31st May 2017. By Ryan Baldi.
When Manchester United prised Paul Pogba away from Juventus for a world-record £89 million fee last summer, many feared that the Old Lady would struggle to recover from the blow of losing one of their best players.
But the Bianconeri already have a pretty viable contingency plan in place. Not only did they replace the star power and name-recognition lost by the flamboyant midfielder's return to Old Trafford after four years in Turin by signing Gonzalo HiguaÃn from Napoli, they had also picked up Bosnian playmaker Miralem Pjani? from rivals Roma.
Juventus met Pjani?'s €32 million release clause a fee which, when compared to Pogba's, looks a bargain meaning that the Giallorossi were powerless to prevent the gifted dead-ball specialist from leaving the Stadio Olimpico.
In one fell swoop Juve had both strengthened their own squad while weakening their closest title rival; it was devastatingly effective business.
However, Pjani? initially struggled to replicate the form he had produced with Roma the season before, when he finished as Serie A's joint-highest assist provider with 12 level with Pogba. Having to adapt to the Italian champions' 3-5-2 system, the former Lyon player found it difficult to imprint his stamp on games, unable to pull the strings as effectively as he had in the capital.
But as the season progressed, Pjani? grew more and more comfortable in his new surroundings, finding his peak form just in time to assist Juve in their Treble push, which will culminate on Saturday with the Champions League final against Real Madrid in Cardiff.
In February, manager Massimiliano Allegri decided to move away from his tried and trusted 3-5-2 system, which had begun to show signs of growing stale. Instead, the former AC Milan coach implemented a 4-2-3-1 formation, allowing star attackers HiguaÃn and compatriot Paulo Dybala to align centrally, with workhorse centre-forward Mario MandÂžuki? re-appropriated as a grafting and aerially powerful winger.
The change almost immediately brought the best out of Juventus, and Pjani? began to thrive in his new, slightly deeper role, often partnering Sami Khedira, or latterly Claudio Marchisio, in a double pivot.
From there, rather than having to act as a direct replacement for Pogba, pushing into the kind of attacking zones from which the United star likes to operate, Pjani? could sit deep and conduct play with his accurate and intelligent passing just as Andrea Pirlo had done so effectively at Juventus Stadium up until his 2015 departure.
Speaking to Juve's official website recently, Pjani? admitted that it took him a little while to get accustomed to his new home, and that the manager has helped him in that respect.
"It took me a bit of time to adapt when I first joined Juventus but coach Allegri has helped me a lot to settle in," he said.
"He knows when to crack the whip and when to put his arm around you and calm everything down and it'sÂ for that reason that he has a brilliant relationship with his players.
"I needed a bit of time to find my feet, but right now I feel great and with every passing week I'm sure that things will continue to get better."
The last few months have seen Pjani? play some of the best football of his career. The 27-year-old playmaker was instrumental in both legs of Juventus' destruction of Barcelona in the Champions League quarter-finals last month, showcasing all aspects of his game across the tie.
In the first leg at Juventus Stadium, Pjani? dominated BarÃ§a's tiki-taka midfield masters, completing 85.7 per cent of his passes, creating three chances and providing the assist for Giorgio Chiellini to head home from a corner.
The return fixture at the Camp Nou saw Pjani? demonstrate his discipline and work-rate, making eight tackles, five interceptions and three clearances to help his side secure a 0-0 draw, ensuring their safe passage to the semi-finals.
After overcoming Monaco to book their place in the Cardiff final, however, Allegri admitted that Pjani? had frustrated him, suggesting the midfielder can, at times, be too much of a perfectionist.
"I am very angry with Pjani?, because he can become one of the three best midfielders in the world, but every now and then when he gets a pass wrong, he acts like it's the end of the world," the manager said.
"He needs to stay calm and relax, because his potential is only partially expressed. The lads are having a great season, in order to make it extraordinary we need to be calm and focused."
Room for improvement still, then. With eight goals and 12 assists to his name in all competitions this term, imagining that Pjani?, as Allegri suggests, could yet get better, is a frightening thought especially for the 19 other teams in Serie A.
Although he has been a revelation in his deep midfield role, the 73-cap Bosnia and Herzegovina international places implicit trust in his coach, and will fulfil any role Allegri asks of him.
"I'm ready to play wherever Allegri sees best fits, whether that's in front of the defence, in midfield or in the hole behind the forwards," the former Roma man said in an interview with Juventus.com.
"I like to get my feet on the ball and play my team-mates into goal-scoring situations. Here I'm continuing to learn new things and I'm confident that I'll keep raising my game."
With the Champions League final on the horizon, Pjani?, in the form he is currently in, has the chance to elevate himself to the pantheon of the game's truly world-class stars.
There will be no shortage of elite players on show when Juve take on ZinÃ©dine Zidane's Real Madrid; if the 27-year-old midfielder can get the better of opposite numbers Luka Modri? and Toni Kroos, he'll be well deserving of his winners' medal and all the individual plaudits that will come along with it.
His achievements this season have made sure that the loss of Pogba has not been mourned by Juventus fans. Pjani?'s evolution points to a new, brighter future for the Bianconeri.
Miralem Pjani?: A Key Player for Juventus in the Champions League Final
31st May 2017. By Ryan Baldi.