More than full-backs, Dani Alves and Alex Sandro have Juve thinking treble
At times with Juventus, it's just like watching Brazil.
Take last night's Coppa Italia final, for example. Juventus beat Lazio 2-0 at the Stadio Olimpico and became the first team in history to win this competition three years running. Think of it as one treble in preparation for another.
Dani Alves opened the scoring in Rome, running off the shoulder of the hapless Senad Lulic and volleying his shot into the ground, past the Lazio goalkeeper Thomas Strakosha. The 34-year-old has had a hand in five goals in his last five appearances, and as Italian newspaper La Repubblica puts it, continues to "perpetuate his magic moment."
Both strikes on Wednesday were assisted by Alves' compatriot Alex Sandro, who just so happened to set him up in Juventus' 2-0 win against Porto at the Dragao as well, a game that, in hindsight, could come to represent a turning point in their season. A late sub that night, Alves was considered by some to be a flop at Juve and an oddity up until then.
The pair make quite the full-back tandem and when Juventus play Real Madrid in Cardiff in just over two weeks' time one of the things to watch will be the battle between them and Marcelo and Dani Carvajal. A face-off to decide who is the best double act in the world. That is of course if you can call them full-backs.
Juventus bought Sandro at a time when everybody was expecting them to sign a No.10. Max Allegri had expressed his admiration for players like Oscar and Isco and, for a while, it looked like German international Julian Draxler was Turin-bound. Paulo Dybala, who had already joined from Palermo, was considered a second striker.
In the end, chairman Andrea Agnelli and general manager Beppe Marotta made a left-back the second most expensive purchase of their administration. A few eyebrows were raised at the cost of the operation. Juventus, renowned for the work they do in free agency, paid €26m for a player entering the final year of his contract at Porto.
Why? Well, Juventus knew that if they waited to take him for nothing, they couldn't match what Manchester City were prepared to pay Sandro in wages. What City hadn't reckoned on was Juventus' willingness to swallow the cost of taking him early and, boy oh boy, has Sandro been worth it. The Old Lady didn't choose to sign a defender over a fantasista. No, she acquired both in one fell swoop.
Physically Sandro is built like the Brazilians you see in the UFC Octagon. While his teammates at Atletico Paranaense were at the beach or drinking caipirinhas, he would stay back after training and get another workout in. He clocks up a tremendous amount of running and covers an entire flank by himself, no problem.
At the end of his first season in Turin, which Sandro initially spent learning the differences of the full-back and wing-back roles, he posted the kind of numbers any coach would want from a defender. The 26-year-old made 94 combined tackles and interceptions in 27 total games in Serie A and Europe.
He also created 52 chances and established a reputation as a dead-eyed crosser, laying on some huge goals for his teammates, at home at City then against Milan and, perhaps most significantly of all, Juan Cuadrado's 93rd-minute winner in the Turin derby, which was the turning point in their season and the start of a comeback from the point of no return in the title race.
Even after watching Marcelo's virtuoso quarterfinal displays against Bayern Munich, there are Juventus fans still in no doubt as to who is the world's best left-back. It's their boy from Brazil, Sandro. They can't understand why Tite doesn't start him for the Selecao. Bafflingly Tite has sometimes overlooked him entirely, not even calling him into the squad.
It's madness when you consider the regard Sandro is held in over in Europe. Just 18 months into his Juventus career, the club extended his contract until 2021 and regularly tell City and Chelsea to forget about signing him. It's the fastest they've moved to reward a player. Only Dybala has been offered a new deal in a similar timeframe.
Alves, meanwhile, follows in the footsteps of Andrea Pirlo, Paul Pogba, Patrice Evra, Kingsley Coman, Fernando Llorente and Sami Khedira as another priceless Juventus free transfer. There's a case to be made, irrespective of the profits made from Pogba, that he's the most important since Pirlo. The former was the difference when it came to turning Juventus into a Scudetto winner again. The latter could do the same for them in the Champions League.
"Teach us how to win the Champions League," a humble Gianluigi Buffon asked Alves upon his arrival in the summer. Until February, though, Alves looked like a bust. "We found it a bit like hard work at first." Giorgio Chiellini explained. "Both us and Dani. He was like a fish out of water. A foreign body almost...a little crazy for our culture."
Alves fractured his leg in the 3-1 defeat to Genoa in November and, even at that early stage, ex-pros like Giancarlo Marocchi were writing him off on Sky Italia. But since returning from injury he has, in Chiellini's words, "got better with every game" and is "like [Lionel] Messi. Technically, he's on another level and it's no coincidence he played for Barcelona for such a long time."
A regista aggiunto or added playmaker, as he's now being called, Alves has created more chances than any other player in the Champions League this season. Playing the role of one of the world's best music producers -- let's say Rick Rubin -- Allegri has gotten Alves to duet with Paulo Dybala in much the same way he did with Messi for so many years. The effects are devastating and Allegri is now laughing at those who ever doubted Alves.
"Three months ago, some people wanted to strangle Dani," Allegri scoffed. "But when a player is good, he's good in June, September, and the following June...he hasn't turned mediocre. Besides, Alves is not someone we've discovered in the past three months. He's won 29 titles [now 32]."
On Wednesday night, Alves played the 30th cup final of his career. He has been victorious in 27 of them and is now on course for his third treble. We're talking about one of the most successful players of all-time, someone who can come in and affect the culture of a club, even one full of serial winners like Juventus, a player who has come good at the right time, exactly when it matters, rising to the big occasions.
"Juventus bought him for nights like these," Alessandro Del Piero said after Alves' starring role in the semifinal against Monaco, which ended with two (and a half) assists and a goal over both legs. The bossa nova out-wide has only helped Juventus boss their opponents. With two such technically gifted full-backs, the team is able to play out from the back and beat the press with skill and finesse, turning defence into attack with 1v1 dribbling, smart combination-play and vision.
This is where Juventus have come on the furthest in the last two years. Full-backs on paper, in reality Sandro and Alves are so much more. They have grabbed the Old Lady by the hand and are taking her to a place she has never been before as if she were "The Girl From Ipanema".
James covers the Italian Serie A and European football for ESPN FC Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.