Going into an international break, especially one that’s early in the season, it’s always important to make sure to have a strong performance right before the time off. Making sure the squad is clicking, everyone is making key contributions, and finding the right spots to pick and choose players is imperative as Juventus marches into the late months of the year and deeper into more competitions.
If Saturday night’s 2-0 win over Udinese — as well as the previous nine matches in all competitions — are any indication, then this Juve squad is right where it needs to be.
Rolling out what is, in my opinion, the strongest starting lineup of the season to date, Max Allegri wanted to come out firing. The manager opted for a 4-3-3, with Paulo Dybala and Cristiano Ronaldo flanking Mario Mandzukic in the attacking trident. The midfield three was comprised of Blaise Matuidi, Rodrigo Bentancur, and Miralem Pjanic. Joao Cancelo was inserted into the lineup again at right back, joined by Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini, and Alex Sandro, with Wojciech Szczesny in goal.
Udinese manager Julio Velazquez had the task of setting up his team to try and stop Juventus at the Stadio Friuli, as he put out a 4-1-4-1. Kevin Lasagna was the lone striker up top, with Rodrigo De Paul, Rolando Mandragora, Sekou Fofana, and Antonin Barak going left to right below. Valon Behrami acted as the defensive minded midfielder, with the back line corps made up with Samir, Bram Nuytinck, William Troost-Ekong, and Jens Stryger Larsen. Young Italian keeper Simone Scuffet manned the net.
The opening half-hour of the first half was uneventful for the most part. Juventus had a few good chances, but Udinese held strong and kept their defense solid. One play that stood out most during this first 30 minutes was on a Udinese counterattack in the sixth minute. Trying to catch Juve out with numbers, Valon Behrami pushed the ball up through midfield and towards the attacking third when Bentancur made an outstanding recovery run to win the ball back. The young Uruguayan’s continued development in his defensive efforts is a much-welcomed sight, as this coupled with his perfectly-timed tackle from a few weeks ago against Bologna have highlighted his improvement across the board.
Speaking of improvements and development for Bentancur, how about a first club goal to help along the way?
That’s just what Rodrigo did, as in the 33rd minute he headed home the first goal of the match. The entire attacking play; the buildup, passing, and intelligent runs were things of pure beauty and fluidity. It all started with Dybala holding off his defender and delivering a pass on the turn to Bentancur, who then played a ball through the defense to Cancelo on the right wing. The right back had timed his run expertly, and then lifted a cross into the box for an oncoming Bentancur, who headed it home neatly.
From there, Juventus wouldn’t let up the pressure, as more shots began to come. Mandzukic had a shot saved from the very close range by Scuffet. The young Italian goalkeeper was the biggest bright spot for Udinese by far, as he made impressive saves throughout the match. If it had not been for him, Juventus probably would have had at least two or three more goals to their name.
Just four minutes after Bentancur’s opener, Ronaldo pushed Juventus’ lead to 2-0 with a wonderful strike on his left foot. The impressive goal was not made just due to Ronaldo’s efforts, however, as Mandzukic did a lot to make it happen. Using his strength, Mandzukic was able to win the ball back and hold off his defender while dragging him out of space. From there, all Mandzukic had to do was lay a pass off to Ronaldo to slot home.
As the match reached halftime still at 2-0, Juventus looked the more dominant team without question. Udinese only managed one real threat at goal, which came when Antonin Barak hit the post in the 43rd minute. The attack was lively for Juve, with all three of Mandzukic, Dybala, and Ronaldo creating chances and making things happen. Cancelo was a terror down the right flank and was able to get his first assist of the season on the Bentancur goal, and Ronaldo was able to raise his tally on the season to 4 goals.
Coming out of halftime, Allegri made his first substitution, as he swapped Matuidi out for Emre Can. After winning a free kick in the 50th minute, Rodrigo De Paul sent a ball into the box that got free for Kevin Lasagna to tap in, but he squandered the chance as Alex Sandro cleared the ball off the line.
The next big chance for Juventus came in the 55th minute, as Dybala dribbled in from the right, cutting left past Nuytinck and Behrami before lifting his shot too much and over the crossbar. Quickly after in the 61st minute, Barak set himself up for a shot from long distance but sent it wide left, with Szczesny not needing to make any effort at a save attempt.
The 66th minute saw the introduction of Federico Bernardeschi for Dybala. La Joya didn’t add any more goals to his run of late, but he still looked sharp and connected well in the attacking third with Ronaldo and Mandzukic — which is always good to see as these three get more acclimated with one another.
Not long after, Ronaldo and Bernardeschi connected with each other to create even more danger, as Cristiano did a few of his signature step-overs before laying off to Fede, who would rocket a shot through the legs of the defender before being saved on the dive by Scuffet.
The last best chance Udinese would have to get a goal came in the 73rd minute as substitute Pussetto would skip a shot off the wet surface, forcing a save out of Woj. A minute later, intricate passing led to Pjanic feeding Mandzukic, who then cut the ball back across the box to find Ronaldo, but his shot was once again saved by Scuffet. Udinese then subbed out Barak for Lukasz Teodorczyk.
Juventus slowed the pace of the match down in the last 10 or so minutes in order to see out the result. Joao Cancelo almost made his night even better, as his shot from outside the box was inches from finding the net, taking a slight deflection off of Nuytinck and forcing Scuffet to make one final quality save.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY- 7. Wasn’t asked to do much at all, but when he was, made sure to what was required of himself. Only faced three shots on target all night.
JOAO CANCELO- 9. The other Portuguese guy Juventus bought this summer is blowing all expectations out of the water this season. He was everywhere, routinely making darting runs down the right flank, floating dangerous crosses into the box, and even almost scoring. With a total of 5 key passes along with a 91 percent pass accuracy, a team-leading 109 touches, and 4 tackles, Cancelo wins my vote for Man of the Match easily.
LEONARDO BONUCCI- 7.5. A good, solid defensive showing from Bonucci after making some head-scratching mistakes so far into the year.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI- 7.5. Just like his center back partner, Chiellini defended well and wasn’t forced into anything too dangerous from his opponents.
ALEX SANDRO- 8. Made the big clearance off of the goal line on Udinese’s most threatening chance of the match. Also compiled 6 tackles and was good going forward as well as tracking back for his defensive duties.
MIRALEM PJANIC- 7.5. Didn’t make the biggest of impacts, but didn’t really need to, either. Played the passes he needed to and found Cancelo for the chance at goal late in the game. Was also able to get forward a bit more once Can was introduced at halftime.
BLAISE MATUIDI- 6.5. Only had 45 minutes given to him today and didn’t do much in that time. Found himself in some good spots on the pitch however. Substituted for Emre Can after halftime.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR- 8. Benta was able to get his first goal with Juventus from some fantastic build-up play with Dybala and Cancelo. Also made that recovery and tackle on Behrami in the first half to halt a counter attack. One goal, 2 key passes, and 3 tackles make his night a very good one.
PAULO DYBALA- 7.5. Wasn’t the world-beating Dybala we’ve seen in the past few weeks, but still remained lively while linking nicely with his attacking partners. Created a few good looks, including the start to the Bentancur goal, as well as the chance that he missed cutting in to his left.
MARIO MANDZUKIC- 8. Mario continues to be on his game, doing every little thing the team needs. Held up the ball and assisted on Ronaldo’s goal, and was able to pull people out of space as he so often does. Had some shots on goal but wasn’t able to convert, mostly due to Scuffet’s ridiculous string of saves, especially on the one from point blank.
CRISTIANO RONALDO- 8. Was able to get his fourth goal of the season, using his “weak foot” to rocket home a shot past Scuffet. Attempted a team-high 7 shots and could’ve had more than one goal had it again not been for the Udinese keeper’s heroics.
EMRE CAN- 7. Entered at halftime for Matuidi and provided stability defensively while also adding some threat going forward. Paired well with Bentancur and Pjanic, which I feel is the strongest midfield combination that could be walked out at the moment.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI- 6.5. Only out for the last 25 minutes but brought a spark off the bench, still amassing 3 shots and 1 key pass in that time. Almost scored on the nice combination play with Ronaldo.
ANDREA BARZAGLI- NR. Late substitution to see out the rest of the match.
When I first got the alert on my phone with the starting XI, I knew that Allegri didn’t want to mess around with this one. He fielded the strongest lineup of the season to date, and the team cruised to a comfortable 2-0 victory on the road.
The midfield change at halftime is of a particular note, as I feel — and I know many others on here and elsewhere do as well — that Emre Can needs to be a consistent part of the starting XI. With a midfield of Can-Bentancur-Pjanic, the performances in the engine room have increased from last season. Can not only brings more to the fold than the injured Sami Khedira, but allows Pjanic to roam forward a bit more, making Mire more dangerous. Bentancur was given the chance to have a big night and capitalized, no doubt encouraging to see for Max as the season progresses.
Finding the right way to deploy Dybala to get consistently great performances still needs to be figured out, but the pieces are there. The attack is firing, the midfield looks pretty good, and the defense is still strong as ever.
We now enter the second international break on a string of 10 wins out of 10, undefeated in both Serie A and Champions League play, and sitting 9 points clear of Napoli (24 points total) at the top of the table. A match at home against Genoa and striker extraordinaire Krzystof Piatek awaits after the break on Oct. 20 before Ronaldo makes his return to Old Trafford with Juventus three days later. Will Jose Mourinho be sacked by then? Will Paul Pogba be featured at center back against his former club? These are questions I can’t wait to find out.