Saturday’s match with Bologna had all the makings of a difficult one for Juventus. Any game coming out of the international break has the potential to cause trouble, but the Rossoblu carried an added level of threat.
The team has been in terrific form since late last season, when they went on an impressive run to pull themselves out of the relegation zone. That run was triggered by Sinisa Mihajlovic, who had replaced Filippo Inzaghi in January. The bond the coach has forged with his players is exceptional, and when the coach was diagnosed with an acute form of leukemia just before the season, the team clearly resolved to perform at a higher level for their stricken manager. They’ve been a difficult team to face, and even their defeats have seen good performances. With Mihajlovic returning to the sideline again after completing his second round of chemotherapy, the team coming into the Allianz Stadium would be an inspired squad looking to make noise against the league leaders.
And make noise they did. They didn’t flinch when Juve took the lead midway through the first half, equalizing after only seven minutes and looking to attack in a surprisingly open game. They withstood a wave of pressure in the early stages of the second half, with goalkeeper Lukasz Skorupski making a string of impressive saves to ensure that the game didn’t get out of hand. While Juve had retaken the lead, they couldn’t kill the game off, thanks in large part to the aforementioned Skorupski, and in the end had to sweat out a stoppage-time penalty shout and then survive a last-minute set piece scramble that saw the visitors hit the bar and force Gianluigi Buffon to make a brilliant save in order to keep the 2-1 intact and get the three points.
Buffon was handed the starter’s gloves by Maurizio Sarri on the night, likely to give Wojciech Szczesny some extra time to rest with the Champions League clash with Lokomotiv Moscow looming on Tuesday. He played behind a 4-3-1-2, with Juan Cuadrado, Leonardo Bonucci, Matthijs de Ligt, and Alex Sandro serving as the back four. Sami Khedira, Miralem Pjanic, and Adrien Rabiot formed the core midfield, while Federico Bernardeschi once again served as the trequartista, in the hole behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Gonzalo Higuain.
Mihajlovic decided to go with a 4-2-3-1 in front of Skorupski. The Pole was screened by Ibrahima Mbaye, Danilo (no connection to the Juve fullback), Mattia Bani, and Ladislav Krejci. The double pivot was formed by Andrea Poli and Mattias Svanberg, who took the place of the injured Gary Medel. Former Juve property Riccardo Orsolini started on the right wing opposite Nicola Sansone, with Roberto Soriano dropping into the hole behind Rodrigo Palacio.
The game started rather slowly, with a pair of tame Ronaldo efforts the only notable occurrences over the first 10 minutes. It was around the 10 minute mark that De Ligt was hauled down by the back of his neck as he tried to get into position to make a play on a corner kick, but referee Massimiliano Irrati waved the appeals off and no intervention came from the VAR official. Five minutes later the first shot on goal finally came when Higuain chested a ball down and half-volleyed from outside the penalty area. It had some curve to it but ended up going right to Skorupski for a relatively easy save.
After Khedira had a pair of shots blocked one started getting the sense that a goal was coming for Juve, and it finally did on 20 minutes. Bursting forward after a set piece, the attack looked to bog down after Rabiot’s intended switch to Higuain was interdicted by Krejci. But the Czech couldn’t control the ball and Ronaldo pounced on it, brought it down the right channel, got himself just enough separation from Bani, and hit a powerful shot that beat Skorupski at his near post. It was his 701st career goal as a senior player, moving him into a tie with Gerd Muller for fifth on the all-time list.
But Bologna weren’t cowed by the opener and immediately pushed back. After Sansone won a corner, the Rossoblu recycled after the inital ball and sent in a cross from the right. Cuadrado then produced a double fail: he didn’t challenge Mbaye for the initial ball, allowing him to flick a header behind him for Danilo, who Cuadrado then failed to close down as he controlled with the chest and rifled a half-volley worthy of a striker, tucking in just inside the far post as Buffon laid out to try to stop it. After 26 minutes, it was 1-1.
Orsolini had the chance to give his team the lead four minutes later when Rabiot conceded a free kick, but fired it over. Two minutes later Sandro had a nice opportunity off a feed from Bernardeschi but saw his shot parried away.
The last 15 minutes of the half was a generally quiet affair but for a couple of incidents, as de Ligt blocked a good shot by Orsolini and Pjanic’s attempt to drop a free kick in didn’t drop — but hey, it cleared the wall, which is a significant improvement over most of Ronaldo’s efforts.
It had been a fairly even game in the first half, but after the break Juve started turning the screws. Bologna were penned into their own half with no way out, and needed a few last-ditch challenges to interrupt some good setups. Skorupski made a fantastic safe off a strong Ronaldo header off a corner kick in the 52nd minute, and then a minute later Juve had the lead back again.
The sequence of events on this one was ... weird. Seriously, this one was nuckin’ futs — to the point that our fearless leader on Twitter duty got a little cheeky:
Well, this writer always finds a way — even if repeated viewings have convinced me that that way is probably going to have to be in bullet-point time lapse. Here goes:
- Cuadrado finds Bernardeschi on the left with a long switch from just inside the Bologna half. A good pass in a vacuum, made even better by the fact that Juan slipped and busted his ass on the follow-through.
- Bernardeschi cuts inside as he takes the ball down, then squares to Ronaldo with his next touch.
- Ronaldo controls, but then somehow overbalances himself and falls to the ground. The ball squirts backwards a yard or two, where a streaking Pjanic comes in to hit it first time.
- Svanberg blocks Pjanic’s shot. It caroms off Soriano, who was standing behind Pjanic, and shoots back into the box, falling right at the feet of Higuain.
- Higuain tries to dribble into a shooting position but is dispossessed by Orsolini. Orsolini runs in to get the ball going the other way but collides with Mbaye. Poli grabs the loose ball, passes short to Danilo, who then moves it out to Soriano.
- Soriano attempts a one-touch back pass that goes horribly wrong. Most likely it’s meant for Svanberg at the top of the area, but instead it goes right to Ronaldo.
- Ronaldo takes a first-time shot on the turn that is blocked by Bani. The rebound falls perfectly for Pjanic in the left channel 14 yards away. Skorupski, already committed to his left in reaction to Ronaldo’s initial shot, has no chance as Pjanic strokes home an easy finish.
Things continued to flow toward Skorupski’s goal. He had to deny Khedira just before the hour, then in the 64th minute pulled a double save, stopping a powerful near-post shot by Higuain from the left channel before bravely jumping in top remove the chance of a rebound. Ten minutes later he denied the Argentine hit man again, blocking the ball with his body after the striker slid in to poke home a low cross from Ronaldo. Then he beat away a powerful long-range effort from Bernardeschi.
The attacks continued to stream down the field, and Skorupski was called into action again with nine minutes to play, after Ronaldo and Higuain exchanged passes on the break. The final ball to Ronaldo was a little bit behind him, but he stayed with it and fired a shot on the turn, forcing him into yet another great save.
Bologna had been trying to break the entire half, but simply hadn’t been able to do so. Even with Skorupski playing out of his skull and preventing Juve from putting the game away, there was a feeling that the one-goal lead wasn’t under much threat. That feeling came crashing down in the 84th minute when Bonucci gave the ball away in his own half. Palacio came away with it and his shot took a massive deflection into the path of Orsolini. The winger had the chance to stick it to his former team, but the ball fell to his weaker right foot and the result was a titanic scuff, missing the target entirely.
Things got more ragged for the last five minutes. Juve’s passing came apart slightly, allowing Bologna enough possession to mount some attacks. Halfway through the three-minute minimum of stoppage time one of them nearly bore fruit, as De Ligt whiffed as he tried to clear a cross from substitute Andreas Skov Olsen. The ball bounced up and hit the Dutchman in his trailing arm, prompting a wave of appeals for a penalty kick. In all honesty I was expecting to see one, but Irrati didn’t even go to the screen, instead making a silent check with the VAR, who told him to let play continue. With the new handball rules it’s impossible to say exactly why the call wasn’t made — we’ve seen them given for less this season. Football Italia published this breakdown of why the penalty wasn’t given.
It was a huge let-off, but there was one last twist in the tale. After Sandro conceded a free kick on the left, the team once again left a man open on a set piece. That man was Federico Santander, the Paraguayan striker who had come on as a sub in the 80th minute. He had gotten in behind the defense — perhaps even was a little offside — and had a free header from five yards away, only to crash it into the bar. Palacio kept the ball in play, then Blaise Matuidi tried to head it away but only popped it into the air. Santander had run back into the play and attempted a bicycle kick that for a second looked destined to be the equalizer — only to be met by a flying hand from Buffon, who tipped it over. The Bologna players stared in disbelief as the old war horse recorded his second game-saving stop of the season, and Irrati whistled the game dead.
GIANLUIGI BUFFON - 8. That save was brilliant. Danny and I are probably known to be the two biggest Gigi stans in all the land, but how can you not wax poetic about this guy? Forty-one years old and he’s still making stops like that. He also made a similar play on a cross earlier in the half, and generally had the defense marshaled in the right places.
JUAN CUADRADO - 6. Made some good runs up the right side and made three key passes, but was also the main culprit on Bologna’s goal, doing nothing right in the entire sequence. Andrea Barzagli will be on him for that one.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 6. Pretty much exactly where he needed to be the entire night. Distributed well from the back, but also made a big giveaway that could have been costly late on.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 6. Nothing spectacular, but pretty solid throughout — until that last bit with the arm. He needs to stop flailing. Did lead the team with five clearances though.
ALEX SANDRO - 7.5. Held Orsolini in check almost the entire game and supported the attack well, nearly getting himself an assist setting up Higuain. Rock-solid as he’s been all year.
SAMI KHEDIRA - 6. Had a shot saved in the second half, but otherwise was his usual self, popping up for one or two moments and otherwise being fairly anonymous, attempting only 18 passes. Left after an hour, as has become routine.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 8.5. Imperious. Made Juve’s offense move, especially in the second half when they had Bologna penned in. Took his goal with such smoothness. He’s in the midst of his best stretch as a Juventus player, and it’s not really close.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 6. Made a pair of key passes and led the team in interceptions. Looked the best he has in a Juve shirt so far, but still a little off at times. The rust will be knocked off eventually.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 6.5. He’s got the talent to grow into this role and this was his best there yet. He made four key passes, was accurate on four of six cross attempts, and pressed well out of possession. Aaron Ramsey is the more natural fit when healthy, but Berna is learning.
GONZALO HIGUAIN - 7. Could have had three goals on Saturday if Skorupski hadn’t been on another plane of existence. Linked very well with Ronaldo up front and found all the right places to get the ball, just couldn’t force it past an inspired keeper.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 7. It takes something special to beat a keeper near post the way he did, especially given the state of grace Skorupski was in. He could have had more than one goal. Also made three key passes, although some of his passing was a bit off early on.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 6.5. Led the team with three tackles in only half an hour of play and completed 93.1 percent of his passes in midfield. Why not take a look at him in Khedira’s spot in the lineup?
BLAISE MATUIDI - 6. Kept things solid in midfield after relieving Rabiot.
PAULO DYBALA - NR. On to see things out late but wasn’t able to influence much as Bologna managed to claw a foothold.
Sarri was upset with the team how things developed late in the game. He’s not a fan of possession for possession’s sake late in the game, especially when the points are still in the balance. The second half onslaught was one of Juve’s better displays this year, passing the ball quickly and getting the ball into some great positions. Skorupski was simply pulling Jedi moves every time Ronaldo or Higuain got a shot on target. There’s no coaching that can get past that.
Credit him for getting Rabiot on the field, especially after the trash rags started making noise about his lack of playing time over the last few weeks. Matuidi has been playing really well of late, but moving a more complete (and younger) midfielder like Rabiot into the starting XI more often will be a net positive for the team in the end. All in all his team selection and subs were pretty spot on for today, and we probably wouldn’t be talking about such a close one if Skorupski hadn’t gone Super Sayan.
Saturday’s win puts Juve four points ahead of Inter, pending the results of the Nerazzurri’s match against Sassuolo on Sunday.
Next on the slate for Juve is a home Champions League game against Lokomotiv Moscow on Tuesday, where Juve will look to put some distance between them and the Russian side, who trail Juve and Atletico Madrid by a point in Group D. After that, the Bianconeri catch a train south to face Lecce.