As Massimiliano Allegri watched with intent from the bench, whispers filtered through the Melbourne Cricket Ground crowd. It was during the first half of Juventus’ International Champions Cup game with Melbourne Victory that word broke in Italy of Gonzalo Higuain’s shock Bianconeri medical.
Now Allegri would have more transfer questions to answer. While intending to concentrate on guiding his team through pre-season training in chilly Melbourne – Juve’s third visit to Australia in the past decade – he also spent preceding days deflecting matters of Paul Pogba’s potential Manchester United return.
When not nudged into commenting on constant Pogba updates, Allegri cut a debonair figure. With good reason. The boss felt last season’s preparations, including big name departures and the Italian Supercup in Beijing, were not conducive to the gruelling slog of a long campaign. It showed in Juve’s opening matches, as they struggled to just three wins from the first 10 matches. That’s not the case this term. Despite losing Alvaro Morata and Juan Cuadrado, there’s a more settled look about the Old Lady. Instead of scrambling to replace stalwarts, Juve have upped the ante with a transfer campaign which has sent a strong signal of intent. It allows Allegri to get on with his work, with a historic sixth successive Scudetto up for grabs.
Of the new brigade only Miralem Pjanic and Medhi Benatia were involved in Melbourne. Regardless of depleted ranks it was business as usual for Allegri and his team on the trip. Both former Roma players sat out against Victory last Saturday, a match set alight by Carlos Blanco Moreno’s centre circle stunner. By the end of 90 minutes Allegri had made numerous changes and the home team triumphed in the penalty shootout.
Two days later it was a – for the tour at least – full-strength Bianconeri which faced Tottenham, themselves weakened. Pjanic and Benatia were included from the start and combined for the Moroccan to head a debut goal. That came after Paulo Dybala capitalised on a Spurs error to open the scoring after only six minutes. Benatia and defensive partner Daniele Rugani were amongst the best for Allegri’s side, stifling Spurs’ attacking advances. Such is Juve’s defensive depth, the pair start the new season as fourth and fifth choice.
Dybala was the player the crowd most wanted to see and in the two matches he picked up where he left off last season. Alex Sandro bombed up and down the left, while tour captain Kwadwo Asamoah let loose the pent-up energy of a player who has missed large chunks of the past two seasons. Right-back Pol Lirola – who joins Sassuolo on loan this term – was the standout Primavera player.
Tactically, the Allegri mandates of seasons past remained in effect. Possession and building play from the back are cherished. The boss alternated between a three and four man defence in training and the two games, hinting at the flexibility that a squad with the depth of Juventus can utilise.
“It was important to see the physical, tactical and technical condition of the squad,” Allegri said after Tuesday’s match. “All the ingredients are there to improve and to have a great year.”
But it’s difficult to gauge exactly what to expect going forward with half the squad missing. Given Juve were the most represented club at Euro 2016 – plus Dani Alves at the Copa America – it was always going to be a weakened group in Melbourne. That helped contribute to the vast expanse of the 100,000 capacity MCG looking sparse. The combined crowd for the two matches fell just short of the 55,364 attendance figure when the star-studded Turin giants travelled to Sydney two years ago.
However, the journey wasn’t all work. It was also about recognising long-distance relationships. And that’s why club ambassador David Trezeguet was present at local club Moreland Zebras for their second division Victorian Premier League contest last weekend. The Zebras were once known as Brunswick Juventus and were 1985 Australian champions. Pre-season tours allow for clubs to build their brand, but this act was a welcome salute to the local community.
Now in Hong Kong for the final leg of this tour, Juventus are moving into gear ahead of the new season. What Allegri has to work with upon his Turin return remains unknown, but this fragment of the Bianconeri showed in Australia glimpses of what is to come.