The great teams don’t just beat their direct competitors in top-of-the-table clashes. They also get it done against the minnows. And by get it done, I mean they destroy them. You expect the kind of video game scores you see when Real Madrid plays a club like Deportivo La Coruna.
Juventus has had trouble doing that this year. It took late goals to beat the likes of Olympiacos in the Champions League and had to overcome deficits to beat the likes of Genoa and Udinese — not teams with quite the same gulf in quality as you sometimes see in Spain, but ones that nonetheless should be put away with relative ease.
The hope was that, with SPAL coming to the Allianz Stadium on Wednesday, the Bianconeri would finally show their ability to brush aside inferior competition. The Biancazzurri were back in the top flight after a 49-year absence, and had managed to hold Lazio, now flying high, to a goalless draw on the opening week of the season, but surely Juve would prove to have far too much for them ... right?
Well, in the end they did, but things got a lot rockier than they should have.
Juve dominated the first half-hour and went up 2-0, but let up a goal out of nowhere in the 34th minute and came out of the locker room for the second half in La La Land, allowing SPAL a dangerous 10-minute period of sustained pressure that culminated in a disallowed equalizer that could have utterly changed the game.
That danger finally shocked Juve back into form, and in the last 25 minutes they consolidated their hold on the game, but surely they can do better than this.
As has been the case for most midweek games, Massimiliano Allegri rotated a fair amount of the squad going in. Wojciech Szczesny deputized for Gianluigi Buffon in goal, and Andrea Barzagli replaced Giorgio Chiellini as Daniele Rugani’s partner in central defense. The fullback pair stayed the same, with Stephan Lichtsteiner and Alex Sandro manning the flanks. Sunday’s hero, Sami Khedira, formed half of Juve’s midfield pivot with Rodrigo Bentancur. Up front, fans were treated to a tantalizing look at how the team might line up in the future: Federico Bernardeschi started on the right wing while Douglas Costa lined up on the left to replace the suspended Mario Mandzukic, while Paulo Dybala took his customary place in the middle behind Gonzalo Higuain.
Leonardo Semplici sent out SPAL in a 3-5-2, looking to soak up pressure and counter. The back three was made up of Felipe, Marios Oikonomou and Bartosz Salamon, while Manuel Lazzari and Juve loanee Federico Mattiello formed the wingback pair. Midfield was manned by Luca Rizzo, Federico Viviani, and Eros Schiavon. The strike pair probably fielded the most Serie A experience on the team: Alberto Paloschi and former Juve player (and of almost everywhere else, it feels) Marco Boriello. Albert Gomis continued to man the sticks while wunderkind Alex Meret recovers from an ongoing groin injury.
The match started with Juve on the front foot, but unable to carve out any really dangerous chances. Higuain failed to get much purchase on a header from a Costa cross in the fourth minute, and gained a corner kick with a cross of his own four minutes later. Bentancur flitted around the midfield, gaining the ball and distributing it to his teammates.
It was really interesting to watch the young Uruguay international in these opening exchanges. He has played extremely well since arriving from Boca Juniors as the last great gift of Carlitos Tevez to Juventus, but in these opening moments we were seeing a different side of him. For the first time this season, he was taking charge of the midfield, demanding the ball to be the primary distributor, allowing Khedira to move further upfield. He faded in the second half, but it was another sign that this youngster is going to be truly special.
What wasn’t special was Bernardeschi’s attempt on 10 minutes, hustling in for the second ball after his cross in was popped into the air by a defender but menacing only the physical safety of those in the curva behind the goal. He made up for that though — in spades — only a few minutes later.
It started with Higuain, whose pressure forced Salamon into a giveaway. Dybala took the ball and crossed it — with his right foot, I might add — toward Costa. The Brazilian’s first touch was to pass to Bernardeschi in the right-hand channel, who used one touch to control and the next to send a vicious bending volley into the top corner of the far post to give Juve a 1-0 lead.
It wasn’t until the 20th minute that Szczesny even touched the ball, easily catching a ball from Viviani that popped into the air. Two minutes after that, Juve doubled their lead thanks to Dybala, who stepped up to a free kick and bent a fantastic shot into the top corner that gave Gomis absolutely no chance.
Two sparkling goals, and a 2-0 lead to Juve.
It was here that one of those losses of focus that has become a worrying hallmark of the young season began to surface. In the 28th minute, SPAL had their first really meaningful counterattack after Bentancur dribbled into a wall, but Barzagli tracked back well and dealt with the ball that came into the box. Bernardeschi looked for a second with his head on 32 minutes when Costa found him with a cross, but his shot was just off target. Two minutes later we suddenly had a game again.
SPAL earned their first corner of the match and took it short, eventually finding Mattiello at the top of the box. He took a cross/shot that was headed wide, but Paloschi muscled his way past Lichtsteiner and tapped past Szczesny to halve the deficit.
The responsibility for this one lands squarely on the Swiss Express. He looked more concerned with bodying up Paloschi than playing the ball, and ended up in a position to do neither.
For the rest of the half SPAL started to get more of a foothold in possession, which had almost exclusively been Juve’s to that point. They didn’t threaten again, but it was a dangerous thing to allow.
The second half started much the same. Juve almost had a third when Costa showed incredible acceleration down the left to put in a long cross that was just a step too long for Dybala, but the midfield looked a little more ragged and play began to open up.
Things got truly dangerous in the 53rd minute when Paloschi took advantage of some space to surge through a gap created by the out-of-position tandem of Barzagli and Sandro. Old Man Barza recovered immediately and made a sliding block to prevent a certain equalizer.
On the ensuing corner, the ball pinballed for a bit before bouncing off Oikonamou to Paloschi, who slammed it off the crossbar. The Greek center back pounced on the rebound to seemingly equalize, but referee Fabrizio Pasqua immediately acknowledged his assistant, who was flagging for offside. A rather lengthy VAR review eventually confirmed what Pasqua’s assistant saw in real time — Paloschi was clearly offside when the ball bounced off Oikonamou.
Allegri reacted immediately to the double scare. He replaced Bernardeschi with Juan Cuadrado — a puzzling move considering how well the former was playing — and three minutes later hauled off a fading Bentancur for Miralem Pjanic.
Traffic almost immediately began flowing back toward SPAL’s goal. Costa managed to pick Salamon’s pocket as the Pole suffered with the ball at his feet, and by the 65th minute the lead was back at two.
It came off a corner. Pjanic’s delivery went to the far post, and found Khedira, who tried to back-heel it into the goal. The attempt was blocked, but only rolled back in the German’s direction. He gave chase, but yielded to an onrushing Higuain, who side-footed it through traffic and past a flailing Gomis.
Gomis certainly should have done better five minutes later, when Costa placed an inch-perfect cross that Cuadrado met with a diving header that glanced off the keeper and into the net to make it 4-1.
Semplici then made the curious move of replacing Paloschi, who had been SPAL’s most dangerous man, with Federico Bonazzoli.
With 15 minutes left, Juventini were treated to a most welcome sight: Claudio Marchisio stepped to the touchline, ready for his first game action since starting the season opener against Cagliari.
The action still wasn’t over. With nine minutes left Pjanic gave up a foul in a dangerous spot, and the followup to the initial ball in ended up finding an unmarked Salamon, who was only able to head straight into his countryman’s gut. On the other end in the 88th minute Dybala received a fantastic through ball from Costa but couldn’t get into position to shoot. Then Marchisio, as if he’d never missed time at all, struck a beautiful through ball from a step beyond the halfway line that met Higuain in stride. The Argentine rounded Gomis and slotted home ... only for play to be called back by the assistant’s flag — a close call but a correct one. As stoppage time began, Dybala fired a shot from an angle on the right side that Gomis got a touch to, deflecting it into the path of Costa, who just missed latching on for an easy goal.
Cuadrado found time for one last piledriver wide, and then Pasqua ended the game.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 6. Could maybe have done a better job organizing the defense—that’s one thing we’re really going to miss when Buffon is gone for good, no one can really approach him in that regard. In terms of shot stopping he had little to do.
STEPHAN LICHTSTEINER - 5. Easily Juve’s worst player on the night. What he was doing on Paloschi’s goal I have no idea. Did have two tackles, but didn’t do much to help the attack either.
ANDREA BARZAGLI - 7. Made a fantastic block on Paloschi to prevent a sure equalizer. Completed 13 of 14 long balls while completing a team-high 97.7 percent of his passes.
DANIELE RUGANI - 6.5. A little overeager at times, but had a whopping nine clearances and used his positioning the way he always does in order to prevent opponents from getting into dangerous spots. Didn’t have a tackle because his positioning was so good he didn’t need to make one.
ALEX SANDRO - 7. A good night for Sandro. Made a key pass and is really starting to show chemistry with Costa. He has to coexist with him in a different way than he does with Mario Mandzukic, and he’s finally learning what that entails.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 6. Started really lively but lost control of his game later on and was deservedly replaced. When he was on form early he really took initiative and started stamping himself on the midfield, which was good to see.
SAMI KHEDIRA - 6. Kept the midfield well, pushed up to join the attack as Bentancur and then Pjanic took over playmaking duties from deeper positions. Solid but unspectacular.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 7. What a goal. I mean absolutely crazy. A bending volley with insane pace into the far top corner. Industrious down the right and got into a couple more threatening positions. Being subbed when he did was a little harsh.
PAULO DYBALA - 7. A fantastic goal—his third from a free kick in all competitions this season. Was a nuisance to the SPAL defense all night long and missed a second by Gomis’ fingertips in stoppages. Oh, and would you believe me if I told you he led the team in tackles on the night?
DOUGLAS COSTA - 9. So this is what he does when he’s on. Two fantastic assists—one a one-touch tip to Bernardeschi, the other an inch-perfect cross to Cuadrado. Had six key passes and even showed some bite defensively. His acceleration is frightening. He’ll be a terror for Serie A full-backs.
GONZALO HIGUAIN - 7. A good goal and an industrious effort. A lot more off-the-ball movement. I just wish he’d get all the way back to playing one-touch football instead of dribbling so much.
JUAN CUADRADO - 7. Great diving header for his goal but didn’t make much noise besides — perhaps because Costa was doing so well that most attacks were going through the left.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 6. Conceded a few risky fouls, but controlled the midfield upon his entry and his corner delivery led to Higuain’s goal.
CLAUDIO MARCHISIO - 6.5. Wonderful to see Il Principino again. He looked like he never missed time with that late through ball to Higuain that was nullified by the flag.
I want to address one thing in particular today, and that’s Allegri’s use of substitutions.
Allegri is often astute when it comes to his changes. Just look at the Champions League game against Sporting, when Costa’s cross put Juve ahead 15 seconds after coming on.
Allegri’s issue is that he often waits far too long to make his subs. It’s to his credit that he recognized the team listing after the disallowed equalizer. Throwing on Cuadrado and Pjanic in quick succession after that scare changed the game. After a 10-minute period to start the second half where SPAL managed a good spell of pressure, the changes totally reversed the flow. It was an excellent use of subs and, more important, they were perfectly timed.
Hopefully that’s a trend that will continue.
Saturday sees a huge clash at the San Siro with AC Milan. It won’t be the much-anticipated reunion of Juventus and Leonardo Bonucci, as the former Juve man will be suspended, but it will be the first real test of Milan’s ambitions after their summer spending spree and they will be motivated to come away with results. The fact that coach Vincenzo Montella is in the hot seat only adds to the heightened sense of anticipation for this game.
After that, Juve will play the away leg against Sporting in the Champions League in search of a stranglehold on a place in the knockout rounds before hosting another minnow in point-less Benevento before the international break. Going to Lisbon will be tricky so the team must keep up the momentum they’ve built up in the last two days. If they come out of these games with maximum points they will keep their place within striking distance at the top of the table.
The return of Marchisio and (hopefully) Mattia De Scilgio will be boons to the team’s depth as this critical stretch begins, but the team’s biggest hurdle right now is mental. Their tendency to shut off needs to end, and fast, or else Milan or Sporting could take advantage where SPAL failed to and peg Juve with a loss they can ill afford.