Returning Dybala 'Jewel' in Juventus crown but Champions League progress against Tottenham still a challenge
Spurs remain only team to have scored against Juve in 2018 and are forewarned of home team's strengths with dead ball
Of all the Paulo Dybala qualities Juventus have missed over the past two months, as he worked his way back from a pulled hamstring, upper-body strength was probably not top of the list.
Dybala is a small man, delicate even in appearance, light and dainty with the ball at his feet. But as Saturday evening’s trip to Lazio stretched into overtime, the Argentine turned potent scrummager.
His muscle may just have delivered the Italian champions their next title.
Dybala’s injury-time strike at Lazio, the only goal of the game, owed much to his determination, his rugged ability to hold off the challenge of Marco Parolo, and eke himself the space to stab a shot past Thomas Strakosha. The goal had more familiar Dybalarisms in its construction, too, a sharp turn of pace and direction to create an opportunity out of very little, and a hard, precise finish.
The goal was Dybala’s 15th of the Serie A season, in his first full game since December.
While his absence has not hampered Juventus’s winning run in the league – Saturday’s victory was No 10 on the trot – he is precisely the alibi they wanted to take at Wembley on Wednesday night. It is a fixture in which they must register at least one goal to progress in the Uefa Champions League.
Juventus take on Tottenham Hotspur with the 2-2 draw from the first leg carrying a minor advantage for the Londoners. But Juve can find a number of reasons to feel positive.
There is the return of Dybala, the so-called ‘Jewel’, and there is the celebratory mood that Saturday brought them - not just because of the hard-fought three points in Rome but the result that followed: Napoli’s defeat at home to Roma. That left the gap at the top of the table, where Napoli lead Juventus, at one point. Juventus, champions the last six seasons, have a game in hand.
None of which seemed relevant the next day, when the sudden death of a much respected and liked colleague, Fiorentina’s Davide Astori, was announced. The many Italian internationals in the Juventus team knew Astori, who was 31, well and will carry their memories of him through the minute’s silence they observe ahead of kick-off on Wednesday night.
Dybala can expect to start in a line-up distinct from the XI who allowed a 2-0 lead over Spurs to slip in Turin.
Gonzalo Higuain, who scored both goals in the first leg, travelled to England still troubled by a sore ankle. Mario Mandzukic has been playing through a thigh strain. A forward line with neither would look improvised, given that Juan Cuadrado and Federico Bernardeschi are both unavailable with injury.
Full-back Mattia de Sciglio is also a doubt. One blessing is the availability of Blaise Matuidi in midfield, the France international having missed the first leg.
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“We will have to play better against Spurs than we did on Saturday,” said Juve manager Massimiliano Allegri, noting the low tally of chances, and some carelessness in possession, at Lazio. “But Tottenham are a different sort of side to Lazio and do not defend so tightly.”
They certainly did not in Turin three weeks ago, Juve going 2-0 up in the first quarter of the contest and gaining a penalty, which Higuain slammed against the crossbar, before half time. If penalties become an issue on Wednesday night, Allegri will be grateful for Dybala’s return. He offers a preferred alternative at spot-kicks, as well as being a dangerous option, besides the trusted Miralem Pjanic, with attacking free-kicks.
Juve are forewarned of Tottenham’s strengths with a dead ball, and still self-critical at the way Christian Eriksen sneaked the Spurs equaliser at the Juventus stadium beneath the defensive wall and beyond Gianluigi Buffon’s reach.
Tottenham remain the only team to have scored against Juve in 2018. That is in 11 matches.
“Our approach will be the same as in Turin,” promised Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino, although he will brief his players to be more vigilant in the first 25 minutes this time. He stressed “we must feel free and enjoy it".
That, he suggested, had been the key to Spurs’ wins at Wembley against Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund in the group phase. Liverpool and Manchester United have also been comfortably defeated at the vast arena.
Push aside Juventus, and Tottenham will feel they have truly come of age as an elite European force.
Updated: March 6, 2018 11:18 AM