Ugly points are still points.
This is a mantra that has been repeated in the early parts of every season that Massimiliano Allegri has been in charge of Juventus. There’s been so much turnover in the squad over the last few years that they always take a few months to gel together. That can lead to some really ugly games against teams that Juve should by rights sweep aside. It happened last month against Olympiacos and it happened again on Wednesday against Sporting CP.
Juve had looked shaky in their last two outings, drawing 2-2 against Atalanta before being schooled 2-1 by Lazio for their first home defeat in more than two years. It’s been far longer than that since they’ve lost a home game in Europe — you have to go all the way back to 2013, when eventual champions Bayern Munich eased to a 2-0 win over Antonio Conte’s first Champions League side — but Sporting looked like they would change that history as well when they dominated the first 10 minutes of play and took a deserved lead after 12 minutes when Gelson Martins was denied in a 1-on-1 by Gianluigi Buffon only for the save to carom off the leg of Alex Sandro for an own goal.
But then Juve did something it hasn’t really done this season: picked themselves up immediately off the canvas and counterpunched. A few chances were created, and then Miralem Pjanic turned in a peach of a free kick to tie the score.
A sloppy, end-to-end second half saw Juve struggle to find the final ball before substitute Douglas Costa found Mario Mandzukic with an exquisite cross to put Juve ahead. There was one moment of panic when Seydou Doumbia nearly latching on to a ball at the far post that would surely have tied the score, but the Ivorian couldn’t make contact with the ball.
It was a weird game, but points are points. Want a deeper look? Here are five points of discussion from Wednesday’s win.
1) Mario Mandzukic is excellent
Mario Mandzukic is the kind of player everyone loves. He never gives anything less than 100 percent effort, he sacrifices for the team, and he comes up big when it counts. “If I could pick my ideal team,” said Croatian national team interim coach Zlatko Dalic after the international break, “I’d want 11 of Mandzukic.”
Mandzukic is an unorthodox sight on the left wing, but his presence there creates a unique set of advantages. He drags defenders out of position the way a good center-forward does, creating tons of space for Alex Sandro to maraud on the overlap. Perhaps most important, the physical mismatch between him and the full-backs who are usually forced to mark him enhances his already formidable ability in the air — as the unfortunate Jonathan Silva discovered in the 84th minute on Wednesday.
His effort on the defensive end was typically excellent, supplementing a defense that, despite looking awkward at times, only ever let up one shot on target—the shot that got deflected into the net by Sandro.
Between attack and defense, his numbers in this match were impressive: Four shots (two on target), one key pass, three aerials won, one tackle, two interceptions, two clearances.
This performance was all the more impressive considering his performance against Lazio, when he looked decidedly off. If Gonzalo Higuain continues to struggle, there’s going to have to be a conversation about Mandzukic moving back into the middle for a while like he did last month, especially since...
2) Douglas Costa settling?
It took Douglas Costa all of about 15 seconds to notch his first assist as a Juventus player. He had only six touches in the game, but caused the kind of havoc in the attacking third that no one had managed in 84 minutes prior.
It was always going to take time for a flair player like Costa to settle into the more tactically-oriented style of calcio, and that adjustment period is still ongoing. But in his last two appearances he’s racked up his first goal and assist, respectively, of the year. The left-footed flash has the kind of pace that no one on this team has had in a very long time and the skill to make that pace into something very dangerous indeed.
Costa is beginning to make a case for more playing time. If he does, it will open up a wealth of options. He could give Mandzukic more frequent rests or play the left if the Croatian is moved inside for whatever reason. He could also be an asset down the right side, which is a thing to think about because...
3) $#%@IN’ JUAN
That is quite literally the nickname given to Juan Cuadrado by my supporter’s club here in New York.
Contrary to what might be believed given the criticism I often level at him, I do not think Cuadrado is a bad footballer. In fact, he is one of the most talented players around.
The problem is he doesn’t harness that talent with any regularity. The three-game stretch before the international break that included the matches against Sassuolo, Fiorentina, and Torino saw him at his sensational best. The Fiorentina game in particular was a masterpiece.
But then you see games like this one, where he continually made negative plays by trying to be too damn fancy with the ball. One moment in particular in the first half stands out, when he tried to make a fancy flick to control the ball rather than using the space around him to settle it. The result: an instant giveaway for a goal kick. Cue the sound of Juan’s nickname being screamed at our bar. Costa had more of an impact on the game in 15 seconds than Cuadrado had in 90 minutes.
It would be incredibly difficult to make an upgrade on Cuadrado if he displayed the form he played last month with any sort of consistency. But he doesn’t, and if Costa starts hitting his full ability and unleashing it on a consistent basis, it’s going to be time to think about installing Costa there full-time.
4) Miralem Pjanic is back
Having Miralem Pjanic back in the lineup after missing three weeks with a leg injury suffered during warmups before the Olympiacos game was a boon to this side. Without him in the lineup Juve looked devoid of ideas going forward. Rodrigo Bentancur is going to be that kind of string-puller one day, but he’s not there yet. Right now, Juve need the Bosnia-Herzegovina international to function properly in attack.
Pjanic completed 80.4 percent of his passes in his return, including two key passes. Juve’s passing was more incisive, more inventive, just plain more than it had been before internationals with him back.
And then there was that free kick. What a thing of beauty. It came at exactly the right time, because the crowd had been out of the game after the own goal and roared to life when he tied the score.
Until this team can come together (and/or Claudio Marchisio returns from injury) Pjanic’s place in the team is going to be essential.
5) Daniele Rugani watch
Daniele Rugani wasn’t even amongst the subs today.
This vexes me.
I understand that I am beating a dead horse here, but I’m going to keep swinging at this darn carcass until something gives me a reason not to. Rugani is probably the best defender on the team not named Giorgio Chiellini, but continues to be left out of big games for...reasons.
Instead, the mistake-prone Medhi Benatia started alongside Chiellini. I know Stefano Sturaro is going to get the lion’s share of the popular blame for the own goal because he exists, but, while he probably shouldn’t have started that passing move in the first place, it was Benatia who had the last touch before Martins was put into the clear.
Rugani needs to start playing in games like this. Along with Mattia Caldera, he is the future of this team defensively and needs to start feeling what these games are like from the field, not the stands.
We’ll see what happens to the center back position after this game. Benatia had to limp off the field in the first half and was replaced at halftime by Andrea Barzagli. This might move Rugani into a more advantageous spot on the depth chart, but Allegri still needs to play him in big games like this if he’s going to grow into them.