With the first leg of the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 against Tottenham Hotspur less than two weeks away, fans had been hoping that Juventus would take a step forward from the uneven performances that had marked the first few games after the winter break.
Sunday’s game against Sassuolo was just what the doctor ordered. The Bianconeri laid an absolute beating, blowing the Neroverdi away with seven goals while limiting them to a single shot on target. It was a bludgeoning the likes of which we haven’t seen since Juve annihilated Parma by the same score in November 2014.
Ironically enough, the assumption going into this game was that it would likely be a difficult one. Douglas Costa had joined Juan Cuadrado, Paulo Dybala, and Benedikt Howedes on the training table. Federico Bernardeschi was the only option for the right wing, but he himself wasn’t 100 percent fit. With a depleted front line and coming off a midweek tilt with Atalanta, it was conceivable that Juve would struggle.
Massimiliano Allegri put the team out in the 4-3-3 that has become a standard since Dybala got injured last month. Gianluigi Buffon took his place in goal in Serie A for the first time since the Dec. 1 win over Napoli. Andrea Barzagli was initially scheduled to start at center back but was forced to pull out in warmups with a calf problem, so Daniele Rugani started alongside Giorgio Chiellini, with Mattia De Sciglio and Alex Sandro bookending the two. Blaise Matuidi, Miralem Pjanic, and Sami Khedira made up the midfield, while Bernardeschi, Gonzalo Higuain, and Mario Mandzukic formed the attacking trident.
Giuseppe Iachini’s squad came in struggling deeply. They hadn’t won a game since December 23, when they clipped Inter 1-0. They’d since drawn two and lost two in their next four, including a 3-0 whipping by Atalanta last time out. The underrated Andrea Consigli started in goal, and the 4-3-3 in front of him was full of Juventus connections. The fullbacks were both former Juve players, with Pol Lirola manning the right side and Federico Peluso on the left. Francesco Acerbi and Mauricio Lemos manned the center of defense. Alfred Duncan, Simone Missiroli, and Francesco Magnanelli manned the middle of the field, and up front Domenico Berardi and Matteo Politano flanked new acquisition Khouma Babacar.
Juve put the screws to their visitors immediately, breaking away within 120 seconds but seeing the move break down when Pjanic put his pass behind Bernardeschi. Two minutes later Higuain was caught offside, and Sandro got into good crossing position before sailing his deliver over everyone.
Sassuolo made their first noise in the eighth minute, when Babacar rode a challenge from Rugani and headed toward the box only to go down theatrically under a weak challenge, leaving referee Piero Giacomelli unimpressed.
A minute later, the slaughter began.
It started with a short corner. After Sandro’s header on the initial ball into the box was blocked, Pjanic hustled in and tapped it back to the Brazilian, who in turn tried to lay it back to Rugani. The center-back’s touch was heavy, but he stayed with it and deflected an attempted clearance back into Sandro’s path. The fullback made no mistake from eight yards top open the scoring.
Traffic continued flowing Consigli’s way, but Juve’s own imprecision protected him in the short term. In the 13th minute Higuain broke down the field but misplaced his pass to Khedira and the move ended. It looked like it was shaping up to be a rough night for Pipita. (More on that later.)
It took 10 minutes for anything remotely noteworthy to happen again — but then a spasm of activity saw Juve go from 1-0 up to 3-0 up in the span of three minutes.
It started with Higuain, who charged from midfield and down the right channel, trying to dink a chip over Consigli from a tight angle. The keeper had it covered, but Pjanic’s delivery on the ensuing corner was a thing of beauty. It found Sandro at the near post, who flicked it back for Khedira, who had completely ghosted his marker and had the simplest of side-footed tap-ins at the back post.
Three minutes later, Higuain was dispossessed near midfield. Khedira had been making a run and simply continued it when Pjanic ran up to the loose ball and hit a first-touch pass over the top. Peluso fell asleep to keep the German onside, and the pass put Khedira in so much room that no one could catch him. He easily sent Consigli the wrong way and finished his brace.
The one negative from this passage of play came just after Khedira’s first goal, when one looked back to discover that Matuidi was on the ground up near midfield. The Frenchman had taken a knock a week ago and apparently hadn’t recovered fully. He was replaced by Claudio Marchisio, who made his first appearance in a month.
Sassuolo made a brief attempt to come back into the game when in the 36th minute when Lirola broke the offside trap down the right. He tried to beat Buffon to his near post and...it did not go well for him. You know in FIFA when Martin Tyler says “Well, you’re not going to beat Buffon like that!” Yeah, it was one of those. You’ve had at least one training camp with the first team, Pol. You should know better.
The ensuing corner saw Politano curl just over after De Sciglio scuffed a clearance, but a minute later the game was well and truly over when Pjanic latched on to a poor cross from Lemos and fired a wicked curler from the top of the arc, beating Consigli at his near post to make it 4-0.
It only continued in the minute before the break, as Higuain got a great ball from Pjanic on the right wing, but tried to dribble into the box rather than letting loose early and was dispossessed.
As the teams came out for the formality of the second half Allegri, who is normally tight-fisted with his substitutions, used both of his available changes. Rugani was removed for Medhi Benatia. It was a puzzling move because Rugani wasn’t playing badly. Odds are he was either injured or suffering the after-effects of the illness he suffered over New Years. Khedira was also removed, this almost certainly for rest purposes, with Stefano Sturaro taking over.
The second period was, for all intents and purposes, an extended training session. Sassuolo had the ball in their attacking third from time to time when the Juve defense lapsed in concentration, but never put another ball on target. The significance of the second half was the 20-minute hat trick turned by Higuain, turning what was a mostly disappointing performance into a gem.
The first of the three came courtesy of Bernardeschi, who had drifted to the center to receive and entry ball and stayed there as the ball played from Pjanic to Sturaro, eventually getting the ball back and sending the ball to Higuain, who finally economized his touches, using only one to get the room required to fire between Peluso’s legs from the right channel.
The second, in the 74th, was the product of a sublime long ball by Marchisio, who met Higuain’s run from deep in his own half. The Argentine caught Lemos sleeping and was all alone with the goalkeeper. One move put Consigli on his ass, and he easily slotted into the open goal.
The capper came seven minutes from time. Bernardeschi was provider again, cutting inside a step and laying in a simple through ball. Higuain had position on Lemos all the way and converted an easy chip over the overcommitting Consigli.
So thorough was the domination that Giacomelli dispensed with stoppage time and simply ended the game on 90 minutes.
GIANLUIGI BUFFON - 6. I was tempted not to give Buffon a rating at all considering how little he had to do on the day, but he did make the one easy save against Lirola, so it wasn’t a completely dull day.
MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - 7. Tied for the team lead in interceptions and led in clearances by a wide margin. Dealt with whatever offense Sassuolo could muster and completed 91.8 percent of his passes.
DANIELE RUGANI - 6. Nothing extraordinary, but solid in his 45 minutes. Not credited with an assist on the first goal but his effort eventually put the ball on a platter for Sandro. Removed as a precaution at halftime.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 7. Didn’t let Babacar get anything. Not much required his attention, but when it did he took care of it.
ALEX SANDRO - 7. Had a fantastic day in the box with a goal and an assist, but the left-back was still a little out of sorts. His crosses were pretty wild, although his defense was an improvement on previous outings and he did have two key passes.
BLAISE MATUIDI - NR. Left the field injured after 26 minutes and is confirmed to miss the first leg against Spurs. Maybe returned a little too early after his knock last week.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 9. Excellent corner kick deliveries, and his assist to Khedira and goal were both sublime. Three key passes and a pair of tackles completed his stats.
SAMI KHEDIRA - 9. Clinical for his second multi-goal game this season and added three key passes. Removed at the half for rest.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 9. Bonus points for playing hurt. Put both of his assists on a platter for Higuain.
GONZALO HIGUAIN - 9.5. Wasteful both with passes and in possession in the first half, which is why he doesn’t get a perfect 10, but he looks like he’s going on one of his hot streaks with his first hat trick in a Juventus shirt.
MARIO MANDZUKIC - 7. More of a setup guy on Sunday, making a key pass and making four tackles tracking back.
CLAUDIO MARCHISIO - 8. What a ball over the top for his assist. It wasn’t the only time he made a magnificent pass either — and he completed 94.4 percent overall. With Matuidi out, this is Marchisio’s chance to show he’s not done — if he can stay healthy.
MEDHI BENATIA - 7. Made three tackles and completed 97.8 percent of his passes in the back.
STEFANO STURARO - 6. Won the ball in midfield and cycled it around. Nothing special, but nothing needed to be at that point.
Allegri was pretty much forced into much of his personnel deployment given the injuries. The 4-3-3 is getting better and better, and with Costa due back for Friday’s game against Fiorentina there will be more options. The midfield may get thin if Matuidi needs to miss a lot of time, so Marchisio, Sturaro, and Rodrigo Bentancur are going to have to step up.
It was a little surprising to see him using both of his remaining substitutions at halftime, but with a 4-0 lead and Tottenham coming to call in a little more than a week, it was the right thing to do if there was any indication of a problem. The second 45 minutes were essentially an exercise at that point.
A Friday trip to Florence awaits the Bianconeri. They beat Fiorentina 1-0 at Allianz Stadium in September, with Mandzukic scoring the winner. The last time they traveled to the Stadio Artemio Franchi, they were subjects of a 3-0 rout that inspired the switch to the 4-2-3-1 “Five Star” formation, so they’ll be looking for a measure of redemption as they travel to the Viola.
After that, they head home and wait for Harry Kane and Tottenham, who drew 2-2 with Liverpool on Sunday in a wild game that saw a pair of stoppage time goals. Mauricio Pochettino’s team may come into the game at a disadvantage — they’ll have to play an FA Cup fourth-round replay on Wednesday, then have to endure a high-intensity derby match with Arsenal before they fly to Turin.