Sure, Giuseppe Marotta told pregame interviewers on Sunday that Benevento were not just a “sparring partner” before the Bianconeri took the field at the Allianz Stadium.
But let’s be real here: Benevento are the worst team that has played in Serie A in a decade or more. Debutants in the top flight this year, Le Streghe came into Sunday’s game without a point in 11 matches. They had scored four goals and given up 29. If there was ever a point in favor of those who want to cut Serie A from 20 teams to 18 — for the record, I don’t happen to be one of them — this team is it.
So to take 57 minutes to score a goal, to go behind and stay behind for 38 minutes of game time, and to have a wobble at the end that very nearly let Benevento equalize — and for all that to happen at home, where only five teams have come away with points in a little more than two years — is embarrassing. There’s no other way to put it.
Coming off a midweek game and with such weak opposition, it was logical for Massimiliano Allegri to rotate his team a bit. Gianluigi Buffon got his now-customary day off after a Champions League game, with Wojciech Sczcseny deputizing. Mattia De Sciglio made his first Serie A start for Juventus on the right side of defense, with Daniele Rugani and Giorgio Chiellini in the center and Alex Sandro on the left. Claudio Marchisio got his first start since returning from an injury layoff, partnering with Blaise Matuidi in midfield. Douglas Costa subbed in for Mario Mandzukic on the left wing, joining Paulo Dybala and Juan Cuadrado behind Gonzalo Higuain in attack.
Benevento coach Roberto De Zerbi deployed his men in a 3-4-2-1 formation. Juve loanee Alberto Brignoli protected the goal, with Berat Djimsiti, Gianluca Di Chiara, and Luca Antei in front of him. Lorenzo Venuti and Achraf Lazaar manned the wing-back slots, with Raman Chibsah and Nicolas Viola manned the midfield. Danilo Cataldi and Amato Ciciretti slotted in behind main striker Samuel Armenteros.
Before the game began, other results had added some significance to the game. Inter had been held by Tornio in the Sunday lunchtime game, meaning that a win would allow Juve to leapfrog their rivals into sole possession of second place, as Lazio’s game against Udinese was postponed by biblical rains in Rome.
Juve immediately applied pressure, and three minutes into the game Dybala and Higuain played a delightful one-two that saw Dybala run around behind Higuain to receive the return ball, but his shot was blocked. A Chiellini through ball down the channel was just tipped away from Sandro, and Rugani got to the ensuing corner but fired it high over the bar. A minute later Sandro danced down the left side. His cross floated over everyone, but Higuain recovered to put it back into the box and force Brignoli to tip the ball away from the waiting Brazilian.
The Benevento keeper was then saved by the frame of his goal twice in the space of 60 seconds between the 13th and 14th minutes. Costa was responsible for both incidents, the first a laser of a cross that Brignoli parried onto the crossbar, the other a piledriver of a shot that struck the point where the post and crossbar meet.
Five minutes later, everything changed.
In the 18th minute, Sandro was called for a foul in the center of the field about 27 yards from goal. It was a debatable call because it looked like Sandro might have gotten the ball, but once everything was set up 60 seconds later, Ciciretti curled a free kick around the wall. Szczsney didn’t even move. He would never have been able to get there, but he deserves a reprimand for the way he set up his wall. A step to the right and Claudio Marchisio would have been right where the ball ended up going.
The idea that Benevento had just gone ahead in Turin was nigh on unthinkable. It would be a long time before Juve managed to correct the situation.
In between was a lot of terrible football. Juve’s first response to the goal was Cuadrado weakly tapping the ball into Brignoli’s arms. The team couldn’t control the ball to connect any passes in series. A loopy corner kick on 25 minutes was noteworthy in that Chiellini collided with his defender going up for it and was busted open for the second time this season. (Does it make me a bad person that I love seeing that? Cause I really love seeing that.)
Just after the half hour, Cuadrado was placed into a perfect shooting position by Dybala, but somehow blazed the ball over from six yards away. Three minutes later Dybala pounced on a poor defensive header to slalom through the middle but slipped on the turf as he shot with his right foot and couldn’t beat Brignoli.
After another giveaway, Cuadrado finally made a positive contribution in the 41st minute when he lofted a cross to the back post. Higuain centered with a header, but Dybala’s attempt at a Paul Pogba-style bounce shot flew over the bar. Higuain then missed after running onto a loose ball.
As the half drew to a close, Dybala was given a pair of opportunities at free kicks. Usually the prospect of Dybala standing over a dead ball has fans brimming with confidence, but neither opportunity came to fruition. His first went into the wall, but a handball gave him a second chance — one that he deposited directly into Brignoli’s gut. When Cuadrado earned another free kick in stoppage time, Dybala wasn’t one of the men standing to take it. Instead, Costa fired one to the far post, but Brignoli managed to parry it away. Juve went into halftime behind against Benevento.
The second half started with Juve earning yet another free kick. Dybala was again kept away from it — instead, Higuain fired it well wide. Cuadrado made a smart interception in midfield on 54 minutes, but lost the ball trying to draw a foul, necessitating a quick recovery from his teammates. Matuidi missed a tap-in from a Sandro cross before Juve finally gained parity in the 57th minute.
It started with a cross from De Sciglio. It went to the far post, where Matuidi headed the ball back to the middle and Higuain whacked a left-footed half-volley to finally tie the score.
The pressure kept up, with Cuadrado cutting in from the right and testing Brignoli again, with Higuain poking the rebound into the keeper’s arms. Dybala was dispossessed a few times in and around the box, while Matuidi sailed a header over the bar and then failed to control the ball in the box.
By the time the 65th minute rolled around the Bianconeri were finally in front. An excellent cross by Sanrdo put Brignoli in two minds about how to deal with it, and Cuadrado took advantage of his indecision to slip a diving header into the net.
Juve tried to add some insurance, but Benevento came close to a second goal of their own. Cataldi blasted the ball from very long range and only just missed the goal. In the 80th Chiellini needed to come to the rescue when the defense was split open by a long through ball. Ciciretti was on the receiving end, but the vice-captain moved in and got shoulder-to-shoulder, bodying the forward away from the ball and forcing a goal kick.
It was concerning to see Dybala again upset as he came to the bench when Rodrigo Bentancur was called upon to replace him for the final three minutes plus stoppages. The young Uruguayan had a good shot saved by Brignoli after a good layoff from Higuain, and then somehow Juve contrived to allow Benevento a couple stabs at goal in stoppages. But once a corner kick was played out, the game was finally locked down and Juve came away with the ugliest 2-1 win you could possibly find.
WOJCIECH SCZCSENY - 5.5. This would normally be one of those “had-next-to-nothing-to-do” sixes were it not for the awful positioning of the wall on the free kick. There was a huge gap between Marchisio and the post, and that’s on the keeper to identify and correct.
MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - 6. A pair of tackles, a pair of interceptions, and completed two of three crosses. He got a lot of stick for the Sporting game and rightfully so, but was better here.
DANIELE RUGANI - 7. Completed 94.3 percent of his passes and made seven clearances and had a big blocked shot in the box in stoppage time. Didn’t have to do much on-ball defending because the ball was in Benevento’s half the entire time, but was useful in collecting the ball and recycling it into the offensive zone.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 7. Made an essential intervention on Ciciretti late. Had the freedom to press deep into the attacking half to try to add to the numbers on the left side and make something happen.
ALEX SANDRO - 7. He’s been having a down year, but this was more like the real Sandro. Three key passes and an excellent cross for the assist today. He’s developing more chemistry with Costa, which is really important, because playing with the Brazilian will be a lot different than playing with Mario Mandzukic, and if he can seamlessly switch between the two that side of the field will be crazy dangerous.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 6. A good pullback header for the assist on the equalizer, but he was a little too loose in possession — he was dispossessed three times and made three unsuccessful touches. If it wasn’t for the assist this would be a bit lower.
CLAUDIO MARCHISIO - 6.5. Grew into the game as it went. Made a team-leading three tackles, completed 90.5 percent of his passes. It would be nice to see him starting over Sami Khedira, because he’s still a game-changing player when he’s healthy and on form.
JUAN CUADRADO - 6.5. That goal makes his rating a lot better, because for the rest of the game he was doing very little positive. Went for power instead of placement in the 31st minute to miss the target from six yards, gave the ball away on numerous occasions, and displayed too much of the frustrating play that makes people want to bang their heads into walls.
PAULO DYBALA - 3. This was a really bad game for Paulo. Missed a couple of close-range shots and even his free kicks were bad enough to pull him out of the rotation — something unheard of with Miralem Pjanic off the field. If he can’t use the international break to sort himself out he may need the kind of mental health day Higuain got last month.
DOUGLAS COSTA - 6. Juve’s most dangerous man in the first half but faded in the second — which seems to be a theme for him. Nearly forced an own goal then almost cracked the crossbar in two a minute later. If he can put a full game together things will be scary with him and Sandro going down that side.
GONZALO HIGUAIN - 8. The goal he scored was great, and he did well as a distribution pivot high up the field — of his 21 pass attempts, five turned into key passes. Missed a couple of shots he probably should have scored on and dribbled a little too much, but his equalizer was excellent and it looks like he’s finally found a bit of a groove.
MARIO MANDZUKIC - NR. On late to consolidate the win with some work rate and grinta.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - NR. What on earth does this kid need to do to start? Popped in a useful cross but didn’t do much else of note in his 10-minute cameo.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - NR. Had a nice shot parried by Brignoli. A good cameo from the promising youngster.
I’m becoming more and more concerned about Max Allegri and this team’s attitude.
Against Sporting the team didn’t really look like they thought winning was even a possibility, and in this game there was no real sense of purpose through the first half. They almost looked exasperated to be out there. That coupled with Dybala’s reaction to being subbed is really making me wonder whether Allegri has this locker room in his corner. Normally you can look at it as the frustration of a struggling player, but when you take into account last year, when four separate players—including Dybala—got into on-field spats with Allegri, and I think the question is valid.
While there are some divides in opinion of Allegri, one thing we can all agree on is that he holds his subs far too close to the vest. A switch should have been made far earlier than the 78th minute. The starting XI managed to scrape together a lead eventually, but a change could have turned things around far sooner. Benevento’s defense was being pulled apart all day, and a guy like Mandzukic could have exacerbated that problem—his size and skill in the air tends to draw defenders to him when he’s out on the left, opening gaps elsewhere. That move, or maybe a bit more time for Bernardeschi, could have added an insurance goal or turned things around sooner before the team established themselves in front.
It’s international break time! Italy heads into a playoff for World Cup qualification, taking four Juventus players along with them. Others will scatter as playoffs and friendlies take place all over the world.
Allegri has two weeks to develop a plan for the next few games. After the break, Juve will take their second trip of the season to the Marassi to take on a red-hot Sampdoria side, then welcome the always-dangerous Barcelona to the J Stadium to try to avenge their Champions League-opening loss in Catalonia.
If Juve comes out the way they came out today against either of those teams, the will not get the kind of opportunity to come back that they were afforded by Benevento tonight.
Allegri usually has the team starting to coalesce by this time of the year, but so far they still look like they have no idea what’s going on. That has to change, or else things could get very difficult between now and the crunch tie against Napoli on December 1.