Sunday’s game against Sampdoria had all the makings of a trap game for Juventus. The blucerchiati arrived red-hot, riding a run of five wins and two draws in their last seven games. Juve hadn’t really had to break a sweat in the UEFA Champions League against Porto in midweek, but they were still coming in on less rest than their opponents. After Friday’s quarterfinal draw, the specter of Barcelona was on the horizon to draw attention from the matter at hand.
Oh, and they were headed to the Stadio Luigi Ferraris, site of their worst performance of the season, when they were thrashed 3-1 at the end of November by Genoa, Samp’s co-tenants at the Marassi.
Marco Giampaolo has some good talent to call upon, particularly up front with Luis Muriel and former Juve striker Fabio Quagliarella. They had the potential to really put Juve up against it, but the bianconeri were able to hold their own. At the end of the day quality held out, and by the final whistle Juve made an early Juan Cuadrado goal stand up and came out 1-0 winners to head into the international break on a high note.
Of course, not everything is so rosy. Three points were all well and good, but the biggest question after the game will be how badly Paulo Dybala is hurt after limping off just before the half-hour mark.
The game started quite brightly. Within three minutes Dybala had slipped a neat square ball to Gonzalo Higuain, but fired the ball straight at Christian Puggioni, who was deputizing for the suspended Emiliano Viviano. Less than 60 seconds later Samp had their own golden chance, as Andrea Barzagli was beaten on the wing by Quagliarella, who slipped the ball into a swath of open space in the Juve penalty area. Muriel was closing menacingly but slipped on the Marassi turf — something that turned into a common theme for both teams over the course of the afternoon — and Juve cleared the danger.
Quagliarella quickly established himself at Samp’s danger man, slipping past the defense to slam an angled shot just wide of the post. It looked like end to end stuff, and that Samp would have the chance to make a real game of it. They were pressing high and forcing the issue when they did get possession. But a minute later they were chasing the game.
Receiving a short feed from Mario Mandzukic, deputizing left back Kwadwo Asamoah came down the wing and fired in a bullet of a cross. Cuadrado drifted in from the other side and got in front of Vasco Regini to put a diving header past Puggioni to break the deadlock after just seven minutes.
Juve pressed for a second but their last touch failed them. Five minutes after the goal Dybala got down the right side and sent in a cross that hissed past Mandzukic, and four minutes after that Cuadrado’s cross from the end line was spilled by Puggioni straight into the path of Higuain, only for the Argentine to flail at ball, unable to put it past the struggling keeper. The rebound didn’t end up the right spot for Mandzukic to shoot, but he gathered it and pulled it back to Dybala, who whiffed at it with his usually-golden right foot. A prime chance to double the lead went begging.
It was an awful half of football for Higuain. He was denied by one excellent save from Puggioni when a wayward pass from Cuadrado was inadvertently deflected into his path seven yards from goal, but otherwise he either shot the ball straight at the goalkeeper or failed to get his chances right.
Then, a potential disaster. In the 27th minute, Dybala simply doubled over and sat down, holding his leg. Marko Pjaca stripped off his training gear within seconds, and Dybala limped off. He appeared on the bench and had a smile on his face for the second half, and Massimiliano Allegri said in his post-match press conference that it seems like a minor injury, but the last time he limped off in October he missed two months. Juve have to hope that the international break can help him mend with Barca on the horizon just over a month from now.
Dybala’s withdrawal seemed to drain the invention from Juve’s game. Pjaca initially played Dybala’s trequartista role, but swapped with Mandzukic at halftime, with the elder Croatian playing behind Higuain.
Pjaca did manage to create a spot of danger right before the half, playing a quick one-two with Higuain at the top of the box, but here again Higuain beat himself. Rather than hitting the ball first time with his right foot he took three touches and went to his left instead. The shot wasn’t all that far away from Puggioni and he got down easily to parry it aside.
The second half saw the pace predictably drop off. Juve, looking visibly fatigued, tried to see the 1-0 lead out, while Samp’s intense first-half pressing game dropped off as legs tired. Soon a few mistakes started creeping into Juve’s game.
Cuadrado burst forward five minutes after the restart and had Mandzukic on run with open space ahead of him, but pulled the trigger far too late and saw the pass intercepted. Sami Khedira charged down the left-hand channel only to keep the ball far too long, and the run came to nothing. Asamoah took a loose ball away from Gianluigi Buffon right before the keeper would have been able to pick it up, causing a minor problem that fortunately came to nothing.
The Ghana international made up for that mistake 10 minutes later with a fantastic last-ditch challenge on Samp supersub Patrik Schick to snuff out a counterattack that may have been their best chance to equalize.
That was probably the high water mark in terms of attacking play for either team. A few weak shots squiggled to Buffon, and six minutes from time Quagliarella flipped a ball up to himself to attempt the second of his trademark bicycle kicks, neither found the target but neither of which was all that far away either.
By the time Paolo Tagliavento blew the final whistle after five minutes of stoppage time, the game had devolved into a quite tepid affair.
Three points are three points, and Juve won’t turn their noses at them. It puts them 10 points clear of Napoli and 11 clear of Roma, who play later today against Sassuolo, and it’s nice to go into the international break on the back of a win. But the biggest story over the next few days will be just how long Dybala’s injury will keep him out, and whether or not this 1-0 win ends up being a Pyrrhic victory.
Gianluigi Buffon - 6.5. Did what he needed to, but gets half a point knocked off after failing to hold a few shots. He smothered them afterwards, but you expect him to keep those corralled without the drama.
Dani Alves - 6. Really didn’t have that great a day on the right flank. Wayward in his passing and didn’t make himself as dangerous as he was against Porto. His own version of WCW’s infamous Finger Poke of Doom late after a scuffle with Regini was kinda embarrassing.
Andrea Barzagli - 6. Beaten for pace a few times when play forced him out wide. Played well when he didn’t have to keep up with runners.
Daniele Rugani - 8. This is the first time I’ve typed this man’s name all day. That’s a good thing. Nothing in his general area turned into trouble. Why was Medhi Benatia starting over him again?
Kwadwo Asamoah - 7. After his years in the wilderness because of the injuries he’s really found a home as Alex Sandro’s backup on the left. Cross on the goal was inch-perfect. Would’ve been a bit higher had he not made a few mistakes in the second half, although he was able to clean up after them.
Sami Khedira - 6. Did well to hold his position defensively but he looks a step slow right now. He may need an extended rest.
Miralem Pjanic - 5.5. Did he do anything today? It feels like nothing he did had any consequence.
Juan Cuadrado - 7. Goal bumps up his rating. He still plays too fast sometimes, and his decision-making really needs to improve.
Paulo Dybala - 6.5. Created a few good chances although he whiffed at a good one after that goal-mouth scramble. If he’d been able to stay on might’ve had a bigger say.
Mario Mandzukic - 7. Understated, but steady as always. Provided Asamoah with the pass that led to his cross and provided a couple of defensive headers on free kicks into the box.
Gonzalo Higuain - 5.5. Maybe he’s getting tired — he’s played in all but two of Juve’s competitive games this year — but he really should’ve done better in front of goal. Needs to stop taking so many touches before he shoots.
Marko Pjaca - 5.5. Wasn’t a major factor beyond a couple of nice passes shortly after coming on for Dybala. Samp’s defense didn’t give him much room to operate.
Mario Lemina - 6. Looks like he was originally put on as a like-for-like for Cuadrado, which was odd. Did what was required to see out the game.
Stephan Lichtsteiner - NR. Came on late for Higuain to ice the game defensively.
Manager: 5.5. This was going to be a relatively neutral six until I read something in his post-match presser in regards to Dybala’s injury: “He felt the thigh muscle harden and he had been feeling that for a few days.” If he had been feeling something in that leg for a few days in training, especially after having played 78 minutes in midweek, why on earth was he playing today at all? Which leads me to...
The 4-2-3-1 formation has really changed Juve’s season since it was introduced after the January loss to Fiorentina. But today’s game may have exposed a major flaw. It’s not so much to do with the formation itself, but the team’s ability to fill it.
There are only five forwards on the roster — Higuain, Dybala, Mandzukic, Cuadrado, and Pjaca. Maybe you can say six on the days that Moise Kean is with the squad. That has severely limited Allegri’s ability to rotate the forwards. Higuain looks exhausted, and if Dybala was truly feeling something irregular in his leg during training, he shouldn’t have been playing.
This has forced Allegri into playing midfielders (Lemina today, Stefano Sturaro in the recent past) or defenders (Alves) out of position at the wing spots or simply whipping the current front four to death.
Pjanic proved capable of playing as a trequartista when Allegri was running a 4-3-1-2 just before the winter break — indeed, that’s probably what he was originally signed for in the first place. He could easily have slotted into the hole to give Dybala a rest while Claudio Marchisio or Lemina partnered Khedira in midfield. With the business end of the Champions League coming up, Allegri has to start rotating the squad better, either by mixing and matching in the 4-2-3-1 or shifting to something like the 4-3-1-2 to allow some of the forwards to rest their legs. Otherwise things could get very dicey.
POINTS ARE POINTS
A few weeks ago in his initial reaction column to the 1-1 draw at Udinese, Danny described the game as a “big old bucket of meh.” To that, I add the immortal words of the character Gorilla from the popular Youtube channel Glove and Boots: MEH. After a quick start, that’s pretty much what this game devolved into.
It was three points ground out, but three points closer to Scudetto No. 6 in a row and that’s really what it’s about. But it certainly wasn’t inspiring, and Juventini will be on tenterhooks until they find out exactly how long Dybala is going to be out. This was three points gained, but also a potential warning: fatigue is creeping in, and Allegri is going to have to manage the squad better if the team’s ultimate goals are to be realized.