Allegri utilising a bold approach for Juventus against Real
There is no doubt about it; the Champions League semifinal match against Real Madrid will be the most difficult test Juventus will face this season. European champions and a squad brimming with talent, experience and courage of conviction, Real boss Carlo Ancelotti is right: Whoever demonstrates more fear will lose.
Juventus fans have to be realistic. Their team is arguably the weakest team among the four semifinalists, despite all that they have achieved and the excellent balance they boast within the side. They may be one of the few teams in Europe capable both in attack and defence and can play in various formations. Nonetheless, like their opponent on Tuesday night, they can suffer psychologically.
Some have compared the Bianconeri to Atletico Madrid as they are both 'surprise packages' who are strong and adept of managing a win despite possessing inferior squads, but the truth is they are nothing alike. Playing philosophy asides, Diego Simeone's men were benefitting from their underdog status and as such were allowed to play reactive games at this stage of the competition last year -- free of pressure, with great determination and total enjoyment.
Juventus, despite their decline since Calciopoli, still boast a name, a history and a legacy and are still expected to live up to expectations. They represent the Italian style of play, have enjoyed plenty of wins against the Spaniards and are investing and aiming to be one of the big boys on the European stage again. They cannot be satisfied with only reaching certain levels and will continue to aim higher. Could Atleti really say the same?
While Spanish dailies Marca and AS, as well as a few English papers noted the Los Blancos' luck of the draw -- after all, better Juve than the others -- Italian media were also breathing a sigh of relief. Thank god the Old Lady was playing a Luka Modric-less Real Madrid as opposed to a rampant Barcelona and the Pep Guardiola-led Bayern Munich. Both sets of fans think they were lucky to be facing one another and both sets of fans expect a win.
The beauty of Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri is that unlike predecessor Antonio Conte, he is filling his squad with confidence, reminding them that they did not reach this stage by chance but by hard work and excellent play. In each of his press conferences he's taken the opportunity to note his team are not inferior and capable of a great challenge and possibly even a win. While Conte did not even want to consider competing against Los Galacticos when they were drawn together at the group stage last season, Allegri has adopted a "cautiously bold approach" -- if such a thing exists. He is adamant in his belief that he is not the coach of a lesser team and that with hard work, anything can be achieved, especially if his squad play with confidence and humility.
Many have opined that Juventus have nothing to lose, but Allegri disagrees. This is not a small club that should be overly excited at the fact they have reached the semifinals but one that should manage it every year and ought to aim for even more. So no, Juventus have everything to lose and his players must play with the intensity required to demonstrate that very fact.
Of course both the Bianconeri and the world recognise how difficult it is to beat the defending champions and they may very well be comprehensively beaten, but if they twice managed success in the 2008-09 Champions League group stage against the Spanish giants with a mediocre squad and a great Alessandro Del Piero, they can manage it again now that they have a better balanced squad.
Despite talk of courageous play, Allegri is likely to play an intelligently reserved game, aware of the fact his boys cannot concede a goal at home. He knows the strengths and weaknesses of the side and cannot simply demand an offensive approach if it unbalances their defensive shape. If Ancelotti opts to deploy Sergio Ramos in midfield, Juve will know their opponent will also be playing a cautious game.
Ramos was effective in the midfield role against Atletico Madrid for several reasons. The first is that this season Los Rojiblancos play a better passing game and with Mario Mandzukic upfront are looking for cohesion between the forward and those behind him. With Ramos available to help destroy and intercept, his opponents were unable to play with fluidity as Ramos consistently looked to rob them of their attacking thrusts. Moreover, his presence in midfield meant Raphael Varane could also play, allowing for more height in the squad to make it even more difficult for their opponent on set pieces.
This is what the Bianconeri must watch out for as they have proved distracted on certain occasions. However, whatever Los Blancos will gain on a defensive level with Ramos in midfield, they will also lose going forward as unlike Modric, Ramos cannot facilitate attacking movements.
While Juve will be wary of the top hitters including Cristiano Ronaldo, it's Gareth Bale than can cause the most harm considering his pace and strength. His ability to overcome his markers and exploit space with speed can hurt the Bianconeri and force them into rash challenges. Maturity will be key as the Italians must keep their heads and understand what is on the line. If they want to continue to contend in such high level matches, then they have to understand what is required to be the best, and that includes intelligence, maturity and experience.
Fans will hope that at home, in front of their own, Juventus demonstrate that they are worthy challengers and deserving of their achievements. Over to you, Allegri.
Mina Rzouki covers Juventus and the Italian national team for ESPN FC. Follow her on Twitter: @Minarzouki.