Paulo Dybala is, like, really good.
Ever since he received the No. 10 shirt this spring, Dybala has been on an absolute tear. Coming into Sunday’s lunchtime kickoff against Sassuolo at the Mapei Stadium, he had scored five times in three Serie A games, not to mention his late brace against Lazio in the Supercoppa. With the team looking to get the bad taste of Tuesday’s 3-0 loss out of their mouths, Dybala marked his 100th competitive game in a Juve shirt by hoisting the team on his back and giving the fans some better food.
The Mapei Stadium has been the scene of season-defining moments in years past, especially the 1-0 loss two seasons ago that sparked Gianluigi Buffon’s famous “Sassuolo Address” and the subsequent 26-match unbeaten streak that took Juve to an improbable scudetto.
This year, the Neroverdi seem a diminished force. They’re still one of the best-run clubs in the league, constantly reloading themselves by either identifying overlooked talent or securing loans from big clubs for promising youngsters. But one of the biggest factors in the club’s recent success, coach Eusebio Di Francesco, has finally left the club for bigger things at Roma. His replacement, Cristian Bucchi, has leaned away from Di Francesco’s attack-minded scheme, and two of their best performers last year, Gregoire Defrel and Lorenzo Pellegrini, followed Di Francesco to the capital this summer.
With some major turnover going on, it didn’t help that the team’s best player, winger Domenico Berardi, ended up having to miss the game after suffering a nasty cut to his foot in training this week. Without Berardi to partner Diego Falcinelli up top in his new-look 3-5-2, he turned to Matteo Politano. Nineteen-year-old Claud Adjapong took the left wingback spot, while Juve loanee Pol Lirola took the right. Paolo Cannavaro anchored Francesco Acerbi and Timo Letschert in defense in front of the excellent Andrea Consigli, while Francesco Magnanelli and Luca Mazzitelli joined another player with Juve ties, Stefano Sensi, in midfield.
Meanwhile, Massimiliano Allegri abandoned the 4-3-3 that saw the team look so sluggish early against Chievo and returned to the usual 4-2-3-1. Giorgio Chiellini returned to the lineup to partner Daniele Rugani, and Stephan Lichtsteiner took the right back spot from the injured Mattia De Sciglio opposite Alex Sandro. Blaise Matiudi and Miralem Pjanic formed the double pivot in midfield, while Mario Mandzukic also returned from injury to form the familiar front four along with Dybala, Juan Cuadrado, and Gonzalo Higuain. Gianluigi Buffon took his customary place between the sticks.
Juve came out of the gates firing, and within four minutes Sandro fired in a long, pinpoint cross to Cuadrado, who for once passed the ball instead of dancing with it. Pjanic ran onto the layoff and fired a hard shot from the top of the box that was met by a good parry from Consigli.
Cuadrado got into a rhythm early, and barely a minute later found Higuain with a similar pass. The striker has been in a funk of late, and has had a tendency to try to dribble too much rather than make a further pass. Such was the case with this ball, and a wall of Sassuolo players eventually dispossessed the Argentine on what would be another disappointing day.
Another player who has been struggling has been Sandro, but his performance on Sunday was a sign that he is finally coming out of that slump. He put in another excellent cross in the 10th minute that was volleyed by Higuain, only to be stopped by another great save by Consigli.
After a quarter of an hour, the young Adjapong started showing why he was so highly rated, evading the defense and finding himself with space in the box. He was closed down quickly and passed the ball off to Sensi, who fired over, but it was a portent of the danger he would pose later in the game.
A minute later, though, Dybala started working his magic.
A long ball from Chiellini had found Mandzukic. The Croatia international turned Letschert inside out and then squared the ball to the onrushing Dybala, who was all alone about 25 yards out. He didn’t even think — he just swung his boot at it and swerved it into the net to make it 1-0.
Juve pressed this advantage. Sassuolo wasn’t allowed any passing rhythm whatsoever, and the pressure on Consigli’s goal continued. Things felt so secure in the Sassuolo half that Cuadrado indulged himself by using a Rabona to cross. The ball was dangerous enough to force Sassuolo into giving away a corner.
Higuain, however, couldn’t capitalize on all this pressure. In the 26the minute he was dispossessed again, this time by Cannavaro, and the ensuing action saw Sassuolo presented with their first real opportunity on goal. Falcinelli was played onside by Lichtsteiner and split the center backs to go 1-on-o1 with Buffon. But as countless other forwards have learned before him, it takes something special to beat the old war horse even when you get clean through. Buffon won the duel, and as he came up with the ball he bellowed orders at his defenders.
Just after the half-hour Dybala tried turning provider, getting another long ball in to Cuadrado. The Colombian laid the ball off to Higuain, but his struggles continued, firing way over the target.
The first real Lirola sighting came in the 36th minute, when he pushed Rugani into conceding a corner after firing in an excellent cross. The counter off the ensuing corner saw Cuadrado gallop all the way into the penalty area before he laid the ball off to Higuain, who again fumbled around with the ball at his feet before getting dispossessed. It was clearly a frustrating game for the €90 million man, who could be seen with his head down at a walking pace while Mandzukic charged in from the wing to pressure Consigli in the box five minutes from the half, then lost the ball again two minutes later.
The half came and went, and it wasn’t long before Juve had doubled their lead. Barely four minutes into the second period Matuidi did some industrious work in the midfield to regain possession. He passed to Higuain, who made the right pass this time and slipped in Cuadrado. Cuadrado rolled across to Dybala, who controlled it, faced up Cannavaro, and out of nowhere unleashed a toe-poke past Consigli at the near post. Another moment of magic, and it was 2-0.
But it only took about two minutes for Sassuolo to make a game out of it again. Lichtstiener gave Adjapong a ton of space behind him for a long ball, then fell down. Adjapong’s effort was partially deflected by Buffon’s hip, and then Rugani cleared the ball off the line on Falcinelli’s second effort. It was a good effort by the youngster, but he had no cover behind him, and Politano arrived just before Chiellini to tap the ball home and make the score 2-1. It was a poor display of defending. Had they not switched off it was an easily preventable goal.
Rugani tried to make up for it in the 57th minute when Mandzukic flicked a free kick back into the danger area, but his shot was kept out by Consigli. The insurance goal was coming though, and there was no one else who could possibly score it but the magical Dybala.
Picking himself up after getting fouled by Sensi just outside the area, he fired in a trademark left-footed free kick that left a despairing Consigli rooted to his spot on the goal line. It was a magnificent way to cap his second hat trick in four four league games.
With the game effectively over, the last half hour saw Juve on cruise control. Dybala looked eager to pick up his fourth in the 79th but saw his shot blocked, and Cuadrado had an effort deflected over the bar with seven minutes to go as the clock ticked to the end and referee Davide Massa blew the final whistle.
GIANLUIGI BUFFON - 7. Made a great save against Falcinelli 1-on-1 and had a generally Buffon day. Did all he could on Sassuolo’s goal but was really let down by Lichtsteiner.
STEPHAN LICHTSTEINER - 5. Didn’t really have much impact in attack, and was uncharacteristically loose at the back. Played Falcinelli onside when he got behind, and left Adjapong acres of space in the lead-up to Politano’s goal. Not his best day.
DANIELE RUGANI - 7. Did a great job in the back. Didn’t put up huge counting numbers, but then again he never does. He did block a pair of shots. Composed and confident, he dealt with most dangers that came his way and put in a hell of an effort to clear the ball away on Politano’s goal.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 7. Four clearances led the team, and he made a smart pass to Mandzukic for Dybala’s first goal. Sorely missed against Barcelona, it’s good to have him back.
ALEX SANDRO - 7. This was a relief. Easily his best game of the year. Completed 88.9 percent of his passes, made a pair of key passes, along with three tackles, two interceptions and three clearances. The kind of two-way performance that was missing up to this point.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 7. An understated day but a good one. Could’ve had an early goal but for some good work by Consigli. Ended the day with a pair of key passes, an 89.7 percent completion rate, and made a good contribution on defense.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 8. Again nothing that popped out to the naked eye, but the stats are great. Completed 95 percent of his passes, made three interceptions and harried Sassuolo the whole match to keep the ball in the attacking half of the pitch.
JUAN CUADRADO - 7. His decision making started slipping a bit in the game’s latter stages, but this was easily his best game of the year. Assisted Dybala’s second goal and was a general threat down the right for much of the match. It just goes to show what he can do when he stops doing stepovers and makes good decisions. Now will he do it again?
PAULO DYBALA - 10. There are no words.
MARIO MANDZUKIC - 7. Assisted Dybala’s first goal and had a generally good day on the left offensively and defensively. He and Sandro seem to bring out the best in each other on that side.
GONZALO HIGUAIN - 5.5. He is really in a rut. Too often tries to dribble through people when that is absolutely not his strength. Had one good shot off a Sandro cross well saved by Consigli, but nothing else went right. Maybe it’s time for a mental health day on Wednesday.
ANDREA BARZAGLI - 6. Very little to do in the 19 minutes after he came on for Lichtsteiner.
DOUGLAS COSTA - NR. Had a couple of nice blasts of pace up the left after coming on. Nearly had an assist on Cuadrado’s blocked shot.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - NR. Gotta start getting him more than eight minutes. With four games in the next two weeks he should be getting at least one start.
Very little nuance to this one. Just a straight 4-2-3-1 and go. It did look for a second like Barzagli’s introduction might have changed things to a 3-5-2 or 3-4-2-1, but as the minutes ticked by it looked more and more like Barzagli was just playing as a straight right-back. That might be something we see until Benedikt Howdes is passed fit.
Dybala is insanely good. He’s the first person in the top five European leagues to score eight times in four league games since Wayne Rooney did it for Manchester United in 2011. He’s proving more than worthy of the No. 10.
The next two weeks provide some tricky tests. There is a pesky midweek league fixture coming up, and a Champions League match the next week. That’s four games over two weeks, and they will be tricky tests — Fiorentina, Tornio, Olympiakos, and Atalanta.
Fortunately, the first three of those games will be at home. But Fiorentina always bring their A-game against Juve, the Derby della Mole is always a different animal, Olympiakos is a tricky opponent, and Atalanta are riding high after their Europa League win over Everton and will be tough to beat in Bergamo.
Juve is plenty deep enough to handle this stretch, but if a few points get dropped in the next 14 days, it shouldn’t come as a shock.
Then again, if Dybala keeps playing like this, it doesn’t matter who Juve plays.