Juventus need better form from star attackers against Atalanta
People have only just begun to forget Juventus' perceived humiliation against Tottenham Hotspur in the Champions League. Everything from the tactics of the coach down to the mentality of the players have been questioned since, and the only way for Juve to respond is on the pitch. While they still have more than a week to prepare for the second leg against Spurs in Wembley, Juve must now concentrate on playing and beating Atalanta, twice. Set to face the Bergamo side in Serie A on Sunday, the two clubs will face off again midweek in the Coppa Italia with a spot in the final up for grabs.
Atalanta are suffering from their own European pain. Despite playing a brilliantly vibrant game, the Italians were defeated by Borussia Dortmund and knocked out of the Europa League. Gian Piero Gasperini's side will be desperate to win at least one of their new two matches against the Bianconeri to overcome their pain.
The last time these two clubs met in the league, Juventus raced to a quick 2-0 lead only to stand back and watch as Atalanta equalised and grabbed a point in their hunt for European places. Juve have become all too familiar with squandering impressive leads and will need to be focused and courageous for the entire game if they're to secure another win.
It will be difficult as they will be without Gonzalo Higuain, who is still not yet fully recovered from a minor injury. Mario Mandzukic is set to lead the line with both Paulo Dybala and Douglas Costa alongside him. Manager Massimiliano Allegri is keen to play Dybala as much as possible without hindering his recovery in Juve's next three matches in hopes of helping him return to his fluid and clinical ways. If he doesn't start, then it's likely Alex Sandro will be pushed forward and played in the front three.
In truth, Atalanta will perhaps be relieved to see Costa, Mandzukic and Dybala line up. While all three players boast abundant talent and quality, it must be said that Dybala is rusty and Mandzukic is more of a defender than a forward these days having not scored in his last seven matches. Costa's form is notoriously inconsistent.
Costa might be one of the most technically gifted players to have ever donned the Juventus jersey, but for all his talent, more decisive play should be demanded from the star. A player so adept at manipulating the ball and outmanoeuvring and overcoming his marker, Costa unfortunately also tries to do too much on the ball.
While he impressed when forced to play as a false No. 9 in the Derby della Mole last week after Higuain was taken off, his pace and technique offers him opportunities that others can only dream of. Yet Costa does not exploit them ruthlessly. Take the match against Spurs. His pace was truly too much for Serge Aurier, but barring winning the penalty, he did little else to impose himself and help Juve take command of the game. Costa plied his trade with Bayern Munich and should be accustomed to winning, yet he couldn't act as a leader or play with the authority Juve required from their star signing. Federico Bernardeschi did more. He ran all over the pitch, took shots and won a penalty, too. But most importantly, he read the game a little better.
Costa has all the weapons in his arsenal to be a true great, but he must learn to read situations better, get back and sacrifice, remain focused throughout the game and to be stubborn on the ball, ensuring he's not robbed of it with ease. He has a rare ability in that, unlike many of his teammates, he can dribble past an opponent's first line of defence and thus must learn to make the most of the chances his skills afford him, helping Juve elevate their level of play in the final third.
Dybala's return to the pitch should help the Brazil international, as the two can do what Allegri loves the most: play between the lines and exploit the right gaps. But it will take time for the duo to perfect their partnership. Together they can hopefully muster something and manage to continue Juve's unbeaten streak against Atalanta in Serie A. The Bergamo side have failed to achieve a league win against the Old Lady since 1989, but under Gian Piero Gasperini, they look more determined than ever to create history.
Mina Rzouki covers Juventus and the Italian national team for ESPN FC. Follow her on Twitter: @Minarzouki.