Juventus star Cristiano Ronaldo's partnership with Mario Mandzukic flourishing

Aditya Devavrat 17:47 30/09/2018
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Ronaldo has a new partner in crime in Mandzukic.

Juventus beat Napoli in the first top-of-the-table clash of the Serie A season on Saturday, with two goals from Mario Mandzukic and one from Leonardo Bonucci leading the reigning champions to a come-from-behind win against the side who had pushed them to the limit during last season’s title run.

While Massimiliano Allegri’s men weren’t at their best, there was enough quality in the team – Cristiano Ronaldo set up all three goals – to overcome Carlo Ancelotti’s Napoli, whose status as title contenders this season will come into question after the loss despite a plucky performance.

Here’s a look at the talking points from the game.

RONALDO-MANDZUKIC PARTNERSHIP ON SONG

So far, in six starts together, the aggregate tally for the Ronaldo-Mandzukic duo reads seven goals and four assists.

Two of Mandzukic’s four have been assisted by his strike partner, and a third, the Croat’s second on Saturday, was a direct result of Ronaldo’s involvement as he tapped in after the Portugal man’s shot was turned onto post by Napoli goalkeeper David Ospina.

While their link-up play could still improve, already, this looks like a lethal partnership. Allegri’s decision to keep Ronaldo on the left wing and Mandzukic in the middle, after flirting with those positions being swapped earlier on, has helped, as Mandzukic plays better as a target man through the centre.

It showed against Napoli for Juve’s first goal, with Ronaldo rolling back the years by dribbling past right-back Elseid Hysaj and producing an inch-perfect cross for his strike partner. The two play well off each other, with Ronaldo given the freedom to rove behind a forward to serves as a focal point for the attack.

It’s a different partnership to the one the former Real Madrid man enjoyed with Karim Benzema, but it could prove to be just as effective.

Ronaldo's partnership with Mandzukic has been an instant hit.

Ronaldo’s partnership with Mandzukic has been an instant hit.

ANCELOTTI FAILS BIG TEST

Ancelotti said in the build-up he would have a clearer idea of his side’s standing in the Serie A hierarchy after this game.

If this was meant to be a test of Napoli’s title ambitions, there was plenty to be positive about – the Partenopei started the game on the front foot, made it count by scoring the opener, and they actually looked the better side when they went down to ten men in the second half.

Ultimately, however, it’s the result which counts. This one, coupled with their 3-0 loss to Sampdoria earlier in the season, leaves them six points behind a side which has won the Serie A seven times running. It’s only September, but that already seems like a bridge too far.

Hiring Ancelotti was meant to be a statement from Napoli, that there would be no let-up after falling short with their title charge in heartbreaking fashion last season. So far, however, the man whose resume includes either a league or Champions League triumph with AC Milan, Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain, Real Madrid, and Bayern Munich looks more a big name than anything else at Napoli.

The side are not as slick as they were under Maurizio Sarri last year, despite having most of the same personnel – midfielder Jorginho has been missed – and some players, like Lorenzo Insigne and Marek Hamsik, seem far off their best. Ancelotti needs to turn things around quickly if he wants to live up to his reputation.

A big-name hiring will not be enough for Napoli to topple Juventus.

A big-name hiring will not be enough for Napoli to topple Juventus.

WHAT NOW FOR DYBALA?

Paulo Dybala scored in midweek, but struggled to make an impact on Saturday. Nothing he tried seemed to come off, though it wasn’t for a lack of effort.

The biggest issue with Dybala’s game at the moment will only be solved with more minutes – he has yet to build an understanding with Ronaldo, and his link-up play with both the Portugal star and Mario Mandzukic was poor against Napoli. That’s something which can only improve if he gets more time to play with the duo.

Indeed, Allegri himself has said Dybala’s confidence and form will improve with more playing time. However, it’s also getting harder to justify giving him that time to begin with.

Even with Douglas Costa out through suspension, Dybala would keeping an in-form player in Federico Bernardeschi out of Allegri’s first-choice front three.

The young Italian looked like an instant upgrade when he came on for Dybala on Saturday, with his higher confidence plainly visible. He would have been disappointed not to start this game, and in his half-hour cameo, he showed he should have.

Dybala is one of the world’s best players when on song, but at the moment, he’s not. With Bernardeschi raring to go, how long a rope will Allegri give the Argentine star?

Dybala is continuing to struggle.

Dybala is continuing to struggle.

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