Where does the time go?
It feels like yesterday that Juventus was on its summer tour and preparing for the season. Now the season is halfway over, and with Juve finally hitting their stride, the new year looks filled with promise.
It didn’t look that way for a period of about 10 minutes in the second half on Saturday night, when it looked like Juve were on the verge of a spectacular collapse against Hellas Verona, having failed to expand on an early lead before getting burned on a mistake. But Paulo Dybala, who had started on the bench for the last three Serie A games and hadn’t looked his best for the first 70 minutes, came alive at the end of the game and netted a brace to give his team all three points and keep them within a point of winter champions Napoli.
Massimiliano Allegri’s men came into the game having failed to defeat Hellas at the Stadio Marc’Antonio Bentegodi in Serie A since 2001. Their last win here came in the spring of 2007, during That Season We Don’t Talk About.
The talk going in was, as it had seemingly been for a month, about Dybala’s exclusion in the lineup. He had started from the bench in three of the last four games, his only start coming against Genoa in the Coppa Italia. That was as a false nine in a 4-3-3, and when Allegri sent out the same formation led by Gonzalo Higuain a few days later against Roma, it was pretty clear that he didn’t think the two Argentines could coexist in that formation.
Looking for a way to get them on the field at the same time but keep the three-man midfield that had been a big part of Juve’s run of eight straight clean sheets, Allegri opted for a 4-3-2-1 “Christmas tree” formation. Wojciech Szczesny deputized for a still-recovering Gianluigi Buffon in goal, protected by Stephan Lichtsteiner, Giorgio Chiellini, Medhi Benatia, and Alex Sandro. Rodrigo Bentancur was plugged into the midfield in place of Miralem Pjanic, who suffered a leg injury in training during the week. He was joined by Blaise Matuidi and Sami Khedira. Dybala joined Mario Mandzukic in the bank of two behind Gonzalo Higuain at the tip of the spear.
Verona’s 4-4-1-1 lineup was heavy on Juventus connections. Brazilian goalkeeper Nicholas guarded the goal, with Alex Ferrari, Thomas Heurtaux, Antonio Caracciolo, and former Juve man Martin Caceres making up the defense. The four-man midfield had another two men with pasts at Juventus. Romulo, who spent the 2014-15 season on loan in Turin, was set up on the right side. Marcel Buchel, who was owned by Juve for three years but continually sent on loan until eventually being sold to Empoli, manned the middle along with Bruno Zuculini, with Italy Under-21 international Daniele Verde on the left. Daniel Bessa played in the hole behind Moise Kean, the 17-year-old wunderkind that Juve sent to Verona on a dry loan for seasoning after making his debut last year.
Juve started hot. Matuidi earned a corner within two minutes, and Benatia’s header on the ensuing set piece sailed just over the near corner. Just a few minutes later, they had the lead.
It started with a nice defensive intervention from Dybala, who intercepted a pass and then slipped a pass to Khedira. The German then put in a perfect ball to Higuain, who sent a piledriver of a shot off the post, with some assistance from the keeper. The Verona defense had left the back side totally unguarded, and both Mandzukic and Matuidi charged after the rebound. They nearly ran each other over, but Matuidi got his shin to the ball, and it bounced in at the far post as Nicholas, who had overcommitted to the near post, watched in despair.
Last week’s close call against Roma showed just how important pressing an advantage is, and Higuain tried to do just that five minutes after the goal when he fired a daisy cutter from the top of the penalty arc that Nicholas dove to parry.
Verona grew into the game slowly. In the first half their key man was Verdi, who got into a couple of decent crossing positions, necessitating interventions from the back line and from Dybala, who got back to disrupt an opponent setting up to play a ball that was headed out.
Mandzukic got involved for the first time on 16 minutes, but Higuain’s cross to him was just a hair too high for him to get his head to the ball. Three minutes later Higuain was the center of attention again, standing over a free kick just outside the left corner of the penalty area. Not usually one for set pieces, he unleashed a thunderous shot that curled just wide into the side netting. It was so close that it faked out half the stadium and quite a few TV viewers into thinking the lead had been doubled.
Caceres played a strange game, often charging up from the left back spot and finding himself in the penalty area. In the 22nd minute he popped up and nearly got on the end of a cross. Five minutes later he was in his proper place to slide in and dispossess Dybala after the striker had nearly dribbled his way into a good shooting position.
Just before the half-hour Verde was again the danger man, juking past Lichtsteiner and unleashing a shot from the right that curled just around the far post.
Ten minutes later there was another chance for Juve to extend their lead. Matuidi hit a beautiful ball over the top to Sandro, who squared the ball to Higuain at the penalty spot. But the No. 9’s shot was right at Nicholas, who reacted quickly enough to parry the ball over the bar.
It was clear that Allegri was not satisfied with only one goal. He made an extremely rare halftime substitution, bringing off Bentancur for Federico Bernardeschi and switching to a 4-2-3-1 formation.
If that change was meant to augment the attack, it didn’t exactly have the desired effect. The Bianconeri came out for the second half looking like they’d mentally checked out, making several loose passes. Seven minutes after the restart, Kean latched onto a bad pass and drove hard down the field, earning himself a corner kick.
On the other end, Dybala again tried to dribble into the box and got past Caracciolo before being shut down by Buchel. He then floated a ball into the box — but didn’t have any teammates there to latch onto it. In the 58th minute, Bernardeschi had a go, cutting in from the right wing and let loose a powerful shot that Nicholas managed to get down on. A minute later, Juve’s inability to expand upon their lead finally caught up to them.
It started with their goalscorer. Matuidi attempted to roll a pass across the middle to Khedira in the defensive third, but the ball was pounced on by Caceres, who fired a piledriver from 30 yards out that gave Szczesny no chance.
The goal invigorated the Mastiffs, who with a win would have climbed out of the relegation zone. Minutes after scoring, Caceres sent Kean through with a great ball over the top. The teenager was eventually run down, but it took Chiellini and Benatia working in tandem to finally dispossess the kid.
Khedira saw himself in good shooting position in the 62nd minute, but his effort from 25 yards was blocked. Dybala was dispossessed by Verde on the right after another dribble attempt, and Mandzukic got his head to a Lichtsteiner cross only to push it wide. Dybala gave the ball away again, then a Bernardeschi corner kick glanced wide off the head of Chiellini.
It was looking like Verona would be anything but fair to Allegri’s men, but the best goal scorers can seize the moment regardless of how much they struggle beforehand, and so it was in the 72nd minute.
It started with Khedira, who found Lichtsteiner with a through ball on the right. The Swiss got to the ball just ahead of Caceres and got in a cross just before taking his former teammate’s hip to the head. The ball met Dybala in the right-hand channel, he chopped it past Nicholas — with his right foot, no less — to regain the lead.
Lichtsteiner got the assist but was quite clearly seeing stars. Soccer has had its share of iffy moments regarding players who suffered head injuries in the last few years, but Lichtsteiner was immediately, and properly, replaced by Andrea Barzagli before play resumed.
This time it only took five minutes for Juve to build on the lead.
Dybala was the star again, taking down a Chiellini pass with his chest and dribbled through a crowd of five Verona players before poking home — again with his right foot — to make the score 3-1.
Two minutes later he nearly sealed his third hat trick of the season when he took a long free kick that Nicholas somehow managed to keep out with one hand in the top corner.
With five minutes left Bernardeschi thought he had lucked into a goal when his free kick delivery bounced into the net, but Higuain and Benatia were flagged for affecting the play from an offside position. Two minutes later he cut inside again and unleashed another shot, forcing Nicholas into another save. Stoppage time saw Dybala rush in to snare a loose ball that Sandro was fighting for. He squared it to Higuain, who somehow couldn’t get the ball past Nicholas again. A few more games, and the three points belonged to Juve.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 6. The only shot Verona managed to put on target was Caceres’ goal, which he had no chance on. Claimed a couple of crosses in the first half, but generally had a very uneventful day.
STEPHAN LICHTSTEINER - 7. A nice day for the Swiss Express, who racked up two key passes and defended well down the right flank. His assist was excellent both in terms of getting the ball to Dybala and in terms of going for the ball in the face of certain contact. Hopefully he wasn’t injured badly.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 7. Credited with the assist on Dybala’s second goal, racked up two tackles, an interception, and three assists. A solid day.
MEDHI BENATIA - 7. Another good game. Five clearances, two interceptions and and an tackle. On a day when Verona only had three shots and the goal was the fault of a midfield mistake, the center backs had a good day.
ALEX SANDRO - 6.5. Made three key passes, but also looked really loose on some other balls. His stats say otherwise, but the eye test is saying that he still isn’t where he was last year.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 6.5. Scored his second goal of the campaign, but loses major points on the error that led to Caceres’ goal. His energy really does tie the midfield together.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 6. Made a couple of good passes, but was largely a passenger in midfield and didn’t contribute much defensively. Not his best game, but he’s still one for the future.
SAMI KHEDIRA - 7. A metronome in midfield. Completed 98.7 percent of his passes and made three key passes. Made a couple of nice combinations down the right with Lichtsteiner.
PAULO DYBALA - 8. This was going to be a few points lower before he took over the game in the last 20 minutes. Had two key passes to go with his goals, both of which came on his (much) weaker right foot. That doubled his career tally with his right foot. If he develops that to even 50 percent of capacity, he’s going to be that much more dangerous.
MARIO MANDZUKIC - 5.5. Made a couple of good defensive contributions, but really struggled in attack. He’s not a good fit for the Christmas tree.
GONZALO HIGUAIN - 5.5. Had a pair of point-blank opportunities and should have buried at least one of them. A couple of good supporting moves, but that’s not what he’s paid to do. When he’s put in positions like these he needs to score.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 7. Had a pair of good shots saved, made a couple of nice moves down the right side, and made two key passes. A good shift in extended playing time.
ANDREA BARZAGLI - 6. A clean shift after coming in for the injured Lichtsteiner.
CLAUDIO MARCHISIO - NR. On to finish the game off in midfield.
The 4-3-2-1 might be the best blend of a three-man midfield and an attack that can support both Dybala and Higuain. Allegri has used it, or the similar 3-4-2-1, a few times this year, albeit never with Mandzukic with him in that bank of two.
Mandzukic has proven effective as an unorthodox winger, but he’s not suited to playing behind the striker in this formation. But if Allegri were to keep using this formation with Bernardeschi, Douglas Costa, or even Juan Cuadrado alongside him, he could have a very effective attack, especially with the likes of Miralem Pjanic managing the supply lines.
It was interesting to see Allegri make an early, aggressive change to expand the lead. It’s a move that’s out of character for him. Indeed, waiting far too long to make substitutions is probably his biggest weakness as a manager. That aggression is nice to see, and it will be needed in Champions League play and in the most competitive Serie A we’ve seen since this run of championships started. If he can balance that aggression with the defensive solidity that looks like he’s managed to regain, Juve will again be a force to reckon with in the spring.
The season is now half over, and Napoli are winter champions. Only five times in the last 23 years has the team ahead at the halfway mark failed to win the title. But the most recent of those occurrences came only two seasons ago, when Napoli ended the andata in front only to succumb to Juve’s historic comeback and Simone Zaza’s late goal. There was a lot more ground to make up then than there is now. This race is far from over.
As the business end of the season begins, Juve will divert their attention to the Coppa Italia, where a bonus Derby della Mole awaits in the quarterfinal on Wednesday. After that, the ritorna begins with a trip to Cagliari before the new, later winter break arrives.