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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

Miralem Pjancic could return to haunt Roma with Juventus

The Bosnian, who was formerly with Roma, is now proving key to the Serie A champions and their push for a seventh successive title.

Juventus' Miralem Pjanic, second from left, celebrates after scoring his side's first goal in their win over Bologna last week. Giorgio Benvenuti / ANSA via AP
Juventus' Miralem Pjanic, second from left, celebrates after scoring his side's first goal in their win over Bologna last week. Giorgio Benvenuti / ANSA via AP

It had been well over a year since his previous Serie A masterclass in how to make a dead ball dance through the air. The odds seemed against him, the angle too sharp, the geometry wrong.

But Miralem Pjanic did his mental calculations and if he factored in the possibility of a goalkeeping misjudgement, he had the right hunch. With just the right lift, and dip, his free-kick beat the Bologna wall and it eluded keeper Antonio Mirante.

That success with a direct free-kick put Juventus 1-0 up at Bologna at the weekend, on course to shift up to second spot in the table. Less than ten minutes later Pjanic floated a glorious pass from midfield into the path of Mario Mandzukic for goal number two of the 3-0 win.

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That was Pjanic’s eighth assist of the league campaign, to put him joint top of Serie A’s list of providers. His successful direct free-kick had meanwhile been his 14th as a player in Italy’s top flight.

Nobody has converted more within the last decade.

All ominous signs of Peak-Pjanic for a Roma who arrive at the Juventus stadium on Saturday evening still sensitive to the fact the diminutive Bosnian was recently one of theirs.

In the long history of enmity between the two clubs, the Pjanic chapter still feels a raw wound. He moved from the capital to the champions 18 months ago.

Pjanic’s motive was what hurt. At Roma, he was a popular player for five years of great personal progress, but he wanted trophies.

His time at Roma had yielded silver and bronze medals; his first season at Juventus, who paid more than €32 million (Dh139.5m), brought him a Serie A title, a Coppa Italia and his first Uefa Champions League final.

Pjanic summed up the distinction in an interview with the Italian magazine, Undici.

“At Roma, I was part of a team that played some really good football, and we kept saying to ourselves: ‘This is a great year, we’re in a strong position’. But then there would be matches where we fell short.”

His new club, the Juventus seeking a seventh consecutive Serie A crown, had a distinct character: “Juventus are always up there, always keeping their high standard.”

Pjanic is not given to provocative remarks, though it is possible to detect a little applied psychological pressure in those statements, coming as they do after Juventus have kept five clean sheets on the trot in the league to put themselves just behind leaders Napoli in the ferocious jostle at the Italian summit.

By the time Juve and Roma kick off, the last fixture of the 18th matchday, the prize of first place may even be attainable. But lose to Roma, and Juve could be joined on points by Pjanic’s former employers.

Four points separate Napoli from fourth-placed Roma.

So tight is the race that Inter Milan’s first defeat of the campaign, against Udinese at the weekend, plunged them from top to third and they go to Sassuolo on Saturday knowing that Roma could overhaul them with a win against the champions.

And Roma are not the fragile lot Pjanic referenced. They take to Turin the meanest defence in Serie A.

That is something Juventus usually boast of, and Roma’s solidity is a quality Eusebio di Francesco, appointed as head coach in the summer, can congratulate himself on.

“It is pleasing,” he said, “but we also need to starting converting more of our chances going forward”.

Roma’s setback in the Italian Cup on Wednesday, when they were knocked out by Torino was a case in point.

They twice hit the frame of the Torino goal, and Edin Dzeko missed a penalty in the 2-1 defeat.

Juve, meanwhile, eased into the quarter-finals with a comfortable 2-0 win over Genoa.

For the two Bosnians involved on Saturday night, these are indeed contrasting times.

Dzeko, Serie A’s leading scorer in 2016-17, has lately been short of goals, and has netted just once in 14 outings since he struck twice in Roma’s 3-3 draw with Chelsea in the Champions League at Stamford Bridge in October.

His compatriot, and his former ally in the Italian capital, Pjanic is exerting his influence as powerfully as he ever has in a Juventus jersey.

His radar is functioning, too, with his dead-balls. Roma need to be wary with their tackles anywhere within 10 metres of their own penalty box.