Going into Wednesday night’s midweek encounter with Crotone, Juventus midfielder Stefano Sturaro said to Sky Sport Italia, “Every game has its own separate story, and we can’t afford to make any mistakes if we want to achieve our objective.”
Then Juventus went out and made one.
They very much looked like a team looking ahead to a big game against the relegation-threatened Sharks, failing to press an early 1-0 advantage and falling victim to another bicycle kick as they left the Stadio Ezio Scida with a 1-1 draw, a result that saw their lead at the top of Serie A shrink to four points after Napoli came from behind twice to put away Udinese 4-2 at the San Paolo.
Massimiliano Allegri may have talked a big game about Wednesday’s game being more important than Sunday’s top-of-the-table clash with the Partenopei, but he still saw fit to rotate his squad against a team that went into the day a point away from safety in 18th place. Wojciech Szczesny deputized for Gianluigi Buffon in goal, protected by a back four of Stephan Lichtsteiner, Medhi Benatia, Daniele Rugani, and Alex Sandro. Stefano Sturaro, Claudio Marchisio, and Blaise Matuidi made up the midfield three, while Douglas Costa, Paulo Dybala, and Gonzalo Higuain made up an attacking trio that acted more like a 4-3-2-1 than the 4-3-3 it was widely reported as.
Crotone’s Walter Zenga countered with a true 4-3-3 of his own. Goalkeeper Alex Cordaz manned the sticks, with Davide Faraoni, Marco Capuano, Federico Ceccherini, and Bruno Martella in front of him. Juve loanee Rolando Mandragora led the midfield trio, joined by Andrea Barberis and Adrian Stoian. Marcus Rohden and Moussa Diaby sandwiched Simeon Nwankwo, better known as Simy, as the attacking trident.
Juve looked slightly unfocused for much of the match, and it showed from the very beginning when an awkward back pass from Benatia had Rugani scurrying back to the byline to keep the Morroco international from a gifting corner kick. Throughout the game Juve’s players misplaced simple passes that sometimes left to dangerous situations, like the sixth-minute miscue by Matuidi that gifted Crotone the ball in their attacking third. The resulting cross never picked anyone out, but those two early incidents were warning signs.
It took 10 minutes for Juve to settle in and muster their first real attack. It started on the left with Sandro, who found Higuain in the box. The striker tried to lay the ball back for his countryman, but it was just too far for Dybala to latch on to it. The ball was recovered and cycled back down the right side, where Lichtsteiner pulled out another one of those lovely little crosses he’s been making lately. He put it into a great spot, but neither Sandro nor Higuain was able to get there to attack it and it passed through the no man’s land between them.
Lichtsteiner made another great delivery in the 16th minute, this one intended for the back-post run of Matuidi, but it was headed behind by the Frenchman’s marker. The ensuing corner was taken short and the red-hot Costa fired in a cross that Sandro flicked across the face of goal and in for a neat opener that had Cordaz stranded.
But Juve couldn’t quite turn the screw after opening the scoring. Within a couple of minutes, the Squali had a pair of chances when Juve sloppily gave the ball away in their own half. At the other end of the field Dybala was getting dispossessed like it was going out of style, and one loss of the ball forced Marchisio into taking out Mandragora going the other way for the game’s first booking.
Higuain managed to get himself into good spots twice just after the half hour. The first saw him mug Ceccherini near the box and fire a shot with decent power, but it was at a difficult enough angle to make Cordaz’s save relatively simple. Three minutes later he got a good ball over the top but mishit it slightly and ended up putting it across the goal instead of at it. But with eight minutes to go in the half the sloppiness showed itself again, this time when Sandro fell down in the defensive third, giving the ball away and triggering a move that finally forced Szczesny into action for the first time, easily claiming a ball across the face of goal.
There was a flurry of action right before the half, with Costa jinking around the left side of Crotone’s penalty area only to fire wide, while on the other end Simy performed some close dribbling in the channel to flummox Sandro and manage Crotone’s first shot of the evening, but he didn’t get much in the way of power behind it and Szczesny dealt with it easily.
Zenga’s men made an early statement of their intentions in the second half, as Martella hit the side netting from the upper-left corner of the penalty area only three minutes after the restart.
A few minutes later Juve created what was easily their best open-play move of the entire game. It started with an excellent interception by Sandro, who triggered a counter that saw both Dybala and Costa make some excellent dribbles and passes, only to see Higuain try to finish through a sea of legs and have the shot easily blocked. Sandro raced to recover the ball and forced a free kick that Dybala hooked into a good area that was defended well. As Crotone tried to play out of their half Rugani, who had begun tracking back, jumped a man for the ball and fed it back to Higuain, but the Argentine wasn’t able to get free to get a shot off before being dispossessed.
In the 57th, we saw something we don’t often see when Benatia was called for a back pass that Szczesny picked up at the corner of the six-yard box. Refereed Michael Fabbri awarded Crotone an indirect free kick even though replay showed Simi had probably gotten the last touch.
This could have gotten dicey, as wall placement is always critical in situations like this, and that has been one of the few weaknesses Szczesny has displayed this season. But this time everyone got their assignments right, and the Poland international performed a quick kick-save on Faraoni while Sturaro jumped in front of Barberis’ followup.
Just after the hour another good move on the left started when Costa darted to the byline and pulled back along the ground. The ball was blocked out to Sandro, who tried to clip the ball back in but overhit it for Sturaro at the back post, and the midfielder was only able to direct it out for a goal kick.
Then two things happened that quickly saw Juventus lose the plot. The first was the removal of Marchisio in favor of Rodrigo Bentancur. Less than 60 seconds later the game was suddenly tied. Barberis headed a cross from the left across goal to substitute Marcello Trotta, who scuffed his attempt at a roundhouse volley into a perfect position for Simy to do his best Cristiano Ronaldo impression and rocket a bicycle kick past Szczesny to equalize with 25 minutes left.
Allegri immediately reacted by removing Sturaro for Juan Cuadrado, and on 70 minutes Matuidi looked like he was going to give Juve the lead back with a long-distance piledriver, but Cordaz made a brilliant one-handed save. Two minutes later Bentancur put a heavy first touch on a Costa pullback, but he tenaciously followed the ball and laid it back himself to Higuain, who was denied by Cordaz’s foot even though the rest of the keeper was going the other way.
With nine minutes to go Costa tried to replicate his game-winning assist against AC Milan by finding Cuadrado far post, but this time a defender was close enough to put him off and he wasn’t able to get the shot on target. Rugani then found Higuain with a flick from a corner but Capuano scrambled to block it the shot. At the other end Lichtsteiner, now wearing the captain’s armband, was booked for hacking down his man at the edge of the area, but Barberis ballooned his effort well over.
The last five minutes of the game staggered along without any genuine chances for either team. Federico Bernardeschi was given his first cap in two months in the closing minutes to try to change things up, but neither team looked like scoring, and the match finally stumbled over the finish line tied at 1-1, leaving Juve with some thinking to do as Sunday’s six-pointer looms in the distance.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 7. Couldn’t do much about the goal and commanded his area well when called upon.
STEPHAN LICHTSTEINER - 6.5. Made a couple of really great crosses and contributed a pair of tackles and three clearances in the back. He’s coming into his own late in the year.
MEDHI BENATIA - 5.5. Made five clearances but was guilty of three fouls, and the responsibility for the equalizer really belongs to him. He was the one marking Simy but started ball-watching and lost him, giving him the space he needed for his acrobatic goal. He’s not playing as bad as he was in August and September, but he’s certainly come back to earth from his peak period around Christmas.
DANIELE RUGANI - 6.5. Tied with Benatia for the team lead in clearances and added a pair of tackles as well. Completed 91.9 percent of his passes, including a key pass on a great flick from a corner.
ALEX SANDRO - 7.5. Excellent headed goal, and he also led the team in tackles and interceptions and had a key pass. One of his more complete performances of the year.
STEFANO STURARO - 5. Unlike his last start against Udinese, he didn’t make a positive impression here. Only completed 70 percent of his passes and his mishits often ground promising positions to a halt.
CLAUDIO MARCHISIO - 6. Kept the midfield moving well until his surprising withdrawal in the 65th minute. Without him things seemed to fall apart. Perhaps Bentancur should have replaced Stu instead?
BLAISE MATUIDI - 6.5. Ran hard to gain the ball, sharing the team lead in tackles with Sandro. His shot in the second half very nearly put Juve back on top.
PAULO DYBALA - 4. He hates getting beaten up, and Crotone was physical with him early on, which made him timid the rest of the game. Didn’t run a ton off the ball and wasn’t much better with it, getting dispossessed five times. Has to be better if he starts on Sunday.
DOUGLAS COSTA - 7. Has now assisted on Juve’s last four goals. By the end of the game he looked like one of the only guys who was giving 100 percent effort.
GONZALO HIGUAIN - 5.5. Denied by a great Cordaz save with 18 minutes to go, but other than that didn’t get into the best of position, having at least three shots blocked.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 6. Still has a tendency to get caught in possession, but he’s so tenacious when he does lose it that he tends to be in the thick of getting it back. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: This kid is going to be good.
JUAN CUADRADO - 5. Didn’t make use of his pace and skill at all, and every attempt at a cross was nowhere near its target. Bad night for him.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - NR. Had no time to make an impact, but it’s a positive just to see him playing after fears he would miss the rest of the season. He’ll be a valuable piece at the end of the season.
Given that this was Juve’s third straight week with a midweek game, rotation was both inevitable and necessary. I also applaud his choice of a 4-3-2-1 (that’s really what it was), which I think is the best way to combine Dybala and Higuain. Unfortunately neither of them was in good form today.
I will take a bit of issue with his choice of subs. Dybala could have come off earlier, and Marchisio certainly didn’t deserve to come off at 65 minutes. He’s a glue man in midfield when he’s in the game, and the team kind of started to lose their way in his absence. Bentancur’s youthful exuberance is a major plus, but this kind of game needed an experienced hand to see it out.
It would have been way better going into Sunday’s game at the Allianz Stadium up six points instead of four. Making up the points they lost over the weekend will put a charge into Napoli, who will need to win to have a realistic opportunity at taking the title for themselves.
That being said, the Allianz seems to have an adverse effect on the Partenopei. They’ve lost all seven times they’ve played there (six times in Serie A, once in the Coppa Italia) since the stadium opened in 2011 by an aggregate score of 17-3.
A win would push the lead to seven points and essentially end the title race. A draw would maintain the status quo in the standings but, critically, would see Juve clinch the head-to-head tiebreaker thanks to their December victory in Naples.
This is the big one, folks. A true six-pointer. Win, and title No. 7 is all but assured.
Oh, and the Derby d’Italia is a week later.