10 March 2016
Setting the scene
Where better to kick off the weekend than at Juventus Stadium for the Bianconeri’s first home Friday fixture of the season tomorrow night? Furthermore, who better to provide the entertainment than Juventus and Sassuolo – two of Serie A’s most in-form sides, on a combined 23-match unbeaten run in the league?
On the subject of consistency, Juve have undoubtedly been in a class of their own since a 1-0 loss to the Neroverdi at the Mapei Stadium back in October.
With many pointing to that disappointing defeat in Reggio Emilia as the turning point in the champions’ campaign, Massimiliano Allegri’s men have gone on to collect 52 points from a possible 54 in the ensuing 18 matches to chase down, draw level with and eventually overtake Napoli at the top of the standings.
Putting such a run together naturally entails an impressive home record and indeed, victory for the hosts on Friday evening would be their 11th in a row in Turin.
As it happens, no one has conceded fewer goals on home turf than Allegri’s charges this term (six) nor can come close to rivalling their run of nine consecutive clean sheets in the league, one short of an all-time Serie A record.
On the other side of the fence, victory over the Bianconeri in mid-autumn was the first of numerous signs that Eusebio Di Francesco’s Sassuolo are a side on a rapid upward trajectory of their own.
Consecutive successes over Empoli (3-2), Lazio (2-0) and Milan (2-0) have launched the Neroverdi into seventh – a 12-point improvement on their tally at the same stage of the 2014/15 season – just three short of the Rossoneri who currently occupy the third and final Europa League qualification place.
What’s more, inspired by the counter-attacking menace and directness of wingers Domenico Berardi and Nicola Sansone - the scorer of a fine winning goal when the two teams last met - Di Francesco’s men have travelled rather well so far this year and will arrive at Juventus Stadium on the back of just one away defeat in their last seven.
A brief history: so far, so good
The Bianconeri have a superior overall record against tomorrow night’s visitors, winning three and drawing one of their previous five encounters.
Juve have been especially dominant on home turf. While they required a moment of Paul Pogba brilliance eight minutes from time to clinch the three points in last season’s tussle almost a year to the day, the previous season’s meeting in Turin was far more comfortable, Carlos Tevez’s hat-trick setting the Old Lady on her way to a resounding 4-0 victory.
As it stands, a Sassuolo goal would not only be the first to hit the Juventus net since the middle of January, but also the Neroverdi’s maiden strike at the home of the league leaders in their brief two-and-a-half year top-flight history.
With Martin Caceres and Giorgio Chiellini – who it is hoped will be in line to return for Wednesday’s Champions League clash with Bayern Munich – as the only absentees, Allegri will have a practically full squad to choose from on Friday evening as his team shape up for their ninth match in 37 days.
On the disciplinary front however, Alex Sandro, Leonardo Bonucci, Hernanes, Alvaro Morata, Paul Pogba and Stefano Sturaro are only one booking away from suspension.
Di Francesco on the other hand will need to find a way of filling the gap left by target man Gregoire Defrel, sent off for two bookable offences against Milan last weekend. The likes of Paolo Cannavaro, Karim Laribi and Simone Missiroli are all set to miss out through injury.
Key man, rather... men
Even without Defrel, who has scored four in five games, the Reggio Emilians still have the potential to cause concern for the division’s sturdiest defence.
Central to the Reggio Emilians’ sterling showings this season has been the interplay, energy and attacking interventions of wingers Sansone and Berardi who, together, have contributed to eight of their side’s goals (four strikes, four assists) in their last four league matches.
Often deployed either side of the suspended Defrel, the speed with which the Italian wide forwards allow Sassuolo to shift from defence to attack is a key pillar of Di Francesco’s hard-running, high intensity gameplan.
Sansone and Berardi’s role in the system is clearly demonstrated by the frequency with which the pair switch the ball from one side to the other and the areas of the field where the latter takes most of his touches.
Once possession is turned over in their favour, the Neroverdi often look immediately right for Berardi whose control, dribbling and positioning occupy defences while the fleet-footed Sansone sprints up in support, stretching the play and giving the team’s defence and midfield time to advance up the pitch.
Supplying an extra layer to the attack is Croatian wing-back Sime Vrsaljko who has attempted (161) and completed (38) more crosses than any other player in the division.
Whether it is Alex Sandro, Patrice Evra, Stephan Lichsteiner or Juan Cuadrado who is tasked with marshalling the Juventus flanks on Friday night, they will need to be at their very best to keep Di Francesco’s flying frontmen quiet.