Time for some Friday Night Lights! Since the night of Champions is almost upon us, the regular Serie A Juventus game was moved to Friday to grant the team enough rest in preparation for the midweek showdown in Portugal. Nevertheless, Juventus were in cracking form coming into the game against opponents Palermo and were probably looking to swat away the relegation contenders as quickly as possible in order to fully cast their minds on the real deal on Wednesday. That said, Juventus barely moved into second gear as they comfortably breezed past a dull Palermo side and secured yet another home victory in the league. The final score was 4-1 thanks to a Paulo Dybala brace and goals from Gonzalo Higuaín and Claudio Marchisio, although Ivaylo Chochev grabbed a consolation goal late into stoppage time that left a sour aftertaste to what should have been an easy clean-sheet victory.
The game started off in a calm demeanor, allowing fans from both sides to get settled in to the glamorous Friday feeling of the game and nicely digest some of that early dinner. The first piece of action came after Edoardo Goldaniga fouled Higuaín on the edge of the box and ex-Palermo man Dybala struck an exquisitely-placed free kick off the base of the post. Still, though, both sides continued to take it easy and get a feel for the game without rushing things — Juventus by dominating possession and Palermo by bunkering down in an almost 5-4-1 formation and lurking on the counterattack.
Thankfully, Juve’s domination quickly paid off through the opening goal in the 13th minute. Dani Alves, replacing Stephan Lichtsteiner at right back for the evening, caught Palermo off guard with a quickly taken free kick towards Higuaín, who narrowly beat the offside trap. Goalkeeper Josip Posavec was forced to come out to deny the Argentine, but the rebound fell kindly for Marchisio, who buried his shot high into the top-left corner of the goal: 1-0!
Palermo looked to hit straight back though by immediately forcing Gigi Buffon into action, but the goalkeeper produced a great save to stop a smart Ilija Nestorovski shot from close range.
Juventus continued to comfortably control the game through dominating possession instead of necessarily creating many clear-cut chances. However, one of these chances did come later on after Sami Khedira almost nodded in (with his hand?) a cleverly-chipped cross from Marko Pjaca, but Haitam Aleesami was alert to the danger and cleared the ball off the line. Palermo could only muster a decent Norbert Balogh shot and a wayward Roland Sallai effort as they spent most of the first period camped well inside their own half. Juventus responded with a chance of their own through a weaving Dybala run but his eventual shot was easily taken by Posavec.
Palermo, quite surprisingly, did come agonizingly close to the equalizer after Nestorovski headed down a long ball across the face of goal towards Balogh, who was just about to finish what surely would have been a goal, only for Asamoah to deny him with a last-ditch tackle and subsequent clearance. That missed opportunity would prove fatal as a few minutes later, Dybala lined up a free-kick on the edge of the area and curled a left-footed effort perfectly into the top corner to double the home side’s lead: 2-0! A perfect way to end the first half of football and Juventus were cruising to victory.
You could really see that Juventus were conserving energy for the big showdown with Porto on Wednesday, because the game continued at an exhibition-match pace in the second half. The team focused on stringing some passes together, keeping things solid, and not expending too much energy in a match where it really wasn’t needed anyway. Bonucci tried to spice things up a little by trying a cheeky, ambitious effort from inside his own half after spotting Posavec off his line, but his strike sailed comfortably wide of the target. Higuaín, however, kept things simple and clean a few minutes later when he scored the third goal of the game by chipping a truly sublime finish over the onrushing Posavec and in off the far post after Dybala sent him through on goal with an excellent through-ball: 3-0!
It was all plain sailing now for the Bianconeri who were en-route to yet another home victory in the league. It was almost 4-0 soon after when Dybala, really in swaggering form tonight, released substitute Cuadrado on the right wing but the Colombian winger got stuck in 300 minds and thus allowed the Palermo defenders to clear the danger. The fourth goal did arrive through Dybala soon afterwards as Goldaniga made an absolutely woeful error in defense, allowing Higuaín to bear down on goal. The defender didn’t care about saving face though as he tried to sumo-wrestle Higuaín to the ground, but the Argentine wasn’t going to let that desperate attempt deter him as he teed up Dybala with a clever backheel which La Joya comfortably tucked away for the fourth goal: 4-0! Unfortunately, there was a real blight on the scoreline at the end as Chochev headed in a late Diamanti corner to break the run of clean sheets and send Buffon into seething anger. Nevertheless, it did little to change the eventual outcome: a comfortable 4-1 victory at the Juventus Stadium!
BUFFON 7 – Rightly furious about the needless goal late on. Saved a few Palermo shots excellently even though he had next to nothing to do.
ASAMOAH 7.5 – Really had Balogh pinned down on the left side and made that absolutely fantastic last-ditch tackle in the first half. Gets a bit extra for his heroic efforts there.
BENATIA 7 – Tidy and composed. Didn’t have much to do because it seemed like Nestorovski drifted towards Bonucci’s side of the pitch more frequently.
BONUCCI 7 – Dealt with Nestorovski’s presence easily, sprayed passes around with confidence, and even tried to pull off a cheeky heroic effort from his own half. Not quite there yet, Leo.
DANI ALVES 7 – The little defending he had to do, he did effortlessly and linked up well with first Pjaca and then Dybala (after Allegri tinkered a bit with the positioning of the forward line).
KHEDIRA 7 – A bit difficult to grade because he only played the first half. Looked solid as usual though.
MARCHISIO 7.5 – Sharp instincts on the first goal (he did shoot it awfully high though) and overall a strong performance. He did test the patience of the referee with his tackles though, especially when he was on a booking already.
STURARO 7 – Defended better than he attacked, but then again that’s what we’re used to of him, no? Had some real snappy challenges which were actually very good and helped add some bite to the midfield.
DYBALA 8 – That’s more like it from La Joya! I was getting a bit worried after his poor run of form of late, but he toyed with Palermo’s defenders with all the ease in the world and enjoyed the ease of the occasion.
PJACA 6.5 – Ah yes, the rating that everybody yearns to read. If I give him a low grade, it feels like I’m being harsh on him. Yet giving him a high grade feels like I’m trying to flatter him. Overall, I think he was very good at the start but gradually tailed off as he ran out of energy. I think he can really be something for this team, but for now I wouldn’t risk playing him against the real big boys — games like these against less threatening opposition is probably the best compromise for now to give him confidence and playing time.
HIGUAÍN 7.5 – Another game, another fantastic performance by the Argentine. I give him a tad less than Dybala because he was caught offside awfully frequently. Nevertheless, he continues his excellent form with yet another goal and also a brilliant assist
after shrugging off the sumo-wrestling effort from Goldaniga!
Note: I wanted to punish everyone for conceding that totally unnecessary, complacent goal at the end, but I’m a nice guy.
LEMINA 6.5 – He was awfully sloppy in the first 10-15 minutes when he came on, but kept things simple afterwards.
CUADRADO 6.5 – Don’t know why he seemed so confused on that big chance he got in the second half, but overall he kept things quite tidy and had some nice exchanges with Alves.
RINCÓN 6.5 – A quick 15-minute cameo for El General.
ALLEGRI 7 – I think he rotated to just the right degree — resting Khedira early once he saw it would be a breezer of a match and giving the likes of Benatia, Alves and Pjaca a run-out. Also tinkered well during the game after moving Pjaca to the left wing to (somewhat?) double up there with Sturaro, leaving the right wing to Alves and playing Dybala as an inside-forward. Some nice, subtle flexibility from Mad Max there and it paid off handsomely as the team barely broke a sweat all game. I do wonder if Higuaín doesn’t need a rest though…
Tactical Analysis – Much ado about nothing
I’m starting to notice that the most boring tactical games are those where one team entirely dominates possession and the overall proceedings of the match. This, again, was one of those games. Therefore, I just have a few snippets of the game to share that caught my eye throughout the 90 minutes.
Juventus started with Pjaca on the right and Sturaro on the left in a 4-2-3-1 formation but Allegri quickly (around the 15-minute mark) changed that to something more resembling a 4-3-3 formation with Dybala as the inside-right forward, Pjaca high on the left, and Sturaro as a left-central midfielder (though playing very close to Pjaca as well). On the opposition side, Palermo played a 4-3-3 when in possession but, since that was rarely the case, they adopted a 4-5-1/5-4-1 formation for most of the game. The wingers, Balogh and Sallai, especially played in an extremely deep position.
After their substitutions early in the second half, Palermo resorted to battening down the hatches even further by moving towards a 5-4-1 (that resembled a 4-4-2 when in possession, which was a more frequent phenomenon in the second half). Due to this, I couldn’t quite figure out what the deal was with Sunjic, who played a quasi RB/RCB role, and Rispoli, who played a quasi RB/RM position. Therefore, it was at time a 5-4-1, other times a 4-4-2, and yet other times a 3-4-3. So many numbers, so much math, yet still much ado about nothing.
Believe me, I’m also still pissed off about the Chochev goal, but hey, the players are humans and I’ll forgive this mistake as long as it’s used as strong reminder of how difficult the next three months are going to be. Still, though, the game really had an exhibition-match feel to it as the players (rightly) didn’t look overly bothered to waste too much energy on a really, really poor opponent. I like that Allegri used his subs intelligently and, in general, seems to be utilizing the full depth of his squad the last few weeks.
In closing, I will leave a few words for our beloved Pjaca. I honestly think that for the rest of the season, the best course of action is to use him against the Empolis, Palermos, Pescaras, etc. of the league and use that to build his confidence and general knowledge of Italian teams that are more gritty and stout.
We can all obviously see that he has real talent in him, but I think it’s best for the overall development of the lad if he plays in lower pressure environments for the time being, where he can “fail” in a “safer” environment. Remember, we don’t know how his off-the-field acclimatization is going: new language, new country for the first time in his young life, friends, family is far away, and so on. I’m sure he wants to kick the beat and get rolling so badly but good things come to those who wait, young one.
Now, on to the Stadium of the Dragon...