On our beloved podcast — go ahead and subscribe, rate and review it if you haven’t already, you cowards — playing in the Europa League has been, in a certain way, the butt of a lot of jokes. Has it been the main objective going into the season? Well, of course not seeing as Juventus has been in the Champions League for the last decade-plus. But, because of Juve’s less-than-stellar play in Europe of late, the Europa League has been the carrot that dangles out in front of all of us who want to see a little bit of wackiness take place.
Said wackiness is here.
It’s been quite a few weeks since we last saw Juventus line up against an opponent in a European competition, with the crashing out of the Champions League being both predictable based on how the team was playing as well as incredibly infuriating.
The task to keep any sort of European hopes alive in the Europa League? A two-legged playoff against Ligue 1 side Nantes in the competition’s playoff round, the first 90 minutes coming in Turin on Thursday night. On paper, it is a meeting of two teams that are mid-table in their respective leagues. In reality, this is a team that up until a few weeks ago was just outside the relegation zone in France’s top flight coming to Turin to face a team that would be in the top four in Serie A if not for a 15-point penalty handed down last month.
For Juventus, this is simple: If you want any chance of making the Champions League next season — and obviously that is also dependent on further sporting penalties not happening — then trying to win the Europa League needs to be a thing.
But based on Juventus’ form for the majority of the 2022-23 season, actually being able to win the Europa League is something that is still very much a complete unknown at the very best.
If you are to look at the form guide in all competitions for both teams, it looks rather similar. Like, exactly, similar. See the last five games:
Told you it was exactly the same. The difference, of course, is what kind of competition that each team has been facing. And it’s not like Juve has been playing a whole lot of heavy hitters of late — especially so since the blowout loss to Napoli in January.
Juventus manager Max Allegri drove home the point during Wednesday’s pre-match press conference that his team’s Champions League exit “has left us with a bitter taste in our mouths.” Little did we know what was going to happen at the club between that day and where we are now, with a season drastically changed by what happened off the field last month.
No matter what, though, Juve enter the first leg of this Europa League playoff round tie on Thursday night as the favorite to go through. This is very much a must-win situation — especially with the first leg at home and how Juve’s knockout round history in the Champions League has been over the last four or five years.
As crushing as those exits were and the fashion in which they came about, going two games and out of the Europa League might be even worse. Especially when you consider the fact that Nantes is very much a team that has struggled for much of the season.
But it’s not like there’s a lot of history between these two clubs to go off of entering Thursday night’s matchup in Turin. Juventus and Nantes haven’t played one another since 1996 when silver fox Fabrizio Ravanelli was running wild, Alessandro Del Piero’s sideburns were looking their mid-90s best and the barrel chest of Angelo Peruzzi was manning the gloves in goal for the Bianconeri.
It’s been a decade since anything associated with the Europa League hit the Allianz Stadium turf, with Antonio Conte’s Juventus side playing in the tournament after crashing out of the Champions League group stage in the 2013-14 season. Juventus was ousted in the semifinals by Benfica. It just so happened the Europa League final was in Turin that season, so the last Europa League game to be played at Juve’s crown jewel of a stadium didn’t even involve Juve. (Gotta love those quirky nuggets!)
Getting one step further than that and playing for the Europa League trophy is very much the obvious end goal of this season since things and targets have drastically changed over the last few weeks. To even have the chance, though, Juventus needs to get past a very average-at-best Nantes side that, on paper, the Bianconeri should beat nearly every single time.
The problem is, we know how this Juventus team has played down to the level of its competition the last few years, especially this season. Maybe the fact that their European lives is on the line will snap them out of that trend. It sure would be nice.
- Paul Pogba is out injured. Allegri said that Pogba trained partially with the team on Wednesday and will take things day by day with the Frenchman, who has still yet to make his official season debut.
- Arek Milik is out injured.
- Fabio Miretti is out injured.
- Kaio Jorge is out injured.
- Leonardo Bonucci has returned to training and is expected to be available off the bench against Nantes. Bonucci has not appeared in a game since Juve’s 1-0 win over Hellas Verona on Oct. 11.
- Juan Cuadrado was back training with the squad on Wednesday after missing Sunday’s game against Fiorentina with the flu. That said, Allegri noted that Cuadrado is still not 100 percent.
JUVENTUS PLAYER TO WATCH
Max Allegri, as Max Allegri is want to do when it comes to questions about his starting lineups, was rather coy about using the big-name attacking trident that he rolled out against Fiorentina again on Thursday night.
Angel Di Maria has been pretty good the last few weeks. He was arguably the lone bright spot in the blowout loss to Napoli. He has been Juve’s main creativity source no matter if he’s been in the starting lineup or coming off the bench.
Basically, the Di Maria we’ve seen for much of 2023 is the Di Maria we were hoping we were getting when he first signed with Juventus last summer.
The reason why Di Maria is the pick here is for two main reasons:
- He’s one of the three players that Allegri used in the trident this past Sunday.
- He’s been quite good no matter what the formation has been as of late.
That makes sense doesn’t it? No matter how Di Maria has been used — and I think we can probably agree that just letting him cook is the best way to utilize his talents — he has been good and his assist to Adrien Rabiot this past weekend again confirms that.
And in his first game since turning 35 years old, let’s hope that he continues it. Because when Di Maria plays well then Juventus has a better chance of winning. Well, unless it comes against Napoli and the defense becomes a complete black hole of suck. Other than that, more Good Di Maria the better is what Juve need if they want to make the Europa League a thing as we enter the final weeks of winter.
When: Thursday, Feb. 16, 2023.
Where: Allianz Stadium, Turin, Italy.
Official kickoff time: 9 p.m. local time in Italy and around Europe, 6 p.m. in the United Kingdom, 3 p.m. Eastern time, 12 p.m. Pacific time.
HOW TO WATCH
Television: UniMás, TUDN USA (United States); BT Sport 3 (United Kingdom); Sky Sport Uno, Sky Sport 252, Sky Sport 4K (Italy).
Online/Streaming: Paramount+, Univision NOW, TUDN.com, TUDN App (United States); DAZN (Canada); BTSport.com, BT Sport App (United Kingdom); DAZN, SKY Go Italia, NOW TV (Italy).
Other live viewing options can be found here, and as always, you can also follow along with us live and all the stupid things we say on Twitter. If you haven’t already, join the community on Black & White & Read All Over, and join in the discussion below.