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Higuain the catalyst as Juve stroll past Atalanta

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The Argentine racked up a goal and an assist as Juventus stretched their lead to four over Napoli.

Juventus v Atalanta BC - Serie A Photo by Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images

Throughout the season, there are games that come at dangerous times. For Juventus, Wednesday’s matchup against Atalanta was one of those games.

But a hallmark of Juve’s record-setting run of league titles has been the team’s ability to take the bull by the horns as the season turns to the home stretch. With a chance to take firm control of Serie A on offer, Juve nullified Atalanta’s attack and eventually cruised to a 2-0 win.

Originally scheduled to be played on Feb. 25, heavy snow forced a postponement. On paper, that could have caused some major problems for the Bianconeri. Coming off the second leg of the UEFA Europa League Round of 32, Gian Piero Gasperini, with an eye toward the second leg of the Coppa Italia semifinal which was to be played between the same two teams three days later, had named a team that was decidedly a B squad. Two-and-a-half weeks later, with both the Coppa and Europe out of the picture, Gasperini was able to field a much stronger side.

For Juventus, this makeup game had massive implications. When the game was originally to be played, they trailed Napoli by a point at the top of Serie A. In the intervening weeks the Partenopei finally blinked. They lost to Roma 4-2 at home two weeks ago and were held to a scoreless draw against Inter at the San Siro on Sunday, allowing Juve to leapfrog them and carry a one-point lead into this game in hand.

A win would put Juve four points up on Napoli and put them very much in the driver’s seat in the scudetto race with 10 games to go. Any dropped points would keep their pursuers within one game of reclaiming the lead.

To secure their lead, Massimiliano Allegri surprisingly abandoned the three-man midfield lineups that had served to build Juve’s run of 13 wins in 14 league games and returned to the 4-2-3-1 that served him so well last season. Gianluigi Buffon took his place in goal, with Stephan Lichtsteiner, Medhi Benatia, Giorgio Chiellini, and Kwadwo Asamoah in front of him in defense. Miralem Pjanic returned from his one-game rest over the weekend to form the double pivot in midfield with Blaise Matuidi, while Douglas Costa, Paulo Dybala, and Mario Mandzukic lined up behind Gonzalo Higuain.

Now chasing a return trip to the Europa League, Gasperini named a much stronger side than the one that was due to face Juve in February. Goalkeeper Etrit Berisha had a 3-5-2 in front of him. Top center back — and Juve loanee — Mattia Caldara made the bench but still wasn’t fit to start after a nagging back problem, so Rafael Toloi, Jose Palomino, and Gianluca Mancini formed the back three. Maarten De Roon, Nicolas Haas, and Bryan Cristante manned the middle of the park, framed by wing-backs Hans Hateboer and Roben Gosens. Josip Ilicic and Alejandro Gomez formed an unorthodox strike pair.

The game gave us two quick incidents on both ends. In the third minute a centering pass from Ilicic was just tipped on its way into the Juve box, putting off Papu Gomez just enough to see him sky his shot. Less than a minute later Dybala burst into the box after a one-two exchange with Higuain and went down under pressure, but referee Maurizio Mariani correctly ruled the challenge a fair one and play went on.

A few minutes later Higuain had a great opportunity to score after Matuidi stepped in to intercept a pass in the attacking third, but his first touch on the Frenchman’s pass was too heavy and the ball squirted away, leaving a golden chance begging. It wasn’t long before another chance came tantalizingly close, Asamoah jinking his way down the left side and putting in a good ground cross that was a sliver too far ahead of Dybala for him to hit it first time. The ball got all the way to Costa, but Haas had recovered to block the shot.

Costa stayed involved, his pace causing all sorts of problems for the Atalanta defense. In the 17th minute he found Lichtsteiner coming in off the overlap, and the Swiss Express continued his sudden and unexpected trend of putting in dangerous crosses, firing in a ball that would have been real trouble had Palomino not been there to block it out for a corner. The ensuing set piece nearly opened the scoring. Pjanic’s delivery found Matuidi completely unmarked at the back post, and he had enough room to settle the ball and fire full force from point-blank range, only for Palomino to again come to the rescue, flying in for an incredible block. The next corner provided a little bit of comic relief, as Chiellini attempted to replicate Ciro Immobile’s insane goal for Lazio over the weekend — with much less success.

Juve kept on putting the ball in dangerous places only for the final ball to be just the tiniest bit imprecise. On 20 minutes Higuain received a good long pass on the right only to hit his cross along the ground too far ahead of an onrushing Dybala. A minute later it was La Joya who tried turning provider. His through ball could have put Mandzukic clear through on goal but it had too much weight on it and the Croatian couldn’t get to it.

For almost the next 10 minutes Atalanta’s pressing game started working and they managed to keep the lion’s share of possession. A giveaway in the 27th minute allowed Haas a chance in on goal, but Mandzukic flashed in to get a critical block, not only stopping the shot but deflecting it off the shooter for a goal kick.

But just as it looked as though the Bergamo outfit was really carving out a place in the game, a ruthless counterattack broke the deadlock.

The move began on a Juventus throw in. The target was Higuain, who poked the ball into the path of Costa, who took off like a rocket down the middle of the field. Higuain trailed him on the right side, and the Brazilian supplied him with an excellent pass. Pipita fired across the keeper with a pinpoint shot that nestled into the net right behind the post to make it 1-0.

Juventus v Atalanta BC - Serie A Photo by Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images

Atalanta resumed control of possession on the restart. Juve invited the pressure, but their passing wasn’t always precise enough to break it, and Atalanta managed opportunity from a corner kick that went wide. They did break out and nearly put the ball into the net when Higuain and Dybala combined to send the latter through the middle, but the flag went up as Dybala stretched to shoot and Berisha kicked it away with his trailing leg.

The game nearly got turned on its head minutes after halftime, when Mancini rose for a corner kick and flashed it millimeters past the post.

Five minutes into the second period Lichtsteiner left the field early and carrying a trace of a limp, replaced by Mattia De Sciglio. A few minutes later Atalanta had a dangerous moment when Mandzukic set them up for a free kick on the right wing. Ilicic stepped up and tried to go for the near post himself, but was interdicted by Higuain’s header, with Buffon also in position to deal with the shot.

Gasperini began making changes, throwing their other high-profile Juve loanee, Leonardo Spinazzola, on for Haas. Juve countered five minutes later by removing the largely ineffective Mandzukic for Alex Sandro.

But it was Higuain and Costa again who nearly doubled the lead. Higuain again fed the winger, who again displayed his crazy speed. Blasting down the middle, he set himself up and fired a low shot to the far post that looked like it was going in until the final bounce spun it to the wrong side of the post.

Gasperini threw on Andrea Petagna to add some more muscle to the front line, but it remained Juve who had the better chances. Dybala took a good feed from Asamoah but was closed down by De Roon. The Argentine recovered the loose ball and laid it back to Pjanic, who was teed up perfectly but fired the ball just over.

Gasperini made it plain that he was serious about getting an equalizer by using his final change to bring in Andreas Cornelius. Juve had contained their opponents well and still hadn’t allowed a shot on target, but an all-out assault for an equalizer was coming and everyone knew it. But a three minute span sandwiched around the 80-minute mark decided the game in abrupt fashion.

The main player was Mancini. The 21-year-old had barely missed an equalizer early in the half, but had also committed four fouls to that point. When the two teams met for the second leg of the Coppa Italia semifinal two weeks ago, he was the one who conceded the penalty that sealed Juve’s aggregate win. And just as his team was about to make the big push to steal a result, he totally lost his head. He pulled Higuain back by the shirt after the striker juked him out of his shoes to break free down the middle to earn a yellow card, then, barely 30 seconds later, tripped Chiellini as the big defender made one of those bombing runs forward, this one getting all the way to the edge of the penalty area to get his marching orders.

Pjanic put the ensuing free kick into the wall, but barely a minute later any tension the game had was gone. De Sciglio fired a beautiful diagonal ball from near the midfield stripe to Dybala on the left wing. Dybala crossed it on the ground to Higuain, who turned and saw Matuidi in an acre of open grass. The midfielder side-footed it past a stranded Berisha and made the last nine minutes of the game a formality.

There were some shenanigans after the goal. De Roon got a fistful of Benatia’s shirt and practically ripped it in half, angering the Moroccan and causing a scuffle that saw both players booked — and in Benatia’s case triggering a suspension for yellow card accumulation.

Juventus v Atalanta BC - Serie A Photo by Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images

The remaining minutes simply executed the formality of kicking the ball around until clock expired, and after three minutes of stoppage time the game was over, and Juventus were in possession of a four-point league lead.

LE PAGELLE

GIANLUIGI BUFFON - NR. I’ve done this once or twice and seriously considered it for Wojciech Szczesny on Sunday. I’m not rating Buffon for this game for the simple reason that there wasn’t a body of work to do it off of. Atalanta didn’t have a shot on target and I can really only remember him touching the ball with his hands once when he picked up a harmless ricochet.

STEPHAN LICHTSTEINER - 6. Didn’t make a ton of impact, but was in the right places, completed his passes and made a couple of good overlapping runs.

GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 8. King Kong has been piling up clearances like people piled up Beanie Babies in the ‘90s. He had seven more on Wednesday night to go along with a single tackle and four interceptions. Proved surprisingly nimble on the run that got Mancini sent off.

MEDHI BENATIA - 7. Completed 89.5 percent of his passes and worked effectively at the back.

KWADWO ASAMOAH - 8. Excellent again on the left, making a number of important defensive interventions and was effective going forward, delivering two key passes and posting a 90.3 percent accuracy rate that was third amongst the starting XI. Why are we all resigned to letting this man walk on a Bosman in the summer?

MIRALEM PJANIC - 5.5. Made a key pass, did well defensively and had a relatively high accuracy rate, but he’s just not stamping himself on games the way he did earlier this season. He airmailed a few set piece deliveries and put a free kick that was sitting in his sweet spot straight into the wall. He’s fourth on the team in league minutes and has played 90 minutes twice a week since the winter break ended in mid-January, Sunday’s off day excepted. Maybe he needs to kick up his heels for a bit.

Juventus v Atalanta BC - Serie A Photo by Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images

BLAISE MATUIDI - 7. The Frenchman made a couple of impressive steals in the attacking third, but his teammates couldn’t make much of them. Credit him for exploiting the confusion after Mancini’s red card to find so much space for his goal. Led the team in pass completion with a 94.6 percent mark.

DOUGLAS COSTA - 8. No one could keep up with him when he got into his stride. Fantastic assist for the first goal and nearly had one of his own twice. He’s given a level of dynamism to the team that other players don’t have.

PAULO DYBALA - 7. Was in the thick of things all day even though he didn’t put himself on the scoresheet. Made three key passes and completed passes at a 91.8 percent clip.

MARIO MANDZUKIC - 5. Whether it’s offensive or defensive, Mandzukic usually puts some sort of a stamp on the game. This game, though, he was almost anonymous. His only truly dangerous moment was when Dybala overshot him with a through ball. He looks like another candidate for some rest.

GONZALO HIGUAIN - 9. The catalyst for the entire game. Clinical with his goal, alert with his assist, and led the team with four key passes overall. He even showed some self-sacrifice by bravely putting his head between the goal and a Josip Ilicic free kick. This may have been his most complete game in a Juventus shirt.

SUBS

MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - 8. Fantastic off the bench in relief of Lichtsteiner. He locked down the right flank and that dime to Dybala to set up Matuidi’s goal was one of the best long balls anyone on the team has hit this year.

ALEX SANDRO - 6. Managed a key pass but also got himself a team-leading sixth booking of the season less than 10 minutes after coming on. Not a bad run out, but he’s still figuring out how to play higher up.

ANDREA BARZAGLI - NR. Sent on with the intention of locking down the game, his job was made a lot easier by Mancini’s actions moments after he came on.

Juventus v Atalanta BC - Serie A Photo by Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images

MANAGER ANALYSIS

It worries me nowadays when Allegri choses to go with the 4-2-3-1, but this was one of the best 4-2-3-1 games of the season, especially from a defensive standpoint.

If Juve can find the defensive solidity that this formation had throughout most of last year, it immediately becomes viable again. However, I’m still a little more comfortable with a 4-3-3- or 4-3-2-1, mostly because it allows for some level of tactical flexibility up front while Juan Cuadrado and Federico Bernardeschi are out. Sandro can be effective moving up into the attack, but that can’t be the only way you can change a game, and you run the risk of burning out the healthy forwards, much the way it looked last year.

But if it is to be effective, Matuidi absolutely has to be involved. His energy is key to making that double pivot work. Sami Khedira managed it last year but he’s taken such a step back that he can’t be the kind of presence that can allow Pjanic the protection to do his thing and win the ball back consistently.

If Allegri has figured out how to make this formation hum in both phases again, though, it becomes a potent part of his arsenal.

LOOKING AHEAD

Getting three points in this game was massive. Juventus now has a four-point lead and a buffer zone to drop a point somewhere along the line if the Champions League starts draining the team’s energy. It’s also a psychological blow to Napoli, who have been atop the league for most of the year and suddenly find themselves on the wrong end of an eight-point swing in the space of 10 days. In recent seasons there’s always been one brief three-to-four-game period where Napoli loses it mentally and allows Juventus to pull away. That time could well be now.

As for Juve, the next business to take care of comes Saturday, with a trip to Ferrara to take on SPAL. The Biancazzuri are currently in 18th place, tied on points with Sassuolo and Crotone but in arrears on the head to head tiebreaker. They’ll be motivated to steal a point in their quest to stave off the drop and have two wins and a draw in their last three games, but on paper the gulf in quality points to a repeat of October’s 4-1 Juventus win.

After that, it’s international break time and a much-needed rest for some players that must be pretty darned exhausted. The comeback game is a big one — a home date with a streaking AC Milan side that will also mark the return of Leonardo Bonucci to the Allianz Stadium.