Juventus went into Sunday’s game against Bologna with an opportunity at hand. A day earlier, Udinese had handed Inter a surprise 3-1 defeat, opening the door for Juve, in third place going into the day, to jump their arch-rivals and take second.
They took that chance with aplomb, dismantling Roberto Donadoni’s team in their own stadium and walking out with a convincing 3-0 win. The win also kept pace with new Serie A leaders Napoli, who regained the top slot from Inter after taking Torino apart on Saturday.
It was the first time in a while that Juve had had a full week of rest before a game, and it almost looked like the team had to knock some rust off in the early going. They looked imprecise, and the final ball was imprecise, but once Miralem Pjanic put one of his trademark free kicks into the net, the champions kicked into overdrive and finally buried a weaker opponent rather than let them hang around. The defense looked a lot more like the defense we’re used to seeing from Juventus, notching a sixth consecutive clean sheet.
Massimiliano Allegri had a depleted squad to chose from in setting up for the game. He chose to set up a 4-3-3. Gianluigi Buffon’s calf injury still hasn’t subsided, so Wojciech Szczsney continued to deputize in goal. With Giorgio Chiellini, Stephan Lichtsteiner, and Benedikt Howedes all on the trainer’s table as well, the back four was made up of Mattia De Sciglio, Medhi Benatia, Andrea Barzagli, and Alex Sandro. Pjanic joined Blaise Matuidi and Sami Khedira in midfield. Allegri chose to hold Paulo Dybala out for the second consecutive game (cue every newspaper around reporting his imminent departure) and instead installed an attacking trident of Douglas Costa, Gonzalo Higuain, and Mario Mandzukic.
Donadoni countered with a season-appropriate “Christmas tree” 4-3-2-1. Former Juve youth product Antonio Mirante manned the goal, with the quartet of Ibrahima Mbaye, Giancarlo Gonzalez, Filip Helander, and Adam Masina protecting him. Godfred Donsah, Erik Pulgar, and Andrea Poli made up the midfield, and Simone Verdi and Orji Okwonkwo backed up Mattia Destro in attack.
Things started slowly. Juve looked unfocused and imprecise. Higuain drifted offside on a Pjanic pass, while Matuidi made a couple of important defensive interventions as the game went end-to-end — albeit without any clear chances — for the first 10 minutes or so.
Mandzukic had the first decent chance of the game on 10 minutes, but couldn’t get his header on target after good work from Costa and De Sciglio to set up Pjanic for a cross. The Croatian didn’t let the miss phase him, however, and immediately pressed Bologna into a turnover deep in their own end of the field, only to see Sandro’s struggles continue as the Brazilian’s cross went wayward.
Pjanic was in the thick of things, firing over in the 18th minute. Bologna had their best chance of the half six minutes later when Okwonkwo slalomed through the defense to feed Donsah, who unleashed a low shot, but Szczsney got down to save and hold it.
Two quick minutes later, the Bianconeri had finally broken through.
It started with Sandro, whose dribbling earned a free kick just outside the left corner of the penalty area. Pjanic stood over it and swung the ball towards the upper near corner. Mirante got to the spot in plenty of time — but somehow let the ball slip between his hands and into the goal. It was an error that bordered on the absurd, but it gave Juve a 1-0 lead on Pjanic’s third goal of the year.
The goal opened the floodgates. Traffic started going one direction — toward Mirante’s goal. In the 33rd minute, Khedira was presented a great chance off a corner kick but scuffed his shot and Mirante easily covered the ball.
Two minutes later, the Bologna keeper wasn’t so lucky.
Pjanic was in the middle of things again, floating a beautiful ball over the top to Mandzukic, who had a step on Mbaye. The big forward controlled beautifully with his chest, and with his next touch swept it across Mirante and into the net for his fourth league goal of the year.
Play continued to flow towards the Bologna end of the field. The Rossoblu only had one sequence that was even remotely threatening, when Sandro fouled Mbaye in a dangerous spot with three minutes left in the half, but Szczsney easily claimed the ensuing free kick.
Bologna didn’t get a reprieve after halftime. Within a minute Juve had earned themselves a corner and Higuain got on the receiving end of a nice flick, but was badly positioned to shoot. A couple of through balls would have presented good chances but were badly controlled.
As the attackers went forward, the defense lorded over Bologna. When Destro was hauled off by Donadoni in the 53rd minute, he had only managed to touch the ball 14 times — fewer than anyone else on the field, including both goalkeepers. Okwonkwo managed to settle the ball in the Juve penalty area in the 56th minute, but good pressure from Matuidi kept him off balance and his shot had no power to trouble Szczsney.
As the game wore on, there was a palpable difference in the team’s attitude. Where in games past this season scoring would tend to see the team sag back and let teams start making some danger, today they never let up. They kept on pressing and never let Bologna string together passes. They constantly looked for the third goal to kill off the game, and found it in the 64th minute, when Hellander’s attempt to clear a cross only succeeded in teeing up Matuidi, who thundered the ball home first time at Mirante’s near post from 17 yards.
Even after that, Juve kept on playing all-out. De Sciglio went on a lung-busting run in the 69th minute and had to lean on the advertising boards to catch his breath. In the 75th minute even Barzagli went galloping down the left side.
If there was any damper on the day, it came three minutes before that Barzagli run, when Mandzukic went up for a header, came down, and pulled up clutching his calf. He came back onto the field momentarily, but made way for Dybala pretty much immediately. With Roma looming next week he’d be a big loss. Here’s hoping the injury is minor and won’t see him miss much time.
With Mandzukic off, Allegri shifted the team to a 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 hybrid, playing Dybala in the hole behind Higuain in possession and shifting into a bank of two on the rare occasion the Bianconeri were defending for extended periods of time. Dybala, for his part, looked lively, and four minutes after coming on he took a pass from Higuain and charged half the length of the field before firing a wicked shot that Mirante parried away for a corner.
Higuain gave everyone a scare when he too hit the ground after being taking down behind play, but he got up and finished the game. Pulgar nearly gave his team a consolation on a powerful shot with a minute left in regular time, but it curled wide. Juve kept pressing for a fourth until the end, and toward the end of stoppage time substitute Federico Bernardeschi got into the box and squared for Dybala, who dribbled a bit too much before going down a bit to easily under Poli’s challenge. He probably would have done better shooting earlier.
Bologna had the ball in the net right at the death, but Szczsney had been fouled as the corner kick had come in, and with that referee Luca Banti blew the whistle to end the game.
WOJCIECH SZCZSNEY - 6. Did well to hold the shots that did come to him, but was never seriously challenged.
MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - 7. De Sciglio has very quietly played excellent football since returning from his injury last month. He was really solid in defense and helped carve out a few chances in attack. He could end up being a heck of a signing.
MEDHI BENATIA - 7. Got bamboozled once in the first half, but otherwise added to his recent string of excellent outings. Led the team in interceptions with three and had four clearances.
ANDREA BARZAGLI - 8. Completed 95.5 percent of his passes and didn’t let anything by. Straightforward but dominant.
ALEX SANDRO - 6.5. OK. Not great, but OK. Led the team with five tackles and won the free kick that opened the scoring, but only one of his eight crosses found its mark and he still looked a little less than the dominant player he was last season. Still, he’s trending in the right direction.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 8. Opened his account for Juve with a thunderous shot and was everywhere in midfield, recording four tackles. His presence allowed the other midfielders, and Pjanic in particular, to get forward and create in attack.
SAMI KHEDIRA - 6. Nothing spectacular, just kinda there. I’d really like to see Claudio Marchisio take this spot and see how he can combine with Matuidi and Pjanic.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 8.5. A little loose with his play early, but got hot as the game went on and righted himself. His free kick was placed right into the top corner, and the pass for Mandzukic’s goal was sublime. If he’s freed up from defensive duties to play like this all the time, opposing defenses won’t be happy.
DOUGLAS COSTA - 7. Caused more problems with his technique and pace, although the most dangerous moves started elsewhere.
GONZALO HIGUAIN - 6.5. He’s still dribbling too much. He’s so much better when he just controls and fires. Hit the target twice but neither of them were particularly dangerous shots. Did well as a distribution hub in the front.
MARIO MANDZUKIC - 8. Another excellent game on the wing. His goal was a master class in how to score off a ball over the top. Tracked back to defend as usual, helping keep the sheet clean. Hopefully won’t miss too much time after going off injured.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 5.5. Helped out in defense well on the right but didn’t get a whole lot of chance to attack.
PAULO DYBALA - 6. Nearly scored on a break but was denied by Mirante. Not his best but there were signs he might be trending up. Look for him to start midweek.
CLAUDIO MARCHISIO - NR. Got five minutes at the end.
Allergi has stuck with the 4-3-3 in recent weeks and its paid dividends. The midfield has looked a lot better, with Matuidi in particular looking like a critical piece, freeing up the other midfielders to get further up the field.
Mandzukic also seems to be a beneficiary of this new formation. He’s playing closer to the box than he did in the 4-2-3-1, making his height advantage over most full-backs that much more decisive.
There will be some decisions to be made if this formation becomes the default going forward, specifically how Dybala fits into it. He’s at his best when he plays a central position. He always has license to roam to the outside, but if the team wants to pull him out of his current funk it’s less likely that that will happen in a timely matter while he’s trying to learn yet another new position.
One small question in terms of Allegri’s use of subs: Why not let Marko Pjaca, who made his return to the squad today after tearing his ACL on international duty in March, have a few minutes in a game that was salted away? Rather than risking Dybala in garbage time, he could have been given a run after Mandzukic got hurt.
It’s back to midweek fixtures this week, as Juve kick off their Coppa Italia campaign when they welcome Genoa to the Allianz Stadium. We can expect a good bit of rotation here: If the likes of Marchisio, Bernardeschi, Kwadwo Asamoah, and Daniele Rugani don’t see the field I’d be very surprised. It’d be nice, too, to see Pjaca get some minutes. He could be a big depth piece as the season gets to its dog days.
After that, it’s yet another big tie, this time a home match against Roma two days before Christmas. The importance of the match is magnified by the fact that Roma, who trail Juve by only three points, have a game in hand after an early-season postponement. A win next week would give Juve some breathing room and an all-important tiebreaker edge as the ritorna nears.
With the team looking like it’s rounding into form, we may be in for a very merry Christmas indeed.