Injury-ravaged Juventus have built up nearly insurmountable lead in Serie A
As we approach the turn of the year, it's time to take a look at how Juventus have fared so far in 2016-17.
What can Massimiliano Allegri's men expect between now and May? Here's how the season has gone so far.
Giampiero Boniperti said it best when he said: "Winning is not important, it is the only thing that counts." Considering the plethora of injuries suffered and the delay in fielding the side's best XI, Juventus have not only managed to top their Champions League qualifying group but sit perched at the top of Serie A with a seven-point lead over second-placed Roma.
Forced into rotating players so often, especially at the back, Juve still boast the toughest defence in the league and the second-best attack. Unlike the start of last season, this Bianconeri side refuse to take anything for granted, and whatever they may lack in tactical balance and overall fluidity, they more than make up for with mental fortitude and great desire. It is perhaps for this reason that seven of their goals have arrived in the first 15 minutes of Serie A matches.
Daniele Rugani has developed into a real leader capable of guiding the backline, Mario Mandzukic has proved efficient in both phases of the game while Gonzalo Higuain continues to score despite playing in a sacrificial role due to injuries. When the players are back to full fitness, one imagines Juventus will not only continue winning but perhaps provide a little entertainment.
Regardless of how well Juventus have done this season despite the injuries, they are yet to play to their true potential and have been made to suffer against what can only be deemed as inferior opposition. Unable to control games or keep hold of possession adequately, this campaign's midfield pales in comparison to the one Juve once boasted.
Sami Khedira may be intelligent and determined, but he does not have the physical strength to provide consistently solid performances, while Miralem Pjanic took too long to settle in. Forcing a formation change in hope of uncovering the Bosnian's true potential, it remains to be seen whether the playmaker can make the impact on a consistent basis. As such, the team can only truly rely on Claudio Marchisio, a player who boasts the dynamism and tactical intelligence needed to keep Juventus moving in a cohesive manner. Without him, the team struggled in both phases of the game while the bench lacks the quality required to allow for seamless squad rotations.
Once upon a time, this team could rely on Paul Pogba's vertical nature, Andrea Pirlo's creativity and Arturo Vidal's relentless energy, ensuring strength off the ball and intelligence on it. Their departures continue to be felt and are yet to be adequately replaced.
Without a doubt, Mandzukic has been Juve's star player this season. Often described as technically limited, the player was said to have sought a departure from the club over the summer after hearing of Higuain's arrival. Convinced to stay and fight for trophies, the number of injuries suffered allowed the striker to play with continuity and his progression and performances have been nothing but inspiring.
Not only does he hold up play, create space for his teammates and exhaust the opposition but he's also happy to always track back and contribute to the defence, pulling off sensational blocks and tackles to ensure defensive solidity. A player with a work ethic befitting of Juventus, Mandzukic is the ultimate team player.
There are players not suited to Juve's level and others who have succumbed to injury too early to demonstrate their worth thus there is no real flop within the side. However, one player who hasn't truly lived up to expectations is Dani Alves.
On several occasions, the full-back has been magical going forward, creating chances for his teammates and delivering the width Juventus need. However, defensively the player has proved fragile. Against Milan, Tuttomercatoweb labelled him a disaster of a player and selfish while against Lyon, the defender looked overwhelmed and out of sorts.
Often caught out of position and easily robbed of possession, Alves is discovering the difficulty of being a defender in Italy. To be fair to him, he has been tasked with playing in unfamiliar formations and positions. However, he must learn to play with more discipline, look to serve his teammates as opposed to being the hero and understand that regardless of the trophies he has collected, this is a new challenge and a club that desperately needs his winning mentality to make the difference in the big games.
Predicted finish: Juventus should easily win the title for the sixth time and ought to at least reach the semifinals of the Champions League.
Mina Rzouki covers Juventus and the Italian national team for ESPN FC. Follow her on Twitter: @Minarzouki.