVP: Alvaro Morata
Look, the easy pander pick here is to give it to either Vlahovic or Zakaria. They were the names people wanted to see and both of them had pretty good debuts as Juventus players. You won't hear a thing from me if you want to give either of them the points in your own personal tally.
However, I think that the player who shone the brightest was one that many people thought that was going to be playing in Barcelona a few weeks ago. A lot of players benefitted from the new signings’ play — we’ll get to that in a minute — but no one showed it more than Morata.
Playing on the left wing of the lineup and freed of the burden of being the point of reference in attack, Morata was left to do what he does best. He was all over the field, tracking down defensively and making agile, quick runs on the counterattack. As Hellas Verona deployed their press, Morata was the beneficiary and he consistently found open lanes to run, with one of his better ones ending up in the Zakaria goal that sealed the deal.
We’ve already seen almost every facet that Morata has to offer in his Juventus career — from a talented, up-and-coming loanee, a clutch player in European competition, to a returning fan favorite and an inconsistent main striker. However — and against all odds — we could be seeing the very best of Morata’s Juventus career yet to come.
Runner Up: Danilo - The consistently under appreciated fullback had an absolute gem of a game. Was a rock defensively and a savvy outlet when breaking the press. He often doesn’t get in to the highlight reel, but he remains the most complete fullback in the team and showed it once again on Sunday’s match.
Grab Bag MVP Season Leader: Paulo Dybala (13 Points)
Winner: The New Guys
OK, let’s get into the main attraction.
All Vlahovic needed to immediately win over — the already ready to be won over — Juventini in attendance on Sunday was to score a goal. And true to form, the new No. 7 delivered in only 13 minutes with a gorgeous chip over Lorenzo Montipo — who had a great game, by the way — to send the people at the stadium into hysterics.
He should have probably had a brace as he missed a pinpoint Morata cross in the first half, but honestly after that first goal everything was gravy. His presence was immediately felt not only by the fans but tactically as well.
Despite how much I personally like Morata, he has nowhere near the same presence as a guy like Vlahovic. He commands a lot more attention defensively, which naturally lifts some pressure from the other guys offensively. On Sunday, that allowed both Morata and Paulo Dybala a lot more room to operate and to shine as well.
(That Dybala pass to set up the Vlahovic opened was absolutely perfect and the celebration made it easy to see that Dybala really enjoys playing with a high-level central striker once again. They have the potential to be an all time combination. RENEW THAT MAN.)
Zakaria started the game a bit over eager, misplacing a couple easy passes early on, but as the game went on he grew into it. Something that I hadn't really noticed until Sunday’s game was how long he is. To make a cross sport reference, it reminded me a little bit of a guy like Kevin Durant in the NBA. Just by sheer length he makes things complicated to opposing players. He got in the way of passes by Verona players time and time again by stretching his leg at the last minute and disrupting the action.
Similarly to Vlahovic, his play style allowed guys like Arthur more time to operate and Dybala more freedom to drop back and build from behind. His goal was something that wasn’t really advertised when Juventus signed him but was an encouraging sign nevertheless as he timed his run to the open space - created by Vlahovic pulling defensive markers away - perfectly and finished calmly and cooly.
All in all, can’t ask for more from both new signings. Juventus needed a shot in the arm and by god they seem to have gotten it.
Where do we go now?
Do you think the Villarreal scouting department was looking at this game and collectively shaking their heads?
Think about it, months ago they were drawn against a Juve team that could beat anyone, but could also lose against anybody. Juve was a team that struggled to score and that could easily be overrun in the midfield. I’m not saying Villarreal thought they were favorites against Juventus, but they sure as hell thought they had a decent shot — especially given the recent history of Juventus going against “minnows” in the Champions League.
Now, they are facing a team with the best striker in Italy and a midfield that suddenly looks a whole lot sturdier than before. It’s clear to anyone now that this Juventus is not the same one of the end of last year. Or last month.
Before the transfer window heard around the world, we collectively thought that a quarterfinal appearance in the Champions League and a top four spot in domestic competition was as good as it could reasonably get. Now? It feels to me like the quarterfinal appearance in the Champions League is the bare minimum. And the league? Well, Juventus is anywhere from eight to 11 points off the league leaders, which is in fact a lot of points at this point in the season. But hey, Inter drops points against Napoli and we go on a little run and who knows?
I’m very much not saying that it is likely that Juventus makes a run to the Scudetto, but goddamn, you can at least imagine a scenario now, can’t you?
I understand its been only one game against a decent but not great squad. But after two years of inconsistent, unexciting football, Juventus football is fun again. That’s not nothing.
Parting Shot of the Week
Next up for the Bianconeri is a Coppa Italia matchup against Sassuolo and a massive clash against Atalanta the following Sunday.
Getting back-to-back wins could do absolute wonders for the confidence of this team heading into the Champions League knockout rounds and would only throw fuel into the renewed sense of hope from Juventus faithful everywhere.
We are probably getting a little too overeager after just one game, but hey, let us have our fun, why don't ya?
See you Thursday.