That would be the word I’d choose if I had to sum up Juventus’ game on Friday night against Atalanta in one word.
The Bianconeri looked absolutely awful in the first half. They held possession for most of the first half, but did nothing with it. Whenever they got anywhere close to the final third the passes simply stopped going where they were supposed to go. Atalanta pressed hard, caused problems, and had the better of chances before going into the half with a shock lead. They came out of the half energized and equalized rather quickly, but after taking a late lead threw it all away and will be left hoping for a favorable result from the Derby della Capitale on Sunday.
Weird also applies to referee Marco Guida, who made a couple of really strange decisions that we’ll get to shortly.
Heck, weird would be a great way to describe the situation going into the game. If you said in August that a contest between Juve and Atalanta would be a top-five clash this late in the season, you would likely have been laughed out of the room.
But, it was. Gian Piero Gasperini has led Atalanta brilliantly this year. If the season ended today it would be the best finish in the 109-year history of the club. Powered by a young, hungry lineup largely drawn from one of the best youth programs in Europe, this team has an excellent chance at Europe. If a few things out of their control go their way, the Champions League wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility for them.
After giving significant portions of the team days off last week against Genoa, Massimiliano Allegri went with a full A-team in Bergamo in the now-standard 4-2-3-1. Gasperini countered with his new-look 3-4-2-1, with Alejandro Gomez playing as a false nine and striker Andrea Petagna starting on the bench alongside midfield phenom Franck Kessie. On the field for Atalanta were both of his Juventus loanees — wingback Leonardo Spinazzola and center back Mattia Caldara.
As the game began, there were almost immediate signs that there could be trouble. Four minutes in Dani Alves’s attempt at a through ball was intercepted and turned back into a counter for Gomez, whose whipped cross just missed Hans Hateboer.
As the half progressed, a pattern emerged: Juventus players attempted passes, and Atalanta players intercepted those them. Gonzalo Higuain was often the target of such passes, but tended to be a step slow coming to meet them, often beaten to them by Caldara, who had four interceptions on the night. Sometimes there was a bit of variety: Juventus players would try to dribble and Atalanta players would muscle them off the ball.
After that first counterattack neither team had a credible goal-scoring opportunity until roughly 20 minutes in, when Atalanta registered the game’s first shot on target with a long-distance effort from Rafael Toloi that was easily dealt with by Gianluigi Buffon. Six minutes later Juve finally managed their first shot on target or off, Higuain volleying wide after a headed pass from Sami Khedira.
Just before the half, the first of the really strange moments from referee Guida came to the fore. Giorgio Chiellini was clearly fouled by Remo Freuler as he followed through on a pass, but no call came, and when La Dea sent the ball back to the Swiss midfielder he had a clear path to the goal. Buffon came almost all the way out of the penalty area to charge him down and make a great save. The ensuing corner kick was sent over the top by Andrea Masiello.
Higuain had another half chance go begging when Juan Cuadrado snuck him the ball, but his deflected effort again went wide of the far post. The Colombian then had Juve’s best chance of the half fall to him in the 37th minute when Chiellini put a long ball into the box. Cuadrado’s run was a good one, but he ballooned the shot well wide.
Juve’s play continued to be marked by imprecise play. Long passes went nowhere, dummies were made with no one behind to get the pass, players were dispossessed with the ball at their feet. Then, with the last kick of the half, they found themselves behind when they shouldn’t have been.
It started with a run by Jasmin Kurtic. A close-range shot from the Slovenian was blocked by Chiellini, but the ricochet came right to Gomez, who dinked a cross to the back post that was tapped in by an unmarked Andrea Conti.
The problem is it should never have counted. The reason Conti was unmarked was simple: Hateboer knocked Khedira down as the cross came in — but Guida didn’t make the call, and was surrounded by Juve players demanding explanations as the players and officials went down the tunnel for halftime.
The intermission saw Juve wake up a bit. The early exchanges of the second half saw a bit more conviction to their play, and when Paulo Dybala earned a free kick on the right-hand side, an equalizer was suddenly in the cards. Miralem Pjanic’s delivery to the far post was excellent, and Spinazzola’s attempt to clear the ball for a corner...went badly. It was the second time in less than a week that the Bianconeri had benefitted from an own goal.
Emboldened, Dybala streaked into the box less than a minute later only to be denied by Etrit Berisha from an angle. Higuain had a go from the ensuing corner, but that was blocked by a crowd of Atalanta players.
The level of play rose, but never really went above mediocre. Chiellini was dispossessed three times in three minutes but was bailed out every time. As the hour mark approached, though, the needle had definitely ticked in a positive direction.
Then Guida showed up again. It was the 58th minute when Alex Sandro chipped in a cross off a short corner routine. Leonardo Bonucci went up for it, as did Rafael Toloi.
As did Rafael Toloi’s hand.
The ball clearly bounced off the Brazilian’s hand, which was being held over his head. It was as clear a penalty as can be seen in today’s game. And Guida initially gave it — only to quickly overrule himself after seeing the assistant’s offside flag.
The problem was, no one was offside. Bonucci was very much onside when Sandro played the ball in. Mario Mandzukic was technically in an offside position — but he was nowhere close to being involved in the play before Toloi’s hand hit the ball. It was a fantastically bad call in every way you can imagine. Someone at the AIA may want to bring Guido and his crew in for some retraining.
That moment seemed to get to Juve, because for the next 10 minutes things stopped working again. But in the 67th minute, a good pass by Higuain met Khedira at the top of the box. He tried to shape the ball into the corner, and was met by a spectacular save by Berisha. Two corner kicks later the German met a cross with a header and saw Berisha just tip it wide of the far post.
The game was crying out for a substitute to change things up — but that’s the one weakness of this Juve. With Marko Pjaca out for the season and Moise Kean dealing with an ankle injury suffered at the Viareggio Tournament last month, Max Allergi’s ability to change the dynamics of the front four is severely limited.
He finally did make a change in the 79th minute. Stephan Lichtsteiner came on for Cuadrado, who had been booked and given the ball away cheaply in the preceding minutes. The move pushed Dani Alves into the attack. On this day at least, it worked.
Four minutes after the change, Pjanic sent a delicious ball into the box and found the Brazilian streaking through the channel. A diving header gave Juve a 2-1 lead that it may not have deserved on the balance of the game, but given the gauntlet they’ll have to run over the next two weeks one that Juve would take and run. Allegri made a pair of defensive substitutions in quick succession, to run out the last eight minutes of the game.
Except they couldn’t.
With only a minute to go, Juve’s defense suddenly cramped. A cross came in from the left. The deflected effort ended up in no-man’s land. Lichtsteiner was in position to attack it, but Pjanic came from behind and got a touch to it. It came to the Swiss’s feet, but Pjanic’s momentum carried him into his teammate, freeing the ball for Freuler. Buffon managed an excellent save on the first attempt, but Freuler kept going and tapped in his own rebound.
Juve sought a third as stoppage time went on, but Atalanta was not to be breached again, and what looked like three important points on the road to wrapping up the scudetto turned into a lost opportunity to make something out of nothing.
Gianluigi Buffon - 8. Made several great saves, including the one-on-one against Freuler in the first half. His initial save on the equalizer wasn’t shabby either. This game could’ve been firmly in Atalanta’s grasp if not for him.
Dani Alves - 6.5. Great goal, but his passing early in the game was shoddy. Has to do better on Wednesday.
Giorgio Chiellini - 6. Made some great defensive plays but made some...interesting decisions in possession.
Leonardo Bonucci - 6. A pretty nondescript performance. No real mistakes, no glaring errors. Atalanta’s good defensive work up the field neutralized a lot of his long passing ability.
Alex Sandro - 6. Really wasn’t in the game going forward. Did OK defensively.
Sami Khedira - 7. One of the few Juve players whose passing wasn’t universally awful. Found the target with three shots but was denied by Berisha saves — two of which were spectacular.
Miralem Pjanic - 6.5. This was difficult to call. The two balls for the goals were fantastic. But the responsibility for the equalizer was really his — it was probably better to let Lichtsteiner deal with it rather than take a touch like that tracking back.
Juan Cuadrado - 6. Augmented Alves defensively well but didn’t have a good day going forward. Missed a major chance at the end of the first half.
Paulo Dybala - 5. Invisible today. Couldn’t really link the lines, and spent a lot of time on the right wing to avoid congestion (and a beating) in the middle.
Mario Mandzukic - 6. Another good defensive contribution, but couldn’t overcome Conti and Toloi as easily as he has other defenders.
Gonzalo Higuain - 5. Consistently second man to most passes. Caldara had him beat for most of the game.
Stephan Lichtsteiner - NR. On in the last 10 minutes to push Alves forward. Bears less responsibility for the equalizer than Pjanic. Probably would’ve been able to clear that ball if he hadn’t been run into.
Andrea Barzagli - NR. On right after the goal, didn’t bear much responsibility for the breakdown.
Mario Lemina - NR. On in the last few minutes to make the formation a true 3-5-2.
Manager: 6. There’s little Allegri could have done differently. He has so little flexibility up front right now, and Atalanta is not the kind of team you can rotate heavily against — not this year. It might’ve been worth making a change a little bit earlier, but he’s really hemmed in at this point.
***BONUS LOANEE RATINGS***
Mattia Caldara - 8.5. In his first game against Juve since they officially became his parent club, Caldara had a fantastic night. Four interceptions, a tackle and eight clearances made up his night, and he wasn’t above mugging Higuain on occasion. He won the battle with the Argentinian today. By my reckoning probably the best man on the field.
Leonardo Spinazzola - 5. Started the day pretty well, but the own goal was the beginning of a downturn, and he was beaten by Alves for Juve’s second. He’s had a breakout this year, but Friday night’s game wasn’t his best.
I touched on this already, but it’s worth repeating — depth is a real problem right now.
Without Pjaca, Allegri doesn’t have the means to change the dynamics up front. Moving Alves up, or doing something similar with Alex Sandro on the left, is really the only way to make any in-game changes, and even then you won’t have the advantage of truly fresh legs to turn on a tired defense.
Allegri is doing a pretty good job making do, but at the moment the starting forwards are going to have to do a lot of the heavy lifting, because there isn’t much behind them.
BIG MATCHES AHEAD
Chalking up Friday’s shaky performance to looking forward to Wednesday’s trip to Monaco is too easy. Atalanta is a good team with a great coach. They played without fear and took advantage of Juve’s mistakes.
This isn’t the image you want to have going into such a huge tie, but it’s worth noting that the last time Juve made the semis they managed only a drab 1-0 win against Sampdoria before beating Real Madrid 2-1 in the first leg.
The more significant impact of this game will be on the title race in Italy. Juve now lead by nine points, but Roma have the chance to close the gap on Sunday when they face Lazio in the Derby della Capitale. That second-vs-fourth clash will be hotly contested and a Lazio win is certainly a possibility, so watch this space. A favorable result there could still see Juve on track to win in the next two weeks — possibly even against Roma themselves.
Now, it’s time to regroup and attack get ready for the trip to the Stade Louis II. The cup with the big ears beckons. Fino alla fine.