Douglas Costa is good. Like, really, really good.
Over the last six weeks or so, the Brazilian has been Juventus’ best player by a huge margin. Whether starting a game or coming in off the bench, he has left an indelible mark on every game he’s played. He is breathtaking to watch in full flight, an incredible combination of pace and technique that few defenses in Italy — heck, in the whole of Europe — can effectively counter.
It was a surprise to see him on the bench to start Saturday’s match against Bologna when the Scudetto was still very much in the balance. As we later learned in Massimiliano Allegri’s post-match press conference, he had perhaps the best reason for not being in the starting XI: Costa had lost some sleep attending the birth of a daughter overnight, and Allegri deemed it best to let him rest at the start.
But when a contentious penalty saw Juve enter the locker room down 1-0 at halftime, we all knew it was a matter of when, not if, Costa would take the field. To Allegri’s credit, he wasted no time, putting him on straight at the half. He nearly created an assist with his first touch of the game, and 45 minutes later he left the field the main catalyst in a 3-1 comeback win that put Juventus on the precipice of yet another Italian title.
Allegri’s options were already limited going into the match. Mattia De Sciglio was a long-term absentee in defense and Mario Mandzukic was unable to go thanks to the gash that Inter’s Mattias Vecino put into his leg last week at the San Siro. Giorgio Chiellini did make a surprise return to the matchday squad, giving hope that he might be able to play in Wednesday’s Coppa Italia final, but Miralem Pjanic was suspended for yellow card accumulation.
With the selection crunch, Allegri mixed and matched the team into a somewhat hodgepodge 4-3-3 that would probably have been a bit too experimental against a better team than Bologna. Gianluigi Buffon took his usual place in goal, screened by Juan Cuadrado, Andrea Barzagli, Daniele Rugani, and Kwadwo Asamoah. Claudio Marchisio took the place of Pjanic in midfield, joined by the usual pair of Sami Khedira and Blaise Matuidi. Alex Sandro played the left wing and Paulo Dybala the right, bookending Gonzalo Higuain.
Roberto Donadoni adopted a defensive posture, playing a 5-3-2 for the first time this season. Antonio Mirante, who is reportedly being scouted as a backup for Wojciech Szczesny next season, was between the sticks. In front of him were Emil Krafth, Sebastien De Maio, Simone Romagnoli, Ibrahima Mbaye and Cheick Keita. Andrea Poli, Lorenzo Crisetig, and Adam Nagy manned the midfield, with Simone Verdi and Felipe Avenatti up front.
The opening exchanges of the game took the form of a midfield battle that leaned in Juve’s favor, but no one got anything going until the seventh minute, when Marchisio dropped a ball over the top for Higuain, who forced an excellent kick save out of Mirante. A minute later Marchisio was sitting in midfield when he spotted an excellent diagonal run from Dybala. His pass would have put him clear on goal but was cut out well by the defense before it could get to him.
Cuadrado is obviously still finding his feet as a fullback, and it showed in the 14th minute, when he was dispossessed and then booked for flying into Verdi from behind as he tried to recover at the other end.
Five minutes later Bologna saw its first player go into Massimiliano Irrati’s book after he chopped down Higuain. In the absence of Pjanic it was always going to be Dybala who took the free kick, and he delivered it well, finding Sandro for a powerful header than Mirante just got his hands to before claiming it with a second effort.
The 25th minute saw a chance fall into Juve’s lap when Dybala intercepted a sloppy pass from Romagnoli deep in the attacking third. Higuain peeled off to the right but Dybala continued his run into the middle and unleashed a shot that Romagnoli got over to block. Whether La Joya should have passed to his teammate was a question, although it did seem like De Maio would have been able to track back to disrupt the play.
Mirante snared the deflection and sent the ball the other way. Juve quickly snuffed out the attack and the ball was passed back to Buffon. Then the trouble started.
Gigi has always been somewhere between lax and cavalier in his distribution, even when he was in his prime. On this occasion, he badly under-hit a simple pass intended for Rugani, and Criestig jumped it. There was contact — minimal contact — between the two and Criestig dropped like a stone. Irrati immediately pointed to the spot. He then spent five minutes talking with the VAR official — or perhaps not talking to him, at one point he pointed to his earpiece as if it wasn’t working. Regardless, he never even looked at the replay himself before confirming the soft call, and Verdi stepped up and boldly fired straight down the middle, leaving Buffon looking slightly ridiculous as he tried to stop himself and stretch his foot out toward the ball.
Juve’s initial response to the goal was lukewarm. Cuadrado fired in an early cross that Matuidi couldn’t get to before his defender, then latched on to a good pass from Dybala only to put a through ball 10 feet beyond Higuain. Five minutes from the half, Asamoah found the Colombian with a cross-field pass, but his cross got Higuain moving away from the goal and his header ended up flying tamely into Mirante’s arms. Juan stayed the focal point, this time as the target of a cross on one of those cutting runs of his, but Mirante got to it just before he did.
There were two minutes of stoppage time — a laughably small number given the amount of time Irrati wasted after giving the penalty — and in the last minute of it a delivery from a Dybala corner saw Rugani in prime position to tie the score, but Matuidi jumped in front of him and headed wildly away.
Costa’s introduction at the half was a foregone conclusion. What was a little more perplexing was how the lineup changed. Allegri pulled off Matuidi, who had been having a terrible game, but rather than switch to a 4-2-3-1 with Costa on the right and Sandro remaining on the left, Allegri kept the 4-3-3 shape intact. Costa went straight to the left side and Sandro was dropped into the midfield as a direct replacement for the Frenchman.
It only took two minutes for Costa to create danger, whipping in a low cross to Cuadrado, who was streaking in from the right. He had his shirt pulled as he attacked the ball and poked it wide, but Irrati took no action and gave a goal kick. Costa provided another helper moments later, but Khedira’s header was blocked by Romagnoli.
Just as it looked like it would be another one of those matches where a parked bus thwarted the team, a defensive mistake broke things open. Cuadrado was again in the thick of things, delivering an early cross from the right. De Maio marked Khedira well, but his attempt to clear the ball left a lot to be desired. He shinned the ball into his own net, tying the game and giving Juve, who had been largely devoid of ideas to that point, a massive boost.
Costa was back at it almost immediately following the goal, going on a mazy solo run before cutting inside and firing on goal. Mirante could only parry, but managed to put it not only away from the goal but just beyond the reach of a lurking Cuadrado, who was ready to tap in but couldn’t get much contact on it.
Higuain was then given a glorious chance when an errant back pass was dropped into his lap. Mirante was way off his line, which ended up working in his favor when the Argentine decided to try and round him instead of shooting immediately. The keeper managed to smother the ball at Higuain’s feet, and another huge opportunity went begging.
Just as Juventus seemed to be ascendant, the defense switched off and nearly allowed Bologna to retake the lead. Rugani overcommitted to one passing lane, and the ball was fizzed in just to his left. Barzagli made a hash of trying to clear the ball, which went through to Krafth. Buffon rushed to cut the Sweden international’s angle, and managed an excellent save to push the ball onto the post.
But Juve’s next meaningful attack, in the 63rd minute, finally put them ahead. It came, predictably, from Costa, who got down the left and crossed to Khedira at the back post for a simple side-foot tap. There were claims of a push on Khedira as the ball arrived, but nothing came of it, and the Bianconeri had their lead.
Six minutes later, they put it on ice. Guess who did most of the work?
It was started by an excellent diagonal ball from Cuadrado. Costa won the aerial ball to set up a run to the byline, then pulled back for an onrushing Dybala, who stroked it into the net on his first touch. Argentine and Brazilian celebrated together with Dybala’s trademark mask gesture.
Bologna had already put on Rodrigo Palacio at that point (raise your hand if you thought he was still in Serie A) and were forced to replace Verdi with Mattia Destro shortly after Dybala’s goal after the former was beset by a back problem.
The game was pretty much played out from there. Costa nearly added a goal of his own a minute from time, but his effort bent past the post. But by that point the game had been decided, and after four minutes of stoppage time Juve had completed their comeback and put them a win away from another title.
GIANLUIGI BUFFON - 5.5. His save against Krafth edged this up a little more, but goodness, what was he doing with that pass. It’s not the first time the last few years that he’s run that kind of risk, and this time he ended up paying for it.
JUAN CUADRADO - 7. A constant nuisance for Bologna down the right. Put in a ton of crosses, including the one that led to the equalizing away goal, and came away with a key pass.
DANIELE RUGANI - 6. He can’t be blamed for the penalty—he’d been hung out to dry by Buffon, and the call was a soft one. For the most part did well to deal with the rest of Bologna’s infrequent attacks. Completed all but one of his long balls and 95.4 of his passes overall
ANDREA BARZAGLI - 6. Rough play on Krafth’s attempt, but all in all didn’t face anything he couldn’t really handle.
KWADWO ASAMOAH - 6.5. A sneaky good game. He completed 95.9 percent of his passes and registered a key pass, and he led the team in tackles with three.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 4. Really poor today. Bad control cost the team possession in the final third snuffed out at least three moves down that side. Deservedly removed at the half.
CLAUDIO MARCHISIO - 6. Made a couple of good passes and kept the midfield moving at a brisker pace, even without oodles and oodles of creativity.
SAMI KHEDIRA - 6.5. Was a constant threat as a channel runner and target man for the wingers, but he’s still a step too slow in the open field.
PAULO DYBALA - 6. Had three key passes to go along with his goal but was largely anonymous from open play. Bologna didn’t give him the space he needs.
GONZALO HIGUAIN - 4. Absent from the majority of the match, and his decision on his 1-v-1 with Mirante was very badly misplayed.
ALEX SANDRO - 6. Led the team with five clearances playing in two unfamiliar roles. Unlucky to be denied by Mirante.
DOUGLAS COSTA - 9. What haven’t I said already? Oh, and a hearty congratulations on your daughter!
STEPHAN LICHTSTEINER - 6. Shored things up defensively after taking the lead, contributing a pair of tackles and working fairly well with Khedira on the right going forward as well.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - NR. Rounding back into shape. It’s really too bad he got hurt just as he was finding his stride. Watching him next season will be interesting.
Allegri’s decision to go with Sandro as a winger was an odd one, but necessary given the physical condition of some of Juve’s forwards. Juve won because Douglas Costa came on, pure and simple. Allegri deserves some credit for making the change immediately on the half, as opposed to waiting for the hour mark and beyond like he sometimes does. But with that one change, he flipped the game on its head and won a big game as the final two loom.
If Napoli lose against Torino on Sunday, Juve will have mathematically clinched the title. If Toro manage to draw, Juve won’t have it mathematically clinched, but will be five points ahead but will have the tiebreaker — goal difference — well in hand, with Napoli needing to overhaul Juve’s 16-goal edge in that department — for all intents and purposes ending the season.
On tap next is Juve’s fist opportunity for real silverware this year, as they travel to Rome for the Coppa Italia final against AC Milan. After that they stay in the Eternal City to take on Roma — perhaps with the Scudetto on offer for clinching. If the title isn’t sewn up by then, Juve’s final game is against an already-relegated Hellas Verona side at home.
It may now be safe to say that it’s only a matter of time.