Juventus need Pjanic to perform against mirror-image Tottenham
On what promises to be a cold Wednesday evening in one of the world's theatres of football, the team that reached the Champions League final twice in three years will be the underdog as Juventus face "favourites" Tottenham Hotspur in the Champions League.
Having conceded two goals at home, blasphemous for a side renowned for defensive solidity, Juve know they have to put on a strong showing in London to prove why their experience, winning pedigree and master tactician are superior to that of their opponents.
It will be extremely difficult. Premier League sides tend to always boast either a great attack, such as Liverpool and Manchester City, or a great defence, like Chelsea once had. Spurs, under the tutelage of their own master tactician, boast balance. They are tactically flexible, capable of defending, capable of scoring and capable of controlling the midfield. They can adjust, they work as a unit and they've mastered the art of playing for one another. If there was a team that most resembled Juve in England, it's Spurs under Mauricio Pochettino.
It is perhaps why Massimiliano Allegri and his squad have taken such issue with the criticism aimed at the club by critics who felt they should have won the match in Turin or at least not conceded two. Spurs are in a rich vein of form and feel confident in their power to inflict pain after having defeated the likes of Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund to win their group. As such they are a team to be respected.
The truth is, no matter how good Spurs were in the first leg, they did go 2-0 down in the first 10 minutes. Juve ought to have kept applying the pressure, pushing for the ball rather than falling deeper and deeper as they tried to resist the onslaughts.
Without Blaise Matuidi available, Allegri thought a change in formation would ensure courage in that first leg and it worked for a while. But then Juve surrendered too quickly as they were pushed and harried off the ball, suffering from imprecision.
This has long been Juventus' problem and it cannot be down to anything but mental fragility. A squad that boasts experience, technique and an array of talent simply cannot become so inaccurate with its passing as soon as it is pressured. Players must learn how to look up, remain composed and create space and time for themselves on the ball to pick the right pass. No player did that better than Andrea Pirlo did in recent years for the Bianconeri. He was never rushed, never flustered and it was only who decided the tempo of the game, regardless of the opponent.
Gonzalo Higuain may have scored twice in the first leg, albeit missing a penalty, but he was perhaps the only one who maintained a degree of accuracy on the ball. Federico Bernardeschi was not too far behind, but the performance of both Miralem Pjanic and Sami Khedira was particularly disappointing.
Playmaker Pjanic has certainly developed at Juventus, showing greater strength and defensive determination. His off the ball movement has often been commended but he is still far too easily kicked off the ball and struggles to deliver his pinpoint passes when his marker applies pressure. Consider this, Pjanic has an 89.5 percent pass completion in Serie A. Against Tottenham, he only completed 67.4 percent of his passes, a drop making him nearly 25 percent less brilliant than usual.
Sami Khedira's pass completion rate dropped by close to 38 percent. The stats are almost embarrassing and for a side that do rely on defensive solidity and technical play in the moments, exploiting their chances when they have them, Juventus must be better.
This is the time experience needs to make the difference to their mental strength, for the players to stand up and ask the opponent to beat them, confident they can overcome the press and deliver. Real Madrid have experienced a terrible run of form domestically this season, yet they rarely looked in trouble against PSG's expensive attack because they believe in their chances in this special competition and use their power of intimidation well.
Spurs may be good enough to beat Juventus and proved excellent in Turin, but they should be asked to express themselves at the highest level, not be gifted embarrassing opportunities. No side should find it so easy to push Juve so deep or provoke them into such a sharp drop in accuracy.
The stats reinforce Allegri's point that it was a technical rather than a tactical issue in the first-leg draw. Nonetheless, with Matuidi back to provide the energy and further protection in midfield, Allegri should revert back to a 4-3-3 in search of balance, with Douglas Costa likely to join Higuain and Paulo Dybala going forward.
Mario Mandzukic hasn't made the trip and that may not be such a bad thing. While the Croatia international is an expert in generosity, proving to be a useful body in defence and winning aerial duels, he has disappointed going forward. In fact, against Spurs, he possessed the worst pass completion rate in the team.
Technique is how Juve can overcome the Premier League side in London. If they minimise the errors and play at their highest level, with a little swagger, they will impress. Allegri was right to say the pressure is on Spurs, they hold the advantage but are they mentally strong enough to inflict an upset on a European giant?
Juventus will need ask them that very question and play a game worthy of the Italian Champions, for themselves and in memory of Davide Astori, whom the sides will honour with a minute's silence prior to kick off.
Mina Rzouki covers Juventus and the Italian national team for ESPN FC. Follow her on Twitter: @Minarzouki.