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Bright start turns into slog as Juve outlasts Cagliari

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Juve were up in the blink of an eye, but couldn’t put the Islanders away until stoppage time.

Juventus v Cagliari - Serie A Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images

We’ve been down this road before so many times. A smaller team comes into Allianz Stadium, Juventus takes the early lead, then let their opponents back into the game far too easily and end up fighting far harder than anyone thought they would have to in order to take the points.

So it was for Saturday’s game against Cagliari. Juventus took the lead within 43 seconds, but Cagliari looked good for an equalizer for much of the next half hour. Fortunately, when it finally came the Isolani couldn’t keep their heads, gifting Juve back the lead in short order. But the Bianconeri couldn’t put the visitors away until very late to record a 3-1 win after they nearly conceded another equalizer. With another Champions League match with Manchester United on the horizon, it’s worth wondering if they caught themselves looking into the future again.

Massimiliano Allegri had to deal with injuries both old and new. Federico Bernardeschi was held out after it was finally discovered that he’d been playing through a muscle injury since the international break, and Giorgio Chiellini wasn’t risked after a tweak during training. It was thought that Mario Mandzukic may be back in the squad for this one, but he was again held out. Emre Can’s recovery from thyroid surgery continued, but his twin compatriot Sami Khedira returned to the squad after a month out.

All this considered, Massimiliano Allergi deployed a 4-3-3 formation. Wojciech Szczesny took his customary place in goal, with Joao Cancelo, Medhi Benatia, Leonardo Bonucci, and Mattia De Sciglio in front of him in defense. The now-familiar trio of Blaise Matuidi, Miralem Pjanic, and Rodrigo Bentancur manned the midfield. Douglas Costa made his first start since Sept. 16 up front alongside Cristiano Ronaldo and stand-in captain Paulo Dybala.

Cagliari manager Rolando Maran settled on a 4-3-1-2 to counter that. Alessio Cragno manned the goal. Croatian veteran Darijo Srna manned the right-back spot, with Luca Ceppitelli and Fabio Pisacane in the middle and Simone Padoin, still beloved by all the Juventus faithful, on the left. Filip Bradaric and Artur Ionita joined Italy prospect Nicolo Barella in midfield. Lucas Castro dropped into the hole with Leonardo Pavoletti and Joao Pedro forming the strike pair.

The game started like a dream. With barely half a minute on the clock, Cancelo stepped in front of a long pass forward and chested it to the feet of Bentancur. He fed a simple pass to Dybala, who did the rest by dribbling around two defenders before taking his shot. He lost his footing on the turf and was falling down as he fired it, but that almost did him a favor, and it sped past Cragno to put Juve into the early lead.

It took almost four minutes to resume play, as referee Maurizio Mariani conferred with the VAR officials as to whether or not Dybala was offside in the buildup. He never went to the screen to see for himself, but by the time Cagliari kicked off, almost three minutes had gone by.

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The visitors seemed to use that time to collect themselves. They earned a corner not long after the restart, and although Juve turned in a wicked counterattack that ended with Dybala throwing himself at a Costa cross, the Sardinians managed to retain a lot of possession by the 10 minute mark, and earn themselves a few more corners. Juve kept generating their chances, with Costa curling a ball from range that Cragno punched away in the 11th minute, then the Brazilian scooped an inventive cross towards Ronaldo that ended up just ahead of the Portuguese forward.

Cagliari nearly found themselves gifted a goal in the 16th minute when Benatia made an inexplicable pass that was easily intercepted in the defensive third. A minute later, Benatia very nearly gave them another gift when he headed a cross into his own hand in the penalty area. Cagliari’s players screamed for a review, and Mariani eventually obliged them. It’s not often that a ball that hits a player’s hand after it hits another body part is called, but Benatia’s hand wasn’t exactly in a natural position and if it hadn’t hit it the ball was heading right for a Cagliari player looking to attack the ricochet. Eventually, Mariani emerged from the screen and signaled for Cagliari to take the corner kick they had earned, but the call could have gone the other way.

Moments after the review was over, Szczesny was called into action for the first time when Pavoletti wormed his way around a flat-footed Bonucci — really, Leo, this is getting old — and connected first-time with a Srna cross from six yards out. Szczesny kept the ball out with his foot—or perhaps more accurately the shot hit him in the foot, because in reality he barely had time to move. It was an insane save, and it kept Juve in the lead, but Cagliari was showing real signs that an equalizer was coming.

That finally came in the 36th minute, when a cross from the right side deflected into the path of Joao Pedro, who brought it down perfectly to get himself around Cancelo and into a shooting position, and he beat Szczesny, who looked to be slightly unsighted by Bonucci in front of him, at the near post.

Juventus v Cagliari - Serie A Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images

Unfortunately for Maran’s men, they couldn’t keep their heads for long after leveling the score. Less than 90 seconds after the ball went into Szczesny’s net, Costa burst down the left and put a ball into the box. There wasn’t really anyone in position to attack the ball, but Bradaric panicked and tried to intercede at full stretch, only to poke the ball past a surprised Cragno and into his own goal to gift Juve the lead back.

A few minutes later, it was Juve that had claim of a handball in the box. It was Bradaric in the spotlight again, as the Croatian pretty blatantly reached out with his arm to control it. Mariani missed it the first time, and when he went to consult VAR for the third time in the half, he somehow made a rough night for himself even worse when he came back to the field comically insisting that the ball had hit Bradaric on the shoulder rather than the rest of the arm, despite the clear video to the contrary.

Was it a case of a referee not wanting to be called out by certain sectors for “favoring” Juve? We’ll probably never know, but it was certainly a clearer case of handball than Benatia’s was and absolutely should have been called.

A twisty first half had one more turn to it. Three goals and as many VAR reviews led to four minutes of time tacked on to the end of the period, and in the third minute of the four Costa sliced a pass in to Ronaldo in the channel, who took it into the box and fired a vicious shot at an acute angle that hit the post so hard one could see it undulate on the slow-motion replay.

Given how well Costa had played in the first half, it was a surprise at halftime to see Juan Cuadrado come on for him. Allegri later told the media in his post-match press conference that the he had potentially injured a groin muscle and was removed as a precaution.

Cuadrado worked well down the right, putting a good cross in in the 53rd minute only to see Matuidi head wide. He was part of a Juventus attack that looked like it had a little more juice in it after halftime, and for the first 15 minutes of the game a third goal looked like it was coming. Ronaldo mistimed a Dybala pass in the 56th minute and found himself offside, then on the hour mark Cuadrado was released into space down the right and tried to square it for a free-running Ronaldo, but put the pass far too close to Cragno, who easily claimed it.

In the next 10 minutes or so the pressure on the Cagliari goal lessened, but Juve wasn’t letting their visitors do much in the way of threatening either. In the 69th minute Dybala mishandled a layoff from Cuadrado and fired wide in search of his second goal.

Allegri made some alterations soon after, bringing in Alex Sandro for Pjanic and shifting into a 4-4-2. That shift opened a few more lanes for Cagliari to play through, and they started got themselves back into the game again. At the other end a foul drawn by Sandro did earn his team a free kick at extreme range in the 73rd minute, and Ronaldo stepped up to...drive the ball into the wall. Again. In the 77th minute Castro got a cross into a good spot, and Pedro and Bonucci collided as they both tracked it while the ball flew harmlessly over their heads.

Padoin came off for an extra striker with 10 minutes to go, drawing an ovation from the crowd as he got to the sideline. That extra striker, Marco Sau, nearly created an equalizer with four minutes left when he laid the ball off to Pavoletti at the end of a scramble in the penalty area, but Benatia was there to block the shot and keep Juve in the driver’s seat.

Cagliari tried to keep the pressure on, but Cuadrado managed to nick the ball back and start a counterattack that found Ronaldo surging through the middle. The Colombian followed the play, and Ronaldo rolled the ball through to him to set up an easy one-on-one with Cragno that Juan smashed home to seal the game with three minutes left. After three more minutes of stoppage time, Mariani’s whistle sounded for the final time, and Juventus had slogged their way to a result that confirmed the best 11-game start in their history.

Juventus v Cagliari - Serie A Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images

LE PAGELLE

WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 7. How he kept that Pavoletti shot out is one for the ages. Did very well coming out to claim the odd cross as well. Proving a worthy successor between the sticks.

JOAO CANCELO - 6.5. Made two key passes and three tackles, but had a couple moments defensively that made you a little nervous. The goal wasn’t one of them, though; that was just a good turn by Joao Pedro.

LEONARDO BONUCCI - 6. Almost got caught napping again by Pavoletti but got bailed out by Szczesny. Wasn’t bad otherwise, but he needs to eliminate these marking failures.

MEDHI BENATIA - 6.5. Led the team with five clearances and had more interceptions than anyone else on the back line. Also completed even more long balls than Bonucci did.

MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - 6. Solid down the left but certainly nothing special. Sandro and Cancelo are certainly more dynamic but he provides some stability behind the both of them.

RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 7.5. His last big hurdle is his passing incisiveness, and if his assist on Dybala’s opener is any indication, that improvement is slowly coming. Finished the day with three tackles, six interceptions (a team high) and another key pass to boot. Good match for the youngster.

MIRALEM PJANIC - 6. Not the performance you would expect from him. Allergi said he felt something during the game and that might explain things. Did make three interceptions but only one key pass and 89.8 percent passing, while excellent in a vacuum, is a little bit below his usual high standard.

BLAISE MATUIDI - 6. Another ho-hum day. Missed two shots and didn’t pop up as a ball-winner as much as he usually does.

PAULO DYBALA - 7.5. Has now scored in each of his two games as captain. The goal was an excellent one, dribbling his way past two defenders before scoring with his right foot (!!). Completed 93 percent of his passes up top.

CRISTIANO RONALDO - 7.5. An excellent assist, and I think the goalpost is still wobbling after he hit it at the end of the first half and turned in two key passes. He does, however, need to stop taking free kicks. Pjanic and Dybala are both empirically better than him in the last few seasons.

DOUGLAS COSTA - 7.5. Three key passes and 91.7 percent passing in the first half, and he forced the own goal that put Juve back on top. Hopefully whatever drove him from the field isn’t a serious injury.

SUBS

JUAN CUADRADO - 7.5. Made three key passes in the second half and executed his goal perfectly.

ALEX SANDRO - 6. Not a whole ton done after coming in for Pjanic with 21 minutes left.

ANDREA BARZAGLI - NR. On to solidify the defense in the closing moments.

MANAGER ANALYSIS

Allegri set the team up well today. Without Mandzukic in the team, he continues to allow his forward three to simply rotate around the field, never giving their opponents a real reference point to key in on. That kind of game can be a little tiring, but the team seems to have taken to it, and so long as they get decent service they can cause some havoc in the penalty area. Now it’s just about being clinical.

The in-game progression of formations was a little weird. With Khedira only just coming off an injury, there isn’t a ton of midfield depth, but by the end of the game Allegri had two strikers, a winger, three full-backs, three center-backs, and just one midfielder on the roster. Good luck trying to slap a label on that formation.

LOOKING AHEAD

Juve will head into the second half of the Champions League group stage when Manchester United comes to Turin for the return leg. The 1-0 at Old Trafford doesn’t reflect how dominant Juve were that night two weeks ago, and Romelu Lukaku will likely be out. If they win, Juve will have confirmed top spot in their group with two games to play.

That game will be followed by a Sunday tilt with AC Milan before the November internationals begin.