Gonzalo Higuain, Juve hope to carry exceptional play to Champions League
The world is in love. Gliding across the pitch, linking play and delivering perfect passes forward, Gonzalo Higuain not only scored a brace to defeat AC Milan but produced a performance that proved so outstanding, analysts can't stop discussing it.
Milan manager Vincenzo Montella quipped that not every side can boast a Higuain when asked to analyse his side's defeat. Calciomercato's analytical piece of the Milan vs. Juve match sought answers on why Milan thought it appropriate to spend money on mediocrity rather than a large sum on world-class talent such as Higuain, while one newspaper described the striker's performance as the best he's ever had in a Bianconeri jersey.
Higuain was glorious. He performed as a €90 million striker should, creating and scoring and moving across the pitch intelligently, which begs the question, why did Juventus have to wait until now for this type of performance? Why is a player who is evidently capable of so much take so long to produce displays worthy not only of €90m but the applause of so many of his fiercest critics?
Massimiliano Allegri has perhaps struggled at times to bring out the best version of Higuain but meant business when he benched the striker in the Derby della Mole -- he was demanding more. The Argentine boasts so much talent and marvelled both at Real Madrid and Napoli. While Higuain has produced for Juventus, this season he's proved disappointing.
Rarely in great physical condition, Higuain has proved especially slow in his reactions, frustrated and off-balance in the early stage of the season. To his credit, he always tries and has still managed goals and good play, but for many of us, including this blog, we began to question if he was capable of more and if he could do more.
Evidently, he can and as Corriere dello Sport writes, the player sought to react to his various exclusions by club and country by returning to his best. That meant harder training sessions and change of diet, making the most of the international break to train with intensity and lose a little weight.
In recent games, we have seen a more determined Higuain, a hard-working presence sacrificing for his team. But he was spectacular against the Rossoneri.
Credit to Allegri for handling the player delicately, ensuring that Higuain maintained his confidence during the tough times but demanding even more of him after his performance against Milan. Higuain is known to rest on his laurels when he's doing well, so Allegri asked the forward in his post-match conference to not only maintain this shape, but improve upon it.
There is always a point with Allegri when his sides begin to click. Juventus are not there yet simply because he's still working on concocting the perfect game plan to extol the virtues of all his new signings, but the victory at Milan was as much his as it was Higuain's.
Allegri truly prepared his men for this match mentally and tactically. Noting Milan's overreliance on Suso's creativity, Allegri neutralised his strengths by asking Mario Mandzukic and Kwadwo Asamoah to sacrifice themselves for the cause. Sami Khedira dropped back seamlessly into empty space to block Milan while Juan Cuadrado, Paulo Dybala and, of course, Higuain did their magic going forward, with Colombia international Cuadrado paying particular attention to his defensive duties.
Juventus played as a professional unit, defending as a team to keep a clean sheet while producing the maturity required to handle various moments of the game, suffering when need be. They must continue to play like this until Allegri integrates the new signings, who are developing well to create a more enterprising but balanced side.
With Juve keeping pace in Serie A, it's time to turn their attention to Sporting CP in the Champions League. A defeat for the Portuguese side means they cannot progress to the next round of the competition, so they will be determined to produce a strong display. The Old Lady has already witnessed the strengths of their opponent.
Sporting boast a strong defence and will have the impetus to push in attack while playing at home in front of their fans -- especially considering the weaknesses of Juve's fragile back-line. As such, it's vital the Italians work as a unit as they did against Milan and for players such as Khedira to plug gaps and block the spaces to make life difficult for opposing attackers; especially Gelson Martins, who knows how to create problems.
While the team almost picks itself, Allegri has to resolve the right-back issue. Mattia De Sciglio has been called up, but it remains to be seen if he's ready to start. If not, then Allegri will either ask Stefano Sturaro to reprise his new-found role as a right-back or ask Cuadrado to be a defender for the day. If the last option is chosen, then it's likely Federico Bernardeschi or Douglas Costa will play ahead of him, but Mandzukic might be asked to play on the right to offer Cuadrado defensive support.
A player who embodies the spirit of sacrifice and a true professional, Allegri insisted upon the need for Mandzukic's presence in such games, for he inspires the fighting mentality and is always generous in his play. His experience will be required. While the defence needs to prove solid -- especially in such a big test -- the onus is on Dybala and Higuain to score the goals Juventus need to guarantee their journey forward in this competition.
Mina Rzouki covers Juventus and the Italian national team for ESPN FC. Follow her on Twitter: @Minarzouki.