When Juventus played Benevento in November, it was ... not one of the prettiest of games. An Amato Ciciretti free kick gave Le Streghe — one of the worst teams to play in Serie A in a decades — a lead, and it took almost until the hour for Juve to finally get into gear, and goals from Gonzalo Higuain and Juan Cuadrado sealed a nervy 2-1 win.
Why bring this slog of a game up?
Because going into Saturday’s return match at the Stadio Ciro Vigorito, it was worth reminding ourselves that the Bianconeri have had a hard time this season when it comes to mid-to-lower-table teams. The insipid draw with SPAL before the international break was one example. The need for a pair of red cards before breaking through against Chievo in January was another, as was the October win against Udinese. For whatever reason — and there are many potential explanations — the Old Lady has had trouble in games she should have found easy.
Coming off Tuesday’s stunning failure against Real Madrid in the first leg of the UEFA Champions League quarterfinal, the hope was an easy win against the bottom team in the league would provide some sort of salve to the burn and start a positive end to the season. But it’s never been that simple this season, and though Juve did pull out a 4-2 victory, it was by no means a sure thing until very close to the end.
Massimiliano Allegri did use the opportunity of playing the league’s worst side to rotate the team a bit in order to rest players for the difficult task ahead of them in Madrid on Wednesday. As has become customary, Gianluigi Buffon took the weekend after a European fixture off, with Wojciech Szczesny starting in his place. In front of him was a 4-4-2, with Stephan Lichtsteiner, Daniele Rugani, Medhi Benatia, and Alex Sandro in defense. Juan Cuadrado and Blaise Matuidi bookended the pair of Miralem Pjanic and Claudio Marchisio in the middle of the park. Up front, Paulo Dybala — who didn’t need to be conserved for Wednesday considering his suspension — partnered with Mario Mandzukic.
Roberto De Zerbi arrayed his charges in a 4-2-3-1. Christian Puggioni was in goal, protected by Bacary Sagna, Berat Djimsiti, Alin Tosca, and Lorenzo Venuti. Nicolas Viola and Sandro — Benevento’s version, that is — formed the pivot midfield, with Enrico Brignola, Guilherme, and Filip Djuricic playing ahead of them. Cheick Diabate served as the lone striker.
For the first 15 minutes of the game, it looked like the wipeout we were all expecting would come to pass. Juve utterly dominated the ball, barely allowing Benevento a touch in the midfield third, let alone to cross the line. Unlike the SPAL game, which saw hardly any moments that made you think Juve might actually score, today Juve made moments of genuine danger. Within four minutes Cuadrado forced Sandro to block his shot after cutting in from the right. Cuadrado also had a cross knocked away from Mandzukic, then placed a great layoff that Dybala unfortunately overran.
Benevento’s only real foray forward in the first 10 minutes came on a two-man counterattack that could have gotten dangerous, but a heavy touch allowed Szczesny to scramble out and claim the ball. Moments after that Dybala fought for the ball in the penalty area and managed to get in a cross that pinballed off two of his teammates before being cleared. Sagna then pounced on a bad giveaway by Pjanic to take a shot, but fired it well over.
Less than 60 seconds after that, Juventus had the lead. The ball started on the left side of the field, with Alex Sandro firing the ball across the field to Cuadrado, who drifted into space behind the defense. The Colombian’s one-touch pass put the ball on a silver platter for Dybala, who deposited a feathery side-footed shot over Puggioni and into the net. It was the kind of goal that reminds you why people have compared him to Alessandro Del Piero, and it gave Juve a 1-0 lead 16 minutes in.
This should have been the part where Juve turned the screws, kept Benevento on their back foot, and added a goal or two more before the half to put the game into cruise control.
Why doesn’t that happen anymore?
Not long after the first goal, Juve started dropping back and allowing Benevento more possession, and in the 22nd minute Sandro’s shot off a corner was smartly saved by Szczesny, who did well to hold the ball. Within 60 seconds the ball was coming back his way, this time off the foot of Djuricic. He made an even more impressive save low at the post, but there was no way to prevent a rebound this time, and Lichtsteiner was late getting to it. That allowed Guilherme to fire the ball to the back post to Diabate. Alex Sandro was supposed to be marking the Malian, but completely fell asleep, allowing him to slide in and slam the ball into the roof of the net to tie the score.
Juve mustered up a response, and just before the half hour mark an excellent one-touch flick from Marchisio sent Dybala into space, only for him to be hauled down. The free kick was in good position and the lefty put it on target, but Puggioni had him sussed out and made the easy save. Three minutes later Cuadrado showed some ring rust, getting put clear through by an excellent ball over the top only to tap it past the post.
Then came the first of three high-profile incidents that put referee Fabrizio Pasqua in the spotlight. Mandzukic had fallen to the ground getting to a cross from Cuadrado, but managed to flick the ball into the net. Puggioni immediately put his hand up claiming an infraction, and Pasqua immediately disallowed the goal for a handball. Mandzukic and his teammates argued to no avail, and Pasqua, though obviously consulting with the VAR official, did not decide to view the play himself. While the ball obviously hit the Croatian’s arm as he was falling, whether or not he could have done anything about it is another question entirely.
The champions did manage to get into halftime with the lead in another incident that prominently featured Pasqua. Another great ball by Marchisio found Pjanic in the left channel, and as he took the ball down to position himself for a shot he got tangled with a defender and hit the floor. He stayed down in pain while his teammates appealed for a penalty. Initially Pasqua didn’t give anything, but eventually trotted to the VAR monitor on the sideline. I have to admit it even took me a second look to realize that Pjanic had in fact been brought down instead of tripping over himself. When the ref returned to the field he pointed to the spot, and Dybala, who hadn’t taken a penalty kick since his back-to-back misses against Atalanta and Lazio in October, executed perfectly, sending Puggioni the wrong way to put his team back on top.
That didn’t last all that long. After six minutes Guilherme got through the left channel and unleashed a shot that was blocked by Rugani, who had sagged off him a little bit too much to allow him the room. But the youngster’s partner in defense made a far more costly error on the ensuing corner, somehow managing to get completely turned around and allowing Diabate to bury Viola’s delivery and tie the score again.
The Moroccan looked to make up for his error immediately by making a run forward, flicking a pass to Mandzukic, but the striker couldn’t turn and had it poked away. Cuadrado recovered the ball, but his shot was blocked. A minute later the winger ballooned a shot over the bar, and the clearly fading Colombian was replaced by Douglas Costa.
Costa immediately started doing work, cutting inside from the right but putting too much mustard on a square ball to Dybala outside of the area. A few minutes later Marchisio took a long shot that bent just too late. He too made way shortly after his miss, withdrawn for Gonzalo Higuain as Allegri shifted to a 4-2-3-1 to chase a winner.
It could have come moments after he checked in when Dybala earned another free kick on his side of the field. It was Pjanic who ended up taking the shot, trying to bend it to the far post, but he put it just beyond it. Mandzukic then tapped the ball toward Higuain at the top of the box, but the Argentine wasn’t prepared for it and couldn’t gain the ball for a shooting chance.
It wasn’t all one-way traffic. Benevento managed to get in some decent spells of possession, and at one point with a bit more than 20 minutes left managed to earn three corners in a row, the first of which flashed across the face of goal without anyone attacking it.
Eventually, the Bianconeri did get back on top again. Pasqua was again at the fore, as he pointed to the spot once again when Higuain went down in the aftermath of a corner. The big striker went down rather theatrically, but there was contact made with the trailing foot of the defender, and there was no question of VAR. Dybala stepped up again and fired a low shot to the middle-left, while Puggioni went to the right.
It was his third hat trick of the season, all of which have come in away games, putting Dybala’s name on an exclusive list as only the second player in Serie A history to score three hat tricks away in a single season. The only other man to do so? Giampiero Boniperti, in the 1949-50 season.
But Le Streghe weren’t going to lie down. A run through the channel was met by Szczesny, who made some contact but also easily gained the ball before Rugani cleared it.
Allegri introduced Sami Khedira to revert back to his 4-4-2 to see out the game. The defense stiffened, and then two of the subs finally managed to seal the deal. With eight minutes left, Higuain played Costa through on the right side. It wasn’t the best pass, forcing The Flash wider than he had intended, but Costa finally latched on to the ball, then cut inside, bamboozling Venuti and getting just enough room off the second defender to unleash a crazy curler into the top corner.
Benevento deserves credit for never giving up, and Szczesny had to parry a fierce strike from Viola in stoppage time to prevent a true grandstand finish. It was ugly, but at the end of the day, the three points came home to Turin, and the pressure was now all on Napoli to keep pace on Sunday when they play Chievo.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNEY - 8. Made some excellent saves that kept Benevento from stealing anything more. Stranded on both goals.
STEPHAN LICHTSTEINER - 5. Contributed little to the attack and was late on the rebound that led to Benevento’s first.
DANIELE RUGANI - 6. Not a standout day, but was solid all game. Made three interceptions and four clearances. Got caught in the middle on the first goal and will likely get pilloried for it, but there was nothing he could do on it — the failures on that play were on the full-backs.
MEDHI BENATIA - 5.5 Where the hell was he on that second goal? He looked foolish.
ALEX SANDRO - 5.5. Still not up to snuff. Made a great pass to help set up Juve’s first but too often he was losing the ball.
JUAN CUADRADO - 6.5. Excellent pass on Dybala’s goal and a few more moves before that. Faded at the end, though that’s to be expected given his injury layoff.
CLAUDIO MARCHICIO - 8. Anyone who says this man is done is out if their mind. He put in 62 incredible minutes, completing 93 percent of his passes and making two tackles. Moreover, he was making the passes we expect Pjanic to make when Marchisio isn’t on the field with him.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 6.5. Made three key passes and a 94.4 percent completion rate. Ran the midfield well.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 7. Led the team with four tackles and was impressive at sealing Benevento in at the times Juve had the ball.
PAULO DYBALA - 8.5. He kinda disappeared for a time, so he’s not getting any higher than this. He’s now set his career high in goals.
MARIO MANDZUKIC - 5. Pains me to say it but he looked way off tonight. Perhaps he’s still not fit 100 percent.
DOUGLAS COSTA - 7. Made a bunch of trouble on the right, and that goal....
GONZALO HIGUAIN - 6.5. Wasn’t able to get into shooting positions, but earned the second penalty and assisted Costa’s curler.
SAMI KHEDIRA - NR. Brought in to give extra defensive beef to the midfield.
Tactically this was an interesting game. The 4-4-2 would occasionally turn more into a 4-3-3 when attacking, but Dybala never really became a winger. With the lack of a true wide mid on the left it was often left to Alex Sandro to provide width on that side, with mixed results. Allegri was absolutely right to push that into a 4-2-3-1 halfway through the second half and did well to pull back into a defensive position once he had regained the lead.
Beyond tactics there are two things that struck me about this match in relation to Allegri. The first deals with mentality. The “we have our goal, now let’s settle in” mentality that has caused Juve so many problems both this season and at times in the past seemed to finally going away by the end of last season, but this year it’s crept back in. Just as they’ve done countless times this season, Juve scored the opener, then rather than stepping on their opponents’ throat, they eased off, allowing their opponents time to play on the ball and, eventually, facilitating their re-entry into the game. Allegri needs to get back to work and banish that attitude again — it’s only going to lose us games against quality opponents.
The second concerns Marchisio. This game, to me, seems like confirmation that whatever reason he’s not playing is personal between him and Allegri, because from a technical standpoint there’s no reason Marchisio should be sitting in so many games. He was one of the best players on the field, and the fact that he hasn’t been playing in bigger games this year is borderline criminal. We’ve seen in the second half of last year that the dude can still go — and that his presence makes the midfield better. What gives, Max?
Hello, Max. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to defeat Real Madrid at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu by three clear goals. This message will self destruct in five seconds.
That’s what it comes down to. Juve will need to win by at least a three-goal margin. That, at bare minimum, will force extra time.
It’s certainly a daunting task, but weird stuff happens in this competition. Barcelona bouncing PSG last year was a clear example. Real aren’t invincible at home. They lost the second leg of last year’s quarterfinal to Bayern (although they went through in extra time). Three years ago a Schalke team vastly inferior to this Juve squad very nearly mugged the Spaniards in Madrid after losing 2-0 at home in the first leg. Is it probable? No. Can it happen? If a few thing go right all at once, yes.
After that, Juve welcome Sampdoria to the Allianz Arena, looking for a little revenge after the Blucerchiati beat them in November.
Here comes the stretch run, folks. Hopefully, we all enjoy the ride.