Juve short on motivation in the wake of UCL failure and Italy's World Cup woes
On Friday, Napoli host Juventus in the most anticipated match of the season. Like always, the best defence is facing the best attack but unlike always, these two sides have seemingly swapped strengths. It is Napoli who now know how to suffer, how to get over the hurdle with solidarity and strength while it's Juventus who are relying more on the strength of what they can create as opposed to what they they can protect.
Two sides with the desire to make an impact and collect the Scudetto at the end, it seems most, including Massimiliano Allegri, agree that Napoli are the favourites. Juventus, for all their experience, are no longer seen as the unbeatable side. But why is that? As Allegri explained, Juventus have one point more than they did last season, are on course to qualify out of their Champions League group and have scored more goals than last season, conceding only two more. Had it not been for a few missed penalties, Juventus might even have a few more points.
At pains to explain the Bianconeri are absolutely not in crisis, Allegri has every right to feel a little defensive. Juventus are where they should be and that is despite losing Dani Alves and Leonardo Bonucci, integrating a whole new set of midfielders and the yo-yo form of the front two Argentines. If anything, this Old Lady merits a little more appreciation for continuing to perform despite the many changes and the extraordinary season they had last year, which always robs a side of a certain level of motivation the next year.
One need only look at Real Madrid. They won La Liga and the Champions League last season, looked to be playing an extremely high level of football when they thrashed Barcelona in the summer but have since capitulated, largely on a mental level. Such extreme highs can result in a few lows thereafter as players need to recharge and recover that desire to fight all over again.
For Juventus, that motivation should be a little harder to recover considering they fell at the final hurdle again, left to feel such great disappointment after yet another failure in Europe. Combine that with the knowledge that Italy won't be in the World Cup and it's just that bit harder to keep fighting for a league title you've won so many times and a place in the Champions League final that may well result in another disappointment.
But in the words of Giorgio Chiellini, Juve players are obliged to win and the Bianconeri have despite the problems. There have been some excellent performances, such as the ones against Milan and Torino while there have also been some great goals and signs of future brilliance.
If Juventus don't win this season, it's not because they have failed but because the likes of Napoli and Inter have exceeded expectations. The Partenopei have 13 points more at this stage of the season than they did last year. Without wholesale changes made to the squad, Maurizio Sarri has the opportunity to teach the footballers moves, improve upon their fluidity and ensure defensive stability. The players are all familiar with one another, there are no great absences or departures that have forced the coach to seek alternative tactics or personnel.
It is why, in view of the upcoming match against Juventus, Sarri can work on speed of movement and ensure his players are prepared and can execute the game plan quickly and exactly. Allegri on the other hand, may not have a striker available to start.
Mario Mandzukic is out having picked up an injury while Gonzalo Higuain is still recovering from hand surgery and should probably be rested but may well be forced to play. If Higuain doesn't start then Paulo Dybala will be played as a false nine. Alongside him will be Douglas Costa, who is still finding his feet and either Federico Bernardeschi or Juan Cuadrado -- neither of whom have trained much recently and ready to give their best. With Allegri constantly having to put out fires, there's been little time to work on technique and tactics, to try to recover the fluidity that Juve once had on the field.
When you consider that Alex Sandro is a shadow of the player he was last season, that Miralem Pjanic and Sami Khedira are not providing the consistency required in the middle and that Dybala is not mature or strong enough to be depended on entirely, especially not when the style of play does not suit his game, then perhaps Juventus will lose the match and indeed the title this season.
If they do then it's because their rivals were better, not because they were poor. All Juve can do is keep working and hopefully they will find the time and calm to improve themselves both physically and mentally. Until then, Allegri will hope his side have enough to keep Napoli at bay on Friday by studying how the likes of Shakhtar Donetsk managed to interrupt their ability to control the game as they managed to in Ukraine. If Juventus are determined and work together, they are always enough and have enough to earn the win.
Mina Rzouki covers Juventus and the Italian national team for ESPN FC. Follow her on Twitter: @Minarzouki.