Juventus can wrap up first place in Group H of the Champions League with two matches to spare if they can complete a home-and-home sweep of Manchester United on Wednesday in Italy.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
The Bianconeri have a 100 percent rate through the first three group matches and are five points clear of closest pursuers Manchester United (1-1-1), who are on four points and two ahead of Valencia for second.
Juventus took command of the group with a convincing 1-0 victory at Old Trafford a fortnight ago, riding a 17th-minute goal by Paulo Dybala as the Italian side controlled most of the match by subduing United’s offence and controlling possession for more than 60 percent of the match.
The victory started a current three-match win streak for Juve, who have yet to lose in 14 matches across all competitions (13-1-0) and are one of two unbeaten clubs left in the top five European leagues along with German side Borussia Dortmund. Technically, Chelsea have not lost a match but did begin their season with a loss to Manchester City in England’s traditional Community Shield opener.
Juventus remained six points clear of Inter Milan and Napoli in Serie A with a 3-1 victory over Cagliari on Saturday. Dybala opened the scoring just 43 seconds into the match, and after Juve allowed an equaliser, they were gifted an own goal by Cagliari midfielder Filip Bradaric in the 38th minute that restored their one-goal advantage.
Cristiano Ronaldo, who was honoured for scoring his 400th club goal in Europe before the match, set up Juan Cuadrado’s insurance marker on 87 minutes. While Ronaldo leads Juve in scoring with seven goals in all competitions — they have all come in Serie A matches — Dybala has done his damage in Champions League, where he has netted four of his six goals. Five of the Argentina’s last six shots that have been on target have ended in the back of the net.
“I’m happy we got all three points tonight and that’s all that matters,” Cuadrado told Juve’s official website. “We’re not setting any limits. We want to improve every with game. We know that’s what we have to do if we want to grow as a team.”
Juventus’ side Saturday looked fairly similar to the first XI who played at Old Trafford. There were three exceptions with left-side defenders Mehdi Benatia and Mattia De Sciglio starting in the place of Giorgio Chiellini and Alex Sandro, while Douglas Costa started up front over Cuadrado, who entered Saturday’s match at halftime when Costa was sidelined with an adductor injury.
Another injury concern for Juve is midfielder Blaise Matuidi, who came off late over the weekend with a hip problem. Mario Mandzukic, who missed the match at Old Trafford with an ankle injury suffered right before the contest, is not likely to play, though he has been practicing.
Manchester United kicked off a hectic week heading into the international break by rallying for a 2-1 victory at Bournemouth to move into seventh place in the Premier League behind the Cherries on goal difference. Marcus Rashford was able to corral a cross from Paul Pogba just above the six-yard box and beat Asmir Begovic in the 92nd minute for the match-winner.
The victory, though hid a lot of blemishes for Jose Mourinho’s side, who were nearly run out of Dean Court in the first half-hour as Bournemouth set a torrid pace and took the lead inside the first quarter-hour. David De Gea, as he has done so many times already this season, kept the deficit manageable with some timely saves before Anthony Martial, continued his purple patch of scoring with an equaliser before the interval. It was his fourth goal in five matches across all competitions.
“It wasn’t just the start [that was bad], it was all of the first half. At half time, I thought I was the luckiest manager in the Premier League, to be at 1-1 in a half in which it should be 5-2 or 6-2 [to Bournemouth],” Mourinho said post-match. “We were really lucky because we were really poor. Defensively awful, absolutely awful, and when I say defensively, I don’t just look to my defenders but to the whole team as a team. We didn’t start pressing up, the work we did during the week. I felt like people watching this game don’t believe how hard we have worked this week, our pressure on this opponent in the first half was a disaster.
“Then, in the second half, it was exactly the opposite. We created a lot of chances, we pressed higher, with much more aggression, intensity and intention. We created lots of chances, we deserved to score before the 92nd minute. In the end, we got the goal which gave us the important points.”
Mourinho must choose among Martial, Rashford, Alexis Sanchez and Juan Mata among his attacking front three since Romelu Lukaku is not likely to be available for this match. The Belgium international, who was dropped from the starting XI in United’s win over Everton and has gone nine matches without a goal, was a late scratch at Bournemouth due to a muscle strain suffered in training.
Sanchez made his first start since United’s scoreless draw against Valencia more than a month ago. Mourinho’s high-pressure week concludes Sunday with the Manchester derby at the Etihad against reigning champions City, who are 10 points clear of United through 11 league matches.
Captain Nemanja Matic caused a stir ahead of the match when he announced he would continue to not wear the poppy, which was worn by Premier League teams last weekend and throughout this week ahead of Remembrance Sunday, which also marks the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.
Matic, a native of Yugsolavia who did not wear the poppy in the victory at Bournemouth, said in a social media post the poppy “is only a reminder of an attack that I felt personally as a frightened 12-year- old boy living in Vrelo, as my country was devastated by the bombing of Serbia in 1999. I do not want to undermine the poppy as a symbol of pride or offend anyone; however, we are all a product of our own upbringing and this is a personal choice for the reasons outlined.”
Per Ladbrokes, Juventus are decided favourites to retain their 100 percent record as they are installed as 4/7 favourites. Manchester United are 5/1 underdogs to win their second road match in group play. The odds of the teams splitting the points are 14/5, a result which would keep United on the inside track for second place in the group.
Juve have 8/5 favourites to win with more than 2.5 goals scored, but a 2-0 or 1-0 scoreline is not far off with 5/2 odds. A draw that finished with no goals or two has 18/5 odds, while a United victory on either side of the 2.5 threshold offers 10/1 odds.
Ronaldo leads the way for first-goal options at 3/1, narrowly ahead of reverse fixture scorer Dybala (4/1) and Mandzukic (4/1). All told, eight Juve players are listed before scanning down the toteboard to find Lukaku as the top United option at 9/1, but even he is below the “no goal-scorer” choice at 8/1.
Ronaldo is an almost even-money pick to bag a goal over the course of 90 minutes at 11/10, with Dybala (7/5) narrowly edging out Mandzukic (6/4) for second. Federico Bernardschi and Douglas Costa are 2/1 and 23/10, respectively, with Lukaku again United’s top option at 3/1. Rashford and Martial lag just behind the Belgian at 10/3 and 7/2, respectively.
After the 1-0 loss at Old Trafford, Mourinho pretty much conceded the group to Juventus, and as The Times reported, said “we knew when the draw was made that we’d be fighting Valencia for second place in the group.”
So even though United played one of their more impressive 45 minutes of the season at Bournemouth to overturn a deficit — though it came after a half-hour of insipid play — everyone knows what’s coming to Turin.
The bus. And not just any bus. It’s going to be one of those big, shiny double-deckers that England made famous as United look to strangle this match for a point before deciding if they have enough to try a smash-and-grab raid in the final quarter-hour if things go according to plan. In theory, this is not an unwise maneuver since Mourinho has seen his side play a full 90-minute match so few times this term.
Add in a lead striker in Lukaku who is both injured and currently ineffective, and you have the makings of a 4-3-3 that could very well morph into a 4-1-4-1 set-up in which Matic shields the back four and Sanchez will be left to his industry up front to try and find a moment of magic. It also means Juan Mata likely retains his spot on the right wing and Rashford comes off the bench, though Ander Herrera could be a lively insertion into the midfield with Pogba after a solid effort off the bench versus Bournemouth.
The biggest problem with this is Juventus have pace to burn on the flanks, whether it be right back Joao Cancelo bombing forward or Ronaldo using his still staggering straight-line speed to give defenders nightmares and twist Ashley Young into a pretzel. He and Dybala have a very underrated comprehension of playing off each other and are not locked into fix areas of space in the final third. That is how Dybala got his goal at Old Trafford, and without De Gea’s quality, there would have been more.
United are still a mess at times in front of De Gea, evidenced by the first half against Bournemouth. But this is also the type of match that makes Mourinho, well, Mourinho. There is a reason United have conceded just four times in their last 10 European away matches. And given they go right from one high-powered club in Juve to another in their eternal rivals City this weekend, the whiteboard and drilling for these two contests probably started at least a month ago.
Juve are likely going to have more than the 60 percent possession they enjoyed at Old Trafford, the issue is where United cede it to them. Lindelof and Smalling must be massive for this defence-first strategy to work, and too many times it has failed to deliver. The resiliency United have shown after getting punched in the mouth has been impressive, but one wonders if they have taken too many shots in recent weeks to recover from a haymaker from a quality foe.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Juventus 2, Manchester United 0.