Juventus face Real Madrid Champions League missing key players and old flair
"I hope to avoid both Barcelona and Real Madrid," said Massimiliano Allegri after leading his Juventus side to a 2-0 win over Udinese and to the summit of Serie A last week. "I think Madrid are the favourites to win the competition. They're focusing solely on the Champions League, and there's nobody else that deals with games in this competition like they do."
Less than a week later, the Old Lady drew Real Madrid yet again. It's a side with a winning pedigree, a talented young coach who is almost Italian in his ways and a squad that's brimming with talent. No side is better equipped at winning the European trophy than Los Blancos.
With nothing to play for domestically and as a side that enjoys taunting opponents, Real Madrid don't even need to play well this season to win, much like Juventus. It is flexible team that can play with or without the ball. Madrid may not have the strongest of defences but they can score at any point and in any way. More importantly, they boast the reputation of being champions and the fierce winning mentality that comes with it. "Come beat us if you can" is all the opponents hear as they take their place opposite the Spaniards.
Real Madrid may be the favourites, but the only team to have beaten them in this competition in the last three seasons is Juventus. The Old Lady has a history of coming out on top of her Spanish rivals in knockout fixtures. Those 180 minutes against Italian discipline and tactics have proved to be too much for both Barcelona and Real Madrid before. But it needs to prove too much again this season.
When you consider that the Bianconeri will be without both Medhi Benatia and Miralem Pjanic for the first leg, it will be an especially difficult feat for Juve to qualify for the semifinals. More than those two suspensions, Juventus may have arrived at this point of the season in fine physical and mental condition, but they are lacking something they had last season: a certain flair, a certain strength.
It was very unlike the Italians to concede three goals against Spurs, especially not when they kept Lionel Messi quiet for 180 minutes last season. Moreover, certain players have simply not stepped up their game or are showing their age this season. Alex Sandro is not the player he was last term, Sami Khedira and Andrea Barzagli are certainly struggling on a physical level, while Pjanic has yet to learn how to play with authority against physical sides.
When you consider Madrid has Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and Caseimiro in midfield, it's easy to envision Juve's midfield being dominated.
However, one player Allegri can rely on is Gonzalo Higuain. The Argentine has been Juve's standout performer in recent months and especially in recent weeks. Showing off ridiculous vision, wonderful creativity, strength, efficiency and power, Higuain is the complete striker Juve have long searched for in recent years.
His performances and Paulo Dybala's injury have led Allegri to trust the striker more, giving him more responsibility. And Higuain has responded perfectly, leading with authority and playing with character as he not only moves around the pitch incessantly but creates and scores at an incredible rate.
Juve's game is centred no longer around Dybala -- despite how good the youngster has been -- but around their more experienced No. 9, who knows how to get everyone producing at their optimum level in the final third and enjoying the pressure that comes with it. He's not fast, yet is perfect at positioning himself to launch the counterattack, whether he's releasing Douglas Costa or laying it off for Dybala and filling the spaces majestically to give Juve the upper hand going forward.
If he continues to play like this, both he and the attacking trident he leads can cause serious damage, to Real Madrid and many more sides.
It will be interesting to see how SPAL will try to contain Juve's attack on Saturday evening when they host the Old Lady. They've picked up seven points from their last three games and are doing their best to ensure survival. So they will be keen to spring a surprise against a Juve side that may drop its guard considering the opponent.
Allegri has warned his men that this could be a banana slip of a game, as the Bianconeri have a history of losing matches they don't take seriously. But if they exert the smallest of efforts, the champions of Italy are expected to pick up another three points.
Mina Rzouki covers Juventus and the Italian national team for ESPN FC. Follow her on Twitter: @Minarzouki.