Sunday night’s game between Juventus and Crotone was more important than a game against Crotone typically is for the six-time defending Serie A champions. The Bianconeri were coming off a bad week. A 3-2 loss to Sampdoria — which wasn’t nearly that close — was followed by a goalless draw in the Champions League against an underpowered Barcelona team that put qualification for the knockout round in doubt. With a massive week ahead that would see Juve meet both teams ahead of them in the Serie A table and decide their fate in Europe, the match against Gli squali became crucial to a) keep touch with Napoli and Inter at the top of the table and b) provide a mental boost going into a huge stretch of games.
Massimiliano Allegri once again tinkered with formations. The media reported the shape he deployed as a 3-4-3, although in practice it functioned more like the 3-4-2-1 he deployed against Barcelona. Gianluigi Buffon manned the goal as usual. Protecting him were Medhi Benatia, Andrea Barzagli, and Benedikt Howedes, who finally made his Juventus debut after missing much of the season’s first three months with injuries. Claudio Marchisio and Blaise Matuidi manned the midfield with Stephan Lichtsteiner and Alex Sandro up the wings. Gonzalo Higuain was rested, so Mario Mandzukic returned to his natural center-forward role with Paulo Dybala and Douglas Costa supporting him.
Davide Nicola’s Crotone came into the game in 15th place after beating back relegation last season in impressive fashion. Longtime goalkeeper Alex Cordaz took up his customary place behind a 4-4-2 formation. His defensive line consisted of Mario Sampirisi, Arlind Ajeti, Federico Ceccherini, and Daniel Pavlovic. The midfield was bookended by Marcus Rohden and Andrea Nalini, with Andrea Barberis and Juve loanee Rolando Mandragora holding down the middle. The strike pair, as much as they can be called in a game like this, was Ante Budimir and Aleksandar Tonev.
It took less than 60 seconds for Cordaz to see the first shot come his way, a long-distance effort from Marchisio that took one bounce into his gut. In the fourth minute the 34-year-old was bailed out by Juve’s wastefulness after Costa ran down the left side and squared the ball to Matuidi in the channel, who fired outside the post from close range.
That was the story of the first half — missed opportunities and half chances. Crosses like Costa’s in the eighth minute got into dangerous areas only to have no one to latch on to them. Players were put into decent positions off the pass, as when Dybala got an excellent pass from Marchisio a minute later, only to get swarmed by a well organized Crotone defense and have to dump off a pass or slam it out of play off a defender to keep possession.
Crotone had what could be considered their first shot in the 10th minute — but calling it a shot is a generous term. Tonev took off on the counter but, despite having Marchisio beaten, fired a grass-skimmer from 40 yards or so that Buffon fielded with ease. It’s hard to figure out what was going on in Tonev’s head, because Buffon wasn’t even off his line, so even if he was mishitting a chip attempt it’s not like Buffon would have had cause for concern.
Juve’s next best opportunity came in the 13th minute, when a short corner saw Benatia find space for a header, but his shot had little power and was easily intercepted on its way to the goal. A minute later Costa fired another long range effort that did little to trouble Cordaz.
Wave after wave crashed into Crotone’s defense, but each time the Bianconeri simply weren’t precise enough with the last ball. A attempt at a one-two between Dybala and Mandzukic petered out when the Croatian’s return carried Dybala too far to the wing. In the 21st minute the Argentine made a great move on the right side of the penalty area, but his cross floated over everyone in the six-yard box.
In the 25th minute Howedes introduced himself to the Allianz Stadium in a way the fans can appreciate — he had his face busted open. The culprit was Budimir, who left an elbow out as went up for an aerial ball. There wasn’t malice in it, but it was careless and probably deserved a yellow card.
Dybala and Costa constantly swapped sides behind Mandzukic. By the half-hour Dybala was camped out on the left, and his cross to the far post was flicked down by Lichtsteiner, but Mandzukic couldn’t control the ball for a shot. In the 32nd minute Budimir finally got the yellow that was coming to him when he fouled Benatia. The Moroccan then stole possession and charged into the attacking half, but didn’t keep himself under control. Dybala was well positioned to claim the resulting loose ball, but his shot was easily saved by Cordaz.
The 34th minute saw yet another wasted chance. This time it was Costa, who recovered his own blocked shot to float a cross in to the back post. Matuidi was there to meet it, but somehow managed to head the ball wide from point-blank range. Frankly, it was an inexcusable miss.
Three minutes later Sandro came the closest anyone in black and white had to an opener. Some sloppy passing at the top of the box ended up teeing him up perfectly, and a strong, low first-time strike forced Cordaz to scramble and parry at his near post.
Two minutes from halftime, the possession stats flashed across the screen: Juventus 83 percent, Crotone 17 percent. Almost on cue, Mandzukic wasted an excellent cross from Barzagli by pushing it wide. All that possession, nothing to show for it.
The early moments of the second half looked just as frustrating as the first. Marchisio turned back the clock and ran the channel two minutes into the period, but Costa’s attempt to find him was intercepted. Dybala picked up the ball in a good position only to be swarmed by three defenders.
But quite suddenly, the game changed. Dybala and Matuidi each had shots blocked in the 52nd minute, but Marchisio recovered possession and the ball eventually cycled to Barzagli, who, like most of the team, was pushed far forward. He fired in a second fantastic cross, and this time Mandzukic peeled off his two markers and headed the ball back across to the right-hand post, leaving Cordaz rooted to his spot.
Now Crotone had to step out a little bit if they wanted a result, and Juve pressed on for more. On the hour a blocked shot from Costa earned a corner that was taken short, with the Brazilian fizzing in a corner that Barzagli just missed. The ball caromed back out to Mattia De Sciglio, who had checked in for Lichtsteiner four minutes before. The new Juventus man, who in 172 prior games for club and and country at the senior level had never scored, charged in and hit it first time from 22 yards past a flailing Cordaz. The 25-year-old seemed bewildered as he was mobbed by his teammates, including Gigi Buffon, who ran the length of the field to join in. He later confessed that he had no idea how to celebrate.
Things started to open up as Crotone tired. Juve’s final balls remained troublingly imprecise at times, but they were starting to get more chances. Dybala just missed a free kick from the middle of the field in the 68th minute, and a minute later Howedes made way for Miralem Pjanic as the formation changed and Allegri looked to close out the game.
It only took two minutes for the Bosnian to make a major impact. Another short corner saw Pjanic rifle the ball across the mouth of goal. Cordaz got a touch to it as it whizzed by, but it stayed on course and found Benatia alone three yards out for the easiest goal he’ll ever score in his life.
Mandzukic almost made it four three minutes later, but a diving save by Cordaz kept the ball out. With 15 minutes left Buffon was called into real action for the first time all game, making a smart save from against Budimir after the defense down the right fell asleep.
The final 10 minutes of the game simply saw the time go. Dybala had one chance when he was sent though by Mandzukic, but was sandwiched between a pair of defenders and unable to put much power on his shot that trickled to Cordaz. So comprehensive was the second half result that referee Claudio Gavillucchi didn’t even tack on any stoppage time.
GIANLUIGI BUFFON - 7. Buffon had so little to do in this game that I almost declined to give him a rating altogether. He wasn’t even used as an outlet for back passes all that often. He only touched the ball 22 times all game. But that late save was pretty good, so we’ll recognize it.
ANDREA BARZAGLI - 7.5. Produced two of the best crosses of the night. The first should have produced the opener, the second did. Spent most of his time augmenting the attack given how badly Crotone were pinned back, making three key passes overall. Some loose passes could have led to counters but his teammates recovered quickly.
BENEDIKT HOWEDES - 7.5. Completed 97.7 percent of his passes from the center of the back three and made a pair of interceptions. An excellent performance in his long-awaited debut.
MEDHI BENATIA - 8. I’ve been pretty hard on Benatia over the last year and a half, but he’s had a great week. He was the best player on the field against Barcelona and added a goal, four interceptions, and four clearances today. I still think Daniele Rugani ought to be starting over him for the sake of the future, but if he’s raising the level of his game I certainly won’t turn up my nose at it.
STEPHAN LICHTSTEINER - 5. Not the Swiss Express’ day. Didn’t really contribute a ton to the attack without someone to overlap consistently. Don’t count him out against Napoli though—in an away game his physicality may be needed.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 6. Some good passing numbers, a pair of tackles and three interceptions in midfield gets him a rating higher than he would have otherwise gotten due to his abysmal finishing. Should have scored twice in the first half.
CLAUDIO MARCHISIO - 7. Not in any of the scoring plays but was all over the place in midfield. Recovered possession all over the place, including during the play leading up to Mandzukic’s opener. He needs to start seeing the field in bigger games than this.
ALEX SANDRO - 5.5. Would have opened the scoring late in the first half were it not for Cordaz, but offered little else. The Alex Sandro that turned heads all of last year still isn’t here yet.
PAULO DYBALA - 6. Saw plenty of the ball in the attacking third but Crotone tended to swarm him in possession and he never really got into good position to shoot. He did provide three key passes, but he hasn’t quite progressed to the point where he can make things happen when he has little to no space.
DOUGLAS COSTA - 8. All over the place in attack. Dribbled through opposing defense on multiple occasions and provided five key passes. Needs to be a starter going forward.
MARIO MANDZUKIC - 7. A nice goal atoned for a bad miss in the first half. Worked hard to press Crotone defenders and regain possession, leading the team in tackles from the front.
MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - 7. A thunderbolt of a goal. Spent the vast majority of his time in the attacking third and earned the corner that led to Benatia’s goal. He’s got something to build on now.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 7. I said in midweek that he might need a mental health day, and he certainly perked up after starting this game from the bench. His cross led to Juve’s third and he nearly provided a fourth moments later. He’ll be critical on Friday.
STEFANO STURARO - NR. On for the last 15 minutes to see the game out.
Allegri has continued to tinker with a three man back line again. Today’s formation looked and acted more like the 3-4-2-1 we saw on Wednesday than the 3-4-3 it was advertised as by the media. It was plainly evident that Dybala and Costa did not have an assigned side of the field. They switched and roamed as the situation called for it. Giving the two most creative players on the team that kind of free reign will eventually pay dividends as chemistry develops between the two of them — if Allegri opts for this formation going forward.
The 2015-16 comeback was keyed mainly by a return to the old 3-5-2 system, so maybe a three-man line will work. It’s produced consecutive clean sheets for only the second time this year, when Juve worked three straight shutouts against Fiorentina, Torino, and Olympiacos.
There are certainly a few things Allegri must have learned from this game. First is that Costa needs to be one of the first names on the team sheet. Second is that Marchisio is not far behind. This was one of the best-looking midfield games of the year using the double pivot system, and may be a big part of the solution Juve has needed in midfield.
There are stretches of every season that end up being crunch periods. The next three games are certainly one of those periods.
On Friday, the Bianconeri travel to the Stadio San Paolo to visit league leaders Napoli. The Partenopei are four points ahead of Juve, and even though it’s early the team will want to get out of Naples with at least a point in order to stay in striking distance. A loss would see Napoli extend their lead to seven — and given how well they’ve been playing this may be the year that they don’t present Juve with the opportunity to close in.
Then on Tuesday the team faces a tricky trip to Greece to face Olympiacos in the Champions League. A win will clinch Juve a spot in the knockout round. Anything else and they will have to depend on Barcelona, who have already clinched the top spot in the group, to get a result against Sporting. Even an understrength Barca side is difficult to beat at the Camp Nou, but you don’t want to rely on that to get through. A win is necessary.
After that it’s back home to face the other team ahead of them in the standings: Inter. The first Derby d’Italia will give yet a little more clarity to the race for the scudetto. Winning the home leg will be important.
It’s crunch time Allegri’s men. Will they stand up to the challenge or wilt? It’s time to show everyone whether the team that has won the last six scudetti and made the Champions League final two of the last three years is still there.