The wait finally ended on Monday at the Allianz Stadium. After two weeks of inactivity, the winter break is over, and football has begun again.
Juventus took to the field for their first match back against Genoa, a team they’d already beaten twice this year. Unlike the second week of the season at the Marassi, no crazy comeback was required — but this game could have been a heck of a lot more comfortable than it was.
One of the biggest questions coming out of the break was how Massimilano Allegri would deploy the team without the injured Paulo Dybala. Today’s answer was a 4-3-3, with Douglas Costa and Mario Mandzukic flanking Gonzalo Higuain. Genoa’s Davide Ballardini countered with a 3-5-2, with Goran Pandev and Adel Taarabt playing up top.
Juve started on top of things, but it was clear early on that their shooting boots weren’t on all the way. Three minutes in a Blaise Matuidi clearance was deflected into the path of Miralem Pjanic, only for the Bosnian to fire over. Two minutes later Sami Khedira also ballooned one. When Higuain was fouled in prime position right in the middle of the penalty arc, Pjanic hit the target with the free kick but didn’t hit it as well as he could have and left it for Mattia Perin to beat away.
But the fast start paid off after 16 minutes.
It was the two wingers who were in the thick of it. Costa took a pass from Higuain and cut inside. He nearly went too fast to keep control of the ball, but managed to maintain possession and slip a pass to Mandzukic on the left. Costa immediately got up and raced into a massive gap left by Nicolas Spolli and Diego Laxalt, and Mandzukic placed his pass right to the spot the Brazilian pointed to, and Costa got to it just ahead of Perin to tap home and give Juve the 1-0 lead.
The Bianconeri could have put the game away so many times after that. Just three minutes later Khedira and Costa broke away on a counter, but the German’s pass came too late and wasn’t particularly good either. Another breakaway almost 20 minutes later was fouled up by a bad decision from Matuidi, which let Khedira offside.
The good news was the defense had Genoa in a vise. Their only shot of the half was an effort from Laxalt that went well over the bar.
The second half was much of the same. Pjanic put another shot wide within the first five minutes, then had another shot from the left channel curl past the far corner of the goal. Alex Sandro had another shooting opportunity, but dragged it well wide. The best chance of the period came in the 64th minute, when Stephan Lichtsteiner charged to the byline and poked a cross into the six-yard box, but Spolli got to the ball a split second before Higuain, and Khedira fired over on the followup.
Apart from Juve’s wastefulness, the most worrying part of the second half was yet another bevy of injuries. In the 58th minute Khedira suddenly pulled up and hopped up and down for a moment. He soldiered on for 12 more minutes before being pulled for Stefano Sturaro and heading straight down the tunnel to the locker room. Sandro started struggling soon after, giving way to Kwadwo Asamoah in the 76th.
To say Genoa made a grandstand finish of it is overstating things. They once again failed to get a shot on target, leaving Wojciech Szczesny with little to do. The Grifone only managed a trio of shots, two of which were blocked and one, by Aleandro Rosi, that was blazed over after a free kick with a minute to go. Marco Di Bello blew his whistle after three minutes of stoppage time, and Juve had the three points, keeping pace with Napoli at the top.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 6. Had absolutely nothing to do. With Gianluigi Buffon set to return to training this week this might be the last time we’ll see the Pole playing in Serie A for a while, but he earned his keep in Gigi’s absence.
STEPHAN LICHTSTEINER - 6.5. One of the Swiss Express’ best games of the year. Barely missed out on an assist, and reacted very well early in the second half to deny a cross by Andrej Galabinov.
MEDHI BENATIA - 6.5. Kept a good lid on Pandev up top, and shared the team lead with three interceptions.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 8. Made 13 clearances and won six aerial duels. A rock as always in the middle of defense.
ALEX SANDRO - 5.5. Led the team in tackles and completed 90 percent of his passes, but still isn’t creating the danger going forward that he did last year.
SAMI KHEDIRA - 5.5. Looked slow and off the pace. Did lead the midfield with three interceptions but he looks a shadow of the guy we know he can be in top form.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 6. Really wasteful around the box. Led the team with six shots but only two of them found the target. Both of those did make Perin work, and he also had two key passes, but he more than anyone could have put the game away had he been a bit more accurate.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 6. Was his usual ball-winning self and completed 90 percent of his passes, but he too didn’t quite have the edge going forward.
DOUGLAS COSTA - 7. Made a pair of key passes and completed two of three crosses in addition to his goal. Genoa couldn’t deal with his pace. Needs to be on the field as much as possible going forward.
GONZALO HIGUAIN - 5. Bad game. He’s dribbling the ball all over the place and getting dispossessed at the top of the box. Only managed one shot in 52 touches. A player like him needs to do better.
MARIO MANDZUKIC - 7. His assist was a thing of beauty. Costa was pointing to where he wanted the ball as he made his run and Mandzu put it exactly where he wanted it. Altogether he made three key passes, put one of two shots on target, made two tackles, and put in his typically extraordinary effort up and down the field. A warrior.
Allegri’s first foray into setting up the team during Dybala’s injury was a 4-3-3 that worked quite well. Most of the time Mandzukic needs the full support of his left-back in order to be 100 percent effective on the wing, but he managed to create several of Juve’s most dangerous moments without the benefit of Sandro in full form.
If we’ve learned anything from this game it’s that Douglas Costa needs to play as much as possible. Genoa had a hard time dealing with him, and if he can use his pace and technique to get into good crossing positions, the combo of Mandzukic and Higuain in the box will be an aerial terror—particularly Mandzukic, who will usually have the benefit of a physical mismatch on a full-back.
Looking forward, Allegri is going to have to deal with yet more injuries, particularly in midfield. If Khedira is out for any length of time, he’ll have to figure out whether or not to keep his three-man midfield with either Sturaro or Rodrigo Bentancur, or to transition back to a two-man in order to spread the workload around.
Next up for Juve is a trip to Verona to face Chievo, followed midweek by the first leg of the Coppa Italia semifinals against Atalanta in Bergamo.
Napoli, for the record, will face off against Bologna next week.