It had been repeated ad nauseam going into Juventus’ first game back out of the international break. When, oh when was Cristiano Ronaldo going to score a goal?
It was everyone’s favorite thing to overreact to, and when the icon finally broke his duck and scored not once, but twice against Sassuolo in a 2-1 win Sunday, it looked like it would be all anyone talked about. But when Douglas Costa lost his mind and was eventually sent off for spitting in the face of Sassuolo substitute Federico Di Francesco, the tenor of the postgame conversation was completely changed.
The Neroverdi came into the game with something to prove. The last time they came to the Allianz Stadium, in February, they were humiliated. A Gonzalo Higuain hat trick and a brace from Sami Khedira keyed a 7-0 thrashing. Having fallen victim to a Paulo Dybala hat trick in the first game between the two, it was clear that the Sassuolo that had beaten Juve in the 2015-16 season wasn’t the one they were encountering now.
Massimilano Allegri’s job was to keep that trend going, and the system he threw out was...interesting. It was quite possibly the epitome of his famous “4-3-and then we’ll see” line a few years ago. Wojciech Szczesny started in goal. Mattia De Sciglio was originally announced as the starting right back, but he was later scratched and Joao Cancelo started in his place. Giorgio Chiellini was spelled with an eye toward Wednesday’s Champions League opener, withLeonardo Bonucci and Medhi Benatia starting in the center, joining Cancelo on the left and Alex Sandro on the right. Miralem Pjanic was also rested after pulling up with a minor knock on international duty. Emre Can replaced him in the lineup, with Sami Khedira and Blaise Matuidi playing their usual box-to-box roles. The front three was made up of Ronaldo, Mario Mandzukic, and surprise starter Paulo Dybala. This trio ended up being somewhat nebulous in terms of role — but we’ll get into that a little later.
One other noteworthy thing about the lineup was with Chiellini off the field, the captaincy went to Khedira, which looks like it answers any questions about whether or not Bonucci would be included in the hierarchy. For the time being, the answer seems to be no.
Sassuolo’s Roberto De Zerbi put the team out in the 4-3-3 that the team has been a staple since the days of Eusebio Di Francesco. The underrated Andrea Consigli guarded the goal. Both of De Zerbi’s fullbacks had Juventus connections: Pol Lirola had spent a year in Juve’s youth system after being bought from Espanyol and was on a two-year loan to Sassuolo when he was purchased outright in January. Rogerio is a current Juve loanee. They flanked centerbacks Marlon Santos and Gianmarco Ferrari. The midfield trio was made up of Alfred Duncan, Mehdi Bourabia, and Manuel Locatelli, while former Juve prospect Domenico Berardi led the attacking trident alongside Filip Djuricic and Kevin-Prince Boateng.
Juve came out of the gates hot, pressing hard and forcing Consigli into launching a ball out for a throw within seconds of the kickoff. Before the first minute had rolled off the clock the ball was switched to the right and Khedira deftly nutmegged Rogerio. There was only one problem: Khedira is so slow that the defender was able to recover and dispossess him.
That’s who Juve just gave a contract extension to. OK, then.
Juve kept up the pressure, and six minutes in Sandro triggered an intricate move down the left that ended with Matuidi playing Ronaldo into an excellent position, but Rogerio scrambled across to block it, denying him his opener. Two minutes later Cancelo made a great tackle upfield. After dribbling in place for what seemed like forever, he finally dished the ball to Dybala, who deftly flicked the ball through the defender and charged down the right wing. He centered the ball for Khedira, who decided to pass it on rather than shoot. Eventually Matuidi was sent down the left channel by a Ronaldo back-heel, but his first touch was far too strong and pushed the ball out for a goal kick.
Ronaldo looked to be pressing. He hung up in the air for what looked like forever on a cross from Sandro in the 11th minute, but he was off-balance and when the ball finally got to his head it went harmlessly wide. A minute later, Sassuolo broke for their first real threat, as Djuricic got himself free on the left for a shooting opportunity at range, but Bonucci blocked the attempt long before Szczesny had to start thinking about it.
After a brief period where play lived in midfield, Can got in on the act. Chesting down a defensive header in the 19th minute, he half-volleyed a shot from just ahead of the penalty arc that bounced just wide of Consigli’s right-hand post. Three minutes later, Sassuolo claimed the first shot on target for either team, a harmless header from Ferrari that bounced straight into Szczesny’s gut.
Juve missed an incredible opportunity in the 25th minute when Matuidi jumped Marlon Santos in the Sassuolo penalty area, dispossessing him and slipping the ball to Dybala, whose shot was blocked by Ferrari. The block skittered to Mandzukic, who tried to get his low shot through the scrum only for Marlon to rush back and redeem himself with a block of his own. Two minutes later Ronaldo’s quest continued, as he took a free kick from nearly 40 yards away and tried to put it on goal, only to watch it bounce flaccidly wide.
Can blocked a good shot from Berardi in the 31st minute, and play went back the other way, ending in an excellent ball from Sandro that Dybala just missed getting on the end of. The ball was cleared toward the right, where Cancelo made a weird attempt to volley it back in but completely whiffed. He compounded his error by kicking Djuricic in the face trying to get the ball back, earning a yellow that could very well have been a red if referee Daniele Chiffi had seen it differently.
Somewhat distressingly, the best chance Juve had to score all day came at the foot of a Sassuolo player. It was in the 37th minute when a good Cancelo ball to the back post was met by Lirola, who lashed it toward his own net. The ball hit Consigli smack in the face, and Dybala put it wide in the scramble.
As frustrating as Juve’s inability to put the ball in the back of the net was becoming, they had so far avoided the errors in defense and possession that had hurt them in the season’s first three games. Frankly, they were showing a bit of a mean streak. Kevin-Prince Boateng bore the brunt of that streak. He was handled roughly by every defender close to him, and often turned to Chiffi for recourse only to find none coming.
Halftime came with no score, but it wouldn’t take long for Juve to change that.
Cancelo made a nifty move in the first 60 seconds of the second half to get into crossing position, but Khedira whiffed as he tried to get to the ball. A minute later a neat square ball from Sandro found Dybala in some space, but he chose to dribble through the defense rather than shoot and was dispossessed on the way through. When Sandro produced yet another good ball to the far post in the 49th, Mandzukic headed the ball across goal to a waiting Khedira, but Ferrari came across to tip it out for a corner.
Thus was the setup for the moment everyone in the Allianz Stadium had been waiting for.
The corner came in from Dybala. Bonucci tried to hook it into the net with his back to goal, but his effort bounced wide toward Ferrari. The 26-year-old made the puzzling decision to try to head the ball back to his keeper two yards in front of his goal. That header was inaccurate and bounced off the post and past Consigli, who had been rushing to claim it. It hung in the air for Ronaldo, whose first goal in black and white proved to be the simplest of tap-ins from a yard away, 50 minutes into his fourth game.
The Allianz went crazy, and Boateng nearly took advantage of the tumult two minutes later, sending a back-heel shot wide. Three minutes after that Sassuolo were still pressing for an equalizer, but Cancelo made an excellent tackle in his own penalty area to prevent a crossing situation.
Just after the hour each team made a substitution. Di Francesco came on to replace Djuricic, while Costa came on for Mandzukic. The players for the late-game drama were set.
Ronaldo continued to put his mark on the game. In the 62nd minute he ran down the left side and squared it for Khedira, but the defense was in place and dug it out before the Germany international arrived. But in short order the lead was doubled.
It started with Costa, who jumped a man in possession in midfield and send Can down the middle of the pitch. He had Ronaldo and Dybala on either side of him and chose to slip it through to left. Ronaldo took one touch, then sent skipped it past Consigli before peeling off to the corner for his trademark celebration.
Five minutes later, Costa nearly finished things off when he burst down the right side and fired from an angle, but it flashed across the goal line. Then he squeezed a ball into Ronaldo in the left channel, but Consigli denied him his hat trick. The Brazilian supplied him with what should have been his third in the 77th minute, but he hooked what should have been a sitter wide from point blank range.
Sassuolo, meanwhile, was getting into hardly any meaningful positions in attack. As they tired the Bianconeri took over, and they had to pick the scraps. Lirola nearly managed a morsel 11 minutes from time, when he got into some space and floated a ball into the six-yard box. Duncan flew to meet it but couldn’t latch on, and it went through the box.
There was another chance to seal things on the other end in the 82nd minute when Cancelo, who had switched sides after Juan Cuadrado replaced Sandro, fired a shot from 25 yards or so. Consigli parried the swerving effort, but Ronaldo elected to try to shoot near post with the rebound rather than put it toward an open far post, and hit it into the side netting. Five minutes later it was Costa with another chance, bursting down the right channel then firing against the grain of his run and putting it a whisker wide.
The biggest drama came in the 90th minute and beyond. After Szczesney parried a shot on the turn from substitute Khouma Babacar, Sassuolo set up a grandstand finish when another sub, Cristian Dell’Orco, found Babacar behind Bonucci, and his angled header found the net.
Costa and Di Francesco had tangled in the buildup, and the Brazilian came up and leveled the Sassuolo winger with an elbow. That somehow brought only a yellow card from Chiffi, who only brandished it after physically separating the two after Costa lunged toward his opponent with his head. The two continued jawing as they lined up at midfield for the restart, when Costa truly snapped and spit straight into Di Francesco’s face. Chiffi didn’t see it, but was obviously informed of the incident through his earpiece by the VAR officials, and he brandished a straight red just after Szczesny saved a shot from Berardi in the third and final minute of stoppage time. The game was blown dead seconds later, and Ronaldo’s big day as suddenly relegated to a parallel story as the question became why?
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 7. Secure on every ball he had a chance on, and it looks like the defense was a little bit more organized today than it was before the break. Had no chance on the goal.
JOAO CANCELO - 8. He finally put it all together. A constant danger on whichever flank he was stationed on and led the team far and away with five tackles. I was even temped to go higher than 8, but that kick to Djuricic’s face was lucky to only get a yellow, showing how much polish he still needs on the defensive end. But this game showed definitively that a little work will get him to huge heights.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 5. Led the team in clearances and was a good distributor, but he let in another headed goal with substandard marking. In case you were wondering, he has been marking the goalscorer of every non-penalty goal that Juve has conceded over the first four rounds.
MEDHI BENATIA - 6. Led the team with four interceptions and was solid but not spectacular. Did his job.
ALEX SANDRO - 6.5. Put a couple of pretty dangerous balls into the box that were only just reached by defenders. Two key passes on the night and a solid day in defense as well. We’re much closer to having the Sandro we saw for his first two years than the one we saw last year.
SAMI KHEDIRA - 5. Did he do anything? The big moment that sticks out was when Rogerio caught up with him after he nutmegged him — not only caught up, but did so immediately. There are midfielders that should be starting over him.
EMERE CAN - 7. Shielded the defense well, came close to scoring on that long volley, and got the assist on that beautiful counterattack on what turned out to be the game winner.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 8. Here’s something I never thought I’d say: Blaise Matuidi led the team in key passes. His touch is still pretty rough, but that kind of setup work combined with his work defensively makes for an excellent game.
PAULO DYBALA - 5.5. There were good moments from Dybala. He had one key pass and completed 91.4 percent of his passes. But he also looked muddled all game long. I don’t think the tactics of the day helped him (I’ll elaborate on that in a bit) and he looked out of sorts in the mishmash that the attacking phase ended up becoming for large parts of the game. It was a weird game.
MARIO MANDZUKIC - 5.5. He wasn’t in the game all that much. Made a couple of good aerial interventions — especially the one that set up the corner that led to the opener — but had very few chances fall to him and looked a little static up front. Like Dybala, the lack of structure up front probably hurt him.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 8. Finally. Johnny on the spot for the first goal, and the second one was a fantastic shot. He easily could have had three or four, but he missed a sitter or two in the second half. Good timing with the Champions League coming.
DOUGLAS COSTA - NR. I’ve chosen not to give Costa a rating, pending what we may find out about what caused him to lose his mind in such an uncharacteristic way. It’s a damn shame, because before he lost it he was having another typical Costa day. He could have scored two goals and supplied Ronaldo with two more. Unfortunately, his last action of the day is all anyone is going to be talking about for weeks.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 6. An uneventful 20 minutes for the Uruguayan, but it was nice to see him get a bigger chunk of playing time than the customary five minutes.
JUAN CUADRADO - NR. Spelled Alex Sandro for the last 10 minutes.
**SPECIAL LOANEE RATING**
ROGERIO - 6. Completed more than 90 percent of his passes on the left wing, and made a great block on Ronaldo early on. Much of Juve’s attack went in the other direction, so he didn’t see a ton of action, but he showed some promise. It will be interesting seeing more of him at the Mapei Stadium as the year goes on.
This was a weird one.
I’m still trying to puzzle out what Allegri told his forwards to do in this game. When the lineups were released, the first assumption was that Dybala might play as a trequartista behind Mandzukic and Ronaldo, which would have been more plausible than him playing as a winger, which is something that really doesn’t work for him.
But in reality, it was hard to tell whether the attacking trio had any defined roles at all. The three were all over the place. Ronaldo popped up on either wing in the first half, Dybala was pretty much everywhere, and Mandzukic was sometimes on the left, sometimes in the center, sometimes dropping deep.
The result was a big ol’ muddle. Perhaps the idea was to deprive the Sassuolo defense with a reference point. In the away derby against Torino last year Allegri was forced into that kind of arrangement when Gonzalo Higuain had to go off injured, and the front line ended up being Douglas Costa, Alex Sandro, and Federico Bernardeschi, and Torino were all over the at the back. Perhaps he had a similar idea here, or perhaps whatever definitive structures he did give his forwards simply went awry. Things certainly started looking better when Costa came onto the field and seemed to set up camp on the right wing, with Dybala as a false nine and Ronaldo more definitively on the left.
The midfield and defense generally did well, although the lack of a clear distributor was very clear. Can actually works very well in front of the defense, but he needs a true trequartista further up the field to serve as the creative outlet. Keep an eye out on Friday—I’ll have a piece up on how I think that could be done.
The primary objective, the Champions League, is finally here. Juve get one of the more difficult matches out of the way early: they trek to the Mestalla to face Valencia in the opener.
It’s tempting to say that the team can afford to go all-out in that game given the relative softball—an away match to Frosinone—that follows, but the games against SPAL and Crotone last spring proved just how dangerous it is to let up against anyone. The team is deep enough to handle a good deal of rotation between the games, but the mental focus must not drop.