In the most hostile environment under the most volatile pressure of the almost-half-done season, Juventus played a real-life soccer game against Napoli while starting Medhi Benatia, Mattia de Sciglio, Sami Khedira, and Kwadwo Asamoah.
And Juventus won 1-0.
Kept a clean sheet in Naples for the first time since 1997.
Trimmed the deficit to one point.
Reminded everyone in Italy (and elsewhere) who the kings of the peninsula truly are.
But seriously, if you had told me about a month ago that Juve would win with that lineup I would’ve thought you were insane. Imagine telling Juve fans that Max Allegri would be choosing this side back in these circumstances, back in the spring of 2017 — when Alex Sandro looked like the best back in the world, when Benatia was an insurance-insurance center back, when MdS played on a team two hours east of Turin.
Alas, I’m not the boss.
Now let’s go to Greece and show the founders of Western Civilization who perfected all their ideas! (I’m talking about the Roman Empire and generously including the Piedmont area, which was basically nothing more than an outpost and stomping-ground for Hannibal during the Second Punic War.)
A tantalizing collection of titillating tidbits.
- But really, what the hell is going on with Alex Sandro? It doesn’t take a seer to see something’s seriously silly surrounding the saga. Juve’s fullback situation is looking bleaker than ever.
- This is what I really like: Douglas Costa, and Juan Cuadrado as Douglas Costa’s backup. Despite my reputation, I find the Colombian to be an extremely useful player — he’s fast as hell and can sometimes cross the ball and even scores every now and then. But he’s not, clearly, Douglas Costa. The Brazilian’s pace coupled with his technical prowess and creativity are something, frankly, Cuadrado can’t touch, but the way Allegri used Cuadrado on Friday night is, to me, the perfect way to relieve pressure. Although Cuadrado played a right back for most of the time, he’s the ideal substitute for Costa in a game in which Juve have their backs to the wall, Costa is maybe a bit gassed, and the Bianconeri need another burst of speed. Yay, double pivots!
- Marek Hamsik’s mohawk makes me feel like I did after Thanksgiving: ham-sick. (Heh, I’ll show myself out. But I hope we’re not the only ones who also have a ham on Turkey Day.)
- Business idea: An alarm clock which uses various football managers’ screaming as the wake-up tones. Show me the money.
- 4-3-2-1: I thought it was good! I’m imagining a midfield one day of Rolando Mandragora, Rodrigo Bentancur, and Miralem Pjanic. And I like it.
- Still on the topic of formation: The three midfielders certainly didn’t do much to help Juve consistently retain possession (67 to 33 percent in Napoli’s favor), but they certainly disrupted Napoli’s groove. I didn’t think any one of Juve’s midfield was particularly amazing, but it was a better, more active showing from Sami Khedira (sounds like I’m describing a retiree, which cannot possibly be a good thing).
Onto the awards:
Sidewalk of Turin Award
For a weak(ish) performance masked by other factors.
Miralem Pjanic did some good things, but he also did some bad things.
Against Napoli, you don’t have time to be cheeky and spin around 17 times when you’re barely outside your own penalty area, and just sort of be at-ease with the ball. But that’s what Pjanic did on a number of occasions: turn the ball over in precarious positions. It almost cost Juve, but it didn’t. Pjanic needs to be more aware of his opponent, as Napoli’s infamous, throttling high press should’ve been on his mind the full 90 minutes.
Ivrea Orange Festival Award
For the player who takes something crappy and makes it beautiful.
Two awards in one game!
The mark of a really great player — or one of the marks at least — is the ability to put bad things behind and forge ahead. That’s exactly what Juve’s stud midfielder did. He had some excellent passes throughout the game, a number of defensive plays, and really should’ve assisted Blaise Matuidi later in the game.
That cross, in particular, was amazing. Pjanic showed brilliant awareness of who was where on the pitch, and the pace of the cross — falling like a fat snowflake in a gentle wind — seemed off, but was actually timed to perfection. He creates where others cannot.
Piazza San Carlo Award
For a potentially overlooked yet stellar showing.
Paulo Dybala assisted his Argentinian brother, but I thought he did a lot more in this 4-3-2-1 adjustment, namely tracking back to defense much more than he typically does as well as helping relieve the pressure in the midfield. He was astute on the counter attacks and, yes, picked Higuain out perfectly. It was a good day’s work for Dybala.
(I hope he stays at Juventus!)
Giuseppe Garibaldi Award
For the man of the match.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Pipita forever.
Gonzalo Higuain is a world-beater when he’s on his game, and he simply couldn’t contain himself after scoring at Stadio San Paulo against his old side. The game-winner will make the headlines, but Juve’s No. 9 worked his ass off all game long, pressing high up the pitch late in the game, beckoning his teammates to do the same, providing some brief hold-up play, retreating into the midfield. I could do without Pouty Pipita, when he throws his hands down and complains that some or other pass to him wasn’t perfect enough, but Higuain puts in the work, and it’s a glorious thing to see.
How many games now has Higuain been the sole difference? The AC Milan fixture at San Siro immediately comes to mind. And certainly this game. Soccer is game of razor-thin margins, and Higuain is a chef with the sharpest knife around. (I don’t know.)
Also worth mentioning, as a sort of runner-up for the award: Douglas Costa, of course. He’s got to play in every single game, really. He’s a sensible player to play for 60 minutes and then get off the pitch when assessing the last third of the game, but his impact is evident and obvious. The goal in Naples was a beautiful product of a counter-attack spearheaded by Costa, Dybala, and Higuain. That’s ... sexy.