The last month has been a stressful one. Juventus have had two different assistant coaches on the bench, endured disappointing defeats to archrivals Milan and Inter, and in general, have had to deal with an incredible amount of tough fixtures in a very short period of time.
It hasn’t all been smooth, but coming out on the end, Juventus have certainly passed the test. The team did lose a few games, but the club rides into mid-December finishing 1st in both the Champion’s League group as well as in the league. The Old Lady has claimed some impressive scalps, crushing both Chelsea and Torino by a 3-0 margin, as well as a solid 1-0 victory away in Ukraine. Europe has been put on notice.
The next few weeks will be a bit of a breather. With the Champion’s League on a temporary hiatus, the club only has league and Coppa Italia matches to contend; the latter unquestionably involve less of the Starting XI and are more a chance for the secondary figures to claim a starting shirt.
The first match after the Champion’s League break is a trip this weekend down to Sicily to take on Palermo, and most notably, it will feature the return of Antonio Conte to the Juventus bench. The Lecce-born tactician has endured a very difficult couple of months, being banned for an offense he most certainly did not commit. (Tellingly, one charge was completely removed and his assistant coach’s ban shortened even more!) Juventus fans will be eager to see the great man back on the bench this weekened.
Palermo have been chosen as the unfortunate team to face Conte on his return. The Rosanero are enduring yet another “typical” Maurizio Zamparini season. Last year, the fiery owner sacked Stefano Pioli before the season even started. This year, Giuseppe Sannino, the man who successfully followed Conte at Siena, was given about a month of league matches before Zamparini decided he’d seen enough. Sannino was fired in mid-September.
The sacked Rosanero coach did well at Siena with a very mediocre squad. His team defended superbly and played tactical football as a unit. Some might say it was a tad negative at times, but there’s no question Sannino did great with what was at his disposal.
In somewhat of a 180 degree turn, Zamparini replaced Sannino with Gian Piero Gasperini, the man whos’ Inter tenure infamously failed to yield a single victory. He made his name at Genoa, coaching young talent and playing attractive football, but his sides were always prone to mistakes, mental weakness, and poor defense. It makes little sense to replace a tactical coach with a man who could almost be considered Zeman-lite, but little of Zamparini’s choices ever make rational sense.
Unfortunately for Palermo, they have not exactly enjoyed the typical post-sacking boost that often occurs as the result of a new coach. Gasperini has certainly made improvements since his appointment in Sicily, but the Rosanero are still floundering near the bottom of the table. It will certainly take time for the club to transition from Sannino’s ideals to Gasperini’s attack-minded play, but no one knows if Palermo has enough time, or if Zamparini will be patient enough.
The Sicilians recent form is mixed at best. There are hints of positive play, but calcio is a results-based business, and the results have not been average. The team has defeated Sampdoria and island rivals Catania in the last few weeks, but were destroyed by Bologna and lost narrowly to Inter last weekend. The form is decidedly mixed.
Juventus ride into this match on quite a bit of an emotional high. In one week, the club has defeated local rivals Torino 3-0, qualified for the knockout stages with an exciting 1-0 victory in Ukraine, and of course, will welcome Antonio Conte back to the bench for Palermo.
The fixture congestion in recent weeks has certainly resulted in a bit of fatigue among the squad players, either mental or physical. There have been a bit of rotation here and there, but more often than not it’s been forced by suspension, like Marchisio’s absence in Ukraine. Indeed, GIovinco will miss the Palermo match due to yellow card accumulation.
In general, our reserves have proven themselves in the absence of the first team. Fabio Quagliarella started the season either 4th or 5th choice, but has moved up the pecking order thanks to his goals. (and the lack thereof from Matri and Bendtner) Paul Pogba has seen a decent amount of playing time in midfield, rotating in for any one of Pirlo, Marchisio, or Vidal. Giaccherini has slowly popped back into the lineup, though his performances have been rather workmanlike.
There hasn’t been the same rotation in defense. Isla has seen a bit of playing time in a rotation with Lichtsteiner, but Caceres, De Ceglie, Marrone, and a former Interista have seen little playing time. It has been significant enough that the latter may depart in January, much to the disappointment of Juventus fans everywhere (sarcasm, of course) while Luca Marrone’s agent has been talking up a loan spell to get more playing time.
There will be a bit of rotation this weekend. Chiellini battled like a gladiator against Shakthar Donetsk, but nearly subbed off in the first half complaining of a calf injury. Leonardo Bonucci also has dealt off-and-on with a knock, but is more likely to play than Keyser Giorgio. Should Chiellini fail to make it, Caceres will likely be chosen in his place. The wingbacks may see a bit of rotation as well- Conte has rotated Isla with Lichtsteiner a fair amount (though Isla is injured), and the Swiss fullback battled long and hard earlier this week. Asamoah also did quite a bit of running, and so De Ceglie may be offered another spot.
Midfield may see a bit of rotation. Marchisio will return to the lineup having sat out the trip to Ukraine due to suspension. It’s possible one of Pirlo or Vidal will receive a break; both played excellent in the midweek match, but it was an energy sapping game. Vidal in particular was all over the pitch, tackling and recovering the ball and looked exhausted as the game wore on. Paul Pogba did well in Marchisio’s absence, and will probably step in for one of the other duo to give them a rest.
In attack, it’s somewhat easy to predict. The team has rotated constantly between the strikers, mostly due to everyone fading in and out of form, but this week’s selection is rather forced. Giovinco has been suspended due to yellow card accumulation, and Bendtner is “injured” with an abdominal strain. Conte will have to select between Vucinic, Matri, and Quagliarella.
Mirko Vucinic has spent much of the fall with niggling injuries, and it’s weighed on his form. He has not scored since a penalty kick against Genoa in mid-September, and he has looked rather poor in most games since. The Montenegrin provided assists in the Torino derby as well as a very positive display in the Champion’s League, and Conte is an admirer. Pencil him in for a starting shirt.
The second could really go to either. On form, it’d likely be Quagliarella, but Conte might give a starting shot to Matri in a further attempt to rejuvenate the man who is a shadow of himself a year ago. Neither player seems to do particularly well when partnered with Vucinic and thus I’d like to see Quagliamatri get another shot, but it probably won’t happen. A Vucinic-Quagliarella seems the most likely pairing.
In the post-Calciopoli era, Palermo was a thorn in Juve’s side. The Rosanero always presented a challenge to the Bianconeri, defeating Juventus on several occasions both in Sicily and Turin. In the last two years, however, Palermo has declined, and so has the intensity of the matches against Juventus. Gone are the days of Pastore, Cassani, and Amauri, and Miccoli has looked subdued in recent Juventus-Palermo matches compared to the grudge-fueled dynamic displays of the past.
In the past, due to Juve’s performances under Ranieri, Delneri, and Zaccherrara as well as the talented, energetic Palermo sides, this is a match that would give me significant apprehension. Those days appear to be gone, and while far from a finished affair, this match should finish with 3 points for Juventus.
Frankly, Palermo is not a very good team. They are not well organized, and Juve’s tactical discipline and possession-based play should see the team through in Antonio Conte’s return to the bench.