Since we tend to avoid anything Juve-related as if it had the measles, mumps, and chicken pox simultaneously, it’s tough for us here at the Viola Nation Towers to provide you with a whole lot of expert opinions on the Bianconeri. Fortunately, we know someone who can tell you everything you need to know about them ahead of Saturday’s clash: Danny Penza, the head honcho at Black and White and Read All Over. We had an entirely civil conversation about this weekend’s premier Serie A match; I really hope that civility will continue in the comment sections if any Juve fans venture across the aisle and want to chat.
I also answered some questions from Danny. You can read those here.
Viola Nation: What’s the feeling in the Juventus camp ahead of this one? Things are obviously pretty good in Turin what with the 8 point lead in Serie A and progression to the Round of 16 assured, but how do you think the team in the fans are feeling?
Danny Penza: It’s ... interesting. Juve are obviously picking up results, but they’re not the battering ram I think a lot of folks expected them to be this season with the addition of Cristiano Ronaldo. Expectations were through the freakin’ roof, and outside of winning the treble I’m not sure Juve can even come close to matching what people expect from this team.
Juve’s coming off a solid yet unspectacular win over Valencia mdiweek which wrapped up their spot in the Champions League knockout rounds, but it was again the kind of game where they could have -- and probably should have -- won by more than just one single goal. Now, that doesn’t mean they’re playing poorly because they’re not, but there’s definitely another couple of gears to their game that we haven’t really seen on a consistent basis yet. We see flashes of it, but I think that complete 90-minute effort is still something I’m waiting to see from this group.
VN: Who’s the star man right now? Like, it’s obviously Cristiano Ronaldo, but who else has been really good? Conversely, who’s been playing poorly or falling short of expectations?
DP: Three non-Ronaldo names come to mind immediately: Mario Mandzukic, Joao Cancelo, Rodrigo Bentancur.
Mandzukic’s rapport with Ronaldo has really developed nicely over the past six weeks or so, and he’s really been the main reason as to why the likes of Douglas Costa and Federico Bernardeschi haven’t gotten the kind of playing time they were seeing earlier in the season as Allegri has settled into regular use of a 4-3-3. Mandzukic has always been a big-time performer in big games, and he’s really benefiting from so much attention from opposing defenses being put on Ronaldo [ed. note: oh my god are we still a big game that’s great go us].
As I wrote over the last international break, Cancelo has been everything we could have hoped he would be at right back when he was signed over the summer. He has been fantastic going forward, and really giving Juve something at that position that we haven’t seen since Stephan Lichtsteiner first signed with Juve at the beginning of the current Scudetto run. The thing is, as good as Lichtsteiner was, Cancelo has proven to be that much better. And any fears about Cancelo’s defense has mostly been squashed, which means the player that we saw on loan at Inter last season must have just stayed over at the San Siro. (And I am all good with that.)
Bentancur is arguably my favorite player in this Juventus squad these days. Admittedly, he’s been allowed to play so much over the last two months due to injuries to Sami Khedira and Emre Can, but man has he taken advantage of it. The really good form Bentancur showed with Uruguay at the World Cup has carried right into this season, and he’s starting to really show the potential a lot of us thought he had when Juve signed him from Boca Juniors as part of the Carlos Tevez deal a couple of years ago. At 21 years old, Bentancur still has so much potential to grow into and could prove to be a building block of the club going forward if he continues on his current path. He is just so smooth on the ball.
I think the main name when it comes to disappointing form this season is Leonardo Bonucci. He looks good at times, but then other times he looks like the Bonucci that we saw at Milan. He’s been the main culprit on a good number of the goals that Juve have allowed this season, and it’s almost like he completely forgets how to mark his man on set pieces at least once or twice a game.
VN: What kind of tactics do you think the mister will run out there? Are Juve going to keep the ball against a Fiorentina side that’s shown no indication of being able to play in possession, or will they sit deep and try to hit on the counter against the youngest team in Serie A?
DP: I can never really peg how Allegri is going to play things when he’s away from home, so I guess I’m going to push on this one. For all I know Juve could come out like they have rocket boosters attached to their boots and try and jump on Fiorentina early. Or, which is kinda the way I’m leaning right now, Allegri will play it safe and probably try and hit Fiorentina on the counter. It’s hard to say at this point because Juve haven’t really been the dominant side many hoped they would be despite the fact they’re eight points clear entering the month of December.
VN: What are your thoughts on Fiorentina this year? Anyone you’re particularly worried to face, or is this just business as usual for the Bianconero juggernaut? Is there any danger of complacency due to the long-time domination in this fixture (and the league in general), or is Max Allegri too experienced to let that creep in?
DP: If this game was being played in Turin, I probably would be feeling really, really good about things. But since this game is in Florence, a place where Juve has definitely had some interesting games play out in the last handful of years, I’m not sitting here with the idea that Allegri’s boys are just going to cruise to three points.
The month of December is huge for Juventus, both in Serie A and the Champions League. The game after this is against Inter, then the group stage finale against Young Boys where the top spot in Group H is still up for grabs followed up by the Turin derby and a meeting with Roma. Pretty much all seven of Juve’s December fixtures have pretty large significance in one way or another, so I highly doubt that any kind of complacency is going to be setting in even though they currently have an eight-point lead atop the Serie A standings. Allegri is all about the present setting the stage for the future, and this next month’s worth of games will definitely set the stage for January, February and March.
I’ll say this: I don’t want Juventus to become Fiorentina’s sixth straight draw.
VN: More specifically on the Viola end, what’s the deal with Marko Pjaca? He seems like he’s got every tool in the box to be a top-notch player, but he’s been worse than anonymous all year. How can Stefano Pioli get the best out of him? Does he still have any future with yall, or has the team pretty well moved on?
DP: The deal with Marko Pjaca is that he hasn’t been the same since his knee exploded on him while playing for Croatia two years ago. I agree, he’s talented as hell and really was looking like he could be a valuable asset for Juventus when he first signed with them a couple of years ago. And then he tore his ACL and everything has just gone by the wayside since then. He’s still got youth on his side and won’t be 24 until the end of the season in May, so there’s that. But man, I wish I could say something other than sometimes players just can never find that true level they had prior to the injury. We saw it here with Claudio Marchisio after his major knee surgery a couple of years ago, and Pjaca seems to be venturing down that same road.
I doubt Pjaca has a future in Turin with Juventus. Not when the other attacking options are Ronaldo, Mandzukic, Douglas Costa, Bernardeschi and there’s an 18-year-old starlet like Moise Kean just waiting for his chance.
VN: Prediction time: What do you think is the final score on this one? Any surprises in Allegri’s lineup? Who gets the goals? What’ll be the overall pattern of the match?
DP: Matches at the Franchi are always a tough task no matter what kind of form Fiorentina is in at the moment. I don’t expect any surprises from the regular starting XI that Allegri has been using in recent games outside of Alex Sandro probably not starting due to injury. I’ll say 2-1 Juventus with goals from Dybala and Mandzukic.
Again, big thank you to Danny, who’s an absolute gentleman and deserves all of your respect, as does his outfit BWRAO. Let’s hope both sides can maintain a similarly friendly dialogue on Saturday and not give the referee any reason to go to his pocket, although with Orsato, that’s generally a forgone conclusion.