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Sports Features of Thursday, 14 December 2017


Kwadwo Asamoah, Benatia capture Juventus 'big game spirit

Kwadwo Asamoah has been in great form for Juventus recently Kwadwo Asamoah has been in great form for Juventus recently

Saturday's Derby d'Italia, perhaps more than any other game this season, was stereotypically Italian. By that, one can conjure up a certain image: of slow deliberate chess moves and long pauses. If, as Gianni Brera, the godfather of Italian football writing, posited all those years ago, the perfect game ought to end 0-0, then Juventus can be satisfied with their night's work.

The Old Lady set about nullifying Inter with cold precision. The objective was simple: under Luciano Spalletti, the Nerazzurri are based around quick transitions and crossing and, in Mauro Icardi, boast the league's leading goal poacher.

To answer that challenge, Massimiliano Allegri set up in a 4-1-4-1—the intention being to match Inter in midfield, as well as cut off supply from the flanks.

It worked brilliantly: Icardi barely got a kick, and Inter were unable to develop 1v1s for Ivan Perisic and Antonio Candreva. It highlighted just how much faith Allegri has in his squad: a back four of Mattia De Sciglio, Medhi Benatia, Giorgio Chiellini and Kwadwo Asamoah would have been no one's pick at the start of the season.

It has now started back-to-back league games against the top two, and kept clean sheets on both.

Asamoah, in particular, is having his best season for a while in Turin.

The Ghana international has seen his five-year stint at Juventus blighted by injury and loss of form, and has had to adapt his game in many ways: he featured prominently at left wing-back under Antonio Conte, but playing left-back, a role less dependent on dynamism and more on discipline and positioning, has arguably stemmed the frequent knee and muscle injuries that have dogged him over the years.

Crucially, he also appears to have usurped Alex Sandro in the pecking order, at least in Serie A's big games: starts against Inter, Napoli, AC Milan and Lazio in the last two months bear this out.

The Derby marked only the second time this season, and first since October, that Asamoah has started consecutive league games, and he already has as many league starts this season as he managed in the last two seasons combined. The trade-off:a lack of involvement in the Champions League, is a necessary precaution in the interest of fitness.

Antonio Candreva, Kwadwo Asamoah, Juventus, Inter, Serie A, 09122017
In a similar rise to eminence, Benatia's path has been rather more fortuitous.

Signed to a four-year contract earlier this year when Juventus exercised the option to make his loan from Bayern Munich permanent, the 30-year-old is another who had to battle injuries throughout his time in Bavaria, and was largely expected to be a reliable squad option as the promising Daniele Rugani grew into the responsibility of being a starter.

However, the surprising exit of Leonardo Bonucci in the summer and the inevitable decline of Andrea Barzagli have left Rugani short of mentorship, and he has looked extremely shaky at times this season. Things came to a head in the calamitous (if one is honest, flattering) 3-2 defeat to Sampdoria a couple of weeks ago, as the fabled Juventus defence descended into chaos.

That has perhaps convinced Allegri; Benatia has started every game since, and the reigning Italian champions have looked back to their impregnable best, keeping five straight clean sheets.

He showed all of his nous and experience at the weekend, easily keeping tabs on Icardi (who tends to drift right-of-centre more frequently), and before that on the lively Dries Mertens as Juventus scored a masterful 1-0 win at San Paolo a week ago.

Being named Player of the month of November may pale somewhat compared with the euphoria of leading Morocco to a first World Cup appearance in 20 years, but it does cap what has been a redemptive 2018 for the Atlas Lions' captain.

So it is that, in Asamoah and Benatia – both men who have not conventionally been considered reliable – Allegri has found new rooks for his high-stakes chess.

With Napoli failing to bounce back straightaway, and Roma drawing at Chievo, suddenly the race for the Scudetto doesn't look quite so cut and dried, and Juventus have asserted their big-game identity with a four-point haul off the runaway leaders.

That wildcard quality may be hard to define, but it is in players like Asamoah and Benatia, sturdy and understated, that it finds perfect expression.