Massimiliano Allegri likely had no idea how prescient he was being on Friday when he gave his prematch press conference.
“We must get stuck into Serie A again with the right level of focus,” the coach told the assembled media, “because the first game back after the international break is the most dangerous.”
Allegri ended up being right about pretty much everything. The danger of the game, and especially the need for focus, was all too plain by the end of the night, as Juventus retreated to the locker room after dropping their first points of the season in a 1-1 draw against Genoa.
The Grifone had come into the game in a bit of flux. They had had a pretty decent start to the year, but president Enrico Preziosi still saw fit to fire manager Davide Ballardini and replace him with Ivan Juric, who began his third stint in charge of the Ligurian club. The were also dealing with the daily transfer rumors concerning breakout striker Krzysztof Piatek, the clamor of which can only be a distraction. But they were still a threat. Two years ago they had embarrassed the Juve team bound for the Champions League final at the Marassi, and three of the last four times they’d visited the Allianz Stadium in Serie A, the Italian champions had only managed to beat them 1-0. That being said, Genoa hadn’t scored a goal in Turin since January 2013, and with Allegri’s men going 10-for-10 to start the season, most fans were likely thinking more about Tuesday’s trip to Manchester than this game.
Clearly, the players did, too.
Allegri arrayed his charges in a 4-3-3 to start the game. Wojciech Szczesny took his place between the posts, and was screened by Joao Cancelo, Leonardo Bonucci, Medhi Benatia, and Alex Sandro. Rodrigo Bentancur got the chance to start due to Sami Khedira still being out injured, joining Miralem Pjanic and Blaise Matuidi in midfield. Juan Cuadrado, Mario Mandzukic, and Cristiano Ronaldo rounded out the lineup. With Khedira not in the squad and Giorgio Chiellini and Paulo Dybala starting the game on the bench, Bonucci was surprisingly given back the captain’s armband for the first time since his return.
For his first game back in charge of Genoa Juric went a 3-4-1-2 that included two former Juventus players. Ionut Radu started in goal, with Domenico Criscito (old Juventino No. 1), Davide Biraschi, and debutant Cristan Romero in front of him. Pedro Periera and Darko Lazovic bookended Sandro (we’ll be referring to Alex Sandro by his full name to avoid confusion here) and Romulo (former Juventino No. 2) in the next echelon. Piatek was paired with Christian Kouame up top, with Daniel Bessa in the hole behind them.
The early phases of the game saw each team test each other out. Cuadrado had a shot blocked by Romero within the first three minutes, while Piatek’s attempt from range was met by Benatia before it could trouble Szczesny. The first real chance of the game came 10 minutes in, when a nifty passing move went from Bonucci to Cuadrado to Pjanic, whose final pass carved through the Genoa defense to Ronaldo, who couldn’t quite keep his footing and didn’t get much power on the shot, which Radu easily saved.
Juve were unlucky not to be ahead four minutes later, when Cancelo slipped Cuadrado down the right side and the Colombian delivered an excellent cross that Ronaldo rose to meet—only to thud it into the near post, then sky the rebound over.
But the Portuguese superstar came up aces in the 18th minute when Juve took the lead. The play started on a corner kick, which flew over everyone but was recovered by Cancelo. The full-back dribbled his way back into the box and unleashed a shot that was blocked by Sandro. It trickled toward the goal mouth. Piatek, perhaps not as experienced working in his own box, left the ball to Radu, who only palmed it directly to Ronaldo, who instinctively tapped the ball home, nutmegging the young Pole in the process. With that goal, his fifth in Serie A so far, Ronaldo became the first player in history to score 400 goals across the top five European leagues.
There was a scary moment in 21st minute when Pjanic took a blow to the knee from Kouame. For a moment, given where the trainers were probing, it looked like it might have been a serious problem, but eventually it became clear that he’d simply taken a heavy kick, and he was back on in short order.
It was almost 2-0 two minutes later when a good ball from Cuadrado teed Ronaldo up in the right channel. His shot across goal had plenty of power, but Radu did well to get down and parry it away one-handed.
Juve had a few chances as the half wore on — Ronaldo and Cuadrado both had shots blocked — but after Radu’s save there was a lot of possession for the Bianconeri and little end product. Romulo unleashed Genoa’s first unblocked shot in the dying minutes of the half, but it flew into the stands, and Federico La Penna blew his whistle for halftime with the score still 1-0.
The home side still looked lively as the second half started. Alex Sandro came down the left and unleashed a sizzling cross that beat Radu’s attempt to interdict it, but ended up beating Ronaldo and Mandzukic as well, squirming past both forwards before being tapped out for a corner that Benatia powered wide.
Alex Sandro continued to look lively, making a beautiful layoff to Ronaldo five minutes into the second period, only to see his wicked shot blocked by the other Sandro.
Genoa finally got themselves a shot on target in the 53rd minute, when he latched onto a poor clearance attempt by Benatia to fire a fierce low shot that Szczesny got to in the corner. Three minutes later the Pole leaped over a grounded Bonucci on a corner but missed his header wide.
Allegri clearly wasn’t satisfied with the lead, and just before the hour mark introduced Douglas Costa, making his return to the field after his four-game suspension for the Federico Di Francesco incident. Unfortunately, the Brazilian looked like a man that hadn’t played a game in a month. His first real involvement, on a short corner seven minutes after he was introduced, flew over everyone, and he was generally lackluster the entire rest of the match.
As the half wore on Genoa looked more and more threatening. Bessa was pressing forward and making himself more of a threat, and there was a feeling that if Juve didn’t find a second goal soon, an equalizer would be on the cards. The fact that the focus had been bleeding away from the team for a while to that point didn’t help matters. Flair players like Ronaldo and Cancelo started getting tunnel-visioned and dribbling themselves, running into a wall in defense, and sometimes missing players making good runs. Then, in the 68th minute, whatever concentration the team had left fell away all at once.
It started when Kouame was released down Genoa’s right. He looked for an isolated Piatek, but his cross was intercepted by Bonucci. It headed for the corner flag, and the Juventus defense simply assumed it was going to go out for a corner kick. Some of them even started walking to where they would set up to defend the set piece. They noticed far too late that Kouame had kept tracking the loose ball and nabbed it before it could go out. Benatia was much too far away to close the Ivorian down, and Bessa peeled around a ball-watching Bonucci to slam a header past a stranded Szczesny from five yards.
Allegri said it best in his post-match presser — after the equalizer Juve went from sleeping to completely desperate. They looked to respond well, with Ronaldo heading just wide from an Alex Sandro cross, moments after the goal, but Radu wasn’t forced into a single save in the last 22 minutes.
Paulo Dybala replaced Matuidi in short order, changing the shape to a 4-2-3-1, and Juve turned the screws as Genoa defended for their lives. Bentancur had a hard shot blocked in the 74th minute, and seconds later another Alex Sandro layoff found Pjanic in space. The Bosnian’s shot would have left Radu stranded, but it twisted past the post. Two minutes later, Dybala latched on to a loose ball, but he too pulled the shot just wide.
Over the next ten minutes there was a lot of unfocused attacking and very little real threat. Dybala got the best chance three minutes from time when he was picked out on a set corner kick play, but he fired his shot into orbit, and four minutes of stoppage time produced no heroics.
The perfect run was over, and Juventus headed into the locker room with a lot to think about.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 6. Had very little to do besides confronting Piatek’s second-half shot. Completely blameless for the goal.
JOAO CANCELO - 6.5. A terror down the right in the first half, but dropped off badly after halftime. Almost solely an offensive player given how little Genoa got going in attack.
MEDHI BENATIA - 5. Didn’t have a particularly bad game until the equalizer, when he shut off and was way to far away to make Kouame’s life difficult on the cross.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 4.5. Made a couple of good passes forward, but my goodness his marking has been horrific since he came back. Was he always this bad at marking, or did Milan just ruin him? Ended up completely flat footed when Piatek rose up for a corner and shut down along with the rest of the defense on the equalizer, and was ball-watching to boot.
ALEX SANDRO - 8. Excellent going down the left side. His layoff game was strong today, with at least two putting teammates in prime position. Overall he had five key passes, and added three tackles and four interceptions on the back end. A man of the match candidate.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 6. Tenacious when trying to get regain possession, and a steady passer.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 8. NINE key passes. Pass completion at 91.4 percent. Five interceptions and two tackles defensively. He made the team tick in midfield, but no one could get any end product going.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 6. The usual steady ball-winning. Often has to run twice as much to cover for Ronaldo defensively, but he does everything asked of him.
JUAN CUADRADO - 6. Completed every one of his passes and put a few really good crosses in in the first half, but faded as the match went on.
MARIO MANDZUKIC - 4.5. Worked hard to draw defenders and occasionally dropped back to defend, but his work in the box left a lot to be desired, and he didn’t even get a shot off before coming off late for Federico Bernardeschi. Definitely not his best game, but he always comes up in the big ones, so let’s see if Man U brings out his best.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 7. Johnny on the spot for the goal, and had a couple of other good chances, but only found the target three times in 11 shots and started getting a little selfish late.
DOUGLAS COSTA - 5. Threatened in spurts but generally looked like a guy who hadn’t played in a month. He’ll need a little time to look like he usually does.
PAULO DYBALA - 5.5. Tried to break down a packed in defense and almost managed it, but got caught up in the chaotic desperation of the end.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - NR. On for the last 10 minutes and made a key pass, but didn’t have the time or space to make much of a difference for the win.
There’s not much to fault Allegri in terms of his setup or his in-game moves. They followed what the game demanded, but even though they were all the right ones, they didn’t pan out just because the general dysfunction of the team on the field.
While one can’t criticize him tactically and strategically, one really does have to wonder what it is about his management style that keeps seeing the team fall into the cycle we’ve seen so many times — score relatively early, lose intensity, and let the other team back in.
It’s happened so many times over the course of four-plus years that it’s hard to come to any other conclusion than that something in Allegri’s style keeps permitting this. He has repeatedly criticized the team over this tendency, but whatever he may be doing to try to address it in training and elsewhere clearly hasn’t been able to get rid of it. If this is the team to do it all, to win it all, Juventus is going to have to finally move past that first-goal malaise and develop more of a killer instinct.
It might be the marquee matchup of the Champions League group stage.
Manchester United vs. Juventus. Old Trafford. Ronaldo returns to where he made his name. Paul Pogba’s first game against the team that made him. Jose Mourinho vs. Max Allegri.
It’s here, and it could be prove near-decisive in the race for the top spot in the group. If Juve were to find the right chord and run train on the Red Devils, they could end up providing the straw that breaks the camel’s back and sees Mourinho fired. That’d be fun, wouldn’t it?
After that, it’ll be time to rebound in the league with a trip to Empoli.