As the winter break fast approaches there is no let up for Juventus as they prepare for what will be their eighth match in 26 days. While that run started with some incredibly tough fixtures, the Bianconeri have eased into a run of games against Serie A’s lesser lights and are boosted by the added focus Antonio Conte’s return will undoubtedly bring. Next up are mid-table Atalanta as the ‘Queen of the Provinces’ travel to Turin to face the grandest of old ladies.
It is a return to the past for Conte who led the Bergamaschi for nineteen games during the 2009-10 season in which they would ultimately be relegated. He would resign from his post in January of that campaign following a running feud with the Ultra of the Curva Nord and suffered a number of embarrassing losses including a 5-2 home defeat to Juventus which was arguably among the best performances of Ciro Ferrara’s tenure with the club.
Former Torino boss Stefano Colantuono now leads Serie A’s other Nerazzurri and, having finished twelfth last season, he has them as high as tenth this time around and playing some good football which will require Juve to apply themselves properly if they are to ensure a positive result. They will of course be helped by the mid-week Coppa Italia victory over Cagliari during which Conte was able to rest and rotate a number of key figures.
Colantuono has forged this Atalanta side into a real rarity on the peninsula, a side who attack directly and with much speed down the flanks. They possess some genuine quality in those wide areas thanks to Federico Peluso and Ezequiel Schelotto who both provide an accurate and steady stream of crosses for the dominant German Denis to feed on.
The striker has scored 22 goals in 51 games since joining the club from Udinese last August and has six goals to his name this term whilst also registering three assists. His biggest strength is in the air, winning an average of 3.8 aerial duels per game to help Atalanta be the second strongest team in this regard, trailing only Cagliari in an area where Juve struggle with only Pescara and Roma worse than the Bianconeri at winning headers.
But there is far more to this team than that and to underestimate them as some kind of Italian Stoke City would be to hugely misread the quality at Colantuono’s disposal, particularly in midfield. While Juve’s own M-V-P trio are arguably among the best units in world football, the Orobici boast a group of players more than able to hold their own in domestic action.
Luca Cigarini leads the way, averaging more passes per game than all but three players (Andrea Pirlo, Daniele Conti and David Pizarro) in the league and also ranks fifth in terms of chances created with 2.5 key passes per game. With Schelotto and Maxi Moralez also featuring, the Atalanta midfield can expect to challenge the home side on Sunday meaning Juventus will need to find players in other areas to step up and help.
Having named arguably his strongest line up against Palermo last week, Conte made seven changes for the Coppa Italia tie with Cagliari and, given a number of issues which have arisen since then, a number of those moves may prove to be hugely beneficial when Atalanta roll into town.
Chief among them is the first appearance in over a month for Italy Under 21 international Luca Marrone, now viewed as the first alternative in the middle of the back three. His intelligent positioning, reading of the game and passing accuracy make him perhaps the closest player in terms of skill and attributes to Leo Bonucci who will miss this match after picking up his eighth yellow card of the campaign for that dive against the Rosanero.
While not as serious as first feared, the injury sustained by Arturo Vidal in the cup game is also likely to see him miss out and another youngster – Paul Pogba – is expected to fill in for the Chilean midfielder. He has been hugely impressive since his summer switch and seems capable of providing cover for any of the first choice three in central midfield. Elsewhere it should be the usual suspects with Sebastian Giovinco likely to continue in attack following his match winner against the Sardinian side who Juve also face in league action next Friday.