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Monday, 17 December, 2018

Juventus hitting their stride in tight Serie A race

Old Lady on song as they easily beat Bologna

Mario Mandzukic celebrates his goal for Juventus at Bologna
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Serie A

Bologna 0-3 Juventus
                    Pjanic 27, Mandzukic 36
                    Matuidi 60

You have to go a long way these days to check out a thrilling title race in an elite European league so it was off to Bologna and the Stadio Renato Dall'Ara, scene of David Platt's hooked volley against Belgium at Italia 90, for a look at perennial Italian champions Juventus.

Only four points separate the top four with fourth-placed Roma having a game in hand but the concern for the capital club, Inter and leaders Napoli is that Juventus are lurking in the rear mirror.

Just like an England Ashes batting collapse, you know it's coming, they know it's coming and this easy 3-0 win at Bologna was the latest example of Juve flexing their muscles ahead of an almighty bid for a seventh straight Scudetto.

The 3-2 loss at Sampdoria on November 19 - Juve were 3-0 down before two injury-time goals made the score respectable - seems to have been a watershed moment and the Old Lady have kept six consecutive clean sheets since the sorry defeat in Genoa.

Juve allowed just one shot on their goal in Bologna and have also kept Napoli, Inter and Barcelona at bay during that time as Max Allegri continues his season-long policy of heavy rotation.

Giorgio Chiellini, Gigi Buffon, Stephan Lichtsteiner, Benedikt Howedes and Juan Cuadrado were all injured on Sunday yet it made no difference and the result was in little doubt from the moment Miralem Pjanic put Juve in front from a free kick.

Within ten minutes it was two as Pjanic turned provider with an excellent pass for Mario Mandzukic to finish well and the second half was a formality even before Blaise Matuidi made it three.

However, despite the final score Allegri faced a grilling from Italian TV afterwards for his decision to drop Paulo Dybala for the second week running.

Dybala's second-half introduction brought the loudest cheer of the day from the large travelling support that filled around half of the stadium but it's hard to know where he fits into the 4-1-2-3 formation that Allegri seems to prefer.

Dybala is unlikely to oust Gonzalo Higuain as the central striking figure, while Mandzukic is so effective out wide and dribbling demon Douglas Costa was the pick of Juve's attacking trio.

Pjanic pulled the strings in midfield and Mehdi Benatia is quickly becoming the leader in Juve's defence which leaves just one problem area - central midfield.

Matuidi is forcing his way into their best starting 11 but Sami Khedira's grandest days are behind him and maybe a 4-2-3-1 with Dybala in for the German could be an option. Never mind option actually, it could be the only way in for Dybala.

However, for now Allegri is happy to grind it out and won't care a jot if the teams around Juventus play the more exciting football as long as it's the Old Lady celebrating come May. 

On this evidence they are in no mood to allow a changing of the guard which can only be great for the neutrals in what should be a thrilling title race until the very end.

It's a couple of months before Juventus meet Tottenham in the Champions League last 16 and there does not look to be a great deal between the sides, although as everyone in Italy knows, when the serious business begins after Christmas that's when the Bianconeri usually show their true colours.

The opposition

It's not fair to judge Roberto Donadoni's team too much on this match but Bologna were well beaten.

Godfred Donsah's attempt brought a smart save out of Wojciech Szczesny but soon afterwards home goalkeeper Antonio Mirante was softly beaten at his near post by Pjanic's wide free kick.

Simone Verdi, Bologna's most talented player, was given no room to weave his magic despite moving to the left from his starting spot on the right and eventually going through the middle.

The set-piece specialist, however, did provide plenty of pre-match entertainment as he practised his free kicks. Of the five I saw he curled three into the top corner but that was as good as it got for Bologna.

Teams - Bologna 4-3-3: Mirante; Mbaye, Helander, Gonzalez, Masina; Poli, Pulgar, Donsah (Faletti 65); Verdi, Destro (Petkovic 53), Okonkwo (Krejci 70).

Juventus 4-1-2-3: Szczesny; De Sciglio, Benatia, Barzagli, Alex Sandro; Pjanic (Marchisio 86); Khedira, Matuidi; Douglas Costa (Bernardeschi 70), Higuain, Mandzukic (Dybala 76).

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Allegri faced a grilling from Italian TV afterwards for his decision to drop Paulo Dybala for the second week running.
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