Remember at the start of last season when we thought that the introduction of Video Assistant Referee technology might cut down on all the “Juventus fixes the league” nonsense?
Yeah, fun times.
Referee Paolo Valeri went to the VAR screen three times in Saturday’s game between Juventus and Sampdoria, and all three incidents had critical impacts on the game. The first two involved the awarding and the confirmation, respectively, of penalty kicks, while the last, which came seemingly out of nowhere, disallowed a shocking Sampdoria equalizer in stoppage time.
Thanks to that call — which looked completely correct upon every viewing — Juve came away with a 2-1 win. The margin would have been a lot wider but for Samp goalkeeper Emil Audero — a Juventus youth product on loan to the Genovese club — who clearly wanted to show his parent club what they had taught him. The youngster made a number of saves, including two stunning efforts in the first 15 minutes of the second half that prevented Juve from running away with the game and, in a way, helped bring about the controversy by keeping the the score so close. When all was said and done, the VAR reviews will be all that will be talked about, as opposed to a rather impressive effort from Juve that really only saw Samp truly threaten the goal the two times they had it in the net.
Massimiliano Allegri made a few changes from the team that wobbled around in Bergamo on Wednesday. Wojciech Szczesny was due to start in goal, but injured himself during pregame warmups and was replaced at the last minute by Mattia Perin. Whether it was simply a scheduled rest day or a message after his incredibly poor performance against Atalanta in midweek, Leonardo Bonucci was left out of the lineup, and Daniele Rugani partnered with Giorgio Chiellni in the center of defense, bracketed by Mattia De Sciglio and Alex Sandro. Blaise Matuidi returned after missing the Boxing Day game due to illness, replacing the suspended Rodrigo Bentancur in midfield. Miralem Pjanic also returned to the lineup, and the two mainstays joined Emre Can in the engine room. Mario Mandzukic and Paulo Dybala joined Cristiano Ronaldo in the forward positions to round out the 4-3-3.
Sampdoria had come in on an impressive run of form that has left manager Marco Giampaolo even more in demand than he already was. The coach went with the 4-3-1-2 that has fueled much of the run. The formation was dotted with players that had Juve connections, none more so than Audero in goal. He was screened by Jacopo Sala, Omar Colley, Alex Ferrari — who made his first Serie A appearance of the year in the place of the suspended Joachim Andersen — and Nicola Murru. Denis Praet, Karol Linetty, and former Juve man Albin Ekdal manned the midfield. Gaston Ramirez served as the trequartista behind the strike pairing of Gianluca Caprari and the final Juve connection of the group: the red-hot Fabio Quagliarella, who came into the game having scored in eight consecutive matches.
Just as they had on Wednesday, things started out very bright for the Bianconeri. This time they did it themselves rather than benefitting from an own goal, with Dybala finding Ronaldo with an excellent long ball, then the superstar making Sala look rather useless while cutting in and firing toward the far post. The ball skipped right in front of Audero and he couldn’t react to the short hop as it bounced past him and into the net barely two minutes in.
For the next half hour it was one-way traffic. Juve kept huge amounts of possession and kept Samp penned in their own half. Things got so one-sided that Chiellini even got in on the fun 24 minutes in with one of those bombs forward of his, looking like a winger as he got himself into the box, received a return pass and set up Dybala for a sweet looking shot that the Argentine curled around the post by a ball’s width.
But for all the pressure they couldn’t get themselves a second, and then gave everyone a lesson in just how fickle momentum can be in this sport.
The turn came just before the half-hour mark, when Samp had gotten themselves their first corner of the match. It looked as though the delivery had been flicked on and cleared off the line by Alex Sandro, but a closer look saw that the ball had struck Can’s arm, which had been carelessly left hanging well away from his body as he attempted (badly) to get up to meet the kick with his head. This is one of those ones where the idea of “intent” comes into play, but most people know where I stand on that: if your arm is unnaturally making yourself bigger, it should be handball and it doesn’t matter if you meant to hit it or not. Valeri agreed upon viewing the incident at the screen, and gave the penalty. Quagliarella stepped up and drove it straight down the middle, becoming the first Serie A player to score in nine consecutive games since David Trezeguet in 2005.
Class as he always is, he declined to celebrate against his old club, simply shaking hands with his teammates as he headed back to the center line.
The Blucherchiati took that equalizer and ran with it, running the last 15 minutes or so of the half, although the most that came of it was a few misses and a free kick that made its way through the scrum to be collected by Perin. Juve reasserted themselves in the last few minutes, with Dybala denied from a smart save by Audero from distance three minutes from the break, then Chiellini missing just wide with a header off a free kick in stoppage time.
Whatever transpired at halftime, Juve held on to that foothold they dug out at the end of the first period and were back in the ascendency after the break. It was in these early phases of the second half that Audero went superhuman. In the 53rd minute he made an incredible stop against Matuidi, who had latched on to a defensive header and fired first time at goal. Six minutes later it was Ronaldo’s turn. He took a throw in, cut inside, then unleashed a cannonball from 25 yards or so on the left-hand side that Audero got a single hand to to bump onto the post.
That resulted in two corners in quick succession, the second of which prompted the second of our VAR reviews of the day. This one came after Valeri blew for handball against Ferrari, who very much looked like he had his arm up against his side. This was a pretty close call, and this time the Intent Factor did seem to matter, because an argument could be made that he moved his arm towards the ball at the very last minute in spite of keeping it tighter to his body. Frankly, I didn’t even spot it in real time. Valeri reviewed the call and didn’t see enough evidence to overturn it. Ronaldo stepped to the spot and replicated Quagliarella’s shot, going straight down the middle to put Juve back ahead.
The rest of the game looked fairly routine. Quagliarella showed off his ability threaten the goal from all sorts of weird angles a couple of times but only found the target once for an easy Perin save, and Dybala had a pretty bad miss that could have put the game away with 14 minutes left, but everything else seemed pretty humdrum.
Until stoppage time.
Perin had had an uneven game. Coming in last-minute is always a big ask, and he looked indecisive in the match’s opening phases. He had been growing into the game, though, so it was a surprise when he badly mishit a pass intended for Sandro. Defrel won the ball, and exchanged passes with Riccardo Saponara. The substitute ended up firing an incredible top-corner finish for what looked like his second huge equalizer of the month.
That’s what everyone was thinking as the teams trudged back to the center line to restart the game, but the whistle to begin play didn’t come. Instead, Valeri’s hand was pressed firmly into his ear, listening on his comms to the VAR official. When he signaled for a review no one had any idea what it was he was looking at, until the replay actually showed up on TV screens: Saponara had been well offside when Defrel and Sandro were battling for the ball and had come back from that position to get the loose ball. Defrel had gotten the last controlled touch. Valeri came back to the field and very correctly raised his arm to call for offside.
The review added even more time to an already-bloated minimum of six minutes, but Juve did well to kill time with possession and runs downfield, and after nine minutes the referee finally blew for full time. The game was over, but odds are the discussions around this game had just begun.
MATTIA PERIN - 5. He was trending upward in the second half after looking indecisive in the first, but that mistake at the end of the game was absolutely horrifying. Can’t let that happen in that situation, and he’s lucky VAR is a thing now.
MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - 7. Seven is almost becoming his baseline score at this point. He’s just been so good defensively and now he’s starting to get forward a bit more, too, throwing in a key pass. He’s not the bomber Joao Cancelo is going forward but has his own way of doing it that’s quite effective in its own right.
DANIELE RUGANI - 7. Outstanding game. Three interceptions and a team-high seven clearances in relief of a struggling Bonucci. His positioning was superb all day, and he completed 87 percent of his passes, including three of four long.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 7. Who didn’t love that run down into the box in the first half? As for what he’s really paid to do, he teamed very well with Rugani and started some attacks with long passes of his own, completing nine of 14. The fact that Samp only put two shots on target all day long is a testament to his game.
ALEX SANDRO - 7.5. Yeah, I think we can say that the guy is back. Made two key passes today, found the target with his only shot, made two tackles and three clearances defensively, and drew three fouls.
EMRE CAN - 5.5. The numbers on paper look good, but why are you leaving your arm out like that in the box? Geez, man. He did lead the team in tackles, but you have to be more careful than that.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 6.5. A much better performance after a little bit of rest mid-week. Made two key passes and completed 98.4 percent of them overall. Didn’t look flashy today but really helped control the rhythm.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 6.5. Pushed a little higher up than usual and had a nicer touch than usual. Had a great cross to Ronaldo that resulted in a blocked shot, and of course that screamer that Audero kept out.
PAULO DYBALA - 7. I will be pilloried for giving him a number this high because everyone is obsessed with the fact that he isn’t scoring, but he’s turning into a real creator up top. Led the team in key passes again, this time with four, and that wonderful diagonal ball for the assist on Ronaldo’s first makes up a good chunk of the rating. I will say that the chances he missed were good ones that he really ought to take.
MARIO MANDZUKIC - 5.5. I adore him, but he really didn’t make much of an impact. He did end up in a few good spots only to either be denied by good defending or bad passing, but he didn’t really do a ton to make up for it. The next two weeks will be good for him after such a heavy workload.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 8. Really excellent. His first goal was a peach, his penalty clinical, and he would have had another that was truly outstanding if Audero hadn’t turned into Superman. Even came close to an assist only to have his ball poked away from Mandzukic.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 5.5. Didn’t create a ton of danger in his time on the field. The rust was apparent.
DOUGLAS COSTA - NR. Used his speed well to drain the clock in the game’s final stages.
There isn’t a whole ton to talk about for Allegri in this one. He sent out his 4-3-3, they went out, played really really well — Samp really did nothing in open play to threaten outside of Perin’s mistake at the end — and came out with a victory. Not a ton to talk about outside of that.
Oh, OK, here’s one: Sami Khedira didn’t play. And we played that well. Chew on that for a bit, Max.
The winter break is upon us. There’s no Juventus for the next two weeks.
I know. It’s sad.
In an interesting twist, the Bianconeri will actually play twice before their next Serie A game. The first match back from the break is the Coppa Italia round of 16 in Bologna on January, before taking a midweek trip to Saudi Arabia for the Supercoppa Italiana against AC Milan before finally resuming league play as hosts to Chievo.