Short-handed Juventus will need to dig deep into reserves against Sassuolo
With February here, Juventus need to step up their game to ensure they are still in the hunt for the treble by the time May approaches. Unfortunately for Massimiliano Allegri, he's dealing with a mini injury crisis and wondering which 11 players he can put together to have a team to play Sassuolo on Sunday afternoon.
Benedikt Howedes, Juan Cuadrado, Paulo Dybala and Douglas Costa are all missing in action, and so Federico Bernardeschi will most likely be asked to play through his pain and minor injury to ensure a solid attack against Sassuolo. The Neroverdi side has been growing steadily, and they not only beat Inter at the end of December, but they held Roma and Walter Mazzarri's reinvigorated Torino side in recent weeks.
To make matters worse for Juve, Domenico Berardi will be available to play against them, Sassuolo's best player and one who has curiously always been absent against the team that tracked his talent for so many years. So far, the Bianconeri have played Sassuolo nine times in Serie A, and in five of those matches, Berardi was unavailable. When asked about the player who once scored four goals against his Milan side, Allegri was clear in his assessment: The youngster is indeed a talent and dangerous to play against, but a star is one who plays with consistency and can only be judged over many years. The fear is Berardi, an Inter fan, will want to show Juve just how lucky they were to have avoided him for so long tomorrow afternoon.
With so many injuries upfront, including three wingers, Allegri was also asked about letting Marko Pjaca move to Schalke on loan recently. The Croatian has already had the German newspapers documenting his performances with a heavy dose of admiration, watching him glide across the pitch and create danger, but as Allegri noted, no one saw so many injuries coming, and Pjaca wanted the chance to play consistently.
Domenico Tedesco, Schalke's manager, is the right man to continue Pjaca's development, albeit temporarily. While the Bundesliga has always been an attack-driven league with players given licence to play with a little more freedom in the final third, Tedesco prefers to play with a little more balance. Born in Italy but raised in Germany, the 32-year-old manager has impressed many onlookers with his tactical understanding and excellent strategies, allowing Pjaca a chance to continue his tactical training to facilitate his growth when he's back in Serie A.
In his first start for the German club, Pjaca scored against Hannover and looked to be a constant danger going forward, while in the loss against Werder Bremen on Saturday afternoon, the winger came on in the 70th minute and hit the woodwork. His talent is the reason why Juve only agreed to loan him to the German side temporarily; they are very much aware of the audacious quality he boasts and how much he can provide for the Old Lady in the years to come.
Sadly, his quality would have been highly relied upon now, when Juventus' attack looks weak and in need of a wild card.
With Mario Mandzukic and Gonzalo Higuain available against Sassuolo, Juve will at least depend on their experience and ability to sacrifice, but their opponent has been stingy in defence in recent weeks, frustrating the bigger teams. Should Bernardeschi not be able to play through the pain, then Allegri may change to a 3-5-2 formation to accommodate players with different characteristics or stick with a 4-3-3 shape and ask Alex Sandro or Stefano Sturaro to play further upfield. One only hopes Allegri won't depend on the latter, as Sturaro has yet to provide Juve with anything more than determined and physical displays, lacking the incisive quality his team needs to penetrate organised defences.
This is a match that Juve cannot get wrong this weekend, especially not when people continue to point out the depth and talent of this squad in comparison to all others. Napoli believe the fact that the Old Lady gets to play before them for the next few weeks is beneficial, while those in Turin point out that they simply have less time to prepare. A side that many believe has all the tools to continue succeeding as their rivals labour and toil for points must prove it really has what it takes to absorb the criticism and demonstrate strength on the pitch. To challenge for another treble is the dream.
Mina Rzouki covers Juventus and the Italian national team for ESPN FC. Follow her on Twitter: @Minarzouki.