For Italian champions Juventus, it would seem that there really is only one objective left for them to conquer this season, namely the Champions League. Having won the last five Serie A titles, Juventus, even at this stage of the season, seemed headed for a sixth consecutive title. Following their 3-0 win over Pescara on Saturday night, Juventus start the week seven points clear of joint seconds Roma and Milan.
If real opposition seems thin on the domestic scene, the same hardly applies to the Champions League. Tonight Juventus travel to Seville, still smarting from a 1-0 Group defeat against the Andalusian side last December. On that night, Juventus only needed a draw but their defeat and consequent second place finish earned them that painful second round elimination at the hands of Bayern Munich.
Having been held to a disappointing 1-1 home draw by Lyon in their last game, Juventus go into this game in second place, two points behind FC Seville. Given their table standing and mindful of what happened last year, Juventus fans are convinced that the Old Lady faces her toughest game of the season so far in Seville tonight.
They could be right but coach Massimiliano Allegri, who points out that he still has a home game to play against Dinamo Zagreb, has been taking no chances. Against relegation battlers, Pescara, he rested key figures such as goalkeeper Gigi Buffon, Brazilian defender Dani Alves, midfielder Claudio Marchisio and Bosnian playmaker Miralem Pjanic.
All four are due to return tonight, which means that, in one move, the team regains a talisman goalkeeper in Buffon, an attacking right-sided defender in Alves, a key midfield ball winner in Marchisio and a playmaker in Pjanic. With only Argentine Paulo Dybala still out through injury, the attack will be led by his compatriot Gonzalo Higuain and Croat Mario Mandzukic. On paper, at least, this is as strong a Juventus side as Allegri can field.
And yet, Juve will recall only too well not only last December but also their opening group game in Turin two months ago when Seville played a surprisingly defensive game to collect a precious 0-0 away draw. According to Seville’s French midfielder Steven N’Zoni, that game was a major confidence booster for Seville. Talking to Gazzetta Dello Sport, N’Zoni, who will be partnered in midfield tonight by compatriot Sami Nasri, said:
“That game was fundamental for us, against Juventus that night we understood that we can also defend…”
In the meantime, claims N’Zoni, Seville have improved. They have been working hard, trying to assimilate the ideas and methods of new coach, Argentine Jorge Sampaoli, the man who this summer replaced Seville’s hugely successful Spanish coach Unai Emery. N’Zoni adds:
“Back then in September we were just at the beginning and not everything in our gameplan was working, so we decided to play it tight. Right now, we are much more sure of ourselves…”
Which may mean that Seville will open up a bit against Juventus, as they go trying to wrap up a prestigious group win. That, too, could be a bonus for Juventus, in that the Old Lady might find some unexpected attacking space.
Italy’s other Champions League survivor, Napoli, also warmed up in more than adequate stye last weekend, defeating Udinese 2-1 in Udine. Joint top of Group B on seven points with Benfica, the Neapolitans should boost their qualfication chances in a home tie against Dinamo Kiev, the weakest team in the group with just one point from four games thus far.
Still missing an obvious central striker, following the injury picked up by Pole Arkadiusz Milic last month, coach Maurizio Sarri may recall Manolo Gabbiadini up front as a replacement for Belgian Dries Mertens. With the second round in mind, a win is the required medicine in Naples on Wednesday night.
Final, non-Champions League thought concerns Sunday night’s thrilling Milan derby. Inter pulled a 2-2 draw out of the bag with the last kick of the match from their talented Croat Ivan Perisic. For Inter’s new coach, Stefano Pioli, this was a baptism of fire in his first game in charge following the sacking of Dutch coach Frank De Boer.
Pioli’s celebration of his side’s last gasp equaliser underlined just how important a result it was for Inter. Given the extent to which Inter dominated possession and the manner in which they put Milan to the wall in the second half as they ground out their draw, many would argue that Inter deserved their draw.
First impressions can be misleading but all the signs suggest that Pioli’s extensive Italian experience with sides like Lazio could prove to be a winning card between now and the end of season. Currently 9th in Serie A, 15 points behind leaders Juventus, Inter seem destined to start climbing back up the table once more. All still to play for.