With qualification for the quarter finals of the Champions League secured with relative ease on Wednesday night, Juventus have been enjoying quite a bit of positive media coverage, earning plaudits from many sides (unless, of course, you live in Denmark, where Bendtner’s bender has been the only story all week). Some even go as far as suggesting Juve as a dark horse for the European title, which – even if it seems a bit much based on the Celtic tie – is a great compliment and a sign that Conte’s work is finally being recognised internationally.
However, after every midweek CL triumph comes another weekend with its customary crucial Serie A encounter. This time, the Sicilian Elephants of Catania enter the ring, determined to try and upset the Champs – and while such a game might historically signal an easy warm-down exercise for the Bianconeri, it may prove to be a sterner test this time around.
While Catania is not the most storied of calcio teams, the last two seasons have seen them overtake not only their local rivals from Palermo, but a staggering amount of other clubs as well, as the positive cycle started by Vincenzo Montella before he was snatched up by Fiorentina this summer, has been carried on by new coach Rolando Maran to such an extend that the rossazzuri are presently sat in eight place with deserved, if reluctantly admitted, ambitions of competing for the European places.
The Champions League game of course will have taken its toll some way or other, but the convincing manner of the win and the rest afforded key players means that this time the effects of the midweek adventure should be less felt than on previous occasions.
That being said, Antonio Conte will be well aware that games such as this one always present physical as well as a mental challenges for a team still adjusting to the impact of European games.
The Bianconeri witnessed first hand the beginning progress made by Maran’s men earlier in the season: In the reverse fixture in Sicily, it’s fair to say that the home side didn’t exactly benefit from any home advantage as refereeing was concerned; you may remember the, shall we say, less than competent decisions in that game and the furore they caused…
For my part, I will forever remember that match for very different reasons, as I watched said game in the great company of Mike, Vittorio and Cheryl among (very few) others at God knows when in the morning in a New York City preparing for Super Storm Sandy, which my family and I narrowly escaped from some 15 hours later, like Luke’s X-wing out of an exploding Death Star (pardon the imagery). But I digress…
Apart from the suspended Vidal, for whom Paul Pogba will deputise, and injuries to fringe players Anelka, De Ceglie and Caceres (joining long term absentees Pepe and Bendtner), Antonio Conte will have a full squad to choose from against Catania.
Giorgio Chiellini looks set to be back in defence, Claudio Marchisio re-enters central midfield after being rested on Wednesday along with Stephan Lichtsteiner and Kwadwo Asamoah, who are expected to be given the wing-back spots. Despite the great performances from Quagliarella and Matri vs. Celtic, La Gazzetta suggests that Mirko Vucinic and Sebastian Giovinco will be back leading the line for Juve, continuing the trend of extreme rotation among the attackers.
Last week’s defeat to Inter was a bitter pill to swallow for the Isolani, as most thought their impressive home record (they had only previously lost to Juve and Milan at the Massimino) was to stand, given that the Elephants took a two-goal lead early on. But alas, a Carew-less Inter managed to overturn the game completely in the second half, winning 3-2 in injury time.
While their home record did take a slight dent on that occasion, what is of more concern to the Banconeri is that their hitherto abysmal away record has improved markedly of late: of the 13 points Catania have amassed all season, the ten have been gathered over their last six away trips. And though you might say that the backdrop has been cheap all things considered, Gli Elefanti will have taken heart from the fact that they now seem to be able to compete away from home too.
As has been tradition for a while now, Catania rely heavily on a big contingent of Argentinian players, which, starting from goalkeeper Andujar (who always seems to be at his best against Juve – do Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before) provides the spine of the team, with the able assistance of a couple of talented Italians.
One of those, our fondly remembered and ferociously reborn “fratello”, Nicolá Legrottaglie, will sadly be suspended for this match, while another one, provinciale wonder Francesco Lodi, equally sadly, but for other reasons entirely, will not be.
Francesco Lodi is ever a handful, and ranks among the finest set-piece takers on the peninsula. Silencing him will be key to keeping the Etnei from erupting up north, as would keeping Alejandro Gómez and Pablo Barrientos from creating the havoc they are at times capable of behind and around top scorer Bergessio normally be. The latter two are reportedly out injured for the Juve match, though, which could see Maran return to the 3-5-2 formation he used against Juve back in October as well, even if he normally prefers a 4-3-3/4-2-3-1. Such a shift would also increase the likelihood of ex-Juventus player Sergio Almirón facing his former club.
Like with the proverbial “elephant in the room”, ignoring the good form of Catania would be folly. Juventus should, however, confront the Elefanti in their stadium head-on and hope that a strong start will have the rossazzurri raving like their name-sakes are said to do in porcelain shops. With a very strong line-up available and midweek fall-out at a minimum, there is no excuse not to go for the kill early, making sure that a convincing lead in the league is preserved.
Personally, I would like to see Quagliarella and Matri given a new chance as starting front duo, but seemingly the Mister does not agree. Conte even kept both of them on for the full 90 minutes against Celtic (By the way, has he ever ended a game with the same striking partnership that started it before? Answers below, please!). That said, the quality depth of this team is becoming obvious, and should Juventus get the three points on Sunday, it will be yet another proof that the coach is managing his squad excellently.