On Wednesday, I mentioned that one of the ramifications of Juventus’ win against Atalanta was the creation of a buffer zone between themselves and Napoli, giving them a margin for error if the Champions League starts putting a drain on the team.
Unfortunately, unless Genoa puts on a heroic display at the Stadio San Paolo on Sunday night, that margin will have evaporated quite quickly. Juventus came into Saturday’s game against S.P.A.L. in Ferrara looking to take advantage of a relegation struggler and maintain their advantage over their challengers, but looked devoid of any energy and slumped to a goalless draw, opening the door for Napoli to reopen the title race with nine games left in the season.
Massimiliano Allergi’s team was playing its third game in seven days, and his lineup choices were depleted by injuries and suspension. Federico Bernardeschi and Juan Cuadrado remained long-term injury absentees, while Sami Khedira was left off the matchday squad with the flu. Additionally, Medhi Benatia was unavailable after his tousle with Atalanta’s Marten De Roon on Wednesday saw him earn his fifth yellow card of the season, triggering a suspension.
With his selection limited, Allegri elected to go to a 4-2-3-1 formation for the second straight game. Gianluigi Buffon started in goal with Mattia De Sciglio, Daniele Rugani, Giorgio Chiellini, and Kwadwo Asamoah in front of him. Miralem Pjanic and Blaise Matuidi formed the double pivot in midfield. Alex Sandro was again pressed into service higher up the field, playing the left wing. Douglas Costa manned the right side with Paulo Dybala in the hole behind Gonzalo Higuain.
S.P.A.L. coach Leonardo Semplici took a predictably defensive approach to his team’s first home league game against Juventus since 1968. Promising young goalkeeper Alex Meret, who was injured when Juve beat S.P.A.L. 4-1 at the Allianz Stadium in October, started between the sticks with a 3-5-2 in front of him. Felipe, Francesco Vicari, and Thiago Cionek formed the back three. Pasquale Schiattarella, Alberto Grassi, and Jasmin Kurtic manned them middle, bookended by Filippo Costa and Manuel Lazzari. Alberto Paloschi and Mirco Antenucci partnered up front.
The home side actually started the game on the front foot. They pressed Juve, forced some errant passes in midfield — a recurring problem — and they got physical. With a little more than two minutes on the clock Dybala was cracked across the face so hard by Schiattarella that he had to leave the field a few minutes later when it became evident that his lip was bleeding.
Oh, and it’s worth noting that referee Davide Massa allowed play to continue on that particular occasion. He wouldn’t have the most incredible of games.
But for the first 10 minutes or so, Juve couldn’t find their way out of their own half. A horrible release pass by Sandro in the eighth minute saw the ball come right back, forcing Rugani to block two shots in the space of 30 seconds, one from Filippo Costa and one from Antenucci.
We saw Juve’s first spark just after the 10 minute mark. Predictably, it was Douglas Costa who got things going, going on a ridiculous slaloming run through the middle and laying a pass through to Sandro down the right-hand channel. The makeshift winger latched on to the pass, but Filippo Costa flew in and stretched to deny the Brazilian for a corner. After the initial delivery was defended, the second ball fell to Higuain, but his shot was tame and directly at Meret, who easily smothered it.
From that point on, Juve was generally in control of possession. The problem was, they weren’t doing much with it. In the 17th minute De Sciglio deftly flicked a ball back to Dybala, who cut in for one of those curlers he loves scoring from the right side — only this ball didn’t curl. If he had gotten some bend to it it could very well have beaten Meret, but it stayed straight and flew right past the post.
From this point until the very end of the half there just weren’t any real chances for either team. A decent free kick delivery from Pjanic in the 26th minute was cleared by the defense, and a few minutes later Higuain couldn’t take down a good long ball, missing the opportunity to spring Dybala on his right.
Just after the half hour another Massa, who had been incredibly lenient up to that point, was finally forced to pull a card out of his pocket when Kurtic raised his foot and planted his studs into Asamoah’s chest. It was a challenge that very well could have merited a straight red, but the Slovenian got away with yellow.
The hosts got in a rare counterattack in the 41st minute when Pjanic fell down, but Antenucci’s shot went well wide. The ball came right back down the field, and just before the half Vicari tripped Dybala a few yards above the penalty area on the right side. It was in perfect position, one we’d seen the Argentine pot with ease only a week ago, but this time he flew his shot just over the bar — you probably couldn’t fit a sheet of paper between where it passed and the woodwork.
The early part of the second half saw Juve repeatedly get into good positions but fail to do anything with them. Higuain got into a good spot on a ball over the top but was dispossessed trying to cut inside. A minute later came perhaps the most dangerous moment produced by either team, when Douglas Costa fired a piledriver of a shot from the wing that Meret had to punch away. Matuidi, who could have been in position for a rebound, had interpreted the ball as a cross and gone to attack it, and the ball bounced into open space for S.P.A.L. to clear.
Ten minutes into the half, Chiellini made one of those incredible bombing runs of his, surprising the defense and getting all the way to the top of the box before squaring to Dybala, but his shot went way wide at the near post. But for the most part the Bianconeri couldn’t even get themselves into position to take their shots.
Seeking a different method, Allegri went to the bench in the 64th minute, replacing Asamoah with Mario Mandzukic, who took up his usual left-wing position while Sandro dropped back to the flank. But things didn’t change all that much. Juve’s passes were either wayward to begin with or quickly sealed off by a defender before they had a chance to get through the passing lane.
The one thing S.P.A.L. wasn’t doing with all this defense was create credible counterattacks. That changed with 15 minutes left, when Douglas Costa was dispossessed as he tried to squeeze past two defenders on the right. Antenucci barreled down the left side with Floccari making a run, but Rugani did an excellent job of identifying where the runner was and got into perfect position to cut out Antenucci’s ball and send it back the other way.
A few minutes later, Massa came into focus again. The referee refused to blow his whistle when Dybala was yanked backwards by his defender, but blew for a foul on Sandro seconds later despite the fact that the full-back had gotten the ball before the man. An irate Pjanic was booked for dissent after challenging the official over the dual mistakes.
The clock ticked on, and with 10 minutes left the collective heart of all Juventini made a leap into the throat when Chiellini grabbed at the back of his leg and signaled the need to be subbed off. Andrea Barzagli immediately came on, delaying the introduction of Rodrigo Bentancur, who was preparing to check in for Matuidi.
A minute later those same fans would have been forgiven for thinking the moment for the breakthrough was at hand. Douglas Costa hurdled a pair of S.P.A.L. defenders on the right, and put in a decent cross, but Mandzukic had to dive for it and headed it straight and out of bounds rather than on target.
Bentancur finally made his appearance with six minutes to go, but by that point things never really looked like changing. Sandro fired a cross to absolutely no one, then spurned a gift by hitting the ball low and with zero power when Mandzukic recovered a loose ball inside the penalty area and laid it off to him. Meret made an easy save.
Massa added five minutes to the end of the second period and even went 30 seconds or so beyond that, but there simply wasn’t a last-minute stunner this time around to save the three points. When the ref finally blew full time the crowd in Ferrara celebrated like they had won the league, gaining a crucial point in the relegation fight and garnering arguably their biggest result since returning to Serie A, while Juve could only wonder how they hadn’t beaten the third-worst defense in the league.
GIANLUIGI BUFFON - NR. Buffon only touched the ball 21 times and didn’t have to face a shot on target, so much like Wednesday it’s pointless to try to slap a rating on him.
MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - 8. An understated but high-level performance. Didn’t let anything get past him, making two tackles and three interceptions. Didn’t overlap as much given Dybala’s tendency to drift right in the 4-2-3-1, but he’s really making the right flank his own.
DANIELE RUGANI - 7.5. Made a great play tracking back late in the game, and made a pair of good blocks in the first half. He’s continuing to impress every time he goes out.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 7.5. Led the team with three tackles and tacked on a key pass with that big run forward early in the second half. Didn’t have a whole lot to do defensively as the game went on. Also, Giorgio? Be OK. Please be OK.
KWADWO ASAMOAH - 5.5. Not his best game. Didn’t get as involved in the attack as he could have given how much possession Juve had.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 5.5. Recovered the ball well but didn’t really make much impact further forward. He was just kinda there.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 5. His statistics were good — 91.8 percent pass completion, 10 of 11 long balls completed — but Pjanic was signed to be the guy who finds the pass that can unlock a parked bus, and he hasn’t been able to do that, not in this game or in other tough games this season.
DOUGLAS COSTA - 7. The only one of the forwards that can hold his head high. Made a couple of great runs, four key passes, and was the only one to really test Meret.
PAULO DYBALA - 5.5. Made a key pass and managed four shots, but none of them were on target. He was just a fraction off on both his first-half curler and his free kick.
ALEX SANDRO - 5. Got progressively worse as the game went on. Gave the ball away all over the place in the second half. He’s got the skills to excel farther forward but obviously has to get used to it.
GONZALO HIGUAIN - 5. A dud of a game after a real hot streak. At halftime he had touched the ball fewer times than Buffon, and only ended the game with 24. Started trying to dribble a little too much as the game wore on.
MARIO MANDZUKIC - 5. His entrance didn’t have the desired effect. Could have won the game when Costa found him at the back post.
ANDREA BARZAGLI - NR. Spent most of his time on the field getting farther up the field as the team looked for a breakthrough.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - NR. Thrown on to give the midfield a little more attacking impetus at the end.
There really isn’t much Max Allegri could have done from a strategic and tactical standpoint in this game. I don’t think starting the game with a different formation would have done too much — a third midfielder wouldn’t have done much to stretch S.P.A.L.’s defense around. A different player selection wouldn’t have done much either, because the advantages of Mandzukic on the left wing are somewhat nullified against a three-man defense because he loses his physical edge against his marker.
Ultimately, Juve’s problem was based in fatigue. The team looked tired, both physically and mentally, and that made their passing slow and their control problematic. Allegri doesn’t bear too much responsibility for that either. He could perhaps rotate the midfield a little more (Claudio Marchisio exists, Max. Use him.) but the real problem there is up front and given the injuries he’s dealing with he doesn’t have many options. The international break is coming at a perfect time.
Conventional wisdom says that Juve’s margin of error is, for the moment, gone. Napoli’s recent skid has come against Roma and Inter. Genoa is a significant step down, and given the situation the San Paolo is likely to be rocking. We can hope for the Grifone to give us some help, but we can’t count on it. It’s likely that we’ll come out of the weekend up only two points.
Now, we’ve got two weeks off as we head into the international break for the March friendlies. When the internationals return, they’ll be thrown straight into a home game with AC Milan that will likely be even more charged than usual with the return of Leonardo Bonucci to the Allianz Stadium.
That match will be a good tuneup for the first leg of the UEFA Champions League quarterfinal against Real Madrid, which comes immediately after. The pessimists amongst us will probably gravitate to an attitude roughly described as “If we can’t deal with S.P.A.L. how can we expect to beat Madrid?” But one thing we know for sure is that Zinedine Zidane’s side is not going to be parking the bus. Juve tends to play better against sides that try to play more open football, so this game shouldn’t be seen as an indicator of how that tie will go.
That quarters looks pretty evenly matched on paper. It’s going to come down to which team gets the right bounces — but having the first leg at home could be all the difference, much like it was three years ago. Only time will tell.