The Old Lady of Italian football, Juventus, enter their Champions League opening round match against Sevilla with excitement and expectations, as the pressure mounts on coach Max Allegri to deliver the silverware that has alluded them in the Andrea Agnelli era. Following last season’s fifth consecutive Scudetto, Juventus CEO Beppe Marotta has been given the green light to execute on expensive summer deals to create a European squad. Players like Miralem Pjanic and Gonzalo Higuain were poached from Serie A rivals Roma and Napoli, for €32m and €90m respectively. On the other hand the departure of Paul Pogba and the mega-deal with Manchester United that brought in over €100 million helped Marotta balance the books.
Meanwhile, Dani Alves was recruited from Barcelona, Medhi Benatia from Bayern Munich, and Juan Cuadrado returned from Chelsea to round off a very deep and competitive roster. Without a doubt this is a team constructed for Champions League success. The defeat in the final against Barcelona two years ago in Berlin and the extra time loss to Bayern last year in the Round of 16 undoubtedly leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of Juventus upper management. With a reinforced and improved squad at hand, Allegri will be expected to finish first in the group, a feat they could not achieve last year when they were overcome by Manchester City.
The biggest question mark following Pogba’s summer sale to United was what shape and personnel Juve’s new midfield would offer. Having missed out and Axel Witsel and considering Claudio Marchisio’s long term injury the Bianconeri central midfield has nonetheless been impressive in the first three Serie A matches. Mario Lemina has truly risen to the occasion in Marchisio’s absence. The young Frenchman is an accurate and intelligent passer, and he provides consistently where Juventus needs that pivot player role.
Especially in Saturday’s match against Sassuolo, Lemina’s strong midfield presence allowed Pjanic and Khedira to play extremely high up the field. Pjanic is no stranger to scoring goals, nor is Sami Khedira, both having already found the back of the net in the short Serie A season thus far. This midfield trio has barely been tested considering Pjanic’s absence for the first two games of the season, but if they can continue with the fluidity they achieved against Sassuolo they will be difficult to deal with. Even going back to the Conte days, the three central midfielders in the 3-5-2 system were always the heart of the team’s play. The same holds true today for Allegri, only the names have changed.
Wide players Dani Alves, Cuadrado, Patrice Evra and Alex Sandro are another key reason Juve have the ability to attack with so many players. All four do a great job receiving the ball under pressure and advancing play, whether via combination play or 1 v. 1. Exploiting opponents’ width is ultimately what allows the 3-5-2 to constantly break down a defense, and look for both Dani Alves to be a continual playmaker down the right flank against his former club. Allegri is expected to give the experienced Evra the nod on the left, but Alex Sandro will be a possible substitute to create havoc in the later stages of the match. The Juventus wingers will need to provide the creativity going forward should Sevilla try to clog the center midfield, and with Higuain hungry to open his Champions League account in the black and white stripes, they will have their work cut out for them.
Scoring three goals in three games, Higuain seems to have picked up where he left off from last season. So far he has assured the Juventus faithful that his price tag can actually be justified by his finishing. His attacking partner Paulo Dybala has thus far taken on a playmaker role, checking back into the midfield to receive the ball and providing the creative spark by finding penetrating passes. In their first start together against Sassuolo the Argentine duo were a constant threat. From the oncoming central midfielders Pjanic and Khedira to the wingers running into space, Dybala has multiple options going forward. The technical quality alone puts this Juventus attack among the best in the world. If a Champions League opening round victory is assumed from the Bianconeri, then responsibility to create chances falls on Dybala and Higuain. And should they play to their potential, Juventus should come away with all three points. A healthy Mario Mandzukic awaits on the bench, offering a wealth of European goal scoring experience and the hard nosed attitude that can give opponents’ defense a headache, sometimes quite literally.
In the back Juventus boast the well-famed BBC trio of Bonucci, Barzagli, and Chiellini. This is the same back three that has won five Scudetti, played in one Champions League final, and made it to the Round of 16 last year. And they added Benatia over the summer, already comfortably fitting in with the other BBC members. Young Italian international Daniele Rugani will likely have difficulty finding consistent playing time behind these four experienced centre-backs, thus showing Juve’s squad depth yet again. Goalkeeping legend and team captain Gianluigi Buffon has remained one of the best keepers of the modern era, and he continues to amaze even at age 38.
One of the unspoken factors in Juve’s recent success is that they have total trust in the their back three defenders and Buffon. This trust allows them to attack with numbers going forward, creating an attractive attacking style of football. As long as the defenders and midfielders are positionally in tune, the tactics of limiting passing lanes and pressing up field are easily achievable. After five years together Buffon & the BBC are masters at reading the movements of the game as it happens and this makes them extremely difficult to attack for opponents.
Today’s match should be an interesting and entertaining affair. Sevilla are Europa League winners of the past two seasons and pose the greatest threat to Juventus in the group. The major departures of head coach Unai Emery and midfielders Ever Banega and Grzegorz Krychowiak have opened the door to new head coach Jorge Sampaoli to test his methods in a European atmosphere. Meanwhile, Italian international and former teammate of Dybala at Palermo Franco Vazquez will be excited to prove himself on the European stage as well. Following last year’s group stage second place finish to Manchester City, Juventus management have realized the importance of winning the group and their summer transfers glaringly show this. Allegri doesn’t necessarily require a squad of this breadth to win the Serie A, but in order to assure a long run into the Champions League, this quality and depth is paramount. That being said the pressure on his shoulders will grow heavier and heavier, especially if Juventus do not win the group stage.
In his two Champions League seasons in Torino, Allegri has been a mastermind working with the players at hand to make a push into the latter stages of the tournament. Let’s see how he and his players can brush off all the median attention and expectations and open their campaign with a victory.