Juventus’ game against Chievo on Saturday had all the hallmarks of a squad rotation day. Much of the team’s South American contingent had only just returned from the long journey home for World Cup qualifying, and Tuesday’s big Champions League opener against Barcelona loomed on the horizon.
They Flying Donkeys are the kind of team to rotate against, and Massimiliano Allegri didn’t miss the chance. Apart from the injured Giorgio Chiellini, Sami Khedira and Claudio Marchisio, the list of healthy players resting ahead of Tuesday’s clash included Gianluigi Buffon, Andrea Barzagli and Paulo Dybala, while Alex Sandro was sent home with the flu.
Allegri chose to tinker not only with his lineup, but also his formation. Rather than stick with the 4-2-3-1 that has become the norm since January, Allegri chose to work in a 4-3-3 formation. Douglas Costa made his first start of the season on the right wing, with Gonzalo Higuain and Mario Mandzukic joining him on the front line. Likewise, Blaise Matuidi made his first start in a Juventus shirt, joining Miralem Pjanic and Stefano Sturaro, who made his own season debut. At the back, Kwadwo Asamoah took over for the stricken Sandro, while Daniele Rugani and Medhi Benatia made up the center-back pairing.
With Buffon, Chiellini and Marchisio all out, the captaincy, which in years past would have fallen to Leonardo Bonucci in this situation, was bestowed upon right-back Stephan Lichtsteiner — a distinction well-deserved after his six years of service to the club.
Chievo lined up in their usual 4-3-1-2 system, with Valter Birsa flanking the strike pair of Roberto Inglese and Manuel Pucciarelli. The always-dangerous Sergio Pelissier lurked on the bench, while Dario Dainelli and Alessandro Gamberini formed the center-back pairing in front of ageless goalkeeper Stefano Sorrentino — a man who has never hesitated to turn into a superhero when the Bianconeri were involved.
Unlike the last round at Genoa, Juve got themselves on the front foot early. A shade less than five minutes into the match Higuain, lurking at the back post on a corner, latched on to the ball and fired from in close, but had his shot blocked.
The early phases saw Juve push Chievo into their own half. Ten minutes in, Mandzukic won the ball far up the offensive left, creating a dangerous move that ended when Sturaro fired over under pressure.
Juve had the upper hand, but wasn’t dominating the way we’re all used to. A giveaway gave Birsa a good shot attempt at the top of the penalty area, but the Slovenian’s effort was blocked by Rugani, and Ivan Radovanovic’s followup went well wide. A few minutes later Asamoah tried to send Matuidi through down the left, but the Frenchman wasn’t anticipating the pass and it skittered out for a goal kick — a good illustration of how the the new arrivals still need some time to fully integrate themselves into the team chemistry.
It was only moments after this miscommunication, however, that Juve nosed their way in front. A handball on the right wing in the 17th minute set up a free kick, and Pjanic’s delivery was nodded past Sorrentino at the near post — by Chievo captain Perparim Hetemaj. The mishap put Juve 1-0 up, a welcome thing after having to chase the game two weeks ago at the Marassi.
It was here that we saw the day’s first real wobble. Asamoah nearly had a pass intercepted in a dangerous spot two minutes after the goal, but Matuidi and the rest of the midfield managed to clean up the danger. Two minutes later it was Mandzukic’s turn to misplace a pass, but Pucciarelli let him off the hook by pushing the ball well wide. Asamoah quickly made up for his mistake with a good back-side interception, then stormed out with the ball to force Hetemaj into a booking.
Wojciech Szczesny got his first taste of action in a Juventus shirt on 26 minutes, when a soft foul led to Radovanovic taking a layoff and crushing a 30-yard shot that the Poland international parried away with one hand. Benatia rushed in to prevent a tap-in equalizer, getting in just ahead of his man to flip the ball over the goal for a corner.
It didn’t take long for Juve to put the pressure back on. Higuain got forward on the counter but dribbled far too long, passing up several decent opportunities to pass the ball before Pjanic took the ball off his foot with a strong shot from the top of the box. Sorrentino didn’t go full comic book on this day, but did manage to tip this one on to the crossbar. This led to three corners in succession, then a great one-two between Pjanic and Costa just after the half-hour. The Brazilian blazed over, but it was a glimpse of the game-changing effect is pace can have.
Costa’s pace was on display again not long after as he whizzed up the field on a counter and then shot in a cross seemingly out of nowhere.
Chievo had their chances, but couldn’t get many of them on target. Pucciarelli did manage to stab one ball through a crowd of legs, but it had no power and Szczesny didn’t have any problem stopping it. All in all, it was a mostly uneventful first half for Juve’s new No. 2 keeper.
The start of the second half was less so. For the first 10 minutes after the restart Chievo had Juve pinned back. Left back Fabrizio Cacciatore had one shot blocked and another fly wide, while Juve failed to break out. The one time they did, Higuain tried to dribble through a crowd rather than return a pass to Costa and was dispossessed easily.
Allegri has an unfortunate tendency to wait far to long to change things with substitutions, but he deserves credit for recognizing the pressure Juve was under and deciding to send in the cavalry. Paulo Dybala’s rest day was cut short, and Juventus’ No. 10 walked to the center line to replace Costa on the 53rd minute.
The move changed the formation back to the 4-2-3-1, with Sturaro pushing up from the midfield to take a place on the right wing. The move paid off within three minutes when Mandzukic presented Higuain with a great layoff, but the Argentine hit a weak shot that couldn’t get past the first defender. A minute later he went with more power.
Dybala burst through the channel and flipped a pass to Pjanic, whose feathery through ball right to Higuain’s feet was blasted into the roof of the net. 2-0.
Even after this insurance goal things didn’t look 100 percent secure. On Chievo’s first foray after the kickoff Sturaro had to provide some good back-side defense to deny an opportunity to Massimo Gobbi, and Birsa put another ball over after cutting inside in the 66th minute. As Szczesny set the ball up for the goal kick, Pelissier took to the field, hoping to add yet another late goal to his impressive tally with the club.
Dybala’s response to this ominous presence was to go on a mazy run through the center of the field, ignoring Sturaro’s run to the right along the way before finally running into a wall of yellow shirts. Moments later he scraped the post with a long-range effort from an angle, riding a tackle to do so. Seconds later, Sturaro supplied him with a neat ground cross from the end line and Radovanovic was forced to close down for the block.
But even as Dybala crashed against the gates, the 2-0 lead never looked entirely secure. Substitute Nicola Rigoni hit a drive from distance that was blocked by Benatia, then with just 10 minutes to go Birsa put a free kick tantalizingly wide of the post.
That effort ended up being Chievo’s last real hurrah.
In the 83rd minute, Dybala took a pass from Federico Bernardeschi, who was finally making his debut in a Juventus shirt, cut inside, then squeezed the ball back the way he came to beat Sorrentino at the near post. It was his fifth in three games in the league and his seventh in four competitive matches this year.
The game drew to a close at 3-0, but the big win was tinged with worry when Mandzukic limped off the field with an apparent calf problem with seven minutes to go. The training staff is rapidly racking up clients, but hopefully the problem will prove minor and he’ll be available.
As the whistle blew, thoughts turned toward the Camp Nou and the first Champions League match of the season. The first truly big match of the year is on its way.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 7. Saw Chievo take 15 shots but only two of them gave him any cause for concern, and they were dealt with effectively. A solid showing in his debut.
STEPHAN LICHTSTIENER - 6.5. Rugged in defense with four tackles and supported the attack well down the right. A strong showing in his first game as a Juventus captain.
DANIELE RUGANI - 6.5. Not a lot in the way of counting stats, but that’s not his game. Kept his composure under pressure and made a number of plays that won’t be seen on any stat sites but took away position and forced shots off target. Also had a pair of blocks.
Medhi Benatia - 7. I’m pleasantly stunned that I’m giving this rating. Benatia didn’t make any of the mistakes that have become a hallmark of his game in the past year, and his stat sheet was chock full. Two tackles, five interceptions, and four clearances and two blocked shots made for a busy day. He still shouldn’t be starting over Rugani when the team is at full strength, but if this Benatia ends up being the real Benatia, I won’t have much of a problem with that.
KWADWO ASAMOAH - 6.5. A pretty good day for Alex Sandro’s backup. Contributed well in attack and in defense, although his passing was a little loose at times, which drives his rating down.
STEFANO STURARO - 5.5. Ironically played a little bit better when he was moved out of position to right wing. Wasn’t particularly bad, but didn’t do anything noteworthy on either side from the midfield. Made a couple of good balls when he was moved to the front.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 8. Four key passes and 94.1 pass completion, his third assist in three league games, and he even pitched in defensively. A good day for the Bosnian.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 7. Pressed well and was a ball-winning presence in midfield. Also contributed three clearances in defense. Now, can he stay focused after his last trip to the Camp Nou, with PSG, ended in disaster?
DOUGLAS COSTA - 5.5. Made a couple of interesting breaks with pace but didn’t look quite in sync with the rest of the team and overall wasn’t a huge threat. Some time to integrate will change that, because the flashes he showed today were promising.
GONZALO HIGUAIN - 6.5. The goal added some polish to what had been a lackluster day up to that point. Needs to stop dribbling so much, but when he did finally get the finish he executed it excellently.
MARIO MANDZUKIC - 7. Made a pair of key passes and defended well all night, whether he was close to his own box or his opponent’s. Hopefully his injury won’t preclude him from the Barca game.
PAULO DYBALA - 9. His entrance totally changed the game. Found every space in the Chievo defense and exploited it ruthlessly. Could finally be stamping his mark on football.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - NR. Made a couple of good runs and registered the assist for Dybala’s goal. Now let’s see more of him.
RODRIGO BENTANCOUR - NR. Played out the game after Mandzukic was forced from the field.
MAX ALLEGRI - 7.5. As I mentioned earlier, one of Allegri’s biggest weaknesses is his tendency to wait too early to make changes. He was certainly not guilty of that on Saturday. His decision to insert Dybala turned the game on its head.
That said, there were some interesting things to say about this game, which brings us to...
Obviously Allegri’s decision to break out a 4-3-3 is the talking point of the game. It’s great to have the tactical flexibility to do either, although the formation does have its cons. Namely, it lacks a natural place for Dybala, who may not be as effective on the wing, where he’d be pushed to, than through the middle.
Saturday’s 4-3-3 wasn’t as effective as Allegri would probably like. He acknowledged as much in his post-match press conference, although they also only had two days to run it in training once everyone was home from the international break. There was a lack of spark in this formation but there was also some promise. When the full-strength team can be deployed, it has the potential to have a strong alternative to the 4-2-3-1.
However, this game was also a potential missed opportunity to see what Bernardeschi can do as a deputy for Dybala in the trequartista role. The team is still built for 4-2-3-1 to be the best formation it can field, and if Dybala must miss a game then a guy like Bernardeschi could be useful as a backup there. There will be other opportunities, but hopefully we find out sooner rather than later.
The Champions League is now the focus of all attention. If Juve can steal a win at the Camp Nou it would go a long way toward dispelling the notion that the loss in Cardiff was anything other than a fluke of defending — and lay down a marker for their intentions on a trip to Kiev this year.
There are some concerns. Chiellini and Mandzukic will likely face a race to be fit, and Sandro will have to beat his bug. The latter will be particularly important — as good as Asamoah is as the Brazilian’s deputy, facing down Barcelona with him at left-back isn’t something fans want to contemplate.
Onward and upward. Bring on Barca.