Playing as the away team at the Marassi is never an easy proposition, especially when the home team is in form, as Sampdoria was coming into Sunday’s tilt with Juventus.
But the way Juventus played in Genoa went beyond having a bad game on the road. After playing a pretty darn good half of football in the first half, a bad defensive error allowed Samp the breakthrough early in the second, and what followed was a complete mental collapse the kind of which we haven’t seen with regularity since Luigi Delneri was coaching the team.
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Juve concede the first goal and say to myself, “Boy, I don’t know if we can come back from that.” But that’s exactly what happened when Duvan Zapata powered home his header for the opener, and I was proven exactly right.
Juve went into the game with Barcelona on the brain. Massimiliano Allegri clearly had the key Champions League clash in mind when he picked the players to plug into his 4-2-3-1 formation. Gianluigi Buffon was rested after the stress — both physical and mental — of Italy’s World Cup playoff during the international break, with Wojciech Szczsney taking his place. Giorgio Chiellini and Daniele Rugani formed the center-back pairing, with Stephan Lichtsteiner and Kwadwo Asamoah bookending them on the flanks. Sami Khedira and Miralem Pjanic formed the midfield pivot, and the familiar faces of Mario Mandzukic and Juan Cuadrado manned the wings. The most intriguing decision of the game came in the form of Federico Bernardeschi, who was deployed in Paulo Dybala’s traditional trequartista role behind Gonzalo Higuain.
Sampdoria’s Marco Giampaolo opted for a midfield diamond in a 4-3-1-2. Emiliano Viviano (and his AWFUL sideburns — geeeez) started in goal, protected by the foursome of Bartosz Bereszynski, Matias Silvestre, Gianmarco Ferrari, and Ivan Strinic. Denis Praet and Edgar Barreto sandwiched Lucas Torriera in midfield with Gaston Ramierez in the hole behind the massive Zapata and former Juventus man Fabio Quagliarella.
Juve nearly started the game like gangbusters. Barely 90 seconds into the match Bernardeschi flipped a beautiful through ball to Higuain, who charged through the channel. It was a chance a player of his caliber needs to bury—but he couldn’t get his shot past his defender, who deflected it just beyond the far post. It was the start of a half of missed chances.
Five minutes later, Higuain turned provider after dropping into the midfield, finding Mandzukic with an excellent diagonal ball. The Croatian cut inside and fired, but Viviano smothered the ball as Bernardeschi lurked for a rebound that never came. In the 12th minute Higuain had his shooting boots on again, but his effort from the top of the box was blocked for a corner.
Even as Juve found shooting positions, there were some warning signs that Samp had some sting in their tail. They had a good amount of possession in the early going. Bernardeschi was rather harshly booked going into a 50/50 challenge with Strinic, and Lichtsteiner didn’t even get called for a foul on a harder challenge on Praet that eventually forced the Belgian off the field in favor of Karol Linetty.
But the Blucerchiati weren’t able to manufacture a good scoring chance. Juve kept on getting into decent positions but couldn’t get the finishing touch. Bernardeschi continued to present a danger, cutting in from the right with a deft flick before delivering a ball just behind Higuain’s run. Seconds later Cuadrado found Mandzukic on the left, but he decided to cut in again rather than shoot and ran into a wall, eventually losing possession.
Samp had their first (and only) chance of the half on 20 minutes, when a cross came in from the attacking right and Quagliarella flicked a volley toward the goal. The close attention of Rugani put him off just enough, and the ball flew past the post.
Right on the half hour we saw a preview of what the second half would look like when Zapata went up for a header and beat Chiellini to square a pass into the box, although the Juve defense managed to clear things up.
In the 32nd minute the Bianconeri came up with what might have been their best chance of the half. Khedira shot in an entry pass to Higuain, who turned and send Cuadrado through in the box. Juan took the ball to the byline and then did a very Juan thing. Rather than square the ball to a wide-open Mandzukic, he took a shot from an insane angle that hit the keeper and bounced wide. It was a baffling decision, emblematic of the deficiencies in the Colombian’s game. That referee Marco Guida somehow pointed for a goal kick when the ball had clearly deflected off Viviano made things even worse.
Higuain had another shot blocked, then Samp said boo at the other end when Zapata outmuscled Rugani to win a header, only for the young Italian to recover and head the resulting cross away from Quagliarella.
There was some action in the two minutes of stoppage time when Mandzukic headed a diagonal ball from Bernardeschi to the feet of Khedira, who fired a shot with a ton of curve that missed the target. Then Cuadrado fired in a cross that hit Strinic in the hand in the box. Juve immediately called for a penalty, but Guida demurred, causing a torrent of protest as the players headed for the locker room. It was a close hit and the full-back’s hands weren’t really in an unnatural position, so it probably was a good no-call on Guida’s part, but there were still Juve players in his face as the teams came out of the locker room for the second half.
That was where the wheels came off.
It started seven minutes after the restart. After a ball into the box by Quagliarella was blocked out, Asamoah made a disastrous attempt to run the ball out. Quags got the ball right back and set in another ball that Bernardeschi scuffed into the air. It was on a platter for Zapata, who totally overpowered Lichtsteiner to head the ball home for a 1-0 lead.
They very nearly doubled their lead four minutes later, when Quagliarella went on a break and bamboozled Rugani before playing Zapata through 1-on-1 with Szczsney. The striker tried to dink the ball over the Poland international but didn’t get enough air to his shot and Szczsney managed to keep the margin one.
Juve started playing too fast. Asamoah ended a great run with the ball by falling down with it, then Higuain started running with the ball and lost it on a questionable attempt at a long diagonal pass.
Bernardeschi, clearly fading, was replaced by Dybala in the 62nd minute. The Argentine had a fantastic chance within a minute of coming on when Lichtsteiner fizzed a ball across the mouth of goal. Mandzukic couldn’t control it for a shot at the far post, but corralled it well enough to lay it off to Dybala. His first-time shot was blocked, but Pjanic charged in for the rebound — only to see his shot deflected as well.
Two minutes later Asamoah put a decent cross into the box, only to see Higuain and Khedira get in each other’s way. Then, with 20 minutes left on the clock, Higuain burst out on a counter following a corner kick and tried to slip Cuadrado through. The Colombian would have been one-on-one with Viviano...had he managed to actually latch on to the pass. Instead he whiffed at it and had to take it out wide and attempt a cross, which was duly claimed by the keeper.
Sixty seconds later Samp doubled their lead when Torriera received a simple pass from Ramirez. With no one closing him down (Chiellini was closest but miles away), he unleashed a bolt across the goal that Szczsney had no chance at.
At that point Juve looked like they had mentally shut down. Cuadrado made way for Douglas Costa, but Sampdoria maintained possession for much of the next 10 minutes or so. They only had one chance at halving the lead — a long free kick Dybala put a little ways over the bar — before Quagliarella popped up at the far post to control a free kick that somehow got through the entire defense. Khedira raised his hand to appeal for an offside call against the striker—and stopped playing, allowing Ferrari to sprint around him and tap the ball in to make the score 3-0 with 11 minutes left.
Allegri made his last change by introducing Blaise Matuidi for Pjanic, but the day was pretty much summed up by Dybala blasting a shot into Higuain’s backside.
When Strinic gave away a penalty just as the clock hit 90, it looked like nothing more than a consolation. It was surprising when Higuain stepped up to it rather than Dybala, but the striker — after some shenanigans from Ramirez, who was booked for kicking the ball away from the penalty spot — sent Viviano the wrong way, which was a good thing because if he had guessed correctly he would’ve saved the shot fairly easily. But a goal is a goal, and at 3-1 it looked like the game would be played out.
Until it wasn’t. Two minutes later a good pass from Costa released Dybala down the right side, and he finished smartly to set up a grandstand finish.
Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. An extra minute was added to stoppages, but the game effectively ended when Higuain was called offside on a last-ditch ball up the field.
WOJCIECH SZCZSNEY - 5.5. I’m not 100 percent convinced that Szczsney is the answer to life AB (After Buffon). The defense started getting really loose as the game went on. It’s his job to fix that but he didn’t do much to do so today. It’s unfair to compare him to Buffon in this regard because Gigi is the best in the world at it, but between that and his horrible wall placement against Benevento, it’s clear what he needs to work on.
STEPHAN LICHTSTEINER - 5. Got utterly dominated in the air by Zapata and had minimal impact on the overlap on the right side. Did make a team-high five tackles, but he’s really proving to be a shell of the player that ran his way into our hearts six-and-a-half years ago.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 5. Where was he on Torriera’s goal? He gave the Uruguayan far too much room. Even he struggled with Zapata in the air. Part of a generally bad day for Juve’s defense, although he was credited with six clearances..
DANIELE RUGANI - 4.5. Strange that his worst two games of the year were both at the Marassi. If Chiellini struggled with Zapata’s strength in the air, Rugani didn’t really have much of a chance. Also got turned inside out by Quagliarella on a counter and bailed out by Szczsney. Oddly made more tackles than Chiellini and blocked a shot, but he was far from his best today. The important thing is to let him have games like this while still keeping faith in him to improve on them.
KWADWO ASAMOAH - 4. Not a good one for the reserve left back. When Mandzukic is on the wing the overlap is so important, and Asamoah simply doesn’t combine with him as well as Alex Sandro does. Decent defensive stats belie the key role he played in conceding the opener.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 4.5. Not a good game for the Bosnian. Completed a high percentage of his passes but not many of them really broke the defense open, and he made a couple of dangerous giveaways in his own end of the field.
SAMI KHEDIRA - 3.5. His play on the third goal was absolutely unacceptable. That alone should get him benched for a game. Didn’t do a whole lot to threaten the Samp goal either aside from the entry pass to the missed chance by Cuadrado.
JUAN CUADRADO - 5. Had a really good start to the game before that baffling decision in front of goal sent his game spiraling. Hauled off with 20 minutes to go after doing very little in the second half.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 6. Had an incredible first half in the trequartista role. Created a couple of good chances, including that first one two minutes in that Higuain really should have buried. Faded badly in the second half, which is predictable when you only play in 10-minute chunks for the first three months of the season.
MARIO MANDZUKIC - 5. Got into a couple of good positions early in the game but faded badly as the match progressed. He looks gassed, but his physicality might be a necessity for the Barca game. After that it might behoove him to take a rest day or two.
GONZALO HIGUAIN - 6. Should’ve buried that early chance. Distributed from the front fairly well, and had the gumption to step up to the penalty and send Viviano the wrong direction.
PAULO DYBALA - 5.5. Didn’t make the impact he made a in September when he stepped on to the Marassi pitch as a sub. That goal was a peach, though. Maybe it will boost his confidence going forward.
DOUGLAS COSTA - 7. Drew the penalty and sent in a great ball for Dybala to score the second. Also put a shot on goal and had five dribbles. Needs to start over Cuadrado going forward.
BLAISE MATUIDI - NR. Not really a lot of time to make an impact. The attack was pretty much bypassing the midfield by the time he got on.
There really isn’t a lot to talk about tactically here. The one wrinkle was the utilization of Bernardeschi in the hole, which worked quite well until Bernardeschi ran out of gas.
I see two major problems though. First, the continual scrambling of the back four. Rotation is understandable, but with the turnover in the unit this year there’s not nearly as much cohesion as there has been in the past. The problem is that the same lineup barely ever plays two games in a row, killing any chance for a top lineup to develop chemistry. Allegri needs to settle on a group of four starters and stick to it for a few weeks to let them figure out how to work with each other.
The other issue is a mental one. This team just doesn’t have the same edge of teams past. Even last year’s had far more mental fortitude than the one we’ve been watching. The team totally collapsed in the second half.
When a team’s mentality is lacking, the responsibility falls on the coach. It’s his job to keep the team in the proper frame of mind to keep winning. When they don’t, it’s not out of line to wonder if the team has given up on him. And when Giorgio Chiellini comes out and questions the team’s desire after the match, you know something is wrong. Allegri has never been a good man-manager, and if the team continues to look like this it may be time to start looking beyond him.
After a game like this, a team like Barcelona is never a welcome sight. The good news is that thanks to the tiebreakers, a loss to Barcelona won’t be fatal to Juve’s hopes of advancing. The Bianconeri have two games to get three points in order to go through to the knockout stage.
For the record, Juventus will advance with a game to spare if one of three things happens:
- Juve beat Barcelona.
- Juve draw with Barcelona AND Sporting fail to defeat Olympiacos.
- Juve lose to Barcelona AND Sporting loses to Olympiacos.
Barca have had results go their way this year, but apart from Lionel Messi, who is going through one of his God phases, they haven’t been playing the way we expect Barcelona to play.
Known cannibal striker Luis Suarez has done practically nothing this year, scoring only five times. Factor in home field and the hope that we see Angry Juve after a lackluster stretch, and a win could be had if things go right. But things have to go right.
After that, it’s a relatively easy—we hope—home date with Crotone before the biggest league game of the year so far: a December 1 trip to Naples.
Here’s hoping a different team emerges by the time they board the train.