There is no escaping the fact that Juventus were fully focused on the Champions League this season. Just as it has in the previous three campaigns, UEFA’s elite competition has dominated the club’s planning, their approach to other games and of course Max Allegri’s team selection on a week-to-week basis. The recent quarter-final clash with Real Madrid proved that beyond all doubt, the Coach and his players very clearly taking their attention away from domestic matters in the matches surrounding that two-legged tie.
They would deny that of course and trot out the “one game at a time” cliche, yet insisting that their performances against SPAL, Benevento and Crotone were not affected by their heartbreaking loss to Los Merengues is an almost laughable notion. All three games saw the Bianconeri field weakened line-ups, Gigi Buffon and Giorgio Chiellini making just one appearance each as the trio of relegation candidates all troubled the Old Lady.
Two ended in draws, while Juve were forced to come from behind against Benevento, and if they had won each of those outings, a seventh consecutive Serie A title would be almost guaranteed. But they failed to do so, instead heading into Sunday’s clash with Scudetto rivals Napoli just four points behind them and hungry for victory, adding an extra layer of intrigue into a match already heavily laced with it.
Maurizio Sarri’s side struggled themselves on Wednesday evening, forced to come from behind twice against a surprisingly resilient Udinese team who had lost in each of their previous nine league outings. Buoyed by that victory and the fact that Juve dropped points once again, they will head to Turin full of hope, ready to pounce on any sign of weakness from the reigning champions, who must be prepared for the intensity Napoli will undoubtedly be carrying.
Allegri has insisted his team “must get off to a good start,” but this game will be much more about maintaining their concentration for 95 minutes. Having conceded in injury time in that aforementioned game at the Bernabeu, the Bianconeri should know that better than anyone, but as they prepare to host what is unquestionably a title-deciding fixture, there are a number of important questions lingering.
Miralem Pjanic missed the Crotone trip due to the injury he suffered against Sampdoria, and without the Bosnia international, the team lacks fluidity and direction in midfield. After all, he also missed the first leg against Real Madrid and it really showed. Claudio Marchisio – who should be the ideal stand-in – looked far short of his best at the Stadio Scida, a problem that could put huge pressure on Rodrigo Bentancur’s young shoulders.
The same is true at right-back, Mattia De Sciglio’s absence leaving a gaping hole which Lorenzo Insigne will need no invitation to exploit, and at the other end of the field the Bianconeri need their Argentinian duo to shine once again. They have looked sharper without Paulo Dybala in recent weeks, most notably in Madrid when he was suspended, but Gonzalo Higuain will need to rediscover the form that has made him a nightmare opponent for his former club.
Scoring five goals in five encounters since leaving the Partenopei, his recent outings have been nowhere near that level. After a nine-game stint in which he weighed in with 10 goals and three assists, Higuain has gone six matches without finding the back of the net, but will be desperate to get on the scoresheet this weekend.
Not losing would see them remain in the box seat as 2017-18 comes to a close, but a win would certainly lift the sombre post-Madrid mood in Turin, where Juventus can silence every doubt by winning against their only domestic rival.