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Ronaldo, Juventus improve by inches in win over Napoli

Juventus v SSC Napoli - Serie A Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images

Eight games, eight wins. A six-point lead in Serie A. An auspicious start in the Champions League. Cristiano Ronaldo. Max Allegri. And a vendetta to avenge in European football.

Through the first six weeks of the season, Juventus have earned a perfect mark. And yet the overriding feeling through those eight games has not been that this team is a finished product; in virtually no way has Juventus, despite the acquisition of one of the world’s best players, looked utterly dominant for long stretches on the pitch — even against Serie A bottom feeders like Parma, Chievo Verona, and Frosinone. That strange tension — the tension between a mark of perfection and clunky form — is either cause for concern once Juventus face the top clubs in Europe, or else a dire warning for anyone who opposes the bianconeri.

Against Napoli over the weekend, Juventus won a wild game with arguably their most in-form player, Federico Bernardeschi, on the bench for most of the game, and one of their most lethal weapons, Douglas Costa, still serving a suspension. Both of those are encouraging signs. And the most encouraging aspect of the game, of course, was the fact that, as Sam pointed out, Ronaldo had by far his best showing. CR7 wreaked absolute havoc on Napoli’s defense, and his perpetual presence in the starting 11 — he’ll earn his first rest this week against Young Boys when he serves his one-game Champions League suspension — is now paying palpable dividends, as he is quite apparently learning how to play with his new teammates and in a new country.

Come-from-behind win shows character, Allegri genius

In the first 20 minutes of the Napoli fixture, the visitors looked far the superior side. Not only did they bag the game’s first goal, but they were more or less a constant threat, clanging a shot off the post not too long before the goal, pressing Juventus relentlessly, making Miralem Pjanic and Leonardo Bonucci look like schoolchildren when trying to build out of the back. Carlo Ancelotti’s decision to field a Sarri-esque lineup with Dries Mertens on top of the formation seemed to be paying early dividents.

Then Juve’s first goal changed everything.

Mario Mandzukic held the ball up beautifully in midfield and facilitated the attack. Ronaldo eventually gathered the ball on the wing and lifted a perfect cross to the Croatian, who timed and designed his run to perfection.

Of course, Juventus were far from perfect even after the first goal. Allegri’s side came roaring out of the gates in the second half, took the lead, and then saw their opponents go down a man — but the red card jolted Napoli with a rush of energy and for about 15 minutes the visitors looked ready to equalize.

All things considered — the dramnatic ebbs and the flows of the game — the victory is hugely encouraging for Juventus. Incorporating Ronaldo isn’t an overnight task, and Juve’s consistent clunkiness has surely attested to that fact, but they’re getting the job done even in pressing circumstances.

Some very shocking news, and a concerning question

Cristiano Ronaldo is the best player on Juventus. The man was mayhem personified once he was able to get the ball with some space (more on that below). Saying that Ronaldo is Juve’s best player is obviously a given, and really kind of inane, but the Napoli game was the first full 90 minutes when the fact was more or less evident the entire time. As wonderful as Mandzukic was, in my book Ronaldo was man of the match. He’ll get credited for two assists, but all three of the goals were his own making.

I mentioned this previously, but Ronaldo’s tendency to whine and complain and vent his frustrating about not getting crosses (or calls from the referee, or whatever else he may be sad about) is, for me, completely mitigated by his insatiable hunger to score and destroy the opposition. One moment he’ll be looking like a 4-year-old whose mother took his toy, and just a moment later the tantrum looks like it never occurred. When Ronaldo was at Real Madrid, it was easy to point out the tantrums. Now that he’s at Juventus, the other side of the equation is there.

But I do have one question for this team: Can Juventus win the Champions League with the current midfield?

The back line is world-class. The front line is world-class. The midfield is ... good. Blaise Matuidi works hard and plays his part well, but the French midfielder is extremely limited in his abilities. Sami Khedira is a conundrum. Emre Can is finding his feet and hasn’t yet shown he can be consistent. Pjanic is the most talented of the bunch, but is prone to mistakes and spells of lackluster play.

I do sometimes wonder, despite this fantastic start, if Juventus can withstand a team like Real Madrid — a team who can break the middle of the park and render that questionable connection between back and front totally broken. A player like Casemiro comes to mind, who really owns the middle of the park.

Whether or not Allegri has the pieces to make that midfield stand next to the defense and forwards remains to be seen. But the six-point gap in Serie A ought to afford some room for experimentation. Does Bernardeschi feature in the midfield? Can Emre Can play consistently well and allow Pjanic to move forward, as he did against Napoli? More Rodrigo Bentancur?

Juventus have a chance Tuesday to make a statement in their group in the Champions League before a date with Udinese and a subsequent international break.

Aperitivo afterthoughts: 4 of them

1. Miralem Pjanic played his best game, thanks to Emre Can

Disclaimer: for the first 30 or so minutes of the Napoli game, Emre Can looked like one of the worst players — and certainly the most lost — on the pitch. He was clumsy. He was strangely positioned. He was all sorts of things.

But his second 30 minutes were as good as the first 30 were bad. He made three key passes and appeared in much deeper positions than Khedira, which allowed for Pjanic to push forward. I thought that was really, really helpful for Pjanic, who seemed lighter on his feet and more energized than in a while. The Bosnian still played his customary regista role for the most part, but he popped up in the offensive third more than he usually has under Allegri.

2. Federico Bernardeschi is still the best

In basically half an hour of play, No. 33 once again looked lively. Napoli had more or less fallen apart by that point, but Bernardeschi did the best he could to drive the final nail in the coffin. The Italian seems to have developed an uncanny connection with Ronaldo — maybe yet another reason to consider him in the midfield.

3. Two final things: Paulo Dybala and Moise Kean

Allegri made a huge decision to start Dybala over Bernardeschi for this game, and the decision didn’t seem to factor in to the way the game was played out. For large portions of the game Juventus could hardly maintain possession, and thus Dybala’s effectiveness or ineffectiveness wasn’t even a valid question. But whether he was meant to be a free-roaming right-winger or the bottom point of an inverted triangle didn’t ever matter much, because he was completely out of it.

Finally, Moise Kean. I hope Allegri saw how much better Mandzukic played with a bit of rest — I think he did. And I think that bodes well for Kean getting some playing time in the near future.