Pjaca should learn from Mandzukic that hard work can trump technique
Juventus is hosting Palermo on Friday evening, but all anyone can think of is how Juve will fare in the Champions League against Porto on Wednesday. The recent midweek fixtures produced a few surprises, and while certain score lines grabbed the headlines, most would agree that no team has consistently proved to be brilliant.
Paris Saint-Germain looked convincing, but certain mediocre performances in the group stage and in the league have caused many to wonder if manager Unai Emery's team can keep it up. Barcelona were so poor that it's difficult to reach a definitive conclusion about their quality. Real Madrid proved that they can always be counted upon, yet their domestic form of late has brought up concerns as well, while Bayern Munich have defeated teams without breaking a sweat. Having barely had to raise the level of their game all season, will they manage it at the very end?
This leaves Juventus with the hope that perhaps this season their consistency will translate into something more than domestic success, especially considering the competition. Boasting a new formation that has revived the team's offensive game, Juventus are operating with greater confidence. Armed with a good tactician and a somewhat easier fixture than they imagined, will Juventus thump Porto to prove their might or leave manager Max Allegri and the fans in a state of anxiety, as occurred against Monaco two seasons ago?
However, Allegri -- the consummate one-match-at-a-time manager -- does not want to think about Porto yet. While the Champions League trophy has turned into somewhat of an obsession, Allegri is pragmatic and realistic. He wants the team to focus on Palermo, not because he's worried about a loss but because his side must have their feet planted firmly on the ground, taking nothing for granted.
The Rosanero have proved interesting to watch in recent weeks. They held Napoli to a 1-1 draw, defeated Crotone, and lost to high-flying Atalanta. In Diego Lopez, they have a coach who genuinely believes they will escape relegation and isn't afraid to tinker and adapt. Against Juve on Friday evening, he will reportedly change shapes and play a 3-4-3 formation.
Playing in a more organised fashion, Palermo are learning how to frustrate their opponents and would love to spring another surprise, much as they managed against Maurizio Sarri's Napoli.
Mired in the relegation zone, Palermo's league position proves they aren't the greatest of teams. But Allegri is rightly concerned that arrogance will strip his Juve side of the hunger to constantly work, to remain focused for the entirety of the match and seal the win. European honours are coveted, but so is a sixth straight Scudetto.
With Mario Mandzukic suspended, Allegri is considering changing to the 4-3-1-2 formation, with Miralem Pjanic in the hole behind Gonzalo Higuain and former Palermo player Paulo Dybala. It seems Allegri isn't yet convinced of Marko Pjaca's ability to perform in a fashion that's similar to his absent compatriot in the 4-2-3-1 formation.
Pjaca showed some good signs in his debut match as a starter against Crotone, but Allegri continues to note how important it is for the Croatian international to provide more than technical elegance on the ball. Mandzukic, who can at times appear technically limited, works so hard for the side that he is the example to follow. That he recovered more lost balls than any other player in Juve's match against Cagliari is worthy of applause. Watching him run back and forth while Higuain roams all around to score and create, it's easy to understand what Juventus and Allegri want from their players.
Allegri has said: "Pjaca must start understanding that to reach certain levels he needs to start pedalling, because football isn't just about technique, it's about sacrifice and availability. He has great quality, but we're Juve, and if you want to become a great player you need the right mindset."
That means wanting to sacrifice. There are many beautiful players in the world of football, but not all are willing to work hard to earn the trophies. There is a reason why Real Madrid sold Mesut Ozil, an elegant player often criticised for his lack of consistency, and why the biggest clubs in the world are vying for Alexis Sanchez -- one of the few who has learnt to fight relentlessly, making an impact in practically every game he plays.
Pjaca must earn his right to play, and that might involve sacrificing his dribbles to win back possession and create space for others to shine. The chances being offered are few and far between, so if Pjaca is picked for Palermo, he must work hard to secure future appearances and Allegri's trust.
Mina Rzouki covers Juventus and the Italian national team for ESPN FC. Follow her on Twitter: @Minarzouki.