What’s that you say? Yet another Juventus match? Yep, it’s Coppa Italia time, a semifinal versus our big rivals Napoli, no less. The last match of February pitted the Bianconeri against their massive rivals in the first leg of the big showdown. It was a controversial, but entertaining encounter at Juventus stadium as the Bianconeri staged a brave second-half comeback to overturn an early setback and win 3-1 against an impressive Napoli team. José María Callejón opened the scoring, but a Gonzalo Higuaín strike came sandwiched between two Paulo Dybala penalties in Tuesday’s enterprising Coppa Italia encounter.
Napoli certainly started the game the hungrier and more able of the two sides. They applied an aggressive defensive press, were first to every ball, and more fluid in possession than a sluggish Juventus side. Despite being very obviously outplayed, Juventus had the first look at goal after Dybala was sent through on goal and forced Pepe Reina into the first real save of the game. From the subsequent corner kick, Mario Mandzukic powered a fierce header inches over Reina’s bar, thus going agonizingly close to opening the scoring for the hosts.
Napoli did get a handful of shots on target in the opening period, but they were mostly straight at Neto, who didn’t have to strain himself too much to save the efforts. Arkadiusz Milik, still finding his feet after his long injury lay-off, got a decent chance through a headed effort from a Callejón cross, but could only guide his header over the bar. Lorenzo Insigne, Marek Hamsik, and Marko Rog then tested Neto with some reasonably threatening efforts from range as Juventus were being thoroughly outplayed and outran as the game progressed. The hosts could barely string a few passes together as they allowed Napoli to dictate the play with remarkable ease.
Nevertheless, Juventus managed to conjure another big chance in the first half through Higuaín. The ex-Napoli striker took a neat Kwadwo Asamoah pass in his stride with a glorious first touch, progressed into the penalty area, but hurriedly toe-poked his effort over the bar as the Napoli defenders were bearing down on him. Napoli saw that chance as a wakeup call — it was time to punish the Juventus before they scored a goal against the run of play. Milik and Insigne combined to exchange some lovely, deft passes between the two before the latter drilled a ball to the far post. Asamoah had completely lost track of his man Callejón, who narrowly beat the offside trap to sweep in behind him and tap the ball in off the post: 0-1.
A thoroughly deserved goal from some brilliant buildup play for the visitors who had clearly outplayed the Bianconeri up to that point. Higuain almost hit back straight away in search of the equalizer, but a crunching Raul Albiol tackle denied the Argentine striker a sniff at goal before he could pull the trigger. The last piece of action of the half saw Reina pull off a remarkable double save after Mandzukic side-footed Asamoah’s cross on target and Stephan Lichtsteiner forced the Spaniard into the double save from the rebound.
Max Allegri saw that there was something clearly lacking in the side and thus used his bench in an attempt to reinvigorate the hosts, and Juan Cuadrado replaced Lichtsteiner after the break. The switch certainly helped as Juventus were a completely different side in the second half and consequently quickly got back on level terms. Mandzukic used awareness and speed of thought to launch a quick throw-in towards Dybala inside the box. The Argentine skipped past Albiol and then got stuck between him and Kalidou Koulibaly, who was adjudged to have fouled the striker in the process and thus gave away the penalty kick. Dybala stood up to take the spot kick himself and sent Reina the wrong way to put Juventus back on level terms: 1-1!
Quite remarkably, Juve stormed forward in numbers in a way that made it seem like the first half never even happened! The attackers were getting involved in play and even Sami Khedira got a decent shot at goal from a Cuadrado cross, but Rog blocked the German’s effort. Still, the crowd were buoyant and the noise levels in the stadium increased exponentially.
All this momentum quickly resulted in the second goal of the game. Reina came out to challenge a cross from a free-kick, but was caught completely in
la-la land no-man’s land as Giorgio Chiellini easily beat him to the ball and the loose ball dropped for Higuaín to tap into the empty net (despite Bonucci’s best attempts to pull a Nani on him): 2-1!
There was barely any time for Napoli to lick their wounds before Juve struck again, albeit this time in controversial circumstances. The visitors had a penalty shout for a Miralem Pjanic challenge on Albiol (rightfully?) waived away, but Juventus broke away immediately on the counter attack. Dybala played the ball into a completely free Cuadrado who was one-on-one with Reina. The Colombian shimmied his way past the goalkeeper who, in an attempt to challenge for the ball, clattered into him and gave away the second penalty of the game, despite the replays showing that he did seem to get some of the ball before he brought down the winger. It didn’t matter as Dybala repeated the exact same routine from the first penalty to double the Bianconeri’s lead: 3-1!
Juventus were finally comfortable in the game and had worn down a very good Napoli side in a fantastically-entertaining second half. They won a few consecutive corners as the time ticked away for Napoli, who probably felt quite hard-done by in these controversial circumstances. Nevertheless, the league leaders take a two-goal cushion back to Naples for the second leg thanks to a storming second-half comeback!
NETO 7 – He was quite busy in goal, but did very well and seemed confident throughout the game.
BARZAGLI 6 – Very shaky in the first half, but picked things up in the second. Still, I wasn’t feeling quite at ease with Big Andrea’s performance on the night.
BONUCCI 6.5 – Like the rest of the side, a lackluster first half mixed with a confident second period. Him and Chiellini did shackle Milik quite well though.
CHIELLINI 6.5 – Also poor in the first period but a rock in the second, especially in dealing with Mertens.
ASAMOAH 7 – Seemed to switch off for Callejón’s goal in the first half, but was very involved offensively throughout the contest. I do think he was the most proactive of the defenders though.
KHEDIRA 6.5 – Decent performance by the German although he didn’t have much of a presence in the first half.
PJANIC 6.5 – A quiet performance by the Bosnian as he had more defensive than offensive work to do. Struggled to find space to work his magic due to Napoli’s aggressive, high-energy midfield press.
LICHTSTEINER 6 – A bit hard/harsh to judge based solely on the first half (the entire team was poor then) but he seemed uncomfortable dealing with Insigne’s trickery during this period.
DYBALA 7 – Two well-taken penalties and really came alive in the second half. Wish he would spend a little less time with the dramatic reactions to being fouled though (this in in complete contrast to Alex Sandro who, after he is fouled, literally just stands up and moves on with his life).
MANDZUKIC 7 – He drifted between a wide role and a central role in the first half and was consequently a non-factor in this period, but definitively took up his newly-favorite position on the left wing in the second period. It was no surprise then to see him bully and bustle Christian Maggio into submission once Juventus took advantage of the flow of the game. That left-wing really is his!
HIGUAÍN 6.5 – A few half-chances here and there, but have to say that Koulibaly and Albiol really shackled the ex-Napoli man tonight.
CUADRADO 7.5 – Stellar performance by the Colombian speedster. Provided an inspiring breath of fresh air and life to the right wing and even defended with discipline and commitment. When he’s hot, he really is hot.
SANDRO N/A – Short 15-minute cameo but linked up well with Mandzukic during that time. Those two do have a thing going on there, don’t they?
PJACA N/A – An even shorter five-minute cameo. Seemed to play centrally though, which was interesting. Also almost spun away from Koulibaly at one point thanks to a neat turn and burst of acceleration.
ALLEGRI 6.5 – Botched things up in the first period but got it right again in the second half. You can either praise him for being savvy enough to make an “inspired” switch to swing the game in our favour, or blast him for getting it wrong in the first place and simply making the obvious switch to the “correct” tactical setup. Nevertheless, it’s so strange to see that a formation that was once the hallmark of this side (3-man defence) has become such a malignant thorn to the team’s efforts.
Tactical Analysis – To The Left
Napoli, unsurprisingly, played in very much the same way as they did the last time we met, and thus in a manner that we’re very used to of them: high-energy, aggressive and proactive defensive press, a fluid front three, and a high defensive line. Interestingly though, they seemed to heavily favor attacks down the left-side.
Insigne played a withdrawn, inside-left role in order to find a pocket of space away from Lichtsteiner and link up better with Hamsik. Milik actually played in similar fashion as Mertens does, staying high up the pitch against the defenders and leaving Hamsik/Insigne with the responsibility of bringing the ball forward into the attack. However, he also drifted to the left side of the pitch to keep the defenders busy and give the aforementioned duo space to operate. No wonder, then, that the goal came after some very tidy passing play on that side of the pitch involving Insigne, Milik, and Hamsik.
On the opposition side, Juventus started the game in a 3-4-you-tell-me formation as Mandzukic played centrally on paper but differently in reality. It wasn’t always clear, to be honest:
Thankfully, Allegri made up his mind in the second period as Mandzukic explicitly took up the left wing...
And the side became a clear 4-4-2/4-2-3-1. With the increased clarity in tactics came an marked clarity (and improvement) in performance. Dodged a bullet there, Max...
Night and day; Day ‘n Night
I’m still not quite sure how if the second half turnaround was really solely a result of the tactical change or if it was just a question of momentum. To be fair, Insigne faded badly as the game progressed and Milik completely does not seem up to speed yet due to his unfortunate injury. In terms of the penalties — even though I don’t like to discuss controversies — it seemed like the first one was quite fair, the Pjanic-Albiol collision was also the correct decision, and the Reina challenge a bit of a 50-50. Why 50-50? He does get the ball first but as I said in the Game-Time Thread, I don’t think his touch on the ball changed the trajectory of the ball significantly enough; Cuadrado was still on course to get the ball anyway until Reina sliced-and-diced the winger in half. But Lord knows the Italian media is going to have a field day with it. In the words of Tony Soprano: “Whatcha gon’ do?”
Nevertheless, Allegri is faced with a pressing dilemma: the team is evidently playing far more enterprising football in the new-look 4-2-3-1 formation but the roster was not built to provide sufficient depth/resources to play this lineup in multiple competitions for months on end (no wonder, then, that Pjaca is going to be so important the next few months). However, the front four is clearly going to need a rest sooner or later given the fixture pileup and the fact that we’re still competing on three fronts. So what does he do: play an inferior formation or exhaust his forwards?