Juventus signal intent for 2015-16 with Supercoppa triumph
Claiming their seventh Supercoppa, Juventus defeated Lazio 2-0 in Shanghai on Saturday to win their first trophy of the season. Banishing a certain amount of pressure, Juventus demonstrated that while how many may doubt the team's capability for ongoing success, they are still a heavily motivated giant vying for more honours.
Stefano Pioli's team had started preseason training some 10 days before the Bianconeri, as they not only had to contend with Juventus for this trophy but will have to fight Bayer Leverkusen to qualify for the Champions League in a little over a week. Yet despite the extra days they had to raise their fitness levels and improve their understanding of tactical patterns, the Aquile were shockingly lacklustre, looking almost unfit when they were thought to have been boasting superior physical fitness levels at this stage of the season.
Deployed in a 4-3-3 formation, the usually brilliant Biancocelesti coach is seemingly struggling to convey his strategies to a side that looked bereft of tactical understanding and discipline, focusing instead on simply impeding the opponent. In the Coppa Italia final, this was a squad that truly challenged the Old Lady, providing stiff competition and wonderful ambition. They could have well won and lifted the trophy that fateful night in May ,but in Shanghai, they were clearly the lesser team.
Yet while Italy hopes Lazio do them proud in Europe, watching how they operate against the best, pundits were more interested in how well the Old Lady would fare with so many new faces in the squad.
Juventus boss Massimiliano Allegri successfully navigated his first real test of the season, and despite the terrible state of the pitch and the unpredictable trajectory of the ball when kicked, his men looked in control and executed the strategy he required. With Andrea Barzagli able to start, the Bianconeri opted for a 3-5-2 formation in order to allow for greater control.
A dull affair for the most part, the blowing wind and physical condition of the two sides hardly allowed for a great match. Yet one thing Juve did prove was that despite the changes within the squad and the heavy loss of three world class players, they are still a winning team and one that understands how to manage energy levels and obtain the win; raising the tempo in the second half to devastate the opponent.
There were many admirable performances on the day. Stephan Lichtsteiner showed how much he enjoys playing as a wingback rather than a full-back while Stefano Sturaro played like a warrior to ensure onlookers did not miss Arturo Vidal too much. However, Paul Pogba is the man who deserves all the plaudits.
Many, including Patrice Evra, have called on Pogba to step up and express his full potential. Last season this blog regularly criticised the player for playing within himself, hesitating and questioning his instinctive ability. Deciding to stay with the Old Lady after having watched so many others leave, Pogba insisted in pre-match interviews that he will raise his game and be the leader Juve may well need this season.
So far he hasn't disappointed. His first act was to go and ask management for the much coveted number 10 shirt. For a player who at times plays as though he doubts his ability, this particular demand for extra pressure was a welcome gesture and it convinced the top men to allow him the honour of taking the jersey previously worn by legendary players.
With the number 10 emblazoned on his back, Pogba played a game worthy of the honour, injecting beauty and world class talent into proceedings to get the Old Lady off to the right foot. His sheer determination and quality skill on the ball allowed him to be involved in so many important movements, thrilling those who had come to see him. Allegri can only hope that the departure of so many leaders will allow Pogba to develop into the capable star worthy of his price tag.
While Pogba impressed in midfield, contributing all over the pitch, it was Paulo Dybala who thrilled going forward. Chosen to start from the bench, Allegri instead wanted to prove to Kingsley Coman that Juventus really do believe in his ability and started him, but the player is one who requires consistency before he can truly demonstrate his worth. The same cannot be said of Dybala, who replaced Coman. The new arrival continued to prove to his doubters, including this blog, that he is worthy of his price tag and capable of thrilling with a big team.
Mesmerising on the ball, his reading and understanding of the game are what one would expect with more experienced players, yet Dybala simply understands the flow of the game and what is required of him. If he can lose the footballing moments that reveal his young age and incur Allegri's wrath, then he can be a true black and white hero.
Mario Mandzukic also had a good game, working for his team. While he managed to open the scoring, he still failed to convert one of the better chances the team had. A wonderful work-horse and a man who always tries, the Croatian is blending in nicely with the squad, even if he is a step below world-class.
So many great performances, the Bianconeri are still not where they need to be in terms of fitness and finesse, but they are still the cynical unit of players who are desperate for the wins, highly motivated and well engaged with the tactical requirements of the coach. With a trophy under their belts, Juventus have already signalled their intent going forward.
Mina Rzouki covers Juventus and the Italian national team for ESPN FC. Follow her on Twitter: @Minarzouki.