Brilliant Max Allegri has Juventus purring along ahead of Roma test
It was only a few weeks ago when Juventus were experiencing a "crisis." Unbalanced, defensively frail and lacking in ideas, Massimiliano Allegri did with Juventus what he has done every season: start slowly before recovering perfect balance to achieve consecutive wins.
Having qualified for the round of 16 in the Champions League and only one point away from a Napoli side that are first in Serie A, Juventus are back to being the side everyone fears and who many predict will win the title once again. How boring. Except they aren't. Juventus may never thrill onlookers with their style of play or clear identity but their ability to rotate, adapt their tactics and still win must be considered an art form for few sides in Europe have coped as well with so many changes in the side and continued to be a formidable force in football.
Set to welcome Roma next, critics are salivating over how Allegri will face a coach who has created problems for him before. Impressing in the short time he's been at Roma, Eusebio Di Francesco has created a team that is not only confident but rather effective, doing what Juve couldn't in Europe, win their Champions League group.
In him, the Giallorossi have found a man who understands the culture of the club, the pressure surrounding it and how to effectively exploit the talents within the side in a clear and organised manner.
However, as can happen under the tutelage of a new coach, consistency can be difficult to attain. After a good start to the season, seemingly performing better and better in every match, Roma have trailed off a bit in recent weeks. With Edin Dzeko not scoring as often as he once did, having only managed one goal since the end of October, Roma are winning matches by a fine margin or not winning them at all.
They drew against Genoa, dropped points against Chievo and lost to Torino in the Coppa Italia midweek. By contrast, Juventus had a weak start to the campaign but are picking up momentum now. This is about the time it all clicks into place for Allegri as his teachings begin to take effect and the performance of certain players begin to improve.
Having initially suffered with the loss of Leonardo Bonucci, Allegri has reorganised the unit and nurtured Mehdi Benatia to such great effect that he won most valuable player of the month award in November. Composed on the ball and growing in confidence, Benatia has benefitted from having Andrea Barzagli alongside him, championing his progression and Allegri who has kept faith in him. What we have come to learn with Juve's defence is that it's not about who is at the back but how the unit is organised that almost allows defenders to thrive. You can almost argue that Benatia looks to be a better defender than Bonucci at this moment in time.
Roma may boast the best defence in Serie A, despite having played one game less than their rivals, but Juventus have not conceded a goal in over a month, keeping seven consecutive clean sheets despite rotating personnel and tactics.
Therein lies the majesty of Allegri, a coach whose sides begin to improve at the right time. Just as his competitors begin to struggle, his side begins to impose their strength. Juventus won their last group match in the Champions League, defeated Napoli, drew against Inter despite being better and comprehensively beat Genoa in the Coppa Italia. Alive and with a chance of winning all three major competitions, Juventus are the only Italian side that can boast such a feat.
However, there is still much more to expect from this Bianconeri side. Paulo Dybala looks to be recovering his form, having managed a goal and an assist against Genoa while it seems Douglas Costa and Federico Bernardeschi are settling in well, making an impact whenever they are played. Despite that, it seems Allegri will rely on his stars from last season on Saturday evening with reports suggesting the coach will deploy a 4-2-3-1 formation with Mario Mandzukic and Juan Cuadrado in the wide areas.
Whomever plays, it's important to remember how effective the Giallorossi can be in the second half. With a strong midfield, they have the ability to frustrate so the Bianconeri must remain concentrated and composed and ensure the opponent cannot establish a rhythm. This match must be played with maturity and intellect especially as Roma have a point to prove having just suffered a defeat and will want to recover in fashion, by defeating a hated rival.
It remains to be seen whether Di Francesco can hurt Allegri again or if Juventus are back to their best and ready to inflict another huge loss to send a signal of intent.
Mina Rzouki covers Juventus and the Italian national team for ESPN FC. Follow her on Twitter: @Minarzouki.