Cristiano Ronaldo might have stolen the headlines away from everyone else at Juventus for the time being, but there is one player in particular who has been an almighty success with the club and fans since joining the Italian champions in 2015.
Mario Mandžukić is his name, and arguably one that doesn’t get the accolades nor attention he deserves.
Having arrived from Atlético Madrid just over three years ago, Mandžukić had, somewhat surprisingly, not really made a lasting impression for the Spanish giants in his one season in the country’s capital.
Although he scored 20 goals in 43 appearances, finances dictated that Mandžukić had to be sold and Juventus were ready to make it happen.
The Bianconeri, under Massimiliano Allegri, had just come off a season where they finished runners up to Barcelona in the Champions League and once more retained the Serie A title.
So close, and yet so far, Juventus were one step away from winning the third European Cup in the club’s history, but fell at the final hurdle.
Such shortcomings prompted the Italian manager to go and sign Mandžukić, a hard-nosed, physical striker with the understandings of continental football that could add a different dimension to Juventus’ attack.
In the Croatia international’s first season in Turin, he found the back of the net a modest 13 times in triple the amount of appearances.
While he did not get off to a flying start in Italy, his dedication, loyalty and hard-working approach on the pitch paid dividends for Gonzalo Higuaín, Juventus’ main centre forward at the time.
Throughout his few seasons with Juventus, Mandžukić has never been one to muster up incredible goal tallies. In fact, he has never surpassed his 13 goals he scored in all competitions in his debut year with the club.
Instead, the Croat’s strengths lie in his devotion to the team’s objective.
There are seldom players in today’s game that selflessly sacrifice their own artistic talents for the good of the club, but Mandžukić is one of those rare breeds and deserves higher praise for it.
Links to Manchester United evolved over the summer transfer window, with Jose Mourinho having seemingly developed a fondness for Croatian players.
Inter Milan’s Ivan Perišić was Jose Mourinho’s primary target in the summer of 2017, but the club were eventually priced out by the Italians and he remained put.
This summer, Mourinho opted to pursue Mandžukić on the back of an unbelievable World Cup where he ran himself into the ground and was one of the best performers at the tournament, delivering when it truly mattered for his country.
Before the World Cup, perhaps Juventus were open to accepting a reasonable offer for the 32-year-old, but their minds were set in stone after a change of heart on the back of such brilliant displays.
Three goals and one assist on the biggest stage of all suggests that he is the main man for the times when others might cower.
Other centre forwards might shy away from their duties when faced with the daunting prospect of a semi-final and final of the World Cup, but Mandžukić found the back of the net in both games.
Against Gareth Southgate’s England, the Juventus forward found the crucial, match-winning goal 11 minutes from the end of extra time – preying on the mistakes in England’s defence and punishing them without thinking twice.
Mandžukić is a striker that doesn’t need a second invitation to score and he certainly showed that in Russia.
In Juventus’ quarter-final showdown against Real Madrid at the Bernabéu last season, it was Mandžukić who rallied his teammates in trying to overturn a 3-0 deficit.
The Bianconeri were desperately unlucky not to go through to the semi-finals, with Ronaldo scoring an incredibly late penalty in injury-time that knocked them out of the competition.
However, to score three on Real’s hallowed turf was a valiant effort, epitomised by Mandžukić’s unbelievable performance.
The Croat started on one of the flanks as he usually does, covering all blades of grass possible when tracking back, but he scored two goals within 37 minutes to give Juventus genuine hope of causing one of the greatest European upsets ever.
Unfortunately it was not meant to be on the night, but Mandžukić’s efforts were not forgotten. Nor was his stupendous overhead kick in the final the previous year against the same opposition with the same outcome.
Once again, the Croat proved his worth by turning up in a final of the highest magnitude and displayed his scoring abilities when under the most intense pressure a footballer could ever have in a career.
Juventus’ faith in Mandžukić has been paid off so far and they made the right decision to not cash in on him in the most recent transfer window.
The Old Lady are third-favourites to lift the Champions League in Madrid this season, with Betfair offering enticing odds of 13/2. Manchester City and Barcelona are joint-favourites with a selection of 5/1 with Paddy Power.
Having already scored four goals in Italy’s domestic league, two of those coming against title challengers Napoli at the Allianz Stadium, the Croat is off to a flying start and should play an absolutely crucial role in helping Juventus delve into the deeper rounds of the Champions League.
It is little wonder why Mourinho, among other elite coaches around Europe, wanted Mandžukić.
No matter what, he will give his utmost time and time again. Whether it’s out on the wing, in a wing-back role or playing as the main centre-forward, the Croatia international is a player to be cherished and thoroughly appreciated.
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