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Manu’s Grab Bag: Solid Start

We talk first-leg wins, youths impressing and a the so far failed Pogback.

Juventus v Freiburg - UEFA Europa League Photo by Isabella Bonotto/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

It seems like the Europa League suits Juventus, huh?

Is that a backhanded compliment? Perhaps, but it’s undeniable that the team has authored some of their better performances while playing in the marquee Thursday night spot on the schedule this season.

It started with two pretty good games against Nantes to earn qualification and it continued Thursday night with a dominant 1-0 win over Bundesliga side Freiburg in the Europa League Round of 16.

It might seem like a misnomer to declare a victory with a one goal margin “dominant,” but in a lot of ways it was. Juventus held Freiburg to zero shots on goal from open play and completely dictated the terms of the match. This could have and should have been a bulkier lead heading to Germany.

Alas, it wasn’t, as Juve got tired of missing shots but it was still an encouraging performance over an opponent that on paper had a lot of potential to be tricky for the Bianconeri.

Let’s cook.

MVP: Angel Di Maria

Speaking of a competition suiting you, how about the form of Di Maria in the (second) most prestigious European club competition in the world?

It’s no secret that El Fideo has been in sensational form ever since coming back from the World Cup break and — as big-time players do — has taken it up another level in both domestic and continental competition.

He was responsible for Juve’s lone goal — bringing his tally to four scores in three games in the Europa League — and the game had his fingerprints all over it, with better finishing he could have easily had himself a couple of assists as well. It’s been a while since Juventus could rely on a player who could influence a game in the way di Maria does.

More and more rumblings are coming out about Juventus keeping him for another year, and by god if he’s willing to do it, I see no reason why they shouldn’t pursue a renewal as a top priority this summer. Di Maria still has plenty of football left in his legs and Juventus should take advantage of it.

Runner Up: Manuel Locatelli - We’ve seen this Locatelli in few and far between opportunities but this was a good remainder of how dominant he can be when he’s in good form. Like many players, he’s capable of having great performances but in order to take it to the next level, consistency has to be the key. Hopefully this is the start of a strong closing of the season.

The Prodigal Son has not returned

Early in the season, both Paul Pogba and Angel Di Maria were seen as relatively similar disappointments as new signings — though for very different reasons.

Pogba proved his doubters right almost immediately by picking up an injury immediately after Juventus’ first summer friendly, trying to rehab it with hopes of playing in the World Cup, failing to do so and getting surgery anyway as he missed the entire first half of the season.

(I know the narrative is a bit about how dumb or naive Pogba was for holding off on surgery, but the guy was trying everything in his power to play in the World Cup and try to run it back with his France teammates. It ended up being the wrong decision but it’s hard for me to not sympathize with it at least.)

While Di Maria didn’t experience the same severity in health issues — he missed a few matches here and there, but nothing too bad — he was criticized due to a general underperformance, especially for a guy with wages as high as his are and that was expected to be the creative force behind the team.

As we know, Di Maria has more than made up for that lackluster start now. Pogba, though?

Just a few days after making his first appearance of the season for Juventus, Pogba was once again sidelined, this time for disciplinary reasons.

Injuries are injuries, there’s not a ton that you can do about that and you shouldn’t be blamed for being unavailable for them. But once you are healthy and the team is playing in a knockout round, it’s pretty inexcusable to be missing those games due to some dumb, bush league thing like being late to a meeting.

When Juventus signed Pogba, it was a big homecoming for a guy that had blossomed from obscurity into a superstar with the Bianconeri. He was given the No.10 shirt he left behind and was supposed to be an example of the old Juventus glory that the team was trying to capture back. So far, that hasn’t exactly gone to plan.

He can still turn it around, we know he has the talent to do so, but this wasn’t a great moment in the #Pogback narrative that the fans wanted to see.

The Youths are alright

Not even in the sweetest of dreams of Juve faithful did we imagine that Fabio Miretti and Nicolo Fagioli were going to be everyday players putting up good performances in knockout round matches in European competition.

What we are witnessing now is the A-plus outcome for the youngsters this season and something that everyone would have gladly taken when the season started. After years of failing to produce top talent from the youth ranks, suddenly Juventus have two young midfielders who are already pretty good and can only get better.

Miretti was getting his sea legs back against Freiburg but still more than held his own. While Fagioli came in like a rampage making his presence felt immediately. Was he one of the best five players on the field during his time on the pitch? Yes, right?

The previous board did a ton of stuff wrong for Juve the last few years, but their investment in the Juve Next Gen project was without a doubt one of their biggest accomplishments and while it didn’t pay immediate dividends the pipeline of talent that is coming along from those investments has to be the most exciting thing about the future of Juventus.

I’m about to say something we don’t say a lot around here, but good on ya, Fabio Paratici and company! Let’s all hope you don't get jailed anytime soon!

(Kidding ... I guess?)

Parting Shot of the Week

It could have been better, but this is far from a bad result for Juventus who picked up their first win in a first leg of a European competition knockout round since ... 2017! Holy crap, that’s so long ago, Jesus Christ.

(That was against Monaco in the Champions League semifinals for you guys with bad memory out there.)

Anyway, this was a good showing overall and it leaves the team with some good vibes that they can go to Germany and get the result they need to keep moving forward in the competition. As always, dumb things can happen in football and it would have been a lot better to go to Freiburg with a bit more of a cushion, but I remain optimistic that this is not the end of the road for Juventus in the Europa League race.

See you Sunday.