Juventus coach Maurizio Sarri reaped the benefits of Cristiano Ronaldo, Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain playing together - then warned it may not happen often.

The front three, who also impressed against Bayer Leverkusen in midweek when Dybala came off the bench, were finally fielded as a starting combination for the first time in Serie A.

The selection paid off, Ronaldo scoring twice in a 3-1 victory over Udinese with one of his goals being set up by Higuain. Temporarily at least, the result moved Juve back to the top of the league standings.

However, Sarri suggested it was only due to Udinese's conservative style of play that he decided to start the three forwards together, with the frontline just one possible option for the former Napoli and Chelsea coach.

"It's the first time that we've managed to really attack the game after a Champions League fixture. We played at a high level for a good 60 minutes," Sarri told Sky Sport Italia.

"At this moment, those three are in good shape and we were facing an Udinese side that doesn't really keep possession, they like to try long balls.

"I therefore thought this was a situation where we could afford to have them. As soon as Udinese started passing it around more, we struggled, so it is a valuable option for us, but one we cannot use all the time.

"Our forwards also worked hard to help the defence and press the opposition for the first 60 minutes. In attack, they did what I asked, which was quick exchanges and passing.

"If we are in a game where the opposition will have 50-50 possession, then it becomes more complicated. They were very organised and focused today.

"Against Leverkusen, I saw they were getting tired and struggling to keep up the intensity, so I introduced the trident for that reason. Udinese play in a different way, they are not so focused on passing."

Ronaldo, meanwhile, believes Juventus have found a good way of incorporating all three forwards into the line-up.

"The most important thing was to win, although we could've had more goals," Ronaldo told Sky Sport Italia.

"I think this is a good way of playing and it's important we must play with confidence. It's not about individual performances, but how we work as a collective."

Cristiano Ronaldo passed the 10-goal mark for a 15th successive season on Sunday, making him the only player across Europe's top five leagues to accomplish the feat in the same period.

The Juventus star got a brace as the Old Lady comfortable brushed Udinese aside 3-1 in Turin, returning them to the Serie A summit for at least a few hours.

Ronaldo opened the scoring in the ninth minute, blasting home from just inside the area after the ball dropped kindly for him.

He then doubled their lead just past the half-hour mark, steering in following Gonzalo Higuain's incisive pass.

The goals took his tally to 11 for the campaign across all competitions.

Portugal star Ronaldo began his double-figure scoring streak in 2005-06 when he netted 12 across all fronts for Manchester United, following that up with hauls of 23, 42 and 26 before heading to Real Madrid in 2009.

With Los Blancos, the fewest goals he managed in a single season was 33 in his first year at the club.

In every other campaign at Madrid he scored 42 or more, with his best being a remarkable record of 61 in 2014-15.

Last term he got 28 in 43 matches for Juventus in his first campaign with the Italian side.

Cristiano Ronaldo scored twice as Juventus returned to winning ways in Serie A, easing to a 3-1 triumph over struggling Udinese on Sunday.

Maurizio Sarri finally fielded Ronaldo, Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain together from the start – and the trio were influential in helping the reigning champions record a first victory in three league outings.

The result was a formality by half-time at Allianz Stadium, Ronaldo getting a brace as Udinese struggled to cope with a pumped-up home team eager to bounce back from a 3-1 loss away to Lazio the previous weekend.

The Portugal international opened the scoring in the ninth minute, firing home a loose ball with an instinctive first-time effort, while it was Higuain's well-weighted throughball that set up for a second, finished with his left foot.

Leonardo Bonucci added a third before the interval, flicking in a header at a corner from centre-back partner Merih Demiral via a deflection off the underside of the crossbar, allowing Juve to ease up in the second half.

As the tempo dropped, the hosts relied on the evergreen Gianluigi Buffon - making his 478th Serie A appearance in place of the injured Wojciech Szczesny, drawing him level with Alessandro Del Piero's club record in the competition – to keep Udinese at bay.

The veteran goalkeeper - guilty of a costly error in the 2-2 draw against Sassuolo earlier in December - twice denied the lively Kevin Lasagna, while he also turned away a fierce drive from Seko Fofana.

However, there was little Buffon could do to stop Ignacio Pussetto getting a consolation goal in stoppage time, preventing the former Italy international recording a clean sheet.

Ronaldo had been denied a hat-trick by the post in the closing minutes but Juve coasted to a result that sends them above Inter, although the Nerazzurri can reclaim top spot when they travel to Fiorentina in Sunday's late kick-off.

What does it mean? Sarri sees forwards combine

Having worked so well in the second half of the 2-0 Champions League victory over Bayer Leverkusen in midweek, Dybala, Higuain and Ronaldo had the chance to show they can function from the outset. They did just that, combining impressively on a number of occasions. 

So, was Sarri's starting XI a one-off, or a sign of things to come? This was, admittedly, the ideal game to experiment in; Juventus have won more matches against Udinese than any other Serie A opponent. It will be fascinating to see if they are all selected again for trickier tests in the future.

Ronaldo still going strong

The forward - who turns 35 in February - may not quite have the blistering pace that was once such a trademark, but he remains a ruthless finisher. His goals demonstrated just how dangerous he is when presented with a sight of the target.

Lasagna goes cold on big stage

The Italy international was starved of service in an opening half that was one-way traffic towards the Udinese goal. In the second, however, he failed to capitalise on the opportunities that came his way, including twice allowing recovering defenders to make crucial blocks when seemingly in the clear.

What's next?

Juventus go up against Claudio Ranieri's Sampdoria on Wednesday in their final league outing before the mid-season break in Italy. Udinese, meanwhile, round out 2019 with a home game against Cagliari next Saturday.

Juventus goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny will miss the Serie A clash with Udinese after feeling discomfort in his right shoulder ahead of Sunday's game.

In a statement on social media, Juve said Szczesny reported the problem on the morning of the match and will be rested as a precaution.

Gianluigi Buffon looks set to start in goal at Allianz Stadium after completing 90 minutes in the midweek Champions League win over Bayer Leverkusen.

The 41-year-old kept a clean sheet in Germany but made a glaring error in his last Serie A appearance, the 2-2 draw against Sassuolo on December 1.

Mattia Perin has been added to the matchday squad as Maurizio Sarri's men aim to overtake leaders Inter, who visit Fiorentina later on Sunday.

Maurizio Sarri has challenged his Juventus side to fight against the Champions League hangovers that threaten to derail their bid for a ninth consecutive Serie A title.

Juve have dropped points in four of their 15 league games this season, two of which came immediately after midweek Champions League fixtures.

They drew 1-1 with Lecce in October following a win over Lokomotiv Moscow and were held to a shock 2-2 home draw by Sassuolo this month after beating Atletico Madrid, before losing 3-1 to Lazio a week later.

Those results have left them trailing leaders Inter by two points and Sarri has demanded they do not suffer a similar fate against Udinese on Sunday after the 2-0 win over Bayer Leverkusen that concluded their Group D campaign in midweek.

"The risks of dropping the intensity levels and dropping points after Champions League games is visible in the statistics," he told a media conference. "You can't argue when it happens two or three times.

"We've got to find out why it keeps happening and fix it. There are differences playing in Serie A to the Champions League, but it's not true to say the European opponents are more open. Bayer Leverkusen focus mainly on possession, while Lokomotiv Moscow tend to clam up.

"Perhaps subconsciously our minds can drift to other targets after so many Scudetto titles in a row, but that is something we must absolutely fight against. If we are to be competitive in the Champions League, we need to be competitive in Italy, too."

Udinese are led by caretaker coach Luca Gotti, who was part of Sarri's staff at Chelsea last season.

They have failed to win any of their past four Serie A games, but Sarri is expecting a tough match at the Allianz Stadium.

"Gotti is very talented," he said. "Udinese can transform any long ball into a scoring opportunity, so we've got to be wary of that.

"They are a dangerous team that knows how to close down well and make the game tight. They have strikers who work well and can be dangerous in different circumstances."

Midfielders Adrien Rabiot and Emre Can have struggled for game time this season, with the pair starting only five times between them in Serie A, while Can was omitted from the Champions League squad for the group stage.

Sarri says both can expect to feature against Udinese and has suggested Rabiot – a free transfer following his departure from Paris Saint-Germain during the off-season – has not yet adjusted to life at the club.

"He has struggled to settle into our football, but that is normal," he explained. "He also came off an injury and struggled more in the first half in Germany [against Leverkusen], but he came out towards the end. He is also quite introverted, which doesn't help him to settle.

"Can was immensely disappointed [at being left out of the Champions League squad]. Either Can or Rabiot will certainly play and both of them may well be on the pitch for a portion of the game."

Mattia De Sciglio hopes Juventus draw an English club in the Champions League last 16 after getting a taste of the Premier League two seasons ago.

Juve battled to a 4-3 aggregate victory over Tottenham in the first knockout round in 2017-18 after settling for a 2-2 draw in the opening encounter in Turin.

The Serie A champions eventually lost out to Real Madrid in the quarter-finals and had their hopes dashed by Ajax at the same stage last term.

Maurizio Sarri's men will expect to go further after topping Group D and defender De Sciglio said he now wants to face either of their two possible English opponents, Spurs or Chelsea.

"If you want to get to the end of the competition, sooner or later you have to meet all the strongest opponents," the Italy international told Sky Sport Italia.

"Personally I'd like to play against an English team, like we did two years ago, because it's nice to play against them."

The draw for the last 16 takes place in Nyon on Monday.

Before then, Juve must negotiate Sunday's Serie A home game against struggling Udinese.

The Bianconeri, 2-0 winners at Bayer Leverkusen in midweek, drew with Sassuolo and lost to Lazio in the two fixtures that followed their previous European engagements.

"It's true that we have had some difficulties after Champions League matches, but so far we have lost only once in the league and we are right there, attached to Inter," De Sciglio said.

"Udinese will be another tough game. There are no easy games in Serie A. But if we play like Juve, we will take the three points."

Juve sit two points behind leaders Inter, who visit Fiorentina on Sunday.

Arsenal appear to have strengthened their interest in Nuno Espirito Santo.

Just over two weeks after dismissing Unai Emery, the Gunners are reportedly ready to hold talks with one of the top contenders to take over at Emirates Stadium.

But the Portuguese is not alone when it comes to candidates with Premier League experience.

 

TOP STORY – GUNNERS STEP UP NUNO CHASE

Arsenal will ask Wolves for permission to conduct formal discussions with Nuno next week, according to the Daily Mail.

The north Londoners are reportedly ready to "set to accelerate their interest" in the 45-year-old former Valencia and Porto head coach.

Belgium boss Robert Martinez is also said to have been approached, while Mauricio Pochettino, Mikel Arteta and Patrick Vieira continue to be linked.

Freddie Ljungberg has overseen two draws, a defeat and a solitary victory since taking charge on an interim basis.

ROUND-UP

- Like his former employers, ex-Arsenal boss Emery will not be rushed into a decision on his next move. Marca says the Spaniard has turned down the chance to speak to two Chinese clubs and managerless Everton since becoming a free agent on November 29.

- Premier League champions Manchester City hope to bring wantaway winger Jadon Sancho back to the Etihad Stadium after losing him to Borussia Dortmund in 2017, reports the Daily Mail.

- On the outer at Chelsea, Olivier Giroud appears to be moving closer to the Stamford Bridge exit door. L'Equipe claims the France striker is close to agreeing personal terms on a January switch to Inter, where he would reunite with Antonio Conte.

- Serie A side Milan will be offered the chance to sign Luka Jovic on loan from Real Madrid in January, according to Tuttomercatoweb.

- Barcelona will listen to offers of €10million for teenage defender Jean-Clair Todibo, reports Mundo Deportivo. The Spanish newspaper claims Bayer Leverkusen, Milan, Monaco, Southampton and Watford have submitted bids.

- Real Betis have sealed a deal to sign former Atletico Madrid winger Yannick Carrasco from Chinese Super League side Dalian Yifang, according to Deportes Cuatro.

Lionel Messi can certainly be considered the best player of his era but Brazil great and former Barcelona team-mate Ronaldinho does not think he is the greatest of all time.

Messi won a record sixth Ballon d'Or earlier this month, taking him ahead of long-time rival Cristiano Ronaldo.

While the Juventus star has shown signs of decline over the past year or so at 34, Messi – two years his junior – continues to sparkle in LaLiga with Barca.

Despite missing a chunk of the early-season action through injury, Messi already leads the scoring charts in Spain's top flight with 12 goals from just nine starts – Karim Benzema has 11 from 14.

The Argentina star's form has been particularly impressive over the past six weeks, netting 13 times in 10 games for club and country, most recently hitting a hat-trick in Barca's 5-2 triumph over Real Mallorca.

But Ronaldinho, who spent the best part of four years as Messi's team-mate, is uneasy about suggestions the forward is the greatest to ever play the sport.

Speaking at a charity event in Mexico, Ronaldinho said: "I'm glad for Messi because he's a friend, aside from the fact he's been a leader of Barcelona.

"I don't like comparisons because it's hard to identify who is the best in history. There's Diego Maradona, Pele, Ronaldo.

"I can't say that Messi is the best ever, but he is the best in his time."

Liverpool lead the way with 10 nominations for the EA Sports FIFA Team of the Year.

Ashley Cole hopes the day will come when a defender wins the Ballon d'Or again but admits it is hard to envisage in the era of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

Messi this year won a record sixth Ballon d'Or – edging him ahead of the five awards Ronaldo holds – when he saw off competition from Liverpool centre-back Virgil van Dijk.

Dutchman Van Dijk has been inspirational for the Reds since he joined from Southampton midway through 2017-18, and he played a key role in their Champions League success last season.

Former England left-back Cole would have liked to see a fellow defender win the coveted trophy - awarded to the world's top player - for the first time since Fabio Cannavaro in 2006.

However, he believes Barcelona's Messi and Juventus forward Ronaldo remain clearly the best players in world football.

"It's tough," Cole told Omnisport. "You want different positions maybe being credited with how good they've played in that season, but to be honest I don't think you can look outside of Messi and Ronaldo.

"What Messi does week in, week out is not normal. Again, the same with Ronaldo. It wasn't a surprise that Messi won it but one day, yeah, we probably would like a defender to win it."

One left-back who has impressed Cole in the Premier League this season is Ben Chilwell, who has been in fine form for high-flying Leicester City.

"I think, for me, him and [Liverpool's Andy] Robertson are the best two left-backs in the Premier League at the minute," Cole said, speaking on behalf of Nissan.

Chilwell looks set to become the regular starter for England heading into Euro 2020.

"He's playing in a good Leicester team, suiting his game at the minute where he can attack and he's got protection behind him," Cole said.

"Whether he starts for England? That's probably a question for Gareth [Southgate]. I'd like to see him start because I think when he has played for England he's played very well.

"He looks accomplished there. I'd like to see him start but that's down to the manager."

Nissan are proud partners of the UEFA Champions League. UEFA ambassador Ashley Cole was at the Chelsea FC v LOSC Lille match on Tuesday 10th December, along with the UEFA Champions League Trophy, which is being driven around the UK by the next generation Nissan Juke.

Juventus forward Cristiano Ronaldo has targeted a reunion with his former club Real Madrid in the Champions League final.

Ronaldo netted for Juventus in a 2-0 victory over Bayer Leverkusen on Wednesday as they finished their Group D campaign with five wins and a draw.

The Italian champions will be joined in the knockout stages by Group A runners-up Madrid, with whom Ronaldo spent nine memorable years before heading to Turin in 2018.

Madrid are one of five sides Juve could face in the last 16, along with Chelsea, Borussia Dortmund, Lyon and Tottenham, but Ronaldo is hoping to avoid the LaLiga giants for now.

"Real are an extraordinary team, but if you ask me, I'd rather face them later," Ronaldo, who won the Champions League four times with Madrid, told Sky Sport Italia.

"In the final? I would sign up now to meet them in the final."

Ronaldo has scored in three successive matches for Juventus and feels fully over a niggling injury that curtailed his playing time last month.

"I feel good, the physical problems I had have passed," he said. "It was four weeks that I was playing with a little pain, but now I'm fine.

"The team is doing well. We played very well in the second half [against Leverkusen] and are first in the group. Things have improved for me too. I have more confidence and hope to continue like this."

Maurizio Sarri claimed last week that it is not possible to use Ronaldo, Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain in a front three, with the Juventus head coach instead preferring to rotate.

Ronaldo admitted he likes playing alongside the Argentinian duo but is happy to follow Sarri's plan.

"Whether I play with Dybala or Higuain, it is great," he said.

"I like playing with both of them, we have a lot of fun on the pitch, but the coach is the one who makes the decisions and we must respect them.

"But I can't deny that we have a lot of fun."

Juventus head coach Maurizio Sarri would welcome a Champions League last-16 tie with Tottenham so that he can face off against "extraordinary" Jose Mourinho.

The Italian champions eased into the knockout stages with five wins and a draw in their Group D campaign, culminating in a 2-0 victory over Bayer Leverkusen on Wednesday.

Tottenham suffered a 3-1 loss at Bayern Munich in their final Group B match, meanwhile, but they were already assured of second place behind the German giants in Group B.

Juve and Tottenham could meet in the next round, with Chelsea, Borussia Dortmund, Lyon and Real Madrid other possible opponents for Juventus.

Mourinho claimed teams will be eager to avoid Tottenham, but Sarri is open to a reunion with the Portuguese, whom he previously faced off against during his time in the Premier League.

"I have had the honour of getting to know [Mourinho] and I hold him in high regard," former Chelsea boss Sarri said at his post-match news conference.

"He is an extraordinary person that is very different from the perception that the outside world has of him.

"It was a real pleasure to get to know him. Playing against him isn't easy, but seeing him again would be great."

Juventus are joined in Monday's draw by fellow group winners Paris Saint-Germain, Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Liverpool, Barcelona, RB Leipzig and Valencia.

Asked which side he considers favourites to go all the way and lift the famous trophy, Sarri replied: "Manchester City."

Juventus return to Serie A action on Sunday with a home match against Udinese.

Europe's top five leagues have monopolised the Champions League knockout stage for the first time in the competition's history.

With Atalanta's 3-0 defeat of Shakhtar Donetsk, the Serie A side ensured only nations from Italy, England, France, Germany and Spain would complete the last-16 line up prior to the final group fixtures on Wednesday.

Atalanta's win left only one place in the last 16 to be decided, with Atletico Madrid's 2-0 triumph over Lokomotiv Moscow – combined with a 2-0 loss for Bayer Leverkusen at home to Juventus – enough to send Diego Simeone's men through.

It is the first time only teams from the top-tier nations in European football have been included in the draw for the knockout stage, which will take place on Monday.

England – Premier League: Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Tottenham

Chelsea and Liverpool had the biggest scares of the group stage when it came to the English sides, though both ultimately qualified.

Current holders Liverpool put in a clinical second-half display to dispatch Salzburg 2-0 in their final Group E match, with Frank Lampard's side progressing from Group H thanks to a 2-1 win over Lille – last season's semi-finalists Ajax dropping into the Europa League despite amassing 10 points

Tottenham were on the wrong end of a 7-2 hammering by Bayern Munich in October, but three successive victories sent them through prior to their second meeting with the German champions, while Manchester City qualified as Group C winners.

France – Ligue 1: Lyon, Paris Saint-Germain

Paris Saint-Germain look like they mean business this season and, after ensuring their place in the next round with a 2-2 comeback draw away at Real Madrid, capped off their Group A campaign in style with a 5-0 thrashing of lowly Galatasaray.

Neymar starred on Wednesday, with Mauro Icardi, Kylian Mbappe and Edinson Cavani all scoring too – with their star-studded forward line in such form, Thomas Tuchel's side should be some force in the knockouts.

Memphis Depay was the hero for Lyon, meanwhile, as his 82nd-minute equaliser against RB Leipzig sent Rudi Garcia's side from bottom up to second.

Germany – Bundesliga: Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, RB Leipzig

Along with PSG, Bayern were the standout performers of the group stage – their haul of 18 points and a goal difference of +19 making them the best group winner in Champions League history.

Leipzig made history when they secured their first participation in the knockout stage thanks to Emil Forsberg's double against Benfica on matchday five in Group G, though Borussia Dortmund had to see off Slavia Prague 2-1 in their final Group F game – and rely on Barcelona to defeat Inter.

Italy – Serie A: Atalanta, Juventus, Napoli

Atalanta seemed on the brink after three straight defeats to start their Group C campaign, yet Gian Piero Gasperini's side battled back – a draw with City and wins over Dinamo Zagreb and Shakhtar continuing their Champions League adventure, becoming the first side to go through after losing their opening three matches.

Juventus' tally of 16 points in Group D saw them equal their own record – set in 1996-97 and matched in 2004-05 – while Napoli hammered Genk 4-0 on Tuesday to book their last-16 berth, though it was not enough to keep Carlo Ancelotti in his job.

There will be no place in the last 16 for Serie A leaders Inter, though, with Antonio Conte's side dropping into the Europa League.

Spain – LaLiga: Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Valencia

LaLiga, like the Premier League, will have four representatives in the knockout stage. Barca were unconvincing at times in Group F, but had enough to seal their spot with a game to spare before ending Inter's hopes.

Atleti needed to overcome Lokomotiv on matchday six, but did so easily enough thanks to Joao Felix and Felipe – though Kieran Trippier missed an early penalty – and their city rivals Real Madrid ultimately easily progressed from Group A despite a chastening defeat to PSG in their opening match.

Valencia were involved in a mighty tussle with Chelsea and Ajax, who beat them 3-0 in their first home match, but eventually topped Group H thanks to a 1-0 win over the Eredivisie champions on Tuesday.

Gianluigi Buffon praised Cristiano Ronaldo and Gonzalo Higuain for leading by example in Juventus' 2-0 win over Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions League on Wednesday.

Juve already had top spot in Group D wrapped up ahead of their trip to Leverkusen, who needed to avoid defeat to have any chance of advancing to the last 16.

Peter Bosz's side had the best of the chances in the first half but Ronaldo tapped home from Paulo Dybala's cross in the 75th minute and Higuain drilled into the bottom-right corner in stoppage time to send the hosts into the Europa League.

Buffon praised Ronaldo and Higuain for showing their team-mates they must work hard in every match throughout the season.

"If we face the games this way, I am sure we can all do great things. However, if we approach matches with a sense of snobbery, that becomes a problem," Buffon told Sky Sport Italia.

"It's a bad sign if you don't go into games with the right determination if you are 20, let alone in your 40s.

"I am glad that we had examples like Higuain and Ronaldo to lead the way in their performance, work ethic and show of sacrifice for the team."

Despite taking just one point from their first four games in Group C, Atalanta booked their place in the last 16 of the Champions League with a 3-0 win away at Shakhtar Donetsk on Wednesday.

"I want to take this chance to congratulate Napoli and above all Atalanta, because seeing what they are achieving is honestly emotional," Buffon added.

"I messaged [coach Gian Piero] Gasperini after the first couple of games and told him to believe, because they are the kind of team who can beat anyone. They can lose to anyone, but on their day, they can beat anyone.

"I am so happy they qualified and it's a wonderful story."

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