Juventus arrived for their game against Napoli on Sunday with so many subplots swirling that the match itself almost seemed secondary to the drama.
It was Gonzalo Higuain’s first trip to the Stadio San Paolo after his €90 million move this summer. The last meeting between these two teams — a 3-1 Juve win in the first leg of the Coppa Italia semifinal in Turin — saw controversy over penalty calls that left the partenopei furious. Furthermore, it was a game that Napoli needed to win in order to have any whisper of a hope of a prayer of making a late-season title challenge.
With so much drama coming in, it was certain that the San Paolo would be a cauldron. In addition to the hostile atmosphere, the bianconeri were dealing with a selection crisis.
And despite all this, it only took seven minutes for Juventus to break the deadlock. Even with an underpowered lineup, the Old Lady of Italian football looked like they were again going to make a statement and reinforce their stranglehold on the league.
Then Massimiliano Allegri did what Massimiliano Allegri does far too often. He took that one goal and tried to take it to the bank. His players sank deep into their own end and started soaking up pressure, breaking when they could but clearly attempting to take a 1-0 win to the bank for 83 minutes against one of Italy’s most dangerous attacking teams.
The fact that it didn’t work isn’t a surprise. Napoli missed several good chances in the first half and had a goal disallowed for offside before they equalized on the hour mark, and Juve were unable or unwilling to muster a response. They managed to avoid a defeat that would have potentially blown the Scudetto race open again, but make no mistake: This was two points dropped by Napoli rather than a point gained by Juve.
Both teams had selection issues pregame. Napoli were sweating the fitness of goalkeeper Pepe Reina, who had picked up a calf injury in training while on international duty with Spain. He didn’t pass fit, so Rafael Cabral, whose only game action this year was in the Coppa Italia Round of 16 against Spezia, took his place.
As for Juve, their depth was severely compromised. Forward Marko Pjaca is out for the year after tearing his ACL in Croatia’s friendly with Estonia. Dani Alves and Juan Cuadrado had only returned from South American qualifiers on Friday, and Paulo Dybala was still nursing the thigh injury he suffered against Sampdoria just before the international break.
That saw Allegri alter his lineup. Mario Lemina played out of position on the right wing, while Miralem Pjanic moved up to Dybala’s trequartista position. Claudio Marchisio partnered with Sami Khedira in central midfield and Stephan Lichtsteiner and Kwadwo Asamoah manned the flanks.
The game’s opening minutes saw the two teams poke and prod each other until the fifth minute, when Lorenzo Insigne tried to pick out Jose Callejon on a run to the far post. Gianluigi Buffon claimed the ball easily, but the first salvo had been fired.
Two minutes later Juve were in front. A long ball from Marchisio was met by a defender, but the clearance only went as far as Pjanic, who tapped it back to Khedira. A quick one two with the Bosnian later, Khedira slipped the ball past Rafael, and Juve had a quick lead and had quieted a raucous Neapolitan crowd.
The warning signs came almost immediately. Barely 60 seconds after Khedira’s goal Insigne cut inside from the right wing and fired a shot directly at Buffon. By the 15-minute mark Buffon had punched away a pair of corners, claimed a cross, and seen Giorgio Chiellini make a good play to keep another cross away from Callejon.
All these came as a test for the first real Napoli chance of the game on 10 minutes, when Chiellini’s attempt at a clearance was intercepted by Allan, whose ball into the middle was chested down for Marek Hamsik by Dries Mertens. The Napoli captain shanked it wide, but it was the first real alarm bell that things could go south if the bianconeri didn’t pick things up.
Spoiler alert: They didn’t.
Juventus didn’t have a shot for the last half hour of the first half. They managed a few quick breaks, but were so far in their own half when they started that no one could arrive in support before Napoli was able to get numbers back to defend. In the meantime. Hamsik was set up at the top of the box a second time and again blasted wide, while Mertens and Insigne slalomed through the defense in order to put shots right at Buffon and far wide, respectively.
The first minutes of the second half looked like the bianconeri may have charged up their batteries at halftime. Pjanic chested down a long pass for Higuain, whose early shot from distance was blocked by Kalidou Koulibaly. A minute later the Argentinian set Lemina loose on a counterattack. The Gabon international had Mario Mandzukic open coming down the left side but chose to crack a shot from distance and an angle. It went to Mars.
That shot was notable because it was Juve’s last one of the day. On the day, according to WhoScored.com, the bianconeri were outshot 17-4 and ceded 60.6 percent of possession. Against Napoli, that’s a recipe for disaster.
Napoli absolutely dominated the second half. In the 50th minute, Insigne curled one just wide. Six minutes later, Buffon was called into action to stop the first really dangerous shot that Napoli had put on target when Mertens fired from distance. Callejon jumped on his parry and put it into the net, but he was well offside when the initial shot was taken.
It was the last warning sign. On the hour, Hamsik somehow managed to find a 10-yard halo of space down the right channel. Mertens found him easily. He didn’t miss a third time, curling the ball cooly past a helpless Buffon to tie the score.
Allegri looked to make a quick response. Cuadrado, who had been set to come on just before the goal, replaced Lemina. Unfortunately the hoped-for infusion of energy never came. Cuadrado’s play was, frankly, awful. According to WhoScored, he only completed 70 percent of his passes and didn’t even attempt a cross. In half an hour he managed 15 touches, most of which involved him trying to draw a whistle and failing. He ended up committing more fouls (two) than he drew (one).
His introduction did nothing to change the one-way traffic. When Asamoah’s awful back pass was intercepted by Mertens it looked like Napoli would have the lead. Buffon quickly tried to intervene. Mertens got it past him, but Buffon did just enough to hold him up that by the time he got to the ball the angle was incredibly tight. It was the kind of goal you would expect the Belgian to score easily given his form this season, but he somehow struck the bar with it.
The game began to peter out after about 70 minutes. Hamsik was withdrawn, taking a big part of Napoli’s attack with him. Dybala came on for the last 10 minutes to see if any sort of spark could be found, but he only managed six touches. Just as stoppage time began substitute Pitor Zielinski found Callejon on one of the patented far-post runs that he’s already scored on twice against Juve this season, but the Spaniard only managed to put the ball across the mouth of the goal.
It was easily one of Juve’s worst performances of the year. Not quite as bad as the losses to Genoa and Fiorentina or the draw against Udinese, but definitely not anywhere close to good.
Gianluigi Buffon - 7. Claimed pretty much every cross that came his way and made a good save when Mertens took his chance from distance. Could do nothing about the goal.
Stephan Lichtsteiner - 4.5. Was totally bamboozled on multiple occasions by Insigne. Couldn’t support Lemina in the attack at all.
Leonardo Bonucci - 6. A little shaky at times, but overall a good day. Made one particularly important tackle to stop Insigne from going on a solo run in the 64th minute.
Giorgio Chiellini - 7. Dealt with cross after cross. A bit shaky in his passing but his monster day in the box mitigates that.
Kwadwo Asamoah - 4.5. Had a tough time with Callejon and nearly gifted Napoli the lead with that awful back pass.
Claudio Marchisio - 6. Did well enough to keep things settled in defense but wasn’t able to transition Juve into the attack.
Sami Khedira - 7. One of Juve’s best players on the field. Excellent on the goal but couldn’t roam forward as much as he’d like for the rest of the game.
Mario Lemina - 5. Started out OK and had one or two interesting dribbles, but faded as the game went on. Could be intriguing on the right wing if he were to have more time in the attacking third, but not in this game.
Miralem Pjanic - 6. The assist was excellent but he did little for the rest of the game.
Mario Mandzukic - 4.5. Like Lemina had little to work with on the wings. Wasn’t his usual self tracking back either.
Gonzalo Higuain - 5. Had almost nothing to work with.
Juan Cuadrado - 3.5. Did absolutely nothing to turn the tide after coming on. Possibly his worst game of the year.
Paulo Dybala - NR. Saw little of the ball during his 10 minutes on the field.
Tomas Rincon - NR. On just to see out the match.
Manager: 5. His team selection was unorthodox, but between late arrivals from the international break and injuries he had to think outside the box. A little surprising that Alex Sandro, who wasn’t called up by Brazil, didn’t end up on the field at some point. What brings down his grade is the way he approached the game on the field, which brings us to...
One of Allegri’s biggest weaknesses as a manager is his tendency to retreat into a shell after scoring a goal. That’s exactly what he did after Khedira scored, but it was never going to work. Not for 83 minutes against a team like Napoli on the road. Allegri totally surrendered the initiative as soon as his team took the lead, and he paid for it.
The formation itself was actually quite interesting. Allegri likes his formations to morph as they transition from defense to attack, and today the 4-2-3-1 that he has used since the loss to Fiorentina would turn into a 4-4-2 in defense, with Pjanic joining Higuain as a de facto seconda punta. It would’ve been an interesting wrinkle if Juve had had any attacking impetus whatsoever after Khedira scored.
But they didn’t, and that comes down to Allegri’s decision to cede the initiative. Having just potted an early goal and quieted a raucous San Paolo crowd, Juve should have pressed their advantage and and sought a second goal to get some breathing room. Instead, they retracted into a shell that was never going to stay intact.
Same Bat-time, Same Bat-channel...
On Wednesday, Juve will find themselves right back at the San Paolo for the second leg of the Coppa Italia semifinal. They come in holding a 3-1 aggregate lead, and Allegri looks to be placing a priority on that game. He said as much in his post-match press conference, telling reporters “this was a very important game for us, but not as important as Wednesday.”
Important as Wednesday’s game is, this result has left Juve with a shrinking margin of error. Roma have closed to within six points after their win over Empoli on Saturday. The good news is that between now and the Derby della Mole on May 7 they will be the heavy favorites in every league game.
But with the UEFA Champions League quarterfinal against Barcelona looming 10 days from now, this team needs to improve, and fast. If Allegri cedes the initiative to the Catalans the way he did today, Juve will be quickly and efficiently dismissed from Europe. Juve must up their game — fast.