After Tuesday night’s utter collapse against Tottenham Hotspur in the Champions League, Juventus had to put the disappointment of that game to the side and focus on their next challenge.
And the Derby della Mole is always a challenge, regardless of where Torino is in the table. (For the record, they entered the game in ninth.) Sunday’s lunchtime kickoff was the third edition of the derby this year. The Allianz Stadium had hosted both games, and Juve won by a combined score of 6-0, including a 4-0 drubbing in the first league game of the year in September. Now, the Bianconeri headed to their old home, the Stadio Olimpico Grande Torino, for the away leg in front of a fiesty crowd.
But champions put aside adversity to win games, and Juve did just that, throttling Torino’s attack en route to a 1-0 win that proved ... unconventional.
Apart from how they would respond to the setback against Tottenham, the big story coming into the game was the decimated forward corps. Juan Cuadrado remained on the shelf after surgery for a sports hernia. Also unavailable was the tireless Mario Mandzukic, who was sent home during the week after coming down with the flu. Federico Bernardeschi was only fit for the bench after picking up a slight muscle problem in training on Friday. And while Paulo Dybala was finally declared ready to return to the squad, he would certainly not have the match fitness to start.
That left Massimiliano Allegri with only two fully-fit forwards to start the match. He did revert back to the 4-3-3 that has served the team so well since the turn of the year, but he had to get creative with it.
Wojciech Szczesny started in goal, which caused a lot of buzz after Gianluigi Buffon’s error in the Champions League (more on that in a bit). Mattia De Sciglio manned the right flank, with Daniele Rugani pairing with Giorgio Chiellini and Kwadwo Asamoah completing the back line. Somehow, Allegri deemed Sami Khedira worthy of another starting shirt, and the German joined Miralem Pjanic and surprise starter Stefano Sturaro in the middle of the park. The wrinkle up front came in the form of Alex Sandro, who was pushed up from defense to man the left wing, with Gonzalo Higuain and Douglas Costa completing the line.
Allegri came up against a familiar Juventus foe in Walter Mazzarri, who replaced Sinisa Mihajlovic as the Granata’s manager last month, when the Serbian was fired following Torino’s elimination from the Coppa Italia at the Allianz Stadium. Mazzari made some alterations to the formation that beat Udinese last week, matching Allegri’s 4-3-3. Salvatore Sirigu was screened by Lorenzo De Silvestri, Nicolas Burdisso, Nicolas Nkoulou, and Cristian Molinario. The midfield saw Daniele Baselli and Joel Obi work alongside ex-Juve benchwarmer Tomas Rincon, while up front Andrea Belotti was flanked by Iago Falque and Cristian Ansaldi.
These days any game between these two teams has been termed as a strikers’ duel between Higuain and Belotti, but on Sunday that narrative was abruptly cut short. Three minutes into the game Higuain chased after a chipped pass from Pjanic, but crashed into Sirigu as the Toro keeper came to meet it. Sirigu’s challenge was fair and he punched the ball away, but after the tangle and subsequent landing it was immediately apparent that the Argentinian was in distress. He got up and tried to give it a go, only to flop back onto the field to require some extensive treatment. He would try to continue, but by the 15th minute he was on the deck again, and it was clear he couldn’t. Bernardeschi replaced him.
In the interim, Torino had what turned out to be their best chance to score of the entire afternoon. A sloppy passage of play saw Obi get a chance to run with the ball at the halfway line, and Chiellini’s lunging attempt to intervene only saw the ball ricochet off the Nigerian to give him a cleaner run. Obi was two-on-one with Belotti against Rugani, and the young center back played it perfectly, keeping himself in range to block a potential shot while at the same time putting the midfielder off the passing lane just enough so that when he did pass the ball to Belotti on his left, the quality of the ball was terrible, forcing il Gallo to take an awkward touch and let the ball run wide, away from shooting position as the defense was able to get back into position.
There was also a decent chance at the other end before Higuain was withdrawn, with Sandro drifting infield and flicking an Asamoah cross backwards, but no one was there to latch on.
After Higuain left the field, Allegri chose not to change the team’s shape. Costa moved inside to act as a false nine, while Bernardeschi took over for him on the right wing and Sandro remained on the left. All three players moved around quite a bit, especially Sandro, who found himself to the right of center on more than one occasion in the half’s early phases. Khedira and Sturaro also pressed forward into the channels, sometimes almost assuming the No. 9 position themselves. The Torino defense, deprived of Higuain as a reference point for their assignments, ended up pulled around on more than one occasion, and in the 20th minute a cross from Sandro on the right was deflected to an unmarked Asamoah, whose first-time shot was kicked away from the far post by De Silvestri with Sirigu looking stranded.
Torino was having problems playing their way out and started resorting to longer balls. One of these from Falque found a streaking Belotti just before the half-hour, but his stretching volley didn’t trouble Szczesny on the near post and landed neatly in the side netting. The ball stayed in Torino’s attacking half, and about 60 seconds later the Poland international was called into action for the first time, easily holding a header from De Silvestri after another ball from Falque on the right.
It wasn’t long after that that the game saw its first goal. After Sirigu comfortable punched a Pjanic free kick to safety, Ansaldi was dispossessed by Bernardeschi. The Torino player thought he was fouled, but Daniele Orsato did not intervene, and the ball played its way back, eventually finding its way to Bernardeschi on the right. The youngster jinked his way past Molinario and put in a peach of a cross—right-footed, no less—that found Sandro on the back side. The Brazilian popped it into the roof of the net from point-blank range to put his side ahead.
The rest of the half was relatively quiet, as Juve’s attackers tried to settle into new roles while the defense clamped down and made Belotti look increasingly isolated up top. Costa made a noteworthy slalom through the defense just before the break, but his attempt to pick out Sandro was interrupted by the offside flag.
That state of affairs continued as the second period began. Four minutes into the half Khedira took down a cross from Bernardeschi and turned with it, but the defense managed to poke the ball out for a corner before he could load up and shoot.
After only nine minutes Mazzarri had had enough. Baselli, who was sent off in the first derby of the year and had been invisible in this one, was hauled off for M’baye Niang. The former Milan wide man’s pace started to make an impact, forcing Sturaro into a good tackle to disrupt a run along the sideline and then compelling De Sciglio to cynically haul him down in the 65th minute, earning the game’s first yellow card from Orsato.
A minute later came the moment Juve fans had been waiting for for six weeks, as Costa made way for Dybala. It was like-for-like in terms of where they were playing, but Dybala is far more used to being the focal point in the middle of the park, and he saw his first chance seconds after coming on when he split two defenders to latch on to a Bernardeschi through ball in the right-hand channel. Credit goes to Sirigu for quickly closing down the angle, and Dybala’s first shot back from injury went wide.
Three minute later he got another chance. This time it was Sandro providing the service from the left with a ground cross, but the ball took a bounce at the last second and Dybala couldn’t adjust, shinning it high and into the stands. Moments later he got the ball back and dribbled his way through the center of the defense, but couldn’t get any power behind his shot and trickled it into Sirigu’s waiting arms.
That early flurry was sufficient to convince Torino that Dybala was just as dangerous as he usually is, and they proceeded to kick the crap out of him for the rest of the match, starting in the 73rd minute, when they conceded a dangerous free kick on the right wing that Pjanic curled to the far post and almost picked out Sandro, but the emergency winger got caught in between steps and couldn’t do more than bundle the ball over the line for a goal kick.
Torino had a decent amount of possession as the game entered its end phase, but couldn’t do much of anything with it. Falque fired a 25-yard angled strike 11 minutes from time but Szczesny made an easy save.
The remaining 10 minutes were almost devoid of major action until the very end. That’s when Bernardeschi went into a challenge with Rincon — and went down in a heap. Initial reports indicated a hyperextended left knee, and later statements suggested he had suffered a sprain.
He made way in stoppage time, and Molinario really should have followed him down the tunnel a moment later when he obliterated Dybala, but escaped with a yellow as Juve wound the game to a close to seal the points.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 6. Secure when called upon, but he really had very little to do.
MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - 7. Led the team in tackles and generally shut the right flank down. Had a bit more to do when Niang arrived but still kept him from the most dangerous areas.
DANIELE RUGANI - 7. Not a lot of counting stats, but he’s not a counting stats guy. Distributed well and played the early two-on-one breakaway perfectly. Had another sliding intervention right before stoppage time that wasn’t counted as a tackle but disrupted Falque’s burst up the middle enough to let the rest of the team get back. More of him, please.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 7.5. Completed 90.7 of his passes. The only time Belotti wasn’t in his back pocket was when he passed him over to Rugani so he could put him in his — but that early mistake that triggered Obi’s breakaway looked a bit too much like the panicked player we saw against Tottenham.
KWADWO ASAMOAH - 6. Would have opened the scoring earlier but for De Silvestri’s block. Solid on the left and didn’t let Falque into too many danger areas.
SAMI KHEDIRA - 5.5. Yeah, he completed 96.7 percent of his passes, but that’s out of only 30 attempts, and the passes he did complete didn’t really do anything. I get we’re probably treating Claudio Marchisio with kid gloves right now, but he has to be better than this, right?
MIRALEM PJANIC - 5.5. I never really got the impression that he was in this game. When I read the stats and saw he had found the target with a shot I actually had to go back and check. It could be that the weirdness in the wake of Higuain’s injury just muddled things for him. He didn’t make a key pass and really wasn’t visible in the Torino half.
STEFANO STURAO - 6. You read that right. I’m rating Sturaro higher than the other two midfielders. But he did his job here. He was the only one of the midfield trio to record a tackle (4), an interception (1), or a key pass (1). Occupied defenders with channel runs as Torino ran around trying to figure out who to defend. This was a positive performance in a game where the midfield in general was blah.
DOUGLAS COSTA - 5.5. Not the Flash we’re used to seeing, but then again he was pressed into a situation he’s absolutely not used to. Had a couple of mazy dribbles, but it may not be out of line to wonder whether another player was better suited to a central role.
GONZALO HIGUAIN - NR. Initial reports say it may just be a bad knock. Hopefully they’re right. So long as the injury is minor this might actually be beneficial — Higuain has logged a lot of minutes lately and might benefit from taking a load off.
ALEX SANDRO - 8. Predatory with his finish, and worked well to set people up too, and could have had an assist if his ball to Dybala hadn’t taken a bad bounce. Got back well to defend as well. It might not be a bad idea to keep him up there for a bit if Higuain and Bernardeschi end up missing time.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 8. Worked fantastically down the right side after coming on. Kudos as well for playing through pain for the second time this month. His assist was a beauty, and with his off foot to boot. His injury might be the more serious of the two suffered today, which really hurts because he’s really started coming into his own.
PAULO DYBALA - 6. A good first shift back. Had a couple of chances, but the rust was showing. He’ll likely have it knocked off by the time the trip to London comes around—and he’ll be needed.
STEPHAN LICHTSTEINER - NR. On for the last seconds after Bernardeschi hobbled off.
Usually, when confronted with a situation like the one he faced in the wake of Higuain’s injury, Allegri has tinkered like crazy with the formation as the game went along. The fact that he resisted that temptation here was commendable. Leaving the team in a 4-3-3 with a false nine was, to be fair, one of the only options available to him, but it was also the best, and for a while the Torino defense was discombobulated without the reference point of a central striker. I would quibble ever so slightly with his choice of who to place in the middle—Bernardeschi has played as a second striker at Fiorentina and at the U23 international level and might have been more comfortable there than Costa—but his play on the right ended up making that decision moot.
In midfield, it was a surprise to see Khedira and Sturaro — one or the other probably should have given way to Marchisio, and the only thing I can think of why he didn’t play today is that they’re still babying his lingering injuries. But with Khedira in horrific form and Stu inconsistent as best, Il Principino needs to be starting more regularly.
Also, to address the elephant in the room: No, Buffon not starting is not a commentary on the mistake he made in the Champions League. Buffon has been getting rested after midweek fixtures for the better part of two seasons now. Before his injury in December he made way for Szczesny six times in the wake of midweek games. Any basketball fans in the house may remember Greg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs humorously listing an aging Tim Duncan as “DNP (old)” a few years ago. That’s pretty much what we’re looking at here. This game was probably earmarked to Szczesny for weeks.
Juve has a full week of rest ahead of them, a luxury they haven’t had much of since the beginning of 2018. After that comes a double dose of Atalanta. Gian Piero Gasperini’s men come to Turin for a league game on Sunday and then stay for the second leg of the Coppa Italia semifinal three days later. It’s a tricky set of matches and Juve will need to gain some momentum there, because the two games after that are tough away fixtures: at Lazio, at Tottenham.
Get well soon, guys.