After Juve’s gut-crunching elimination in the Champions League against Real Madrid in midweek, Gianluigi Buffon said, amongst many other things, “We will be furious when stepping onto the pitch in Serie A this weekend. Furious.”
You couldn’t help but feel pity for Sampdoria. Not only would Juve be coming in on the warpath following the sham ending in Madrid, but the Blucerchiati had been the last team before Real to defeat the Bianconeri, adding revenge as another motivation for the home side. The 3-2 scoreline actually masked just how badly Marco Giampaolo’s team humiliated Juve on that November day at the Marassi, given how Juve managed both of their goals in stoppage time.
While it wasn’t quite the mauling that some may have been anticipating, Juventus eventually made easy work of Samp, handing them a 3-0 Douglas Costa-inspired defeat that took advantage of another Napoli slip-up to extend their lead atop Serie A to six points.
Massimiliano Allegri knew he was facing two more games in the space of a week, and rotated some of his squad after the immense effort most of them put in at the Bernabeu on Wednesday. Buffon did start, with an odd-looking 4-4-1-1 formation in front of him. With Mattia De Sciglio hurt and Stephan Lichtsteiner in need of rest, Benedikt Howedes played only his second game in a Juventus jersey and his first at right back. He was joined by Giorgio Chiellini, Daniele Rugani, and Kwadwo Asamoah in defense. Blaise Matuidi, Miralem Pjanic, Sami Khedira, and Juan Cuadrado made up the midfield, while Paulo Dybala started slightly behind Mario Mandzukic up front.
Giampaolo arrayed his men in a classing 4-3-1-2 diamond midfield. Emiliano Viviano was screened in goal by Jacopo Sala, Matias Silvestre, Gianmarco Ferrari, and Vasco Regini. Reported Juve target Denis Praet started as a box-to-box midfielder with Edgar Barreto opposite him and Lucas Torreira in the middle. Gaston Ramirez played as the CAM, behind Duvan Zapata and former Juve striker Fabio Quagliarella.
Juve started on the front foot. The back four pressed high, attempting to negate the similar press that Samp had sunk them with in the autumn. It was only the fourth minute before the Bianconeri created their first serious danger, when Cuadrado made one of his patented runs in from the wing to latch on to an early cross. He went for a volley and ended up shinning it off of Ferrari’s face, bouncing out for a corner kick.
The Colombian was back at it on his own wing three minutes later, sending in a beauty of a cross that Mandzukic just couldn’t get a touch to at full stretch. Matuidi recovered on the back end, but his attempt to pop it into the air for the big Croatian ended up floating way over his head, ending the move.
The quick start settled down a bit after that, but Juve were still the beneficiaries of the next opportunity, a corner kick that pinballed around the box before being touched just wide by Mandzukic. Dybala got into a decent shooting position less than a minute later, but Torreira shadowed him well and blocked his shot, something that would turn into a recurring theme for the Argentine on the day.
It was Quagliarella who had the next opportunity, outmuscling Khedira at the back post on a corner kick. Quags’ header was a good one, but Buffon is never going to get beaten from that angle when he has position, and position he had to parry the ball around the post for another corner that was snuffed out by a Sampdoria foul on the delivery.
The move after the ensuing free kick saw Matuidi sent through over the top, but Silvestre recovered to interrupt things and avert the danger. Dybala had another shot blocked, and then Mandzukic roamed out to the left and sent in a cross that was initially intended for Khedira but ended up almost sneaking in at the near post, forcing Viviani to alertly tip it away. The resulting corner saw yet another chance for Mandzukic after the keeper could only tip the ball back to him when he came out for the delivery, but he scuffed his shot into the ground, allowing him to recover and make the save.
The final 15 minutes of the half settled into a stalemate. Torreira hit a free kick high and wide from a decent position, and as soon as the ball left the field of play TV viewers were surprised to see the fourth official heading to the midfield line with the substitution board. Pjanic, who hadn’t shown any visible signs of struggling on the field, made way for Douglas Costa, changing the formation to a 4-2-3-1.
Costa made an instant impact in the half’s final minute. By rights he shouldn’t have had the room to make the cross he ended up making. He had two men facing him up, but neither made an effort to close him down, giving him the room to find Mandzukic streaking down the middle of the field. The Mandzubeast made no mistake this time and volleyed into the roof of the net to open the scoring.
Quagliarella made way for Dawid Kownacki at the break, and the Pole almost immediately changed the game when he caught Chiellini in possession in the attacking third and fed Gaston Ramirez, who fired inches wide in a 1-on-1 with Buffon.
The first 10 minutes of the half came mostly without incident, until Zapata made his first real impact with a powerful header that was right at Buffon, who made a relatively simple save. Then, just as Gonzalo Higuain had begun to warm up on the sidelines to chase an insurance goal, Costa made it happen.
It started on the other side of the field with a neat passing move that slipped Khedira through the right-hand channel. He found Costa totally unmarked to his left, and the Brazilian’s cross was powered in by a diving Howedes. Given the Germany international’s relative anonymity due to numerous injuries this season, the moment probably incurred just as many belly laughs — the good kind — as cheers.
The truth is he might be lucky to have had it stand. Khedira, who had continued his run after making the pass to Costa, was in an offside position and made a jump for the ball before it got to Howedes at the back post. No offside call was made and the VAR official didn’t page referee Maurizio Marinani, but that’s the kind of thing we often see given. Regardless, Costa had provided the team with a margin of error.
The second goal saw Juve start to bottle things up a little bit. But they kept Sampdoria from creating any major danger, and with a quarter of an hour to go The Flash finished things off for good.
Samp had just had a corner, and Costa got to the clearance and with one touch put the ball past Ferrari and into a place that only he could catch up to it. He slalomed down the right side, then jinked his way to the byline and pulled the ball back into space, where Khedira was on hand to slam it home with his first touch.
That was the end of it.
Cuadrado had a chance to curl at goal but put it right at Viviano, and Costa nearly added a goal of his own but put his shot from the top of the box just wide of the post. When Mariani finally blew his whistle, Juve had that much more control over the title race with the head-to-head matchup with Napoli only seven days away.
GIANLUIGI BUFFON - 7. Controlled the penalty area well and easily got to any shots Samp managed to get on target.
BENEDICKT HOWEDES - 7. Played well down the right and was tied for the team lead in interceptions. There was certainly some rust, but certainly not on his header for his first Juve goal.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 6. A rather uneventful day for King Kong, but he nearly caused a major problem when he was dispossessed in the back at the beginning of the second half. As usual led the team in clearances, with six.
DANIELE RUGANI - 6.5. Completed 95.2 percent of his passes, made two tackles, two clearances and an interception. Wasn’t intimidated by Zapata’s power.
KWADWO ASAMOAH - 6. Solid defensively on the left side but didn’t get much involved further forward.
JUAN CUADRADO - 7.5. Made four key passes and was great on defense as well with a pair of tackles and three interceptions.
SAMI KHEDIRA - 8. Where has this guy been? Goal was excellent, and he’s helped dictate in attack, especially after Pjanic left the field.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 6. Made three interceptions in the middle of the park before coming off with what Allegri referred to as a twinge in his thigh. It seems like he came off more for precautions than anything else.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 7.5. A monster winning the ball in the middle of the park. Led the team with four tackles and tied with three interceptions.
PAULO DYBALA - 5.5. Completed 96.7 percent of his passes but wasn’t really in any dangerous spots. Had a ton of shots blocked.
MARIO MANDZUKIC - 7.5. Sampdoria’s defense couldn’t handle him in the box. He could’ve had two or three by the half.
DOUGLAS COSTA - 9. Easily the best player on the field, perhaps one of the best games anyone on the team has played this season. No one could deal with his pace and technique. Three assists, almost had another goal, and four total key passes.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 6. Made a few good defensive plays and played the game out well.
STEFANO STURARO - NR. On to see the game out with 10 minutes to go.
I’m not a fan of this 4-4-1-1 that pops up every now and then. It looks like it’s the kind of thing that could turn into a 4-3-3 when in possession, which would fit the Allegri mold of formations that can morph based on the situation. But with Dybala and a center-forward together on the field at the same time, that kind of shifting gets muddled, as Dybala isn’t a natural winger. There also wasn’t a lot of width on the left, as Matuidi, the nominal left-side mid, isn’t a wide player.
It’s no surprise that things got better when Costa came on and the 4-2-3-1 took hold. Dybala’s role was a bit more defined and, of course, Costa was unstoppable. This kind of formation could work, but definitely not with this combination of players.
Just because the Champions League is gone doesn’t mean the midweek games are done. Wednesday sees Juve take a trip to the south to meet Crotone. While nothing should ever be taken for granted—just look at the problems Benevento gave us—on paper Juve can be confident of at least maintaining their six-point advantage going into what has to be a title decider on Sunday when Napoli comes to town.
Fun fact: if Napoli were to completely spit the bit and lose against Udinese, then Juve beats them on Sunday, Juve would be in position to clinch the title against Inter. At the San Siro.
Wouldn’t that be sweet?