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Preview: Juventus vs. Manchester United

United seek their third straight win

Manchester United v Juventus - UEFA Champions League Group H Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

After two encouraging domestic wins, Manchester United return to Champions League action on Wednesday night in Turin. Just a fortnight after Juventus’s chastening win at Old Trafford, the two sides meet again with a lot on the line. United hope for an improved performance, knowing that any points won at the Allianz Stadium would go a long way towards securing passage to the knockout round.

On October 23, Paulo Dybala fired the visitors past the Reds 1-0. But the enormity of the Bianconeri’s superiority is not reflected in that scoreline. Juve controlled every aspect of the game, leaving United chasing shadows and utterly unable to break through their solid defensive line. Paul Pogba did manage to strike the post in the second half, but it would have been a totally undeserved point.

Afterward, José Mourinho admitted Juventus were just better than his Reds.

“Juventus were at a different level of quality, stability, experience, and knowhow. And, again, I repeat: quality in football is everywhere. When I say quality, I don’t say just a creative player or just a beautiful player. Chiellini and Bonucci were beautiful. Absolutely beautiful.”

Mercifully, last month’s loss did little to damage United’s European prospects. The Reds remain in second place in Group H thanks to Valencia’s stumble in Switzerland. Their failure to beat Young Boys takes a lot of pressure off United to win in Turin.

United travel to Italy cheered by two straight Premier League wins over top-half opponents. On Saturday, Mourinho’s men shrugged off a moribund first half to seal a late winner at Bournemouth through Marcus Rashford’s stoppage time goal.

Until Anthony Martial equalized against the run of play in the 35th minute, it had been a dire performance from the entire team. That now makes five goals in his last four league matches and inches the Frenchman ever closer to fulfilling his world-class potential.

In the second half, the manager’s astute substitutions proved the difference. Marcus Rashford, Ander Herrera, and Jesse Lingard all lifted the quality of play and put United well on top.

Rashford will get all the glory for his late winner — and, for the second match running, United looked far more fluid and dangerous with young Marcus leading the line — but supporters shouldn’t forget Herrera’s contributions.

After coming on in the 56th minute, Herrera provided the balance that United’s midfield so badly lacked. Fred struggled through another tough game and Nemanja Matić looks totally jaded. He badly needs a rest.

Herrera’s steady play both stiffened up the defense and freed Paul Pogba to push forward in attack. It was under-the-radar stuff, but United never win that one without Herrera. Mourinho should play him from the start against Juventus, when mobility in midfield will be key.

It won’t come as a surprise to anyone, but the defense once again struggled at Bournemouth. The manager minced no words post-match: “Defensively awful. Absolutely awful. And I look at the whole of my team when I say that, not just my defenders.”

But the defenders were pretty bad.

“I love the song, ‘Attack, attack, attack!’ but you need to know that, when you lose the ball, you have stability,” Mourinho continued. “We’re not showing this stability. There was a feeling of instability and today it happened again against a good team.”

The big injury concern for the Juve match is Romelu Lukaku. Dropped for the Everton match last weekend, most expected the Belgian forward to reclaim his place at Bournemouth. But an injury at training on Friday ruled him out of action and now the club waits to see if he’ll be available for the trip. Expect Mourinho to keep Lukaku’s status under wraps to keep Juve guessing.

All in all, it’s been a pretty good week for the manager — three more points in the bank, his side up to seventh in the table, and another clear sign to the United board that defensive reinforcements (yes, plural) are a necessity in the January window.

Extending the winning streak to three, though, will not be easy. Juventus have only lost twice at home in the Champions League since moving into the Allianz Stadium in 2011. Those losses came against Bayern Munich and Real Madrid, two teams on a totally different level from this United side.

Juve labored to a 3-1 victory over Cagliari on Saturday, keeping them six points out in front in Serie A. That weekend win, though, came at a cost. Douglas Costa, Miralem Pjanić, and Blaise Matuidi all left the match with injuries.

Massimiliano Allegri doesn’t expect Pjanić or Matuidi to miss much time, but conceded that Costa’s knock could keep him out of Wednesday’s match. “He felt a pain in his thigh, so we will have to evaluate it over the next few days,” the Bianconeri boss explained.

Juve’s obvious quality is undeniable. Whether it’s slowing down an attack of Cristiano Ronaldo and Paulo Dybala or plotting a way through the Bonucci-Chiellini defensive wall, Manchester United will have their hands full on Wednesday.

Pjanić insists there will be no letdown from Juventus. “United is a team of great quality,” he told Sky Sport Italia. “There are players who can make the difference, so we will have to face them like we did in the first leg. I think that we had a very good game at Old Trafford. We could have scored a few more goals. We hope that in Turin we will manage to score more, but we must not forget that Manchester is a great team with a great coach.”