“Little more than a workout session“. That is how Antonio Conte described his team’s performance after the full time whistle, in the match that opposed Juventus to Saudi team Al-Hilal in Riyadh Thursday evening, effectively capping the Bianconeri’s Winter training camp in the Middle East. He wasn’t being disrespectful, mind you: the hosts (sitting 1st in the Saudi Premier League) had just recently played an important derby vs. 3rd-ranked Al-Shabab and German coach Thomas Doll had decided to give his starting eleven a break.
So ultimately, whats served as the farewell match for goalkeeper Mohamed Al-Deayea (participant in 4 FIFA World Cups with Saudi Arabia, and current world record holder for most international appearances by a male football player) became an essentially one-way affair. A few days from their away game to Lecce, the Bianconeri seized the opportunity to get back into “game mode” after their holiday ‘rest’, itself being a relative term given the hard training the team has had to endure in Dubai. It also gave a few of the “fringe” players a chance to put themselves on display, and perhaps even earn a starting spot for Sunday’s match at Via del Mare.
Speaking of, towering above the rest of the fringes (both in terms of goal production and affection received by the public) was iconic captain Alessandro Del Piero, who “spoiled” Al-Deayea’s party by scoring not one but two goals against the now-former goalkeeper (though he immediately walked up to him to shake his hand, the gentleman that he is). Similarly motivated to earn some playing time was Dutch winger Eljero Elia, fielded on the right but often drifting on the opposite wing, which coincidentally was also from where he scored his only goal of the match – Juve’s third – after some good dribbling skills (and a moderate low shot the keeper should have perhaps done better on).
The first 45 minutes were capped with a beautiful curling effort by Arturo Vidal, who received a short pass from Matri and slammed an instantaneous hit into the top right corner to close the half at 4-0. A ballistic exploit, testament to the stuff the Chilean is capable of and has often put on display last year, at Bayer Leverkusen.
After the break Conte put his entire line of substitutes on, keeping only Frederik Sørensen (shifting the Dane from right-back to center). Despite a lower amount of Juventus goals (but not total goals as almost right after kick-off, Saad Al-Harthi managed to poke through the Juve backline and score the consolation tally for his side), the second half was by far the most interesting, in tactical terms at least. Indeed, it allowed us to see (and Conte to test) a variety of alternative options at the manager’s disposal, the most notable of which Marcelo Estigarribia in left-back format. The Paraguayan player has been quite convincing with his work rate in official matches so far, often tracking back all the way to the corner flag to provide support to Chiellini, but was never truly utilized as a flat wing-back until tonight. His 45-minute display shows potential, but also considerable ironing needed by Conte, particularly with the player’s positional sense (he was often lining up poorly with the rest of the backline).
Similarly the mezz’ala experiments of Simone Pepe and Emanuele Giaccherini produced good, but far from thrilling results, still keeping in mind the relative level of the opponent. Tonight was a good opportunity however for Mirko Vucinic to get back into action, after the early December injury that has kept the Montenegrin away from Serie A pitches since. The ex-Roma (and ex-Lecce, should be noted!) forward showed great intermittent displays of technical prowess, including wing-based accelerations and a really lovely, inch-perfect cross that provided Fabio Quagliarella (another one aching for playing time) with Juve’s 7th goal of the night. Prior to that, Giorgio Chiellini (on a beautiful no-look assist by Quags) and Simone Pepe (a fantastic top-corner free kick with almost no run-up) had stamped their name on the 5-1 and 6-1 tallies respectively.
At the end of the night, the deal was far less about the final score (a no-contest 7-1 that left little doubt on the technical gap between the two sides) than it was about the beautiful, affectionate welcome provided by Saudi Juventini fans to their idols (not forgetting the equally warm one the team received in Dubai, of course). The crowd of King Fahd International Stadium was especially creative, sporting numerous banners in Italian (as best Google Translate could do for them) that celebrated Juve’s 29 Scudetti, as well as plenty of Curva chants in the original Italian. A nice touch of magic for this Black & White-colored ‘Arabian Night’, and further proof the love for Juventus really knows no geographical boundaries.
After the match, the team immediately took the road for King Khalid International Airport, destination: Brindisi. Juventus will stay for two days in the Pugliese city, in order to make final preparations for their Sunday match (15:00 CET) vs. Lecce.
|GOALSCORERS: 14′, 22′ Del Piero (J), 32′ Elia (J), 45′ Vidal (J), 48′ Al Harthi (AH), 51′ Chiellini (J), 75′ Pepe, 86′ Quagliarella (J)
|AL HILAL (4-4-2): M. Al Deayea (49′ Shrahili) – Al Shrani (26’ Al Dokhi), Al Mouald (26’ Khirat), Hawsawi (26’ Al Marshdi), Al Zouri – Wilhelmsson, Al Gamdi (26’ Al Garni), Al Ganam, Al Shlhob (58′ S.Al Dosari) – Al Harthi, Al Jaber (26’ Al Aabd). COACH: Doll.|
|JUVENTUS (4-3-3): Buffon (46′ Storari) – Sorensen, Barzagli (46′ Lichtsteiner), Bonucci (46′ Chiellini), De Ceglie (46′ Estigarribia) – Vidal (46′ Pepe), Marrone (46′ Pazienza), Marchisio (46′ Giaccherini) – Elia (46′ Krasic), Matri (46′ Quagliarella), Del Piero (46′ Vucinic). COACH: Conte|
What They Said After the Game:
Alessandro DEL PIERO:
The long Christmas break is almost over, and so is our training camp. I’ve been outside of Italy for a while now: first I took a little vacation, with the nice little aside that was the ‘Globe Soccer award’ for my career, which I received at Burj Khalifa, the tallest skyscraper in the world. Then we had the Winter training camp and New Year’s Eve, also in Dubai. And then lots and lots of training, with a fixed objective in mind: Sunday vs. Lecce.
We received a splendid welcome in the Middle East, both in Dubai as well as at our arrival in Riyadh and here at the stadium. The cheers dedicated to me? Once I saw a Magic Johnson video, and heard him say that ‘you play to win, to have fun, and to make the audience have fun’; they’re three things which I have always tried to do, the affection I’m afforded is an acknowledgement of this.
To play our best was the right thing to do in order to honor [Mohamed Al-Deayea]‘s splendid career, in which he achieved many important goals. It was an useful match for us to prepare for Lecce, now we will have two days to work and concentrate on resuming the campionato.
I feel good, I rested during the holidays and in the last few days trained in top condition. The overall assessment of this mini-Winter ‘ritiro’ is more than positive.
Today’s game was a simple workout for us, also because our opponents didn’t field their starting lineup since they just played a difficult game in their home league this week. I would have preferred to play against the first-choice players, but at any rate the match was useful to get back into campionato mood. Why was I in the dugout, sitting down? It was really a friendly match, like I said.
Regarding our two different line-ups, our players know exactly what role they must cover, regardless of *who* steps onto the field. It was no different tonight. We tried alternative options such as Estigarribia at left-back and Pepe as an inside midfielder. Pirlo? He had some flu-like symptoms and we preferred not to risk a potential relapse.
Our primary objective was to immediately get back to a Serie A mode. This friendly permitted us to get our rhythm back. However, it will be different on Sunday in Lecce. We started watching video footage of our opponents today, and fortunately we are flying back to Italy immediately where we will try to resume the path that we started in 2011.
We have worked hard [during this Winter break] and managed to keep to the plan that we had set up. And we have also been surrounded by great displays of affection. Tonight at the stadium the fans even sang the chants that we usually hear in Italy. This must make us aware that Juve are loved all over the world. It needs to be an added incentive for us to give our maximum in every game – starting from Sunday.