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Juventus

Merciless Mandzukic and ruthless Ronaldo show why they're the world's best big-game players

19:08 IST 29/09/2018
Mario Mandzukic Cristiano Ronaldo Juventus Napoli 2018-19
The Croatian striker scored twice while his Portuguese team-mate racked up a hat-trick of assists as Juventus beat Napoli 3-1 in Turin

Juventus and Argentina attacker Paulo Dybala revels in the fact that he is the only player in the world who gets to play with both Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. 

The Bianconeri No.10 should consider himself just as fortunate to be able to line up alongside Mario Mandzukic on a weekly basis in Turin. 

The Croatian is no superstar. He never has been, not even at Bayern Munich, whom he helped win the Champions League in 2013 with his goals, ferocious work-rate and selfless forward play. 

For the most part, he was criminally under-rated. The Bavarians allowed him to join Atletico Madrid four years ago for just €22 million. 

"I never understood why Bayern sold him," former Bayern midfielder Stefen Effenberg wrote for T-Online during the summer.

"Mandzukic is one of the three best strikers in the world. If he were not so old, he would have a market value of €200 million.

"I would prefer him 10 times more than a Neymar."

Nobody at Juve would disagree. Neymar may be a big-name player. But Mandzukic is a big-game player. He proved as much again on Saturday night. 

Juventus versus Napoli may not have been a Champions League or World Cup final; in truth, it wasn't even a Serie A title decider, though the hype surrounding the game could have convinced you otherwise.

It was, though, the biggest game of the season so far, a top-of-the-table clash expected to teach us much about both sides' prospects of wining silverware this season.

Ultimately, we didn't learn anything that we didn't already know, namely that Napoli, for all their pretty football, lack the ruthlessness required to deny Juve an eighth consecutive Scudetto. 

The Bianconeri are serial winners, now spearheaded by arguably the two best high-stakes players in the game, Mandzukic and Ronaldo. 

The Portuguese failed to score yet still managed a hat-trick – of assists. He evoked memories of his early days at Manchester United with the wonderful wing-play which preceded the cross that Mandzukic nodded home to cancel out Dries Mertens' fantastically well-worked opener for Napoli.

Up until the equaliser, Carlo Ancelotti's men had been the superior side, their dominance founded on Allan's control of the middle of the park.

However, Ronaldo turned the game decisively in the hosts' favour, first with the pinpoint cross for the leveller, and then with the long-range strike that rebounded off the post and into the path of the onrushing Mandzukic, who coolly volleyed home his second of the evening to make it four goals in his first seven Serie A games – his best ever start to a season.

After the hapless Mario Rui had been dismissed for a wild hack on Dybala, Leonardo Bonucci put the outcome beyond all doubt when he tapped in a Ronaldo header at the back post. 

The Portuguese could and should have added a fourth when he sliced wide while well placed but there was no detracting from what was an excellent individual performance. 

Ronaldo had risen to the occasion, just like Mandzukic.

For a player like Dybala still trying to learn how to do likewise on a consistent basis, he could not have two better teachers.