Only victory will do for hosts Juventus on Wednesday night if they are to snatch top spot off resurgent rivals Barcelona in this enticing Champions League clash.
The sides also met in 2016/17’s quarter-finals and here we look at three key battles for what is sure to be another premier match-up.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI V LUIS SUAREZ
Competition does not get much fiercer than when this pair meet.
Infamously, Suarez received a four-month ban from all football-related activity after taking a bite out of Chiellini when Uruguay met Italy at World Cup 2014. But, all differences were soon set aside.
The striker – who has been stymied by a knee injury – received a welcome shot of confidence during the weekend’s La Liga win at Leganes, scoring twice to end a five-match streak without a goal. A return of his trademark sharpness could tip the balance in Barca’s favour, with centre-back-warrior Chiellini now part of a surprisingly-porous backline which has leaked 44 goals in all competitions in 2017/18 compared to 37 after 18 games of the previous campaign.
BLAISE MATUIDI V SERGIO BUSQUETS
Whichever side gains a foothold in midfield will surely go on to dominate this contest.
In France and Juve’s Blaise Matuidi and Spain and Barcelona’s Sergio Busquets, two of the finest defensive midfelders of the last decade will be in action at Juventus Stadium.
The latter has clear advantage coming into this clash when judging the statistics. Busquet is averaging three tackles per game in the current Champions League compared to Matuidi’s 0.5, while his average passing accuracy of 92.5 per cent is noticeably superior to his opponent’s 87.5 per cent.
If these trends continue in Turin, Argentina icon Lionel Messi and Suarez should gain room to run riot.
PAULO DYBALA V GERARD PIQUE
A genuine test of Dybala’s big-game reputation lies in store.
Dybala’s star accelerated on its ascent in last year’s quarter-finals when he tormented Pique and his fellow defenders with a brace in the first leg’s 3-0 thrashing. But despite his unbelievable personal start to 2017/18, which featured 12 strikes in his opening 10 run-outs in all competitions, the Argentina forward was eerily quiet at Camp Nou in September when Barca gained partial revenge with their own 3-0 humbling to take control of Group D.
Pique is back from suspension and will form a formidable blockade with dynamic France centre-back Samuel Umtiti. For Dybala to succeed, he will need to get the former in open space and use his rapid dribbling skills to telling effect – such as Sunday’s consolation in the shock 3-2 loss to Sampdoria.
Here we look at three key questions ahead of the fixture in Turin.
WILL BARCA FINALLY PAY FOR THEIR CARELESSNESS?
There is an antithesis between Barca’s performances and results but despite the unremarkable nature of their campaign so far, they stand top of La Liga and a point away from progression to the Champions League knockouts.
Indeed, Ernesto Valverde’s side have been regularly outplayed by smaller opposition this season and yet they are unbeaten in their last 17 games with 12 clean sheets in that run.
Valverde has certainly added an edge of defensive rigour while Lionel Messi‘s genius has unlocked opposition backlines but in between the two lines the midfield has been vapid.
Careless in possession, Barca have lacked their usual stranglehold and against more elite sides like Juve they will be punished properly.
What was once a clear source of strength has become a weakness for the Blaugrana and their creation of high-value chances has dipped.
Given their record in Turin – they’ve lost three and drawn twice – Valverde will need the likes of Ivan Rakitic and Andres Iniesta to step up.
IS TER STEGEN RIVALlING BUFFON AS WORLD’S BEST?
It was apt Barcelona tweeted a picture this week of both Lionel Messi and Marc-Andre ter Stegen with the accompanying message: “The two biggest reasons we are where we are right now.”
Messi’s brilliance needs no mention but Ter Stegen certainly deserves to be considered alongside the Argentine in rank of importance.
The German has staggeringly saved 87 percent of the shots he’s faced in La Liga this season, stopping 34 of 39 shots Barca have conceded on target.
Suffice to say without Ter Stegen’s superb form, the complexion of Barca’s campaign would take on an entirely different look.
He made some fine stops in the weekend win over Leganes and is fast establishing himself as one of the world’s premier goalkeepers.
With Gigi Buffon set to retire at the end of this season, the locking of horns between these two keepers could actually pave way for a passing of torch with Ter Stegen among those ready to assume the role of the world’s best stopper.
ARE JUVE DUO OVER WORLD CUP HEARTACHE?
Buffon and Andrea Barzagli were both dropped by Max Allegri for the weekend defeat trip to Sampdoria after the heartbreak of Italy’s World Cup exit.
The veteran goalkeeper retired from international duty following the Azzurri’s sorry defeat to Sweden and the emotional scenes full-time carried through the week with Italian media beginning their brutal autopsy.
But in the week which marked 22 years since Buffon made his professional debut there is no doubt he’ll be itching to return to the starting XI against Barca.
Winning the Champions League is perhaps the only antidote to his World Cup disappointment but given the Bianconeri’s performances so far this season, vast improvement is required.
Juve’s usual defensive solidity has seemingly dissolved and the 3-2 loss to Sampdoria saw them drop to third in Serie A, four points off leaders Napoli.
With questions around the squad’s mentality after the success of last season, Buffon and Barzagli are two characters Juve need now more than ever.
Having toiled in Pogba’s absence, recently taking four points from a possible 12 in the Premier League, United rediscovered their swagger against Newcastle United on Saturday when the Frenchman made his return.
With a goal and an assist in a 4-1 comeback win, Pogba was the man of the match and his overall display helped United find a level they have struggled to reach during his two-month absence.
“He affects our football,” summarised United manager Jose Mourinho.
“We all know, myself and the fellow players, that certain players influence the levels of the team. With him we have much more creation.”
Though he has often dazzled with his long-legged technical artistry, the recognition of Pogba’s influence on United’s play has been slow in coming.
His then world-record £89.3million transfer from Juventus last year created huge expectations and although his first season was successful, there were few fireworks.
Pogba finished the season with nine goals in 51 appearances and winner’s medals in both the League Cup and Europa League, his goal in the final of the latter setting United en route to victory over Ajax.
But he could not compete with Ibrahimovic, whose goal-scoring feats and larger-than-life persona immediately made him a favourite with the Old Trafford faithful. United’s fans had invented a song for Ibrahimovic – their “Swedish hero” – before he had even made his official debut.
Anthony Martial, too, is regularly serenaded, but Pogba is still waiting for an ode in his honour to take root.
With Ibrahimovic sidelined by an injury of his own, Pogba took centre-stage in the opening weeks of the current campaign as United made an impressive start to the season.
– ‘Confidence and arrogance’ –
Yet it was only during the period of absence brought on by the hamstring injury Pogba sustained against Basel on September 12 that his importance began to be truly acknowledged.
“I think Pogba is a big miss because of his confidence and arrogance,” said former United captain Gary Neville after Mourinho’s men succumbed to a 1-0 defeat at Chelsea.
“He takes the ball into tight areas, holds the ball, beats a man.”
Pogba has the same number of assists as Fabregas and Xhaka, also has outscored Fabregas, Xhaka and Henderson combined despite playing just one game since mid September.— l i s a (@Mourinholxgy) November 19, 2017
The Pogba issue is well and truly settled. He makes us tick and it was £89M well spent. Next.
Paul Scholes, meanwhile, said Pogba’s unavailability explained why Romelu Lukaku had suddenly gone off the boil.
“He (Pogba) links the team together,” said the former United midfielder.
“I don’t think they have a good enough number 10 at the moment and that doesn’t help Lukaku either. Lukaku is having to do a lot for himself, but Pogba will make the difference.”
With Pogba in the team, United have scored 16 goals in five Premier League games this season, at an average of 3.2 per game. When Pogba is not playing, the average goals figure halves.
The 24-year-old has been directly responsible for eight goals in his last six league appearances – four goals, four assists – and with him and Ibrahimovic back on the scene, confidence is flooding back.
Manchester City opened up an eight-point lead over United while Pogba was convalescing, but both he and Ibrahimovic spoke optimistically about reeling in Pep Guardiola’s side after Saturday’s game.
While United have lost ground in the league, they have not missed a beat in the Champions League and visit Basel on Wednesday needing just a point to reach the knockout phase as group winners.
Mourinho has indicated Pogba could be rested, but whether he plays or not, his return to fitness has given United a major lift.
Provided by AFP Sport