Saturday’s Serie A opener at Allianz Stadium was a smooth ride for Juventus. From the moment the game started, Juventus looked focused to rebound from last Sunday night’s Supercoppa Italiana disaster. It was clear Juventus wanted to put Cagliari away with an aggressive attack before the Sardinians could gain any momentum.
In the second minute of the game, Miralem Pjanić struck a free-kick ball that narrowly missed the top left corner by a foot. The well-struck ball missed, but set the tone for the game: Juventus is not taking this lightly.
The next 10 minutes had the same aggressive pace by applying pressure, but Juve still had not created many clean scoring chances. That changed quickly in the 12th minute, as Juan Cuadrado dumped it off for Pjanić, who passed it across the field to a wide-open Stephan Lichtsteiner. Lichtsteiner gave the ball a soft touch before chipping it for a light cross into the penalty box where Mario Mandžukić one-timed the ball into the back of the net. Mandžukić positioned himself beautifully behind the defense and made an equally pretty finish.
As Juventus led 1-0, the defense remained strong through the first 22 minutes of the match. In the 18th minute, Lichtsteiner made a strong recovery on Luca Cigarini, who had beaten Juve’s defense. If not for Lichtsteiner’s effort, Cigarini would’ve been by himself with a lot of space. Then in the 22nd minute, it was Giorgio Chiellini’s turn to contribute. Chiellini denied three crosses in a row from an intense Cagliari attack before Juve finally cleared the ball and took possession in the 25th minute.
Through out the rest of the half, Juventus looked crisp on offense. Dybala showed outstanding passing, vision, touch and dribbling through the tight spacing of Cagliari. Juventus held the lead but only a goal separated the teams from a huge momentum shift that would’ve been nightmarish to Juventus.
If it weren’t for Gianluigi Buffon’s heroics, momentum may have shifted quickly.
In the 35th minute, Diego Farias found himself with an open shot inside Juve’s penalty box. Farias hit a low line drive that had some velocity on it, but it was shot right at Buffon. Paolo Faragò had a wide open net on the rebound, but blasted it into the stands over the net. Buffon prevented the initial goal, but where was Juve’s help defense on the blind side? Gonzalo Higuaín was covering Faragò, before losing him on the rebound. That can’t happen. Better teams will finish that rebound and make Juve pay for their lackluster blindside help.
Just as Juve thought they had escaped danger, Alex Sandro made contact with Duje Cop on a lazy challenge from a difficult angle in the 37th minute. The play was ignored, but referees were advised to review the play. The camera angle showed Sandro’s sloppy challenge warranted a penalty kick, which was awarded to Cagliari by the referee.
But luckily for Juventus, Buffon would have another heroic moment.
Farias took the penalty kick and botched the opportunity. The ball was well struck, but hit low, and Buffon dove to his left to deflect the ball out of danger. Farias’ underwhelming kick may have been due to an inexplicable stutter-step, which seemed to throw off his timing.
Buffon saved two goals in the span of two minutes for Juventus.
In the 46th minute, Juventus had lead possession 72 percent to 28. It seemed inevitable that Juve would break through for their second goal of the match. Pjanić and Dybala combined to do just that. Pjanić sent a scintillating long ball to Dybala, who used a terrific first touch to rip his 47th career Serie A goal into the back of the net. It was one of the more impressive combinations you’ll see all season. Juventus lead 2-0 at halftime.
Dybala came out of the half with scoring on his mind. In the opening minute of the second-half, he hit a rocket that beat goal keeper Alessio Cragno, but saw it graze the top bar and deny him of his second goal of the season. Cagliari were down, but not out, yet.
Finally in the 66th minute, Sandro made a great pass into the penalty box to hit a streaking Higuaín, who struck the ball underneath the defender’s legs to beat Cragno. It was reassuring to see Higuaín finish after playing a poor, slow first half. His goal proved to be the dagger, as Juventus would go on to win 3-0.
It was a satisfying, clean win versus Cagliari, but Juventus must forget about it. Winning against an underwhelming, inferior team who conceded 76 goals — the worst in club history — last year, is expected.
Gianluigi Buffon: 7
Buffon wasn’t tested too much this match, but was heroic when faced with challenges. Farias had an open shot on net in the 35th minute, and Buffon made a key save. Two minutes later, Buffon made the save of the game by denying Farias on the penalty kick. The kick wasn’t well placed, but Buffon guessed the right direction and made an excellent save.
Giorgio Chiellini: 6.5
Chiellini was solid throughout the game. Like Buffon, he wasn’t tested much but made the most of any challenges he faced. Committing four fouls isn’t ideal, but his three straight cross denials in the 22nd minute was symbolic of Juve’s defense all day: rock solid.
Juan Cuadrado: 5
Cuadrado didn’t do anything special, but he didn't do anything catastrophic either. He was involved in a couple of attacking opportunities, but he’ll end up as a substitute role moving forward with the new additions to the team.
Paulo Dybala: 8
Dybala ran circles around Cagliari’s defense all day. He looked like a world class player with his dribbling, passing and ball skills. His goal in the added minute before halftime was classic Dybala, but his rocket that hit the post was a beautiful shot. It’s a shame that he was robbed of a second goal because he deserved it. Great start to the season for Dybala.
Gonzalo Higuaín: 5.5
Don’t let Higuaín’s goal fool you; he looked out of form. He had a lethargic first half and looked slow for much of the game. A few moments of aggression lead to his eventual goal inside the penalty box — the dagger of the match — but Juventus needs more from him moving forward.
Stephan Lichtsteiner: 7
Lichtsteiner looked sharp on both sides of the ball. He played a clean, tactical game on defense. He immediately disarmed a few attacks down the sideline, and Cagliari failed to execute offense from his side of the field. His chip-shot cross to Mandžukić’s goal was a beautiful way to set the tone early.
Mario Mandžukić: 7
Mandžukić was active all game. After positioning himself in the penalty box, he received the pass from Lichtsteiner and buried it into the back of the net. The goal was executed perfectly, and helped Juventus break through after a few early chances went begging. Cagliari’s defense had difficulty matching him physically, and Juventus missed him streaking a couple of times.
Claudio Marchisio: 6
Marchisio didn’t stand out by doing anything remarkable, but he looked sharp all game. He looked like he was back in form and over his injuries. Hopefully, this is the beginning of a strong season for him.
Miralem Pjanić: 8
Pjanić played exceptional all game. He was involved in defending midfield attacks, but his creativity on offense was terrific. Pjanić was involved in most of the attacks and had crisp passes that opened up offensive opportunities for Juve. The assist to Dybala in the 46th minute was magnificent. It’ll be one of the most beautiful passes anyone makes all season.
Daniele Rugani: 6.5
Rugani had clean sheet on defense. His first challenge was made in a calm and collected fashion. He wasn't challenged much, but he was brilliant when he had to defend. Many have been begging for him to be the permanent starter, and he certainly showed why on Saturday.
Alex Sandro: 5.5
Sandro had a lazy challenge at Duje Cop that lead to a penalty kick in the 37th minute. The inexcusable foul could’ve changed momentum of the game if Buffon didn't save the day. Sandro has to be better than that. Imagine if Cagliari had converted the penalty kick? No reason to let an inferior team who struggled offensively gain any momentum. Sandro had a much cleaner second half and made a great pass that lead to Higuaín’s goal. His second half performance salvaged his game, but he needs to be smarter when defending scoring chances.
Sami Khedira, Douglas Costa and Blaise Matuidi: 5
Khedira defended well in the time he was in the game, but was relatively uninvolved on offense. Costa stretched the field and opened the attack up even further than it already was. With Costa on the field, there was a noticeable difference in speed and pressure in the last 10 minutes of the game. Matuidi is widely known as a defensive midfielder, but his speed is going to put pressure on a lot of defensemen this season. If he can push forward and get involved in the offense, he will make Juve’s attack lethal.
Massimiliano Allegri: 7
Most fans wanted to see Douglas Costa, Federico Bernardeschi, Mattia De Sciglio or Blaise Matuidi starting. But Allegri knows it’s a long season, and there’s no reason to force any new additions to the lineup until their in perfect form. Starting Rugani paid off for Juve’s defense, and starting Mandžukić on offense lead to the game’s first goal. Allegri pushed the right buttons with the starting lineup. The chemistry on offense was strong from the beginning, and every player executed well — minus Higuaín. The substitutions weren’t game-changing, but served as a nice way to get the new additions involved. Allegri didn’t show any ground-breaking strategy, but his conservative lineup was rewarded by an aggressive offensive attack. The players responded to criticism and played with a chip on their shoulders from the opening minute of the game. It will be interesting to see what the starting lineup is moving forward, and if Allegri can push the right buttons when necessary. Allegri can’t be afraid to substitute for Higuaín if he looks like he did in the first half of Saturday’s match.