While the news of Claudio Ranieri’s departure from Leicester City has taken most of the headlines over the last week, you’d almost forget that the first leg of the last 16 in the Champions League took place too. We’ve now seen all 16 teams that are left in Europe’s elite competition, and while Bayern Munich, PSG, and Manchester City looked very impressive in their dominance, it was a relatively underwhelming performance from Juventus in Portugal that caught my eye.
Massimiliano Allegri has assembled quite the side at Juventus, signing Dani Alves on a free from Barcelona seems like smart business; the 33 year old experienced defender hasn’t been a regular starter for The Old Lady, but has provided some much needed back-up for regular right back Stephan Lichtsteiner. On the other side, Alex Sandro and Kwadwo Asamoah have been interchangeable at left back, with Sandro being the first choice. At centre back, Leonardo Bonucci, Medhi Benatia, Georgio Chielini, and 35 year old Andrea Barzagli, have all played at some stage. These defenders play in front of possibly the greatest goalkeeper of the last 20 years, Gigi Buffon. At 39, Buffon seems to be getting better with age; his experience in organising his back four is vital, and he is still fit and agile enough to provide the match winning saves if he is called on. Sami Khedira, Marko Pjaca, Juan Cuadrado, Miralem Pjanic, and Mario Lemina have all come in to strengthen their midfield after the departures in recent seasons of Andrea Pirlo, Artura Vidal and Paul Pogba. Gonzalo Higuain and Mario Mandzukic have joined in attack, and alongside Paulo Dybala, have contributed 31 league goals, with Higuain getting 19. The Argentinian striker came to the club with a big price tag, but he has more than justified it with his goals, even if his pre-season physique didn’t strike much fear into opposition.
What has impressed me so much is their team work. The new players have bought into the manager’s ideas, and along with the existing players, have set about their business with a killer instinct that the club has become used to over the last five seasons. Antonio Conte started this run of league wins in 2012, and it’s been continued with a dominance that is rare in Italy. Apart from the Inter side in the mid 2000’s, no team has won five league titles in a row since the second World War. No team has ever won 6 titles in a row in Italy’s top division, and with The Old Lady sitting seven points clear with 13 games left, it’s safe to say that this particular record will be broken by Allegri’s team. With Napoli visiting the Juventus Stadium during the week in the Coppa Italia, and a quarter final of the Champions League within their grasp, it is with a quiet confidence that I can see a potential treble in their season.
So, making predictions on The Football Huddle isn’t exactly my forte (you can see my Getting Bling statistics for that), but Juventus look a very good bet indeed. As was proven in Paris, no longer are teams able to rely on magic from a top player to get you through the rounds. When it gets to the business end of the season, the best teams will always prevail. PSG emerged as contenders after demolishing Barcelona in the first leg, Bayern Munich succeeded in their customary dismantling of Arsenal, and Atletico Madrid look to have done enough in Leverkusen. Although Real Madrid had a good win over Napoli, and Manchester City beat Monaco, there is still work to be done for both those sides in the second leg — I wouldn’t be surprised to see Monaco give City a scare, and maybe even do enough to knock them out. With the other ties on a knife edge, Dortmund losing at Benfica, and Sevilla beating Leicester in two very strange ties for different reasons. Dortmund seemed to be the better side in Portugal, but got beaten. While Sevilla will be kicking themselves for not putting Leicester to the sword after dominating the English champions. Juventus went to Porto and won convincingly, with Dani Alves and Marko Pjaca coming off the bench to grab some important goals.
What makes Juventus a potential winner of the competition is their ability to win games in all kinds of ways. Winning at Sevilla and Lyon in the group stages is no easy task, but they did it. Home draws with them, and beating Dinamo Zagreb home and away, saw Juve top their group. They will be a match for any team in Europe, and believe me when I say that no team will want to play them. While they got knocked out in the last 16 last season at Bayern Munich, it was a game that they really shouldn’t have left behind. After drawing 2-2 in Italy in the first leg, Juventus were 2-0 up in Germany with only 20 minutes left. Unusually, the Italian side were unable to hold on and lost in extra time after Thomas Muller had equalised late on. That loss for Juventus will only spur them on for this season. While Bayern Munich are seen as the favourites, they are not the force they were a couple of seasons ago. Juventus will fancy their chances against anyone, and don’t be surprised if they go all the way. With match winners like Higuain and Dybala in their team, they can beat the likes of Madrid and PSG. Their defensive quality will mean that if they get Manchester City or Dortmund, they can go toe to toe with them. While those teams will give you chances, Juventus don’t give away chances too easily.
All in all, at 6/1, they seem a good bet to go all the way. Ironically, it is a team possibly more defensively sound that pose the biggest threat. Atletico Madrid are priced at 8/1, behind PSG at 7’s. The Spanish side have become a lot of fans’ second team in Europe. They also have the painful experience of losing two finals in recent years to their biggest rivals, Real Madrid. Under Diego Simeone, they have become a force to be reckoned with in Europe, and along with Juventus, they have built their success on a solid defence. It might not be the prettiest of finals, but I for one would love to see these two make it. Sometimes defence is overlooked to the detriment of success, just look at Manchester City and Barcelona for examples of that. If these two teams could make it to the final it would be on the back of a solid defence and that would be something that would be celebrated on The Football Huddle— well, by myself, at least.