Though Italy’s Serie A has lost some of its luster -- not to mention a UEFA Champions League place -- in recent years, Juventus versus AS Roma still qualifies as Europe’s marquee clash of the weekend. Here are two teams that finished first and second in each of the last two seasons and meetings between them, though dominated in recent times by Juve, have always been tense, to say the least
Juve, winner of four consecutive Scudetti, has won three of its last four league encounters against the Italian capital club, but Sunday’s clash at the Stadio Olimpico represents Roma’s best chance in years to end the hurt. Why, because while both clubs have added to their squads this summer, Juve lost the more influential players following the departures Andrea Pirlo (New York City FC), Arturo Vidal (Bayern Munich), and Carlos Tevez (Boca Juniors).
Nonetheless, the defending champ has been very active on the transfer market this summer, bringing in the likes of Mario Mandzukic (Atletico Madrid), Sami Khedira (Real Madrid), Paulo Dybala (Palermo), Alex Sandro (FC Porto) and Juan Cuadrado (on loan from Cheslea). On paper, these certainly look like strong replacements, but getting them to gel on the field and find a rhythm is obviously a different story.
In the 1-0 loss at home to Udinese last weekend -- its first at the Juventus Stadium since January 2013 -- Juve’s attack looked disjointed, lacking the cohesion and vitality that Vidal and Tevez in particular used to provide. New No. 10 Paul Pogba, the supposed replacement for Pirlo, looked anything but the part, going missing in midfield for long stretches while delivering several disappointing, un-Pirlo like free-kicks
After the game, coach Massimiliano Allegri was quick to urge patience: "Serie A is not a 100 meter race but a marathon," the Italian said in his post-game press conference. "You need patience to find the right rhythm.” He may be right, but the Italian press was also quick to point out that only four times in the history of the Italian top flight has a team bounced back from an opening day defeat to the win the Scudetto.
Ominously, Allegri’s players don’t necessarily seem convinced, either, with first-choice center-back Leonardo Bonucci later describing this season as a "transitional year.”
Err, that’s not what you want your best players telling the press -- especially following a domestic double as well as a second-place finish in the UEFA Champions League the prior season.
Indeed, this new-look Juve is not yet confident, which is why Sunday’s clash could prove to be psychologically significant for Roma. Unlike the defending champ, Roma has kept its core together while strengthening in some much-needed areas, bringing in the likes of striker Edin Dzeko (Manchester City), winger Mohamed Salah (Chelsea), left-back Lucas Digne (Paris Saint-Germain) and goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny (Arsenal).
But Roma didn’t have the best of Serie A debuts last weekend, either, coming from behind to eke out a 1-1 draw at Hellas Verona. In fact, Szczesny was the only new signing to impress, with Salah failing to spark and Dzeko missing several good chances to score.
Asked after that game what he thinks of this early-season clash against Juve, Roma coach Rudi Garcia said: “They've lost some top-quality players in Pirlo, Tevez and Vidal but they've also signed some fantastic talents. They, like us, have work to do if they want to improve and exploit their squad's full potential."
To be sure, both coaches will be under pressure to produce a result on Sunday, but Garcia may feel it just a bit more because 1- Roma is at home; 2- Garcia has a poor record against Juve that his club’s fans are desperate to turn around; and 3- Roma strengthened this summer without losing any crucial players, while Juve lost most of its spine.
An early-season clash of giants between two teams just starting to get their legs where neither coach can afford to lose usually means a draw in Serie A. Look for this one to be no different.