Juventus have done the seemingly unthinkable. After famously picking up just 12 points through their first 10 matches, they've ascended to the top of Serie A with a commanding 15-game winning streak. On Saturday night, they went up against their biggest test thus far, Napoli, without some of their top players and emerged victorious.
The excitement was through the roof in the lead-up to the biggest match of the Serie A season thus far, with Juve and their 14-game winning streak going up against Napoli and their eight-game streak. The Bianconeri faithful were loud throughout the match and you could see the emotion on the players' faces as they walked out on to the pitch. Paul Pogba was bouncing back and forth between teammates, getting them hyped up as well.
The players' energy matched the fans' early on. Napoli came out aggressively, with their defense high up the pitch. Despite playing in a tough road environment, Napoli seemed to want to make a statement that they would continue to play their usual high-scoring brand of soccer. Juventus came out in a 4-4-2, a break from the usual 3-5-2 they've ridden for the entire win streak. Max Allegri's hand was forced a bit tactically, with Giorgio Chiellini out with an injury. The desire to include both Juan Cuadrado and Stephan Lichtsteiner may also have played a part in the formation change.
Juventus held off Napoli's early attacking attempts fairly comfortably before a 16th-minute injury to Leonardo Bonucci, which he suffered after running into Sami Khedira. He would come on the pitch, but didn't quite look the same afterward. After the opening salvo from Napoli, Juve started to gain control of the match, taking over more and more of the possession and pushing higher up the pitch. Some nice combination play between Khedira and Pogba led to a free kick in good position, only for Pogba to fire just outside of the top right corner. Soon after, Juve began to turn up the aggressiveness, led by some expert passing from Claudio Marchisio. Juve's sustained possession forced Napoli to emphasize counterattacking more.
The biggest chance of the first half came as Bonucci wasn't quite able to track a Gonzalo Higuaín run down the middle of the box, only for Bonucci to make an incredible recovery, extending his leg high in the air to just barely knock the ball out for a corner kick, prompting the announcer to remark, "he must be doing a lot of yoga." That would be the closest Higuaín would get to scoring all game.
The ensuing corner kick appeared to yield a chance for Napoli, with Gigi Buffon making a save at the far post, but the shot wouldn't have counted anyway, thanks to a push in Barzagli's back. Though it may not have counted, the save was emblematic of Buffon's constant mental readiness. Soon after in the 38th, Napoli just barely missed Higuaín again and this time, Bonucci wasn't quite ready to pounce on it. At this point it started to become clear that the collision he took on the knee earlier was affecting his movement.
The 40th minute would see Juve's first shot on goal, as Marchisio attempted a long shot that, despite a deflection, wasn't quite enough to trouble Pepe Reina. Juan Cuadrado would beat multiple defenders off the dribble shortly after, only to not find any of his teammates in the box. All in all, scoring chances were few and far between in the first half, with both back lines looking very secure.
Napoli finally generated a shot on target from Lorenzo Insigne in the first minute of the second half, but it was easy work for Buffon. Remarkably, that would be the visitors' only shot on target for the entire match. Daniele Rugani replaced Bonucci in the 52nd but things didn't get any easier for Napoli. Juve generated a few decent chances in the second half, with Patrice Evra and Paulo Dybala sending shots from inside the box just over the crossbar. For long stretches of the match, it didn't much feel like either side would get a goal.
Álvaro Morata had a quiet night, never quite seeming connected to Juve's attack before coming off for Simone Zaza in the 58th minute with an apparent hand injury. On the other side, Higuaín was visibly frustrated at both himself and his teammates. He had virtually no space to operate at any point in the second half and his lone shot attempt for the night was a complete non-threat. It felt like every cross or long pass fired his way was being casually cut out by Andrea Barzagli, who was brilliant all match long.
After an excellent run from Pogba, where he dribbled past multiple players, was wasted on an off target long shot, it seemed as if Juve was willing to just shut the game down and pick up the single point. However, in the 88th, Juve had a moment of magic. Zaza received the ball in the middle, faked inside, dribbled outside, and launched a shot that took a slight deflection, then sailed past Reina's fingertips into the back of the net. It was a joyout moment for the Juve players, who all rushed to embrace the match-winner.
Juve nearly added an insurance goal on the break a minute later, but Khedira's pass to Pogba was just a bit late. Gabbiadini would get a half-chance for Napoli, in the 90th, but he shanked the shot with his right foot and Juve wrapped up the match comfortably after that.
Buffon 6 – Wasn't tested at all. He was his usual cool and collected self in goal.
Evra 6 - Made some very good defensive plays in the first half. Wasn't too involved going forward.
Bonucci 5.5 - Slowed by injuries, he still managed one remarkable stop. Nearly gave one away though.
Barzagli 9 MOTM – Look up "veteran defender" in the dictionary and you'll see a picture of Barzagli and his rugged beard
Lichtsteiner 6 – Solid in defense.
Pogba 6.5 – Provided some danger nearly set up Dybala for a goal. Couldn't quite connect with his long shots
Marchisio 7 – Kept the ball very well and played some very good long passes.
Khedira 7 – Was one of the few players excelling in the attack in the first half. Good all-around game.
Cuadrado 6.5 – Can beat anyone off the dribble but his passing was off today.
Morata 5 – Wasn't quite connected with the rest of the team.
Dybala 6 – Not his best performance, but passed well when he dropped into the midfield
Rugani 7 – Solid. Always in the right spot. Very poised performance from the young center back.
Zaza 7 – Played reasonably well up until the massive game-winner
Sandro – Not enough time for a grade
Things I Think I Think
- I'm still buzzing from the winning goal. I jumped up and nearly knocked over my laptop.
- Barzagli was brilliant tonight. Nothing seemed to trouble him. His defending had Higuaín visibly frustrated all day.
- Juve didn't have a great game on the attack (they had just 4 shots on goal), but, without Chiellini and with only half a game from Bonucci, they held the league's' most prolific attack to one shot on target. One. Gigi could have taken a nap in the middle of the second half. Defense wins championships, guys.
- The players showed how much they cared about this one. The team's celebration after the goal was legitimately heartwarming.
- Juve's schedule is about to get tough, with four of their next seven matches against Bayern and Inter. If they can keep defending like this, though, I think they'll weather the storm.