It seemed a little strange going into Monday’s return to Allianz Stadium that Juventus hadalready played two games in 2019 without having resumed Serie A play. That finally changed, though, when Juve started up the return leg of the 2018-19 season by hosting Chievo Verona.
The Flying Donkeys — best nickname ever? — may have the best nickname in the league, but their season has been one to forget. They’re already on their third coach, they’ve been docked three points for financial irregularities, and they didn’t get their first win of the season until the last game before the winter break. The high point of their year before then might have been on Matchday 1, when they came from behind at the Bentegodi to take a 2-1 lead over Juve five minutes into the second half before an own goal 15 minutes from time and a Federico Bernardeschi tap-in in the 93rd minute gave Juve a last-gasp win.
Monday’s match was far more straightforward. Chievo were game and captain Stefano Sorrentino was, as he always is against Juventus, spectacular, but they switched off in key moments and Juve overwhelmed their visitors by a 3-0 scoreline.
Massimiliano Allegri rotated the team a bit, sending out a formation that was a nominal 4-4-2, although it certainly didn’t conform to that shape for the whole game. Mattia Perin was given the starting gloves in goal, with Mattia De Sciglio, Daniele Rugani, Giorgio Chiellini, and Alex Sandro arrayed in front of him. Douglas Costa and Federico Bernardeschi were the nominal wide midfielders around Blaise Matuidi and Emre Can. Paulo Dybala and Cristiano Ronaldo started up front.
Domenico Di Carlo sent out a 3-4-1-2 in front of Sorrentino in goal. Luca Rossettini, Mattia Bani, and Nenad Tomovic formed the back three, while Fabio Depaoli and Sofiane Kiyine acted as wing-backs around midfielders Perparim Hetemaj and Ivan Radovanovic. Old Antonio Conte favorite Emanuele Giaccherini played in the hole behind old war horse Sergio Pelissier and Riccardo Meggiorini.
Chievo came out brightly and actually forced the game’s first save five minutes in when Meggiorini stung Perin’s palms from an angle, but it was the individual quality of Douglas Costa that ushered in the breakthrough. The Brazilian took a simple pass from Dybala and shuffled his way through a crowd of yellow shirts before cracking a left-footed shot across the grain and into the net from outside the box. Color Mattia Perin impressed.
The wide midfielders pushed themselves forward into pretty much a wing role when Juve had possession, and both were causing a lot of problems. In the 26th minute, Bernardeschi flew past two defenders and powered into the box, but his attempt at a pull-back for Ronaldo was blocked out for a corner. In the 33rd, Sorrentino, who in August denied Ronaldo with multiple fantastic saves before his day ended prematurely when his head collided with the forward’s thigh, went right back to work against the Portuguese, smothering a bouncing shot. Three minutes later, he made a brilliant adjustment when Bernardeschi’s shot was deflected and kicked it away for a corner.
The last few minutes of the first period saw a flurry. Pelissier halfheartedly called for a penalty when Rugani bumped him in the back on his way up for a ball that was well over his head — something that saw the analyst on British world feed go into a tizzy over something that in Italian football is eaten for breakfast. The 39-year-old then flipped a dipping shot just over the bar before Juve doubled the lead at the other end.
There were 28 passes in the buildup to the goal, but the final setup was all Dybala, who dribbled forward at the top of the box and sucked four defenders to him. He nutmegged Radovanovic with a pass and found Can right above the penalty spot, alone. The German stopped the ball dead with his left foot and then passed it into the side of the net for his first goal as a Juventus player.
Juve nearly put the issue completely to bed within minutes of the restart, but Sorrentino morphed into Battle Mode. His first intervention came when Costa lifted a gorgeous cross from the right that was met by Sandro at the back post, but the Chievo captain met it with a single hand and beat it away.
Six minutes into the half Juve got the best chance possible to put the game away: a penalty kick given by referee Marco Piccinini after he judged Bani to have handled a Costa shot. The contact came at point blank range, but the argument can be made that Bani had left his hand out before Costa contacted the ball. It was another one that the British feed on ESPN+ howled about, but the VAR confirmed the decision without so much as a check with the screen. Ronaldo stepped up and fired a good shot to his right — only to watch Sorrentino, who at this point clearly had an angel at his heels, get to the ball and parry it behind for a corner.
Di Carlo made all of his changes in a five-minute period just after the hour, and they almost got themselves back into the game when Meggiorini managed to peel away from Chiellini for a free header that he only managed to direct right at Perin. Ronaldo had yet another chance to score with 15 minutes remaining but put a great pullback by Can wide of the post.
But the third goal was coming, and it finally arrived with six minutes to go. After Matuidi earned a free kick just outside the box on the left wing, Bernardeschi flipped it to the back post. The Chievo defense totally lost Rugani, who easily powered his header into the net while Sorrentino was left to wonder what his teammates had been doing, for all intents and purposes ending proceedings and re-solidifying the nine-point lead atop the table.
MATTIA PERIN - 6.5. Had a pretty easy day in goal. Only one or two of the shots he faced produced any sort of challenge. Still needs to improve his distribution somewhat.
MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - 7. Didn’t let a single thing go past him and combined well with Douglas Costa up the right side.
DANIELE RUGANI - 7.5. Took his goal with aplomb, and was never out of place on defense. Completed 94 percent of his passes in buildup. He’s even **sniff** learning a few of the dark arts now!
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 6.5. Did fine but misplaced a few passes early and lost Meggiorini in a move that could have put Chievo back in the game. Not his best.
ALEX SANDRO - 6.5. Led the team with five clearances and did well pushing up on the left, although he loses some of his effectiveness up the side without a true target to aim for with Mario Mandzukic out.
DOUGALS COSTA - 8. His goal was fantastic, and he nearly put up an assist to go with it when Sorrentino denied Sandro. The league is hard-pressed to find someone who can deal with him in full flow.
EMRE CAN - 8. A well-taken goal indeed. Sometimes a tiny bit slow with the ball but made three key passes and made a whopping seven tackles in midfield — two more than the entire Chievo back three.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 6.5. Got to push up a bit more and join in the attack, although his touch does leave some things to be desired at times.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 7.5. This is more like it from Fede. This is the Fede from the beginning of the season before he got hurt playing for Italy. He was all over the place today and was a handful for any defender. Wonderful delivery on the final goal.
PAULO DYBALA - 8.5. Did a really good job connecting the lines and creating opportunities. Made six key passes and got credit with the assist on the first two goals. The first may have been a very simple pass, but the second to Can was pure quality.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 6.5. Could have had three or four goals. Sorrentino had a lot to say about that, but he also missed a share of shots on his own. Not his best day in Juve colors.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 6. Brought in to settle the midfield down after a good spell from Chievo and kept it flowing.
LEONARDO SPINAZZOLA - NR. Brought on to spell Sandro late.
MOISE KEAN - NR. A quick run out late with no opportunity to do much.
At first glance, the 4-4-2 presented on the team sheet had the potential of a classic Allegri morphing formation. The 4-4-2 did indeed hold in defense. When the team pressed forward, Costa and Bernardeschi both pushed up field as wingers. It looked at first like they would form a 4-2-3-1 with Dybala playing behind Ronaldo, but it quickly became clear that Allegri had not anchored any of his forwards to any specific place. Bernardeschi and Costa popped up on both wings (although Costa seemed to prefer the right) and Ronaldo often swung out to the left in order to cut inside and get his shot. Dybala was everywhere looking to initiate play.
This lack of reference point served its purpose. Chievo didn’t really know who to key in on, and often grouped around the ball, abandoning their assignments and leaving people unmarked. This was especially apparent on Can’s goal, when no fewer than four yellow shirts got sucked into a vortex around Dybala, leaving Can open to receive that fantastic pass.
Without Mandzukic, this unmooring of the forwards will probably compensate for the lack of a target man up front and keep defenses guessing.
A tough matchup looms on Sunday, as the Bianconeri travel to the Stadio Olimpico in Rome to face off with Lazio. In the first meeting in August Juve took a 2-0 win to the bank, with Miralem Pjanic and Mandzukic on target. Expect most of Lazio’s post-match press conference to concern how angry they are at the referees, since they look to be incapable of talking about anything else, even after big wins.
After that comes a big midweek test: a trip to Atalanta for the Coppa Italia quarterfinal.