It’s the 68th minute of a dreadful match between Juventus and Lazio in the Italian Supercup – in Shanghai of course, for the purpose of promoting calcio to the Chinese masses. The pitch, in such a bad condition that even cows would have been disgruntled, was the cause of a feeble display between the two sides.
But there is a moment of quality when Stefano Sturaro breaks down the right and chips an inviting ball into the box. Mario Mandzukic, one of 10 new signings for the Old Lady, towers between Dusan Basta and Stefan de Vrij to plant a header past Federico Marchetti. Juventus go on to win the game.
With the Croatian striker scoring on his debut, it seemed like the same old Mandzukic: new club, still scoring.
Yet the goals dried up, as Mandzukic struggled in a Juventus side still searching for their identity after losing three big players in Arturo Vidal, Carlos Tevez and Andrea Pirlo during the summer.
Max Allegri chopped and changed formation several times early in the season, trying to find the best solution to integrate the batch of new players at his disposal. He alternated between the tried-and-tested 3-5-2 to a 4-3-3 in order to make use of new signing Juan Cuadrado, to the 4-3-1-2 that is his favourite.
However, none of these tactical shifts benefited Mandzukic, who looked lost no matter which formation was implemented. He looked sluggish and seemed light-years away from the player who caused so much devastation against Juventus for Bayern Munich in the quarter-finals of the Champions League two years prior.
It’s also fair to add that he was bereft of service; creativity in the team had diminished in the absences of Tevez and Pirlo.
The big Croatian’s first competitive goal for Juventus came against at Manchester City in the Champions League, as he threw himself onto a beautifully weighted Paul Pogba cross and exerted just enough power on the ball to steer it past Joe Hart.
It was a reminder of just why Juventus had bought him.
But injuries soon took hold. Mandzukic was forced off against Genoa with a thigh problem and missed several games as Juve’s struggles continued. Unbelievably, they found themselves circulating the relegation zone in Serie A.
It wasn’t made public at the time, but just before Christmas, Mandzukic described this period of his life as “desperate”. In the season opener against Udinese – a game in which he missed several glaring chances – the 29-year-old collided with an advertising board and his ankle bone bore the brunt of the impact.
It become infected and, according to Mandzukic, “the pain was continuous for almost two months, at training, the match... every touch was hell”. His immune system weakened and Mandzukic would lay awake every night pondering what was happening to him. He had been like a tank up to this point in his career, bulldozing through injuries almost like he did opposition players.
He didn’t register his first goal in the league until a 2-0 win over Atalanta in late October, but three days later Juve sunk to their lowest ebb, losing to Sassuolo. The Bianconeri were so far behind in the title race that even a top-three finish seemed beyond reach. In the following game, the Turin derby, Cuadrado snatched a last-gasp winner to seal a 2-1 win, and since then neither Mandzukic nor Juve have looked back.
Allegri stopped experimenting with formations – the balance of the team was off and nobody seemed to be benefiting from the constant tinkering, least of all Mandzukic.
The Juve boss discarded the 4-3-3 entirely and settled on the well-versed 3-5-2. After two months of chopping and changing his frontline, the coach plumped for a partnership of Mandzukic and Paulo Dybala. The little-and-large tandem instantly clicked: the pair would go on to net nine goals and three assists in the lead-up to the winter break.
With the sides above them showing terrible inconsistency, Juventus stormed up the table with a rocket strapped to their backs. Mandzukic, while not playing especially well as be battled to regain match sharpness, was starting to find the back of the net more regularly.
His performance against Manchester City in the return fixture was one he was renowned for; a bustling, pressing, dynamic masterclass in how to lead the line. He scored the only goal of the game from a superb Alex Sandro cross while brushing off Nicolas Otamendi in the process, caressing the ball home with immense composure.
He would score six goals in seven games in all competitions in the run-up to Christmas, including a goal at a crucial stage during the home game against Fiorentina and a brilliantly crafted strike against Carpi, in which he controlled a high ball in the box before spinning and slamming home through several bodies.
A calf injury hampered the beginning of his year – he missed the opening two games – yet Juve were now at full steam, brushing Hellas Verona aside and beating Sampdoria in a tight affair at the Luigi Ferraris. Mandzukic returned to the starting line-up as Udinese were crushed inside 45 minutes at the Stadio Friuli, with the Croatian getting an assist in the 4-0 drubbing.
Both the Croatian and Juve’s irresistible form have hit the buffers (if only gently) leading up to the games against Bayern Munich. The striker got injured – again – in the comprehensive 3-0 Coppa Italia semi-final first-leg win over Inter in late January.
Meanwhile, the team's 15-game winning streak in the league came to a halt at Bologna on Friday night with a goalless draw as Allegri’s squad rotation backfired.
After the aforementioned defeat to Sassuolo, Juve were languishing in the bottom half of the table, 11 points behind then-league leaders Inter. Now some four months on, they sit 10 points ahead of Inter and have reclaimed their place atop the Serie A table.
The transformation has been remarkable, due in large part to Dybala’s emergence with 13 goals and eight assists thus far. The team simply isn’t as cohesive or creative when the 22-year-old Argentine is rested.
Mario vs Pep
The clashes with Bayern, arguably the best tie of the round, features Arturo Vidal and Kingsley Coman both returning to Turin after their sooner-than-expected summer departures.
For Mandzukic, who has recovered from his calf injury for the first leg, you imagine this will be two games in which he’ll relish the opportunity to do battle – not only against his former team-mates, but a coach with whom he had a bitter falling-out with in Pep Guardiola.
“Would I sit down with Guardiola for a coffee? That is something that's not going to happen,” Mandzukic said bluntly of his former manager in a 2014 interview with Sportske Novosti. “Guardiola decided not to play me because he didn't want me to finish as leading goalscorer, so he didn’t let me play towards the end of the season.”
From what Leonardo Bonucci called a “transitional” year at the beginning of the season, Juventus and Mandzukic can look towards the end with boundless optimism. Another domestic double is very much within their grasp.
Despite being favourites for the tie, Bayern need to be wary: Juventus and old boy Mandzukic have gained confidence with each passing week since the draw was made, and with the Germans’ mounting injury problems at the back, their Italian rivals smell blood.
Revenge is very much on the agenda for the former Bayern bomber.
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