Who is Ronaldo’s perfect partner at Juventus: Mandzukic or Dybala?

For Juventus fans, the signing of Cristiano Ronaldo is a truly an affair of the heart, one that supersedes all others.

Indeed, one banner at last Saturday’s season-opener against Chievo in Verona read, “Sorry, my love, I’ll [still] be at the altar but I couldn’t miss CR7’s debut.”

His Bianconeri bow had, after all, been a long time coming.

Juve had been among the Sporting starlet’s first suitors but an agreed transfer to Turin in 2003 foundered on Marcelo Salas’ refusal to move in the other direction.

Ronaldo has since broken the hearts of Juve fans on many occasions but, as he admitted on Wednesday, it was their public show of appreciation for his beautiful goal against the Bianconeri in last season’s Champions League that had touched the Portuguese so deeply that he became enamoured with the idea of moving to Turin during the summer.

The forward has since spoken of his childhood affection for the Old Lady, only strengthening the belief among the Juve faithful that Ronaldo is – and always has been – one of their own.

The moral of this particular love story seems to be that some things are meant to be.

Certainly, Ronaldo and Paulo Dybala looked like a match made in heaven from the moment the Portuguese signed on the dotted line.

Like any good celebrity couple, they were immediately given a collective nickname, ‘Dybaldo’, with the Argentine’s admiration for the five-time Ballon d’Or winnet evident in their first training-ground encounters.

Indeed, there was a meme doing the rounds on social media in Italy last week that featured a photo of the seemingly star-struck Dybala gazing up into Ronaldo’s eyes, accompanied by the text: “Find someone that looks at you the way Dybala looks at Ronaldo.”

However, while they have undeniably clicked off the field, their on-field relationship still requires a little work.

Juve coach Massimiliano Allegri selected Dybala to play just behind Ronaldo on Saturday, with Juan Cuadrado and Douglas Costa flanking them, and Sami Khedira and Miralem Pjanic manning the midfield.

It looked like a formidable formation but despite taking a third-minute lead through Khedira, Juve struggled to find any great fluency in attack.

Indeed, Ronaldo didn’t manage a single shot on target in the first half. Granted, he could easily have found the net with one effort from the edge of the area, but his lack of a goal threat owed more to those around him than any failings on his part.

He looked fit (unsurprisingly) and sharp. He made several intelligent runs but, for the most part, they went unnoticed by those around him, as Allegri acknowledged afterwards.

“There were some good movements that were not rewarded by the midfielders,” he argued. “Those are movements that must be read from the back with the ball provided in the right spot.”

Ronaldo proved far more dangerous after the break but that was only following the introductions of Federico Bernardeschi and, even more crucially, Mario Mandzukic.

The latter’s arrival allowed Ronaldo to drift more out to his favoured left flank – which he had been starting to do anyway – and it was telling that he had as many shots on target in the final half hour (2) as he had in the previous 60 minutes.

Mandzukic’s strike rate has fallen every season since he joined Juve three years ago (10 Serie A goals in 2015-16; seven in 2016-17; and just five in 2017-18) but, as he underlined at this summer’s World Cup in Russia, the Croatian remains both a man of the big occasion and an excellent target man.

He is as selfless as he is hard-working, which is why many believe that he can be Ronaldo’s ‘Karim Benzema’ at Juventus, the No.9 that will create space and goals for the game’s most lethal finisher.

In addition, he has proven himself just as capable of playing wide on the left – a factor behind his diminshing strike rate in Serie A – as through the middle, meaning he could interchange with Ronaldo on command. That is the kind of in-game flexibility that Allegri adores.

However, if Mandzukic emerges as the best option for getting the very best out of Ronaldo, what does that mean for Dybala?

Dropping ‘La Joya‘ is almost unthinkable. Despite the presence of Gonzalo Higuain in attack, Dybala was Juve’s top scorer last season, with 22 goals.

He also won more duels and fouls than any other Bianconero but if it comes down to a straight choice between the No.10 and Douglas Costa on the right wing, Dybala could be in trouble.

The 24-year-old is blessed with delightful dribbling skills and is wonderfully adept at cutting inside from the right wing before whipping the ball into the back of the net with his Lionel Messi-like left foot.

Allegri could, thus, decide to field all three strikers in the same fluid forward line.

However, that would mean dropping Costa, who arguably played a bigger role in Juve’s double win last season than anyone else – at least from an offensive perspective.

As well as repeatedly roasting Marcelo in Juve’s fantastic but ultimately futile Champions League win over Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu in April, Costa also consistently came up trumps at key moments during the Serie A title run-in.

By the season’s end, Costa had racked up more assists (13), created more chances (83) and completed more successful crosses (45) and dribbles (171) in all competitions than any of his team-mates.

With his searing turn of pace and fancy footwork, he is undoubtedly more naturally suited to the right-wing berth than Dybala.

Furthermore, when one considers that Juan Cuadrado and Bernardeschi, who registered an assist as well as goal after being sprung from the bench against Chievo, it’s obvious that nobody other than Ronaldo –  not even Dybala –  is guaranteed a starting berth at Juve this season.

Of course, as far as Allegri is concerned, having an abundance of options is far better than the alternative, and the Bianconeri boss privately believes that the Bianconeri will need at least a month to figure out a winning formula in attack.

As with most affairs of the heart, finding the perfect partner is really just a question of chemistry. Allegri is hoping that the next few weeks of match-making will reveal Ronaldo’s.

 

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