The focus will mostly be on Cristiano Ronaldo’s return to Spain as Atletico Madrid take on Juventus in the last 16 of the Champions League. It would be unwise to neglect the influence that another attacker, standing at 6’3”, can have on the game in his own way.
Mario Mandzukic recently returned from a muscle injury that kept him a out for about 20 days. The Croat is one of those players who can single-handedly turn the course of the match in an instant. He could prove to be more than a handful for the Atletico defence.
Mandzukic is no stranger to Atletico Madrid, given that he played a season there before moving to Juventus. And he had scored 20 goals from 43 appearances in that particular campaign. Now, he will be looking to prove to them that they were wrong in allowing him to leave.
Mandzukic is not a poacher or a traditional number nine whose only motive is to put the ball at the back of the net. Rather, he’s a hybrid striker who can add a lot of value even when he fails to register his name on the scoresheet.
The Croatian’s off-the-ball movement is impressive and it can bring the best out of the players around him by pulling defenders away and creating space. Thus, Ronaldo can benefit a lot from Mandzukic’s role in the Juventus attack.
The former Bayern Munich man is also potent at hold-up play and is comfortable on the ball.
Needless to say, Mandzukic is also a sharp threat in the air and will provide the Atletico back-line with a lot to think. It also makes him a threat during set-pieces.
As much as Jan Oblak can lay claims to the fact that he is currently one of the best goalkeepers in Europe, Los Colchoneros are better off denying Mandzukic entry to promising areas in the box, especially while defending a set-piece.
It’s easier said than done but Atletico need to approach Mandzukic and Ronaldo as a unit to phase them out of the game rather than focussing too much on one of them and watch the other exploit the space and time he is provided him.
Fortunately for Juventus, Mandzukic’s return could not have come at a better time. The forward’s all-round role will be crucial, should the Italian giants progress further in the tournament.