Juventus will look to keep marching on against a plucky opponent that lost a lot recently but also have rarely been pushed around and are feisty at home.
Serie A Week 21 – Sunday 21 January 2024 – Juventus Stadium | Preview by Enrico Passarella
The Lecce season has had three separate stages already, which isn’t uncommon for a minnow. A scintillating start that fueled way too optimistic aspirations, a rapid regression to the mean, and a mild bounce-back where they treaded waters for a while and made some hay. They have lost three of the last four as they are in a truly brutal stretch of the schedule. They had to face Inter, Atalanta, and Lazio all on the road. They have been pretty competitive in each contest despite the results.
In the end, they are just above water with 21 points in 20 matchdays, which feels about right. They are on pace to make it to 40, which allows you to avoid relegation almost every time. More importantly for them, they have some cushion over the 17th-placed, although not a comfy one, and there are a bunch of teams in between. They have a few more challenging road matches coming up in the next month or so. It’ll be smooth sailing if they can grab a win here or there; otherwise, they’ll have to fight tooth and nail down the stretch. They are solid but not vastly superior to their foes and are above clubs that are more equipped than them on paper.
They’ll add some pieces, but the transfer market probably won’t help them much. The improvements will have to come from within. They had a major development in the past game, as Pontus Almqvist started looking like himself versus Lazio after missing two months. Lameck Banda will be back from AFCON at some point, and their attack will resume being relatively fearsome at that point.
Remi Oudin has been okay in every role, while Gabriel Strefezza, who was great in the past campaign, either didn’t hit it off with Roberto D’Aversa, suddenly lost motivation, or something happened behind the scenes because he has been a shell of himself. It’s a matter of traits too, as they play a lot more vertically now, and he’s a ball hog, in the good sense, and not a downhill runner like their other wingers. Still, considering how pivotal he was in previous seasons and his playmaking skills, the gaffer should have searched for ways to make it work a little harder.
They also need their strikers to get it going. Nenad Krstovic has been too wasteful and engulfed too often after filling his boots in his first few appearances. A correction was to be expected, but not a multi-month slump. If the Serb is not scoring, Roberto Piccoli brings more to the table with his intensity and physicality even though he’s not as talented.
The rest of the formation is rock-solid. Wladimiro Falcone is one of the most gifted goalies in the league, Federico Baschirotto and Marin Pongracic form a defensive duo even bigger teams would love having, fullbacks Valentin Gendrey and Antonino Gallo are energetic and serviceable in both phases, Ylber Ramadani has somehow replaced a true stud like Morten Hjulmand with no dropoff and for a very cheap sum, and they can toy with a few different iterations in the midfield.
Mohamed Kaba had the same trajectory as the team. He was great early, struggled for some time, probably because of a lingering minor injury, and returned to form as of late. He’s already a fine contributor and is going to become a very nice player, as he has an all-around toolbox and isn’t just a physical midfielder. The same goes for Joan Gonzalez, who’s more offensive-minded and less consistent. They are more interesting when Oudin or Hamza Rafia, who’s away for AFCON, plays as a creative box-to-box rather than in more attacking roles. They can go back to that solution with Almqvist and Nicola Sansone back from injury and the acquisition of Santiago Perotti.
Even though they have great specialists, they rarely just sit back and counter. They like to hold the ball and be proactive more than average low-table teams thanks to their adequate distributors. On the other hand, such a strategy doesn’t work properly if the attack doesn’t produce, and it has been meh for a long time. While they are stingy, they aren’t airtight in the back and can’t hope for a clean sheet every time.
Expected XI (4-3-3): Falcone; Gendrey, Baschirotto, Pongracic, Gallo; Kaba, Ramadani, Gonzalez; Oudin, Krstovic, Almqvist.
Doubts: Gonzalez/Strefezza, Krstovic/Piccoli.
Injury report: Sansone (calf strain) – Probable;
Dermaku (ACL tear) – Out.
Absences: Banda, Rafia, Touba (AFCON).
Juventus rediscovered some offensive joie the vivre in the laxer Coppa Italia fixtures, which carried over to Serie A play afterward. Or they simply needed Dusan Vlahovic to rise from the ashes, and Kenan Yildiz adding some spice, for their attack to come together and match the level of their defense. If their strikers can keep it up for a couple more months, and they surely should without major injuries, and their backline keeps containing the opponents at the present rate, then their title aspirations will look a lot less fluky and way more legit.
Eking it out in every game wasn’t sustainable; instead, stomping your authority is. They aren’t going to drop many points if they can score two or three goals in each game. Their frontline had never been whole or humming before the recent stretch, but it has a lot of firepower when all its members are doing their thing. It naturally opens up their conservative strategy as, even in most pragmatic days, their forwards have always had a decent enough amount of touches, complete freedom in the final third, and their defensive tasks have never been too burdensome.
Pace and feeds were the main problems, but they now have an electrifying and ultra-fast player on the pitch all the time since Yildiz is a perfect Chiesa deputy and spark plug off the bench. That wasn’t the case before the prodigy grabbed the spotlight. Their attack was stuck in mud every time the Italian attacker was either missing or bottled up. His trend of small injuries is starting to get a little worrisome.
Performances like the recent one against Sassuolo justify the frustration during Vlahovic’s dry spells because his technique is impeccable and his ceiling hasn’t lowered. Sometimes, he shoots himself in the foot by getting frustrated and stubborn too early or often, or the coach unnecessarily shackles him down by forcing him to play too much with the back to the goal and not in space. But his left foot is a threat from any position. The main thing for them is to keep him happy and engaged. Winning and scoring cure all aches.
Yildiz and Chiesa can definitely play together, either both wide or with the former playing as a no.10, but it’s probably too much to ask, considering where their offense was just a few rounds ago. Still, the coach should definitely work on it. It’s the only way for them to increase their level of dynamism and inventiveness when they need to score since it doesn’t look like they will bring in a creative midfielder despite losing Nicolò Fagioli and Paul Pogbe.
Their financial situation is probably even worse than imagined, and that’s the main reason behind their inactivity. While they are just deep enough to carry on with their current squad, their midfield is one big injury, especially to Adrien Rabiot or Manuel Locatelli, from collapsing. They’ll feel it in this game too without the Frenchman, who often more noticeable when he’s missing than when he’s present. They’d be rolling the dice without an addition. The justifications of not altering the group, modifying the hierarchies, and messing with what’s working are laughable. There are a lot of high-character guys that would fit right in and bolster them with no hassle or baggage. The issue is that they cost a pretty penny.
As they are currently constructed, a lot of the playmaking duties fall on just one or two men, and that’s risky. If they don’t sign anybody, they’ll have to hope those with room to grow do it in a hurry. Primarily Andrea Cambiaso, whose versatility is already essential, Timothy Weah, who has just scratched the surface, and Samuel Iling-Junior, who has ideal skills to be an energy bunny in multiple roles but for some reason finds himself in the coach’s doghouse more often than not. The veterans are who they are at this point.
It turns out that their defense just needed Danilo to be back in peak form to return to resume being superb, as he covers up for a lot of mistakes with his sneaky agility, on top of being a tremendous leader; plus, the competition wasn’t too fearsome in the last few weeks.
It’s a critical stretch for the Old Lady. The upcoming schedule is pretty favorable, and getting to the Inter bout in a month in front, even if only virtually with a game in hand, would be a mental advantage of incalculable worth that could rock the Nerazzurri’s certainties. It’s not a decisive time yet, but we’re getting close. They’ll become the favorites if they don’t mess about in the next three winnable matches and somehow win the head-to-head clash.
Expected XI (3-5-2): Szczesny; Gatti, Bremer, Danilo; Cambiaso, McKennie, Locatelli, Miretti, Kostic; Vlahovic, Yildiz.
Doubts: Miretti/Nicolussi Caviglia, Kostic/Weah.
Injury Report: Chiesa (knee bruise), Rabiot (calf injury), Kean (fibula injury), De Sciglio (ACL tear) – OUT
Suspensions: Fagioli, Pogba.
Juventus Win – Over 2.5 Goals