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Juve defence face spurs test

| | MILAN

This is one defence even Harry Kane might struggle to breach. The world's leading scorer in 2017 comes up against one of Europe's tightest back lines when Tottenham takes on Juventus on Tuesday.

Only one goal has been conceded in 16 matches by the Italian champions.

Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino is hoping such a formidable record doesn't spook his players heading into the first leg of the Champions League match in Turin.

"It's better that I don't tell them. That will be my psychology," Pochettino quipped. "It will be a tough battle."

There were questions over how the Juventus defense would cope following Leonardo Bonucci's shock departure to AC Milan. For six years, he linked up with Andrea Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini and won six league titles.

However, after an inconsistent start to the campaign, which saw Juventus concede 14 times in 13 league matches, the back line has settled down.

Medhi Benatia has stepped up to fill the void left by Bonucci and the Morocco international has formed a solid partnership with Chiellini, after both missed several matches through injury.

"After the start of the season, when we had games ending 3-2 or even 6-2, like against Udinese, we went back to normal," Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri said. "You can control games simply by defending well and not affording your opponents any chances."

The turning point was its last Champions League home match: A 0-0 draw with Barcelona in November. After losing 3-0 at Barcelona earlier in the group stage, the return fixture was only the second time Juventus had not conceded in any competition since the end of September.

It was the start of the impressive defensive run.

There was a caveat. Barcelona rested Lionel Messi for nearly an hour that night in Turin. There is little chance of Tottenham starting Kane on the bench on Tuesday.

The 24-year-old England forward has scored 36 goals in 37 games for club and country this season and has netted at least one goal in six of his last seven matches.

"It's a massive challenge for Harry, but also for the team," Pochettino said. "We were watching their game with Fiorentina on Friday (a 2-0 away win for Juventus). They are a very good team. But we are comfortable in the way we are playing and the shape we use."

But Juventus is no slouch going forward either, having scored a Serie A-leading 61 goals this season while tussling with Napoli for the title.

The Bianconeri will almost certainly be without Paulo Dybala for Tuesday's first leg. The Argentina forward hasn't played since limping off at Cagliari on Jan. 6 and is training apart from the rest of the team while recovering from a muscular injury.

Juventus won't be taking any risks.

"Tottenham isn't the last match of the season, there are still 14 league matches, an Italian Cup one and at least one in the Champions League," Allegri said. "If Paulo feels good, he will be available, but I don't have to just look at one match, which isn't even a final."

However, compatriot Gonzalo Higuain is in fine form coming into the match, with six goals in four matches. If Dybala is ruled out he is likely to be partnered by Mario Mandzukic, who has four goals in his last five Champions League matches.

Barzagli is also a major doubt, with a calf problem, while Juan Cuadrado, Benedikt Howedes and Blaise Matuidi will definitely miss the match.

 

De Bruyne, assist king

MANCHESTER: For Kevin De Bruyne, it was perhaps the ultimate compliment.

Following another midfield masterclass from the Belgian, Manchester City coach Pep Guardiola was asked if De Bruyne had elevated himself to the level of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo — and could even break their decade-long stranglehold on the Ballon d'Or.

Guardiola usually dismisses any comparisons with Messi, a player he rates as the "best in history" after having managed the Argentine from 2008-12 during Barcelona's trophy-laden golden era. He said last season that Messi "is on a table on his own" and De Bruyne could sit by the "table beside."

It seems like things have changed.

"No doubt," Guardiola said about De Bruyne being ready to supplant Messi and Ronaldo as the world's best player.

"He is not (just doing it in) one game," he said. "It's the whole season, every three days playing that way. Every three days."

Guardiola had just seen De Bruyne orchestrate City's 5-1 win over Leicester in the Premier League on Saturday, setting up three goals via a combination of teasing crosses and precision through-balls. Since the start of the 2012-13 season, no player in Europe's top five leagues has more assists than De Bruyne with his 77. He is a strong favorite to become England's player of the year for 2017-18 — only Liverpool forward Mohamed Salah is a genuine rival for the prize — but the Ballon d'Or is on another level. Messi and Ronaldo, the current holder, have won it every year since 2008.

Ahead of the resumption of City's Champions League campaign this week against Basel in round of 16, Guardiola reckons De Bruyne needs to be successful in Europe's top competition to be a contender. "He knows, and everyone knows, to be there you have to win titles — and titles and titles, especially one," Guardiola said, referring to the Champions League. "But the way he's played, it's difficult to find one (better) in Europe."

This could be City's year, too. Barcelona and Real Madrid are usually the two favorites to win the Champions League but City and Paris Saint-Germain — clubs backed by wealth from the oil-rich Middle East — look ready to usher in a new era. There's a realistic chance the two Spanish clubs might not even make it out of the last 16, with struggling Madrid taking on PSG and Barcelona meeting Chelsea over two legs.

 
 
 
 
 

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