Juventus must have been both pleased and wary after receiving compliments from Champions League opponents Dinamo Zagreb as both sides seek a first win in the elite tournament when they meet Tuesday in the Croatian capital.
Zeljko Sopic, the coach of the Croatian champions, placed the 2015 finalists among the favourites to lift the continental trophy, but warned them that they are in for a tough time at the Maksimir Stadion.
“We’re ready for a great game, playing in front of a full house,” Sopic said. “We’re aware of how strong Juve are, but we do not fear them.”
After a 3-0 loss at Olympique Lyon in a Group H opener, Dinamo goalkeeper Adrian Semper said he hoped for a better showing at home, and, like his coach, tried to balance respect for the opponents with trust in his team's chances.
“We’re coming up against one of the best teams in the world,” Semper said. “We’ll give everything we’ve got and look to put into practice what we’ve been working on in training. We’ve done our homework on the opposition and feel ready for tomorrow.”
The Italian champions, meanwhile, did not shine in their September 14 opener, drawing 0-0 at home to Sevilla, and four days later crashed 2-1 at Inter Milan in domestic action.
They then hammered Cagliari 4-0, but faltered again Saturday, needing an own goal in a 1-0 win at lowly Palermo to still stay top, one point clear of Napoli, after six Serie A games.
Winning never hurts, but the unproductiveness of Gonzalo Higuain and Mario Mandzukic up front on Saturday baffled Juve fans, whose mood worsened after learning of serious injuries suffered by midfielder Kwadwo Asamoah and defender Daniele Rugani.
On the bright side, the Bianconeri seem to have room of improvement as coach Massimiliano Allegri fine-tunes his tactics to get the most from new arrivals Higuain, Miralem Pjanic and Dani Alves, after the departure of Paul Pogba and Alvaro Morata.
“This week we spoke about last weekend’s disappointing loss at Inter,” the Bosnian play-maker Pjanic said. “Allegri explained to us the areas we needed to work on and our reaction has yielded two victories [over Cagliari and Palermo].
“We’re now focused on Dinamo Zagreb. We both want and need to win, playing well and imposing our style of play on the match because it will be difficult, but our objective remains that of finishing top of the group.”
Hoping to be deployed Tuesday is Marko Pjaca, a promising 21-year-old forward who played the past two seasons at the club of his native town.
Mandzukic, another Croat, born about 200 kilometres from Zagreb, also had a stint at Dinamo from 2007 to 2010, but looks set to start on the bench to give way to Paulo Dybala.
Coach Sopic, who is 12 years older than Mandzukic, recalled playing against him in the Croat league.
“He was still a raw talent back then, but I remember very well what a brave striker he was and still is,” Sopic said. “Pjaca, meanwhile, can become one of the best players in the world. I’ve seen very few footballers with his ability.”