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Ronaldo leads as provider in Juventus’ win over Napoli

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An early Scudetto showdown saw the superstar register two assists and heavily involve himself in a third.

Juventus v SSC Napoli - Serie A Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images

The image of Napoli players celebrating on the Allianz Stadium field last May must have been burned into the minds of Juventus players. The Partenopei were celebrating like they’d won the Serie A when Kalidou Koulibaly headed home a last-minute corner.

Of course, they hadn’t.

Napoli hadn’t even taken the league lead — they were still a point down with four games to play. The expenditure of so much emotional capital clearly affected Napoli the next week, when they were dominated 3-0 at Fiorentina as Juve reopened their lead and eventually captured a seventh straight title.

That must have been some satisfaction, but it certainly can’t have dampened the desire for direct revenge when their biggest title rivals and their new coach, Carlo Ancelotti, returned to Turin for the first time since.

Juve entered the game with a three-point lead on their rivals, and even this early the result could have major implications in the title race. Opening an early six-point lead would be a major step forward, particularly given the pace Juve are on. Napoli, on the other hand, could bring the early race even and take a crucial advantage in the tiebreaker.

By the end of the night, it was a six-point lead for Juventus, as a brace from Mario Mandzukic and Cristiano Ronaldo going from midweek goal scorer to weekend goal provider propelled Juve to a 3-1 win over Napoli.

After rotating midweek, Massimiliano Allegri sent out a full-force lineup for the big clash. Wojciech Szczesny reclaimed his starting spot in goal, and the rest of the lineup arrayed in a 4-3-1-2 in front of him. Joao Cancelo, Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini, and Alex Sandro formed the defensive line, with Emre Can, Miralem Pjanic, and Blaise Matuidi holding down the midfield. Paulo Dybala continued running as a trequartista, in the hole behind Ronaldo and Mandzukic.

Ancelotti has taken Maurizio Sarri’s 4-3-3 and tweaked it into a 4-4-2 formation in recent rounds. With 21-year-old prospect Alex Meret still on the bench after suffering a broken arm in preseason, the coach called on Aquaman David Ospina between the goalposts. Elseid Hysaj, Koulibaly, Raul Albiol, and Mario Rui screened him. The midfield line consisted of Pitor Zielinski, Marek Hamsik, Allan, and Jose Callejon, while Dries Mertens and Lorenzo Insigne formed the strike pair.

If revenge was indeed on Juve’s minds, they certainly didn’t show it in the game’s first 20 minutes. Juve’s play was marked by a terrible passing. Overhit long balls, misplaced short-to-midrange passes, the Bianconeri couldn’t get out of their own way and Napoli was able to play in the Juve half with impunity. A quick cross from Zielinski was dealt with, then in the sixth minute the Poland international took the ball outside of the box and scorched it at goal. It had his countryman beaten, but thumped off the far post.

Ronaldo got a stinging curler in from 20 yards at the other end that Ospina did well to deflect, but that was very much against the run of play. After 10 minutes, Juve’s passing problems came home to roost.

The culprit was Leonardo Bonucci — whose claim to fame over the years has been his ability as a ball-playing center-back. He had already mishit several before his attempt to find Dybala from the right flank missed the Argentine by a wide margin. Allan gladly accepted the gift and played in Callejon, who squared it to the onrushing Mertens in the box. Pjanic desperately stretched to intervene but it was a whisker beyond him, and the Belgian tapped the ball home to give Napoli a deserved lead.

Juventus v SSC Napoli - Serie A Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images

Juve initially continued to struggle, but gradually managed to claw their way back into the game. They got into a couple of crossing positions only to see the ball blocked, and the imprecise passing continued, wasting good positions and bailing Napoli out. But Napoli were certainly beginning to feel pressure, and in the 24th minute Mario Rui planted his cleats into Pjanic’s foot, earning a yellow card.

Keep that in mind for later.

Two minutes later, the pressure paid and Juve were level. The move started deep in midfield with Emre Can, who passed forward to Mandzukic and then ran on to receive a tap from Dybala after the striker laid it off. Can’s attempt to find Ronaldo on the wing was a little short, but a poor header from Hysaj put it right onto the wingers foot. Two touches later the fullback had been turned inside out and Ronaldo fired in a beautiful left-footed cross that found Mandzukic free in the box. He thundered his header in on a bounce as the crowd roared its approval.

Juventus smelled blood in the water, and nearly took the lead when Ronaldo took a free kick in the 29th minute. Ronaldo’s free kick game has been ... lackluster so far, but this time his kick from the top left corner of the penalty area whipped in dangerously. Ospina made the save, but only managed to deaden it in front of his goal. Can couldn’t latch on to it, but Chiellini did, only to see his follow-up blocked by Koulibaly. A third effort was deflected over for corner, the delivery of which fond Can at the back post, only for him to volley it over.

The intensity was picking up, exemplified by the effort Can made to regain the ball in the 34th minute, diving in and then continually fighting on the ground until he managed to pass it out sitting on his backside. It wasn’t all good — Bonucci allowed a counterattack in the 36th minute after making a useless tackle near midfield — but for the most part the traffic was flowing Ospina’s way.

Juve had a decent shout for a penalty in the 41st minute when Albiol brought Chiellini down in the box as they tracked a free kick delivery, but referee Luca Banti held his whistle, and no VAR was forthcoming. A few moments later, an increasingly rarer Napoli attack saw Rui’s shot from just outside the box rise a little too much to fly over the far corner.

Halftime can be a blessing for a team under pressure, but Napoli didn’t get such blessings. Juve burst out of the gate in the second period and took the lead within four minutes.

It started with an intercepted Zielinski pass at the top of Juve’s penalty area. Pjanic moved the ball upfield to Dybala, who burst past Allan and drove upfield. Rui pressured him into a confrontation with Albiol, but Dybala kept close enough to it that the Spanish defender couldn’t get to the ball before Ronaldo, who skipped around his former Real Madrid teammate and fired toward the near post from 23 yards. Ospina got just enough touch to it to nudge it off the post, but the rebound came right at Mandzukic, who strode forward for the easiest of tap-ins before wheeling toward the crowd with his hands behind his ears, urging them to make even more noise.

Juventus v SSC Napoli - Serie A Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images

Napoli immediately looked to push for the equalizer. Sandro made an excellent play to interdict a cross before Callejon met it. The Brazilian nearly made a huge mistake a few minutes later when he collided with Szczesny as the keeper corralled a cross, causing him to momentarily spill it, but the defense recovered quickly and got it away.

With 57 minutes on the clock, the game took a turn. Mario Rui, already carrying that yellow card from the first half, recklessly dove in on Dybala and spiked him in the ankle. It was a clear yellow, and an easy decision for Banti to brandish a second yellow card. The advantage was almost short-lived, because Bonucci responded to the antagonism of Insigne with a bit of a head butt. Napoli began clamoring for him to be sent off as well, but it seemed Insigne’s instigation was taken into account, and both players were shown yellows instead.

Ancelotti responded to the sending off with a double sub, sending on Kevin Malcuit to reinforce the front line and Arkadiusz Milik to add some height to the diminutive front line. Juve also made two changes in quick succession, sending Rodrigo Bentancur and Federico Bernardeschi for Can and Dybala, respectively.

The red should have put the momentum firmly in Juve’s hands, but much like the game late last season against Inter, they seemed to wilt after going up a man, and the ball started flowing toward the Juventus goal with alarming regularity. A Callejon free kick with 20 minutes to go banged into the wall, and then the Spanish winger was sent clear in after a nice interplay between Insigne and Milik. Cancelo recovered to make himself just enough of a nuisance to throw him off, and he fired straight at the onrushing Szczesny.

But Juve polished the game off soon after, after Ronaldo flicked a corner kick to the back post, where Bonucci met it at full stretch to tap it in with 14 minutes left, marking his first goal since returning to the team.

Two minutes later, Ronaldo nearly had a fourth, but Ospina got off his line well and blocked him off. In the 83rd minute Mandzukic received a long ball and laid it in to the superstar, whose left-footed shot flew wide of Ospina’s near post.

Insigne slammed another free kick into the wall in the last minute of normal time, and he and Milik both had shots blocked in stoppage time after the Juve defense had its pocket picked, but none of it was enough, and when Banti blew his whistle Juve could celebrate their revenge.

LE PAGELLE

WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 8. Made some great stops, including the Callejon save that kept Juve ahead with less than 20 minutes to go. He’s been a worthy successor to the No. 1 shirt so far.

JOAO CANCELO - 6.5. Disruptive as always on the right side, combining well on the right side with Can when he flared out. Had some good defensive stats — three tackles, two interceptions, but also made a mistake or two that could have been costly.

LEONARDO BONUCCI - 5. It would have been far lower had it not been for the goal. He was utterly useless in the first half, making no fewer than three terrible passes that gifted Napoli great attacking positions, including the one that led up to their goal.

GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 6.5. A rock in defense as usual, but wasted a couple of advanced positions when he found himself going forward.

ALEX SANDRO - 6. Tied with Chiellini for the most clearances on the team with five. He’s taken a bit more of a defensive role with Cancelo bombing forward so often.

EMERE CAN - 7. Made three key passes and did excellent work in midfield to gain the ball back. He’s doing enough to keep this starting job when Sami Khedira gets healthy.

MIRALEM PJANIC - 7. Worked very well keeping the passing game moving. Made two key passes as well as three tackles and an interception. He even blocked two shots.

BLAISE MATUIDI - 6.5. Tenacious as he tried to pry possession away from Napoli. A bit rough going forward though.

PAULO DYBALA - 6.5. Started slow but grew into the game and ended up linking the midfield and forwards very well. His big run was key to the go-ahead goal.

MARIO MANDZUKIC - 9. More big goals in big games for the big Croatian. He found just the right spots in the defense when he needed to be there, and he was on the money. Oh, and you could find him in front of his own box more than once to help out on defense.

CRISTIANO RONALDO - 8.5. His best game in black and white to date. His cross for the equalizer was inch-perfect, and he constantly made trouble cutting inside. Clearly frustrated that he couldn’t score himself, but he’s made his mark in his first big Serie A game.

SUBS

RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 5.5. Not his best day. Lost possession a few times, though he battled for possession like always.

FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 7. Three key passes in 23 touches, completed 94.7 percent of his passes. He continues to shine.

JUAN CUADRADO - NR. On to spell Mandzukic and see the game out for the last eight minutes.

MANAGER ANALYSIS

A few weeks ago, Allegri said that he expected Dybala’s game to improve as his physical conditioning came around. It looks like he was right. While not quite as good as he was midweek against Bologna, Dybala has played very well over the last two games. With Ronaldo suspended for Tuesday’s game against Young Boys, he may be primed for a big game in Europe.

The 4-3-1-2 has popped up in recent weeks, and it’s looking like a good way to integrate Dybala and Ronaldo together. Ronaldo is a slightly unorthodox seconda punta, but seems to work well moving side to side while Mandzukic serves as the target man. It’s a naturally narrow formation, but Sandro and Cancelo can provide width from the fullback spots, and if it’s really not working, the likes of Bernardeschi, Cuadrado, and Douglas Costa can come on to change things. Allegri looks like he’ll rotate through a couple of shapes based on matchup and availability rather than settling on one default this year, but this one looks like one that should feature heavily.

One last quibble: The end of this game felt tailor-made for Moise Kean. Let’s get this kid on the field!

LOOKING AHEAD

The Champions League is back, as Young Boys come to Allianz Stadium for the early game on Tuesday. It’s safe to say the Old Lady will be heavy favorites regardless of Ronaldo’s suspension.

After that, it’s back to the league for a trip to the Dacia Arena to face Udinese. Juve won their trip to Udine 6-2 last year and have outscored the other black-and-white team 11-3 in three trips since they unveiled their new ground.