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New team, same story: Juve squeak by Chievo in opener

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Juventus had just enough to put Chievo to the sword and start the season on a winning note.

Chievo Verona v Juventus - Serie A Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images

It was supposed to be different this year. With Cristiano Ronaldo in the team and other areas strengthened as well, most people were expecting Juventus to shake off the days when they had to grind out wins over the likes of Chievo Verona, their opponent in the opening match of the 2018-19 season.

Ronaldo played very well on his debut, but Stefano Sorrentino and the rest of the Flying Donkeys didn’t get the memo. Juve had a dream start, but missed a lot of chances after that, and the hosts eventually came from behind to take a lead that lasted more than 20 minutes before Juventus set up a grandstand finish. After one potential winner was scratched off by VAR, they eventually snagged the goal through Federico Bernardeschi that clinched a 3-2 victory.

Massimiliano Allegri decided to deploy Ronaldo as the tip of a 4-2-3-1 formation. Supporting him in the echelon behind were Juan Cuadrado, Paulo Dybala, and Douglas Costa. Miralem Pjanic and Sami Khedira formed a familiar double pivot in midfield. Joao Cancelo was also handed his Juve debut at right back, along with Leonardo Bonucci’s return in the center, renewing his old partnership with Giorgio Chiellini. Alex Sandro held down the left side, with new No. 1 Wojciech Szczesny in goal. (Yup, still weird. That’s gonna take a bit.)

Lorenzo D’Anna’s Chievo team was coming in knowing that they were still staring down the barrel of FIGC charges for inflating transfer values — a charge that, had it stuck the first time, could have seen them relegated during the summer. But the federation’s prosecutors didn’t file the charge properly, so the hearing was moved to next month. If found guilty, they could see themselves docked 15 points, so every point was precious to them. D’Anna countered Allegri with a 4-3-3, with the venerable Sorrentino wearing the captain’s armband in goal. He was protected by Nenad Tomovic, Mattia Bani, Luca Rossettini, and Fabrizio Cacciatore. Perparim Hetemaj, Nicola Rigoni, and Ivan Radovanovic made up the midfield, and the attacking trident saw Mariusz Stepinski flanked by Fabio Depaoli and former Juve and Italy player Emanuele Giacchereini.

It took less than 180 seconds for Juve to start what everyone was expecting to be a dream season with a bang.

After Cuadrado won a free kick on the right side, Pjanic whipped in a free kick to the back post. Chiellini leaned in to nod the ball down, deadening it perfectly for Khedira, who rushed in and slammed it home for the first goal in the 2018-19 Serie A season.

Chievo Verona v Juventus - Serie A Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images

Juve quickly moved to double their lead, and Dybala received a good pass from Costa two minutes later only to fire right at Sorrentino. In the 9th minute, Cancelo got into a good position after a long diagonal ball from Bonucci found Costa, but he blazed over. The Portuguese did it again off a short corner on 12 minutes.=.

Radovanovic fired one wide from well outside the penalty area in the 17th, and then came a first: Ronaldo got into a fantastic spot after a 1-2 with Cuadrado and unleashed his first shot as a Juventus player — one that skittered just wide past the post. On 22 minutes Juve got the chance for a powerful break, but Cuadrado got selfish and ignored the options to his left to fire over the bar.

The game started slowing down at this point. It took until the 33rd minute for something to come along again, this time thanks to Douglas Costa. Ronaldo had thought about trying to bicycle kick Cuadrado’s crew in, but no one was watching the Flash, who fired a half-volley close that curved wickedly and just slipped past the post.

All this missing was doing was tempting fate, and it came calling with seven minutes to go until the half, when Giaccherini flipped a cross in to Stepinski, who was free for a header after some incredibly bad marking from Bonucci after he completely lost his man. The wide-open header looped into the top corner past a stranded Szczesny, and just like that it was 1-1.

Ronaldo found the target for the first time just 2 1/2 minutes into the second half, firing a long, dipping shot that Sorrentino did well to get down to block. Juve continued to focus their attacks on the wings, but Chievo got down the field on offense for the first time in the 51st minute, with a Giaccherini trying to fit a cross in only to be denied by Szczesny. Less than 60 seconds later, the former Juve man was in position to give his team a stunning lead when he was hauled down on the left side of the box by Cancelo. He made no mistake, firing a hard shot to his left while Szczesny went the other way to make it 2-1.

Chievo Verona v Juventus - Serie A Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images

To his credit, Allegri made changes immediately. Bernardeschi replaced Cuadrado before play restarted, and almost immediately he made an impressive move, somehow holding off three defenders on the right side to emerge with the ball and continue the attack going. He fired his first shot two minutes after getting onto the field, with Sorrentino getting to it fairly easily. After Radovanovic was booked for a sliding challenge on Ronaldo, the superstar rose to head Pjanic’s free kick, but it was from a ways out and easy for Sorrentino to smother.

Berna came on feisty, and he and Hetemaj nearly came to blows after the Finland international refused to move from over him after fouling him on the wing. Neither player was booked, and two minutes later No. 33 was a whisper away from leveling the game again, but Cacciatore tipped the ball behind for a corner just before it got to him.

The sight of Mario Mandzukic on the touch line saw a roar come up from Juve fans and heralded a small formation change. The big Croatian took his place atop the formation, while Ronaldo slid to the left wing spot vacated by Douglas Costa. The move to more familiar territory seemed to have energized Ronaldo, and he immediately shimmied past three defenders and unleashed a piledriver of a shot that Sorrentino somehow deflected with one hand.

Chievo’s 39-year-old goalkeeper was under siege at this point. Rigoni was jumped in possession and Dybala put Ronaldo in for an equalizer, but Tomovic managed to get a foot to the shot and deflect it over. Then it was Mandzukic’s turn, heading just wide off a Ronaldo cross. Dybala was next, dribbling in the right channel into the spot he usually turns out one of those trademark curlers of his, but the shot was scuffed (and partially deflected) and made for an easy save by Sorrentino.

The equalizer finally came off a corner. Bernardeschi whipped the delivery in to the near post, and Bonucci, making up for his earlier defensive error, forced one of his own, hassling Bani into glancing the ball into his own net to tie the score at 2-2.

The search for the winner began at the foot of Ronaldo, who was taken down just outside the area on the left side and whipped in a stinging effort from an acute angle that again forced Sorrentino into action to parry. Chievo managed a brief counter with six minutes to go, but Cacciatore snatched at the shot to put it high over the bar.

Emere Can made his full debut for Juventus just after, and he led Juve’s continued quest for a winner. Here is where things got complicated.

It started in the 86th minute when Sandro got down the left side and fired in a cross in the direction of Ronaldo. Ronaldo got some contact with the ball and collided with Sorrentino, who was going out for the ball. Sorrentino’s face slammed into Ronaldo’s thigh, knocking him clean out. Meanwhile, the ball soared into the middle of the box, and Mandzukic leaped to fire a header into the untended net. Cacciatore tried to clear it off the line, but the ball made it across, and after a few moments of confusion the goal was given off the goal decision system linked to the referee’s watch.

Juve wasn’t able to celebrate just yet. As Sorrentino was tended to, referee Fabrizio Pasqua was summoned to the VAR station, where one thing quickly became clear: Sandro’s initial ball had come off or Ronaldo’s arm. The goal was rightly disallowed, while a clearly concussed Sorrentino, easily the man of the match on the night, was replaced by Andrea Seculin.

But Fino alla Fine are more than just words for this club, and Sandro & Co. wouldn’t be denied. The Brazilian bombed forward again two minutes into stoppage time, shaking off Depauli and Rigoni to slice in another cross. This time there would be no questions, as Bernardeschi jumped in front of Bani to stab the ball home and clinch the 3-2 victory.

Chievo Verona v Juventus - Serie A Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images

Le pagelle

WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 6. Had very little to do and can’t be faulted for either goal. Some communication errors between him and his back line, particularly Bonucci, but that can be rectified as he settles into the starter’s role.

JOAO CANCELO - 4.5. Not a good debut for him. He bombed forward often and fairly well, racking up three key passes. But he was a shambles defensively, giving away the penalty and making numerous bad decisions in the back. Getting him up to snuff defensively may be a project for Allegri. If the team wasn’t trailing he would have been a candidate to come off.

LEONARDO BONUCCI - 6. Really, really bad marking on Chievo’s equalizer. He completely switched off and let Stepinski into all kinds of space. Did make a couple of important defensive interventions after that, racking up three interceptions. His effort at the other end to force Bani’s own goal was impressive, and he nearly had the winner early when he just missed a rebound off Ronaldo’s free kick.

GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 7. Great header to assist Khedira’s opener, and generally solid in the back. Kept the team together defensively.

ALEX SANDRO - 8. Sandro showed some signs in preseason that he was back to his old form, and he was excellent on the left side Saturday. Made four key passes and was dangerous all night, finally getting the assist on the winner. More of this please.

SAMI KHEDIRA - 6. Johnny-on-the-spot for the opening goal, but what did he really do after that? Completed 91.1 percent of his passes, but nothing was really incisive. Should have been replaced a lot earlier than he was.

MIRALEM PJANIC - 6. Made three key passes and completed 90.4 percent of his 103 attempts, but he never seemed to really grab this game by the scruff of the neck like he can. Most of the creating came from up front.

JUAN CUADRADO - 4. Made all the wrong decisions. This was one of those Bad Juan days.

PAULO DYBALA - 5. Made three key passes but never really looked comfortable in the places where he can usually score. Made a few interesting situations alongside Ronaldo, but they’re still going to have to learn from each other. Does need to pick things up.

DOUGLAS COSTA - 6. A terror in the first half but faded in the second. If that big curler had gone in...mercy.

CRISTIANO RONALDO - 7. Would have had at least two goals if it was anyone other than Sorrentino was between the sticks for Chievo. He was remarkably unselfish, often dropping a little to pick up the ball. Even better when he moved back to his natural position on the left. Overall a good debut, even if he didn’t manage to score.

SUBS

FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 8. He came out on a mission. Energy in spades, lots of running, and creating some dangerous moves. Excellent poaching instincts on the game-winning goal.

MARIO MANDZUKIC - 7. Changed things when he got up top. The rhythm of the team was just better. He’s always been excellent as a passing pivot up top, and now he’ll have a lot of great service when he’s up top.

EMERE CAN - NR. Provided some extra engine as the team strove for the winner.

MANAGER ANALYSIS

Allegri clearly likes the idea of Ronaldo as a center forward. Whether or not Ronaldo will adapt to it is another story. He wasn’t bad by any stretch, but he was that much better when he moved to the left and Mandzukic was put up top. It’s also possible that Ronaldo was only up top on Saturday because Mandzukic doesn’t quite have his legs under him after a brutally taxing World Cup with Croatia. It’ll be interesting to see where the two play next week, when Juve gets a step up in class as Lazio comes to Turin.

Allegri’s in-game substitutions are often praised, and he deserves that again here. First and foremost he got his timing right — Bernardeschi changed the game when he arrived, and the reshuffle on the introduction of Mandzukic made the team a lot more dangerous.

It wasn’t all good for Allegri, though. He delivered a stirring defense of Khedira in his post-game press conference, but he’s going to have to acknowledge sooner or later that the German has outlived his usefulness as an everyday starter. He’s slow and when he’s not scoring goals he can have a hard time making his mark on the game. Emere Can and Rodrigo Bentancur should get a shot at unseating him as the year moves on.

LOOKING AHEAD

Next week will be Juve’s first home game, as the Bianconeri welcome Lazio and purported summer transfer target Sergej Milinkovic-Savic to the Allianz Stadium. After that, is a trip to Parma to face the resurgent Crusaders for the first time in four years before the first international break of the year.