The 2013-14 Serie A season is only a few weeks old, but already it seems like the title favourites are hitting midseason form. Teams like Napoli, Roma and Inter Milan have dominated their competition so far, and this season is shaping up to be one for the ages.
There is little doubt that Juventus are once again the team to beat.
The Bianconeri have started the season on fire, and there is no team on the Italian Peninsula that can match Antonio Conte's troops on talent alone. But it takes more than talent alone to win championships, and Juve's rivals are aching to end their title reign.
The Bianconeri are in excellent position to win their third consecutive Serie A title, but any team that is coached by Conte is never a finished product. The Old Lady can always do better, and in this article we'll take a look at a few questions Juve still need to answer if they wish to keep their position as the kings of Italian football.
Without a doubt, the biggest strength of last season's championship team was its defense. The trio of Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli formed an impenetrable wall and were rightfully regarded as the best defensive line in all of Europe. With the addition of touted youngster Angelo Ogbonna, it looked like this year's group would be even stronger.
After one month of football, that hasn't been the case.
The defense has looked shaky at best and has allowed far too much space (and goals) to inferior opponents. With games against the likes of AC Milan and Real Madrid on the horizon, the back three can't afford to make the same mistakes.
Last year's lineup was a strong one, but a midseason injury to Chiellini brought to light a tremendous lack of depth in the defensive front. Luca Marrone and Martin Cáceres were called upon to fill in for the Italy international, but neither player was able to bring the same kind of production to the field.
Ogbonna was brought in to do exactly that, but he has been thrust into action way too soon as Chiellini has struggled with his form. Ogbonna has done a decent job so far, but he lacks the experience on the highest level to adequately replace Chiellini in the UEFA Champions League.
Andrea Barzagli isn't getting any younger either, and while he may have been last year's most consistent performer, one has to wonder what Antonio Conte is planning to do once Barzagli's play starts to decline. The Bianconeri have a number of talented young defenders waiting for their chance, but Conte has never been a fan of giving much playing time to young talent.
Players like Alberto Masi, Hordur Magnusson and Daniele Rugani have been touted as future stars for years now, but they will need to start gaining some valuable first-team experience soon. Juventus have four excellent starters on the defensive line, but injuries are always right around the corner.
In case you hadn't noticed, Stephan Lichtsteiner is enjoying one hell of a start to the season.
The Swiss international has been on fire in recent weeks, and he has taken firm control of the starting position on the right wing. The situation on the left is less clear though.
Everyone knows I'm a huge fan of Kwadwo Asamoah. The Ghanaian is a freakish athlete with blazing speed and a powerful build, and he has the engine to play hard for 90 minutes every single week. He is a solid defender and a nightmare for opposing wing backs.
The issue with Asamoah is that for all of his skill and potential, he hasn't been particularly productive since returning from the Africa Cup of Nations last January. Asamoah might be twice as talented a player as Lichtsteiner, but he doesn't have the production of his partner on the right wing. Lichtsteiner can always be found in dangerous zones, whips in tons of crosses and scores the odd goal left and right.
Asamoah doesn't do any of this.
Federico Peluso and Paolo De Ceglie, the other alternatives, are both solid players with little potential. The latter has been plagued by inconsistencies and mistakes but can be a serviceable player if he stays focused for a full game.
Peluso won't lose you any games, but he won't win you any either.
Asamoah started last season in impressive fashion but has made little progress since then. A former central midfielder, he still often looks lost out on the wing and fails to take full advantage of the space he often finds near the opposing touchline.
It will be interesting to see whether Coach Conte sticks with the Ghanaian on the left wing as opposed to the end of last season, when he seemed to prefer Peluso. Asamoah still looks like Juve's best long-term option, but he will need to show more progress if he wishes to keep his job.
Claudio Marchisio is a hero in Turin.
The midfielder is the team's only starting player that came up through the youth system, and he was one of the few talented youngsters that had the chance to leave the team during the Calciopoli-years but didn't. He works hard and says all the right things, and fans and coaches love him for it.
However, he's also not been himself in the past few months. After a bad performance with the Italian national team in a friendly against France at the end of last season, Marchisio came back to Turin low on confidence and he never fully recovered.
And while Marchisio was struggling, Paul Pogba stepped up in a big way.
Juve's new Golden Child put together a phenomenal first season with the Bianconeri and made it impossible for Coach Conte not to play him on a regular basis. Conte even tried tweaking his system to accommodate both Pogba and Marchisio, but the results were not as good as everyone had hoped.
So when Marchisio went down with an injury that would sideline him for a couple of weeks last month, everyone wondered whether he'd ever find a way to regain his spot as a starter over Pogba. As expected, Pogba shone in the absence of Marchisio, putting everyone on notice that he might simply be the better player.
When he's at the top of his game, Marchisio can be a very good player that understands his role on this team. He moves outside to make room for Pirlo and can score goals when he needs to. He works hard on the field and puts the team ahead of himself in any situation.
Conte likes Marchisio, but if the Italian international keeps struggling Juve can't afford to play him over Pogba.
Speaking of the youth squad, when will the next generation of Bianconeri stars get their shot?
We already touched on the wealth of defensive talent Juventus currently have waiting in the wings, but they are not the only young players that are waiting for their chance to impress.
Juventus have one of the best youth setups on the planet, and for decades the senior side was built around numerous players that came up through Juve's talented academy. The team has stockpiled talent in recent years, and there are several young prospects that have greatly impressed playing either with the Primavera or out on loan.
Just look at these names: Nicola Leali, Laurentiu Branescu, Gabriel Appelt, Stefano Beltrame, Richmond Boakye, Manolo Gabbiadini, Domenico Berardi, Ciro Immobile, Filippo Bonipperti... The list goes on and on.
Antonio Conte has never been a fan of starting young players in favour of veteran stars, but Father Time is always a factor in football.
Players like Boakye and Magnusson are future stars that are being followed by every major European powerhouse, and sooner or later these kids will grow tired of waiting. Marco Storari is an excellent backup stopper, but why not give one of the youngsters like Leali or Branescu a chance to prove their worth in a cup game?
Teams like FC Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund have built on the success of their youth setups and continuously give minutes to their young talents in an attempt to prepare them for first-team football. With the financial crisis still a huge factor in Italian football, it's time for Juventus to follow suit.
Arturo Vidal is a beast.
There is nothing the Chilean can't do on a football field. He's an expert tackler, has tremendous vision, runs around like a madman for 90 minutes and knows how to find the back of the net. Vidal is a freak of nature and is quickly establishing himself as the best box-to-box midfielder in the world.
I'm sorry Dave Kuhn, but it's the truth. I love Bastian Schweinsteiger, but Vidal is a more complete player. There, I said it. I might be biased, but I'll put his name right up there with the Lionel Messi's and Christiano Ronaldo's of this world. And other teams are starting to notice.
According to Beppe Marotta, Vidal is worth as much as Gareth Bale (per Yahoosports.com). While that might be a slight overstatement (attackers will always demand a higher transfer fee than any other position) I can't say I really disagree. But that's not to say that other teams won't try.
Vidal has never made a secret of his desire to one day play for Real Madrid. It's his childhood dream, and you can't blame a guy for chasing said dream. He has pledged his allegiance to the Bianconeri for now, and I believe his words to be genuine, but things move fast in the world of football. It only takes one big team to realise their need for an expert midfielder to make a deal happen.
Juventus might be one of the biggest names in football but their wallet doesn't resemble that fame. If the right bid comes in for the Chilean, it will be very hard for Marotta to say no. And if Vidal keeps up this level of play, those bids will start coming in very soon.
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