It’s that busy time of the season again where Juventus games come by thick and fast as the team has to negotiate a taxing seven games in just 23 days in all competitions. One of these games involved traveling to beautiful Sardinia to face Cagliari at the Stadio Sant’Elia on Sunday evening. Cagliari put up a surprisingly good fight in the first half, but it wasn’t enough to spring a surprise over the league leaders in this encounter. The laser-sharp Gonzalo Higuaín scored two fantastic goals on either side of halftime to secure a 2-0 victory for Juventus over 10-man Cagliari in a feisty Sunday Serie A match.
Cagliari started with real fire in their bellies as they took the game to Juventus from the first whistle. Though they didn’t manage to create clear cut chances, they put the visitors under real, sustained pressure in the first 15 minutes of the game. The first scare of the match came as Nicolo Barella was sent through on goal, only to be scythed down by a strong Giorgio Chiellini challenge just centimeters outside of the box. Bruno Alves’ subsequent free kick resuled in nothing, though, but it did cost the Italian defender a very early booking and a huge scare to the fans.
The booking was largely irrelevant, though, as Chiellini apparently picked up a muscle injury and was replaced by Daniele Rugani. That change coincided with a marked drop in the tempo and intensity of the game as Cagliari still stood firm and Juventus looked a little groggy and off-pace – perhaps due to the mounting fixture pile-up of the last few weeks.
However, just when it looked like the half was going to fizzle out into a boring, lifeless encounter, our wonder-man Higuaín opened the scoring out of nowhere. Claudio Marchisio, restored to the starting lineup for this encounter instead of Miralem Pjanic, finally broke free from the close marking of the Two Marcos — Sau and Borriello — and chipped a delicate ball behind the defense for the Argentine to latch on to. As we all know, Higuaín doesn’t need much in order to create something wonderful and that he did as he chipped the ball deftly over Rafael for the opening goal: 1-0! It was a rare spark of magic to end an otherwise industrious and laborious first half.
Juventus started the second half confidently thanks to Higuaín’s goal just before halftime and the Argentine picked up right where he left off after the break after finishing a phenomenal counter-attack for the visitors. Cuadrado showed off the full extent of his extraordinary pace by out-sprinting the indecisive Pisacane to a ball over the top and threading the ball inside to Paulo Dybala. The little striker then cushioned a ball into the path of his compatriot Higuaín who took a few touches and surprised goalkeeper Rafael by striking the ball with the outside of his right foot for his, and Juve’s, second of the match: 2-0!
That goal solidified the Bianconeri’s grip on the game and really sucked the life out of a brave and spirited Cagliari side. The hosts didn’t quite give up though as former Juventus man Mauricio Isla fired an effort at goal that sailed just over the bar. That little glimmer of hope was quickly extinguished when Barella was sent off for a second bookable offense after an awful tackle on the just-introduced Miralem Pjanic.
Somehow, though, the Sardinians almost pulled a goal back despite this setback: a loose ball bobbled into the path of Pisacane who unleashed a thunderous shot on the half volley that looked destined to crash into the back of the net. Pisacane, however, forgot that there was a man more miraculous than his shot in goal: Buffon. The veteran unbelievably extended his left arm to palm away the piledriver of a shot behind for a corner, much to the disbelief of the Cagliari players, fans, and the BeIN commentators.
Mario Mandzukic then almost put Cagliari to the sword straight from the counterattack but could only guide his glanced header inches wide of the target. Aside from a thunderous Bruno Alves free kick a few minutes later, 10-man Cagliari seemed doomed to lose this game in front of their home crowd after a spirited start to the game. The red card really made the game a non-contest, as the home side could barely muster a few minutes of ball possession for the rest of the game. Juventus were literally centimeters away from the third, finishing goal after a brilliantly-executed Mandzukic header bounced off the crossbar and Dybala’s header off the rebound was fantastically saved off the line by a scrambling Rafael, who managed to get up just in time to save the Argentine’s effort after diving for Mandzukic’s initial header. The Bianconeri played out the final few minutes of the match with all the ease in the world to take home a tidy victory thanks to a clinical Higuaín brace!
BUFFON 7 – Only had one real save to make all game, but what a save it was. I give him a bit extra because of that since it really was a remarkable piece of goalkeeping. Tremendous.
SANDRO 6.5 – Pretty decent overall and was rarely troubled by Mauricio Isla. Wasn’t quite as active/busy as usual down the left with Mandzukic, though, and, like the rest of the team, struggled a bit in the first 30 minutes of the game.
BONUCCI 6.5 – Sprayed some wonderful passes around the park and comfortably dealt with the “threat” of the Two Marco’s in attack despite Cagliari’s spirited start to the match.
RUGANI 6.5 – Substituted in very early due to Chiellini’s injury (and early yellow card) and put in a flawless performance.
LICHTSTEINER 6.5 – Really got into the thick of things with some tough challenges/clashes with a few Cagliari players, although I really thought his shoulder wasn’t going to hold up for the entire game. Still, a solid performance as well.
KHEDIRA 7 – The typical Khedira performance: worked in the darkness to serve the light. Didn’t put a foot wrong all game and protected the defense impressively.
MARCHISIO 7 – Wonderful assist (which is why I give him a bit extra) but he also struggled badly when Cagliari turned on the heat in the opening half hour. Like the rest of the team, he grew in stature as the game went on and was eventually very comfortable on the ball.
MANDZUKIC 6.5 – A very subdued performance by the Croatian. He spent most of the game playing a functional, defensive role and wasn’t really involved offensively. Still, worked hard for the team as we’re used to from the battling striker-turned-winger!
DYBALA 6 – Despite his tidy assist, he seemed off the pace and quite frustrated all game. Couldn’t find much space to operate in due to Cagliari’s tight defensive lines so he couldn’t really work his magic. At least he got to practice some free-kicks…
CUADRADO 6.5 – A bit of an on-off game for the Colombian. He started off poorly, but then was involved very well for the second goal and enjoyed the freedom of the pitch after the sending-off.
HIGUAÍN 8 – Ruthless, clinical, and fantastic. He’s such a brilliant all-around striker. Since he moved to Juve I’ve really noticed how incredible his hold-up play is, but this game we got to see the side of him we all know best — his finishing. He’s a joy to watch and have in the side!
PJANIC 6.5 – Shame he didn’t get to take the free-kicks, surely he would have banged one of them in? Tidy and elegant on the ball though, as always.
LEMINA N/A – Nice hairdo, Mario! Probably spent a bit too much with the ever-bored Paul Pogba, right?
ALLEGRI 7 – Despite a very unconvincing and fatigued start to the game, the team was extremely mature and experienced in the way it handled this potential banana-skin of a match. Credit to Allegri for the psychological management of the game more than anything, but with all these games coming in such a short period of time, he will perhaps need to rotate more to avoid such strained spells of football like in the first half today.
Tactical Analysis – The Two Marcos
Although Livescore tried to confuse me by creatively suggesting a peculiar 3-4-1-2 formation for Cagliari, the Sardinians played nowhere near a formation as ambitious as that. No, it was a plain ol’ 4-4-2 for them. I always find this archaic formation painfully dull to analyze because there’s almost nothing groundbreaking that I can say/analyze about it. And since Juventus’ tactical setup has already been covered in remarkable detail, I thought this was gonna be one of those days where I would have little to write about. Thankfully though, this wasn’t entirely the case, thanks to…The Two Marcos!
The two strikers chose to stick very close to their midfield and always dropped off very deep when defending. This kept the side very compact and meant that Di Gennaro and Dessena didn’t have to stray out of their midfield zones into uncomfortable, high positions to deal with Khedira/Marchisio. Instead, they could focus on protecting the defense from the wandering Dybala, who consequently had almost no space to operate in, and the occasional foray forward by Khedira. The Two Marcos weren’t quite as rigorously disciplined as, say, the Lyon forwards were a few months ago in the Champions League, but they performed their job admirably as Juventus struggled for creativity and significant chances. Funny enough, the one time they switched off was when Marchisio was left free to chip the assist for the first goal. Keep your eyes on the prize lads...
In closing, I do have to highlight something that actually links to why I gave Dybala such a low grade. Generally, 4-4-2s struggle in the middle of the park against three-man central midfields because of the numerical deficit in that zone (2v3) — unless, of course, you’re Croatia or Atlético Madrid. So I thought, who is our third man that I have to keep an eye on? Yep, Dybala. However, there were two issues here.
First, despite the commentator hoping/calling for the Argentine to play closer to goal, it would actually have been better to play in that danger zone a bit deeper between the lines of defense and midfield. However, the second issue was that Cagliari’s lines were so tight that this danger zone was almost nonexistent. This is something that Atlético especially do so brilliantly and is a way to nullify a key deficiency of the 4-4-2 (but does require extraordinary work-rate, stamina, and discipline).
Anyway, Dybala faced the choice of either playing right next to Higuaín (thus making it a 4-4-2 as well) or drop all the way back and in front of the Cagliari midfield, thus operating very far away from goal (exactly what you want as the opposition). As the earlier passing diagram shows, it seems like he ended up being largely restricted to playing in front of the Cagliari defense and thus put in an underwhelming performance today.
Maybe I’m being harsh, heck maybe I’m underplaying a very impressive, disciplined performance by the home side. Or maybe I just totally misunderstand tactics. Ooh well.
Note: Unfortunately, the sending-off basically ended the tactical contest, so there was really nothing to analyze after the 65th minute of the match.
Maturity and experience
It wasn’t a pretty match, it wasn’t a match for the neutrals or the aesthetic purists, but it was a match that demonstrated the team’s remarkable maturity and resilience when things aren’t pretty on the pitch. Fatigue can set in and not every game is going to be champagne football, but I was very impressed by how we shrugged off Cagliari’s enthusiastic energy in the opening period to secure a tidy, though somewhat functional and labored, victory in Sardinia. These are games that less mature and experienced sides can easily allow to get to their heads and throw them off-balance, but Juventus just did what they had to do, got the 3-points, and moved on to the next challenge. It was functional and sometimes a bit grim to watch, but heck, not every day is Christmas.