Juventus’s 1-0 win over Cagliari on Saturday night was anything but pretty. After an end-to-end first half that saw Juve hit the woodwork twice and Wojciech Szczesny make two world-class saves, the second half got ragged, thanks in no small part to a pair of injuries that prompted multiple tactical shifts.
In the end, the game was decided on a fantastic bit of skill by substitute Douglas Costa, but the ruling narrative of this match will be the decisions of referee Giampaolo Calvarese on either side of Juve’s goal. We’ll get to those.
With the winter break and two weeks off looming, Juve came into the match with the chance to effectively make it a two-horse race for the Scudetto. Inter had been held to a last-minute draw by Fiorentina on Friday, and earlier Saturday Roma had fallen to Atalanta 2-1 at home, meaning Massimiliano Allegri’s men could open up an eight-point gap between themselves and Inter in third.
Allegri sent the team out in the 4-3-2-1 “Christmas tree” formation that has been making frequent appearances the last two weeks. Szczesny continued to deputize for the injured Gianluigi Buffon in goal. With Mattia De Sciglio still hurt and Allegri unwilling to play Stephan Lichsteiner two games in one week, Andrea Barzagli played as an emergency right-back, with Medhi Benatia, Giorgio Chiellini, and Alex Sandro joining him in the back four. Blaise Matuidi, Miralem Pjanic, and Sami Khedira manned the midfield, while Paulo Dybala and Federico Bernardeschi played in behind Gonzalo Higuain.
Diego Lopez started for Cagliari the last time they beat Juventus in 2009, and Saturday sent out his charges in a 3-5-1-1. Rafael started in goal, protected by Luca Ceppitelli, Fabio Pisacane, and former Juve youth product and Italy youth international Filippo Romagna. Paolo Farago and the always-loved Simone Padoin played as the wing-backs, with Luca Cigarini, Nicolo Barella, and Artur Ionita in the middle of the park. Diego Farias played in the hole behind target man Leonardo Pavoletti.
Things started slowly as the teams felt each other out. It wasn’t until the seventh minute that the first half-chance presented itself, when Bernardeschi fizzed a ball into the box that was just too fast for Higuain to react to.
Not long after, they knocked on the door from a set piece. Dybala was taken down while he cruised the top of the box trying to find an opening to release the ball into the box. The Argentine joined Pjanic at the top of the box, then attacked the ball and fired a beautiful free kick that got over the wall — but thumped into the crossbar.
Less than a minute later Khedira fed Higuain into the box, but the striker fired wide. After another period of probing, Bernardeschi nearly put together a magic trick when he cut in from the right and unleashed a crazy curler of a shot from the edge of the penalty area — only to whack it into the post. It was an exquisite display of the youngster’s skill, like Dybala’s only millimeters from a spectacular goal.
By this point it looked like a goal was imminent. It almost came on the other end, as Cagliari created their first opportunity on a cross from Farago, which was put wide by Pavoletti. Then, in the 21st minute, Benatia thought he had put his team into the lead when he put a Pjanic free kick into the net, but he was flagged offside in a close but correct decision. Minutes later Higuain missed playing a one-two with Dybala, but Khedira latched onto the loose ball and earned another free kick in a similar place to Dybala’s. This time it was Pjanic to take it, but his attempt at the far corner flew over.
The first of Szczesny’s moments came on a corner in the 26th minute. Pavoletti outjumped Benatia to the delivery and connected on a powerful header from close range. Szczesny got a hand to it, knocking it to the ground and then scrambling across to punch it away from anyone scavenging for a rebound.
Cagliari was growing into the game, and in the 34th minute Farias carried the ball into the box after Pjanic was mugged in midfield by Cigarini. He dribbled into position but Chiellini arrived just in time to get a decisive touch to the ball.
The next best chance was also for the Isolani, after Farias got free in the box and fired a shot at point-blank range. Szczesny came to the rescue again, getting a single hand to it and pushing it onto the post. It was a stunning reaction save, and the Poland international continues to ease the minds of Juventini as they face life A.B. (After Buffon).
Referee Calvarese wasn’t having the best day, and at the end of first half stoppage time came a preview of the controversy to come when Dybala was destroyed near the top of the Cagliari penalty area. No foul was called, but when Benatia cleanly dispossessed Farias seconds later, Calvarese blew his whistle, much to the defender’s annoyance.
Pavoletti nearly pounced within seconds of the restart, pushing a header wide. Less than a minute later Bernardeschi was put through by Higuain but just knocked it too far ahead of himself, allowing Padoin to jump in and beat him to it.
It was here that the game really changed.
Dybala burst up the middle with the ball but pulled up mid-stride, immediately grabbing his hamstring. It was a similar picture to the leg injury he suffered against AC Milan last season, and he was immediately substituted, replaced by Douglas Costa. Rather than simply plugging Costa into the 4-3-2-1, Allegri shifted the team around into a 4-4-2, with Bernardeschi joining Higuain as a seconda punta and Costa playing on the right.
Costa’s impact was immediate. Within three minutes of coming on he had cut inside from the right and let loose a shot that missed the far post, but not by much.
That funky formation only lasted about five minutes, because Szczesny, coming out to punch a cross, slammed into the side of Khedira’s head. The German was down for quite some time, and the glassy-eyed look on his face told the whole story: he had clearly been concussed.
Mario Mandzukic replaced Khedira, but not before Juve nearly took the lead shorthanded, with Higuain finding Pjanic heading down the middle of the field into the box. He had Sandro wide open on his left but opted to shoot himself and went wide to the near post.
With the introduction of Mandzukic, the formation changed yet again, into a 4-2-3-1 — Mandzukic on the left, Costa on the right, and Bernardeschi playing the trequartista role normally served by Dybala.
Just after the hour mark, Pjanic sent in a free kick from deep on the right side. Chiellini got his head to it and sent it just over, but the vice-captain also caught a piece of the back of his marker’s head, providing every Juventino with their favorite moment: Chiellini getting his face busted open. The cut was patched and wrapped up, and back he came.
Costa tried an audacious chip with Rafael out of position, but couldn’t get his ball on target. But a few minutes later — to be exact, the 74th — the Brazilian helped finally put the team in front.
It started with him on the wing. Two Cagliari defenders, including Padoin, faced him up. The double-team took away his stronger left foot, but he put on a burst of speed to get by Padoin and then snapped off a right-footed cross and found Bernardeschi, who had gotten away from his marker, in the six-yard box to poke the ball home.
The call wasn’t without controversy. The buildup to the goal started when Juve gained possession after Benatia and Pavoletti went up for the ball and the latter took an elbow to the head. The striker stayed down, but Calvarese didn’t stop play, and rather than put the ball out of their own accord the Bianconeri played on until the ball was in the back of the net. Pavoletti came up screaming at the referee, earning a yellow card for his trouble.
Finally ahead, Juve nearly gifted Cagliari an equalizer three minutes later when Padoin’s cross hit Bernardeschi in the arm in the penalty area. There was a lot to argue that there was a penalty here. Bernardeschi’s arm wasn’t exactly in a natural position, but it did look like he was pulling his arm back. Calvarese didn’t give the penalty, further infuriating the Cagliari players. He was clearly in contact with the VAR official through his radio system, but never went over to look himself. If the call on the field was no penalty, there really weren’t any other camera angles that would definitively say otherwise. The best view came from the reverse angle of the play, but that was partially blocked off by Benatia. Whether or not the call on the field was correct, the decision not to overturn it with replay probably was based on lack of evidence.
Bernardeschi — who was playing with a yellow card — was almost immediately pulled off for Stephan Lichtsteiner, changing the formation yet again into what looked like a 5-4-1.
The closest Cagliari came to equalizing over the last 10 minutes of the game came in the 87th minute, when Padoin hit a long volley on the second ball of a corner kick that went well wide. A few minutes before that Juve had a golden opportunity to double the lead, but Higuain somehow managed to miss a run from Costa on the right and instead was dispossessed at the top of the box trying to go coast to coast. In stoppage time he misfired again, this time identifying Costa’s run but passing behind him.
By the time Calvarese finally blew his whistle to stop play, the controversy had well and truly begun, but the win was secured, and Juve had kept pace with Napoli at the top of the standings.
WOJIECH SZCZESNY - 8.5. Kept the game tied with two fantastic saves in the first half. Looking more and more a worthy successor to Buffon.
ANDREA BARZAGLI - 6. Made seven clearances and completed 92 percent of his passes. Predictably, didn’t do much in terms of coming up to support the attack given his status as a makeshift fullback.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 8. Imperious at the back, with two tackles, two interceptions, and eight clearances. Oh, and he ended up bleeding again. Somehow that just makes me feel more secure about things.
MEDHI BENATIA - 6.5. Decent day at the back again, although not as good as some other games over the last few weeks.
ALEX SANDRO - 5. Still not back. Didn’t contribute much of anything to the attack, and while he was adequate defensively he’s still nowhere close to the player who turned so many heads last year.
BLAISE MATIUDI - 6. Good day in the midfield, winning back possession several times and pressing up to attack the channels when the opportunity presented itself.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 6.5. Made three key passes and put in a couple of good free kick deliveries, but really should have tested the keeper after Khedira’s injury, and missed the target with all four of his shots.
SAMI KHEDIRA - 5.5. Didn’t really impact the game at all going ahead apart from one or two passes.
PAULO DYBALA - 6. Looked good going forward and came so close to opening the scoring with his free kick. Here’s hoping his injury isn’t serious.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 7.5. That curler in the first half was as magical as it was audacious, and he just missed scoring with it. Took the goal well—just keep your hands to yourself.
GONZALO HIGUAIN - 5. He made a couple of decent passes—but the reason they weren’t great passes was that he made his decisions way too late. Between that and his continued insistence on dribbling everywhere himself and he’s digging himself into a rut of form again.
DOUGLAS COSTA - 7. Made an immediate impact after Dybala’s injury. Showed great skill to get free on his assist. If Dybala is out for a long time, he becomes more important than ever.
MARIO MANDZUKIC - 5. Made a couple of clearances and a key pass but generally looked lethargic after coming on for the stunned Khedira. Didn’t take command of the left side with his physicality the way he can.
STEPHAN LICHTSTEINER - NR. Came on to solidify the back with the lead.
Where do we begin here?
Allegri used at least four different formations in the game. He started in the Christmas tree, which, at least when Dybala is healthy, needs to be the default going forward. When Dybala had to give way to Costa, I assumed the Brazilian would take the left wing in a 4-3-3, but instead Allegri moved to something more resembling a 4-4-2 with Costa on the right and Bernardeschi up front.
That wouldn’t last long as Allegri was forced into another change. This change in formation was more natural — Mandzukic going to the left and Costa on the right in a variation of the old “Five Star” 4-2-3-1. Once the lead was established, he sealed off the back with what looked like a 5-4-1, with Lichtsteiner and Sandro sandwiching the three center backs.
Allegri loves formations that can morph, but this was a heck of a lot of moving parts, and he occasionally veered off into the needlessly complex. At the end of the day he sealed the win, and he’s going to have to see who he has available to him once the winter break concludes.
No games for the next two weeks, folks! The winter break has been moved this year, so Juve’s next game will be at home against Genoa on Jan. 22.
The break comes at a good time, considering the injuries the teams suffered on Saturday. Between Dybala and Khedira and the men on the training tables coming in, this break is the chance to get healthy with the biggest games of the year yet to come.