Juventus need to break poor form vs. Sporting in Champions League
There is an air of familiarity about Juventus' latest crisis. Having dropped five points in the past two games and surrendered to their first defeat at home since Aug. 2015, is Massimiliano Allegri's team really the best in Italy?
It's amazing how many times Juve find themselves depressed at the start of a season. The squad either struggle to win European matches, struggle to dominate league games or play such dull, hopeless football that followers once again to engage in the tired debate of why Juve can't be as enterprising as Napoli or Roma were before them.
A notorious slow starter, it will take Allegri time until he finds the right tactical shape and strategy to suit his new set of players. Whether it be the versatility he introduced in his first season or the introduction of the 4-2-3-1 last term, the tactician always takes his time to make an impression -- and then when he does, people wonder why they ever doubted Juve.
Allegri has rarely started a season well, whether at Juve or Cagliari or others. He spends his time observing the team, detecting the weaknesses and finding the strengths. Once he has all the information he needs, he concocts the perfect strategy going forward, usually earning the points needed to win the trophies.
The only problem with starting slow this time around is that Napoli might not be in the mood to drop any points. While Napoli is a team that has often overvalued enterprising football, Mauricio Sarri has improved them exponentially this season, introducing the cynicism required to make them champions, at least domestically. This side is no longer just romantic but mature, too. They are happy to suffer through moments and play with their minds rather than their emotions. They can absorb pressure and they can apply it; they can score at free will and they can defend. They are cunning, purposeful and united, and Aurelio De Laurentiis suggested they ought to be prioritising Serie A.
Juventus may be obsessed with winning in Europe, but they cannot be content with conceding any domestic trophies to their challengers, especially not with the talent and depth they have in their side. So the questions is: Once they do finally recover their fluidity and strength, will it be too late to make up for lost time in Serie A?
Fortunately, Juve don't have the time to lick their wounds over yet another disappointing performance against Lazio. They have Sporting Lisbon coming up on Wednesday evening in the Champions League, and nothing but a win will be accepted for a side desperately in need of European acclaim.
Sporting have never won in Italy, but after watching the Bianconeri throw a 1-0 lead away to suffer their first home defeat in years against Lazio, they will be hopeful they can cause damage. Both Seydou Doumbia and Fabio Coentrao are back in the Sporting side, but it's likely coach Jorge Jesus will play Bas Dost as the lone striker up front in a 4-2-3-1 formation -- the same shape Allegri is likely to use.
A side famous for solid defending, the centre-back partnership of Sebastian Coates and Jeremy Mathieu has proved tough to break down in the league. Even Barcelona struggled against Sporting, managing only one goal -- and a scrappy one at that -- when the two sides faced each other in their group game last month.
According to recent reports, coach Jesus has been focusing on drilling his side defensively, ensuring there are enough men to help secure the wide areas, especially Juan Cuadrado's lane on the right, aware that both Cuadrado or Federico Bernardeschi can cause problems in that area with their technique and pace.
However, Sporting are more than just a side that can defend. Offensively, they can be exciting to watch. Jesus enjoys overwhelming football, watching his players exchange quick and enticing passes, combining opportunities to ensure fluency. The full-backs are tasked with pushing forward and partaking in the offensive game, while the side have managed to score, on average, two goals a game this season.
They will be a little more cautious against Juventus, aware of what Paulo Dybala's movement and Miralem Pjanic's creativity can do. Juventus, however, must produce more than what they have managed in recent weeks. Drops in concentration can no longer be tolerated and the attack has to produce more.
Set to play in a 4-2-3-1 formation, Alex Sandro will return to the side, while it appears likely that Cuadrado and Mario Mandzukic will occupy the wide areas. If Gonzalo Higuain actually performs to the level expected of him and Dybala dazzles as he did in the start of the season, then perhaps Juventus can earn the points they need to facilitate their qualification.
Mina Rzouki covers Juventus and the Italian national team for ESPN FC. Follow her on Twitter: @Minarzouki.