Italian champions welcome Premier League club to Turin for their Uefa Champions League Group H clash on Wednesday
Manchester United and Juventus share defensive concerns but problems are widely different
The mind games started early ahead of Juventus against Manchester United. Fully four days before kick-off, the respective managers had begun duelling with increasing levels of scorn about their own teams' erratic defending.
Jose Mourinho set the ball rolling. “Chaotic,” he called United’s first-half at Bournemouth, and described the phenomenon as a contagion. “A defensive mistake cannot be the trigger for a chaotic defensive performance for 45 minutes.”
Later on Saturday, Massimiliano Allegri, manager of Juve, came over all stern schoolmaster, at the end of the visit of Cagliari to Turin. “Defending like this gets exhausting,” he said critically. “We have to work harder collectively to stop these situations developing. We drifted out of the game. It simply isn’t good enough.”
To hear all this would be to imagine a festival of slapstick in prospect at the Juventus stadium on Wednesday night, until you recall the speakers are two vastly experienced motivators, choosing their words studiously ahead of a defining autumn fixture.
Whatever their concerns about leakiness at the back, Allegri and Mourinho had dropped their scolding observations with the intention they should land in the dressing-rooms, a warning to two sets of players who have, after all, garnered 10 league points from the last four outings. Both Mourinho and Allegri finished as winners, 2-1 at Bournemouth and 3-1 against Cagliari, at the weekend.
United, though, had to come back, from behind, and seal their three points late; Juve were leading for all but three minutes of their 90 against the Sardinians.
Mourinho is entitled to think Allegri’s concerns about a Juve who top the Italian table and have its second meanest defence are exaggerated compared to his. Only five other clubs, all of them in the bottom six of the Premier League have conceded more goals than United’s 18 so far in England’s top flight.
Mourinho made explicit that envy of Juve two weeks ago. After losing 1-0 to the Italian champions in Manchester, Mourinho extolled the virtues of Allegri’s central defenders, Giorgio Chiellini and Leo Bonucci.
“Beautiful to watch,” he said of the craggy pair, who have been sharing spoiler duties in the defences of Juve or Italy for the best part of eight years, a long-term partnership interrupted briefly last season when Bonucci had his 12 months at AC Milan.
Mourinho embellished his admiration with a choice quote he knew would be enjoyed and analysed for days: “Those two could teach defending at Harvard University.”
Time was that Mourinho boasted his own peerless scholarship in instructing the art of defending. He excelled at it in Serie A a decade ago, with his champion Internazionale teams.
As United manager, he has lately been complaining, regularly, about his stock of centre-halves, and his praise of Chiellini and Bonucci was designed to be interpreted partly in the context that United did not recruit an established, top-class central defender in the summer, and his difficulties establishing a hierarchy of those he does have, Chris Smalling, Victor Lindelof, Eric Bailly, Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo.
Smalling and Lindelof are currently in the ascendency, but the last clean sheet they oversaw was back in September. “One feeling is that we always concede, even with the best goalkeeper in the world,” said Mourinho after Bournemouth took a 1-0 lead that might have doubled, or worse, last Saturday. “I would love a complete performance from the first minute.”
Juventus, yet to concede a goal in Uefa Champions League Group H, have a look of completeness: a full set of points in Europe, just two dropped so far in Serie A. Yet with Bonucci still to reach his highest standards since he returned to Turin in August, Allegri sees flaws in a team clearly strengthened in attack with the arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo. "We can’t always assume that we’ll score two or three goals,” said the Juve manager.
What he might dare to presume is that United will be most vulnerable early on. Against Newcastle United, Chelsea, Juventus and Bournemouth in the last month, they have fallen behind within the first 21 minutes.
Avoiding that scenario will be a priority for Mourinho, whose evening could begin with a slide into third place in the group if Valencia, two points behind United and seven below Juventus, beat the Swiss club Young Boys in Spain in the earlier kick-off.
A home victory in the later game ensures Juve win the group, and a draw would guarantee their place in the last 16. United, who must still travel to Valencia on the final matchday, have the harder work ahead.