A game against a newly-promoted team like Lecce, even on the road, is often seen as a time where significant squad rotation can take place, especially when you’re entering the middle of a period of seven games in three weeks. It can also be a time where something unexpected can come along and whack you upside the head, especially when you’re entering the middle of a period of seven games in three weeks.
Maurizio Sarri opted to give a few players a much-needed rest this on Saturday’s afternoon trip to Lecce. For the first half, at least, it didn’t look like much untoward would happen. Juventus dominated the first half, creating 15 shots and carrying nearly 70 percent of the possession. When Paulo Dybala rifled in a penalty five minutes into the second half, it had the feel of a dam-busting moment.
But things didn’t go like that. A combination of events — another handball incident involving Matthijs de Ligt, the loss through injury of the main instigator of the team’s rhythm in midfield, a general parking of the bus by the home side after equalizing, and a few more misses late on — eventually caused Juve to seriously rue those fluffed chances. They ended the game with 70 percent of possession, but fewer shots on target, and boarded the train back north with a sour taste of a 1-1 draw lingering in their mouths. Fortunately, there didn’t end up being more bitterness, as Inter failed to capitalize on the situation and drew 2-2 with Parma in the following game, maintaining the status quo with Juve one point up at the top of the table.
The most prominent of the players getting a break on the day was Cristiano Ronaldo, who wasn’t even included in the traveling squad. That was a move that some have directed criticism toward Sarri for, but we’ll get into that later. The move to rest the team’s biggest star was combined with a heavy midfield rotation and one change to the back line in his 4-3-1-2 formation. Wojciech Szczesny started in goal, while Danilo made his return from a muscle injury he suffered in September against Fiorentina, joining Leonardo Bonucci, de Ligt, and Alex Sandro in the back four. Emre Can and Rodrigo Bentancur took the starting places of Sami Khedira and Blaise Matuidi, respectively, joining Miralem Pjanic in the midfield. Federico Bernardeschi started in the trequartista position behind the strike pair of Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain.
Lecce manager Fabio Liverani was serving a touchline ban for insulting the fourth official in Lecce’s last match against AC Milan, so assistant Manuel Coppola took a turn running the team. The Salentini also arrived in a 4-3-1-2, with former Milan youth product Gabriel in goal. Biagio Meccariello Luca Rossettini, Fabio Lucioni, and Marco Calderoni formed the back four, while Panagiotis Tachtsidis, Jacopo Petriccione, and Zan Majer made up the midfield. Captain Marco Mancosu dropped into the hole behind Diego Farias and Khouma Babacar.
Juve started as brightly as the sunshine in the Stadio Via del Mare, with Can firing wide from the right wing. Lecce managed an early effort themselves seconds later, as De Ligt battled with Mancosu for possession in the box but only managed to head the ball straight to Majer, whose drive from the edge of the box was right at Szczesny, who palmed it away.
An early lead looked almost certain eight minutes in. Juve broke downfield, with Danilo feeding Can into the wide areas. The German tried to put in a simple pass to Dybala on his left but had it blocked back to him. On the second try he sent in a ground cross to Bernardeschi, who was alone just behind the penalty spot but got the ball stuck at his feet. By the time he sorted himself out, Lucioni got into position to block the shot. It squirted past the defender and Dybala rushed on to it, but Tachtsidis threw a leg in and thwarted that shot as well, leaving everyone wondering how the sequence hadn’t ended in a goal. That it had come shortly after a (in this writer’s opinion very weak) penalty appeal from Can added to the frustration.
There was another shout for a spot-kick five minutes later when Danilo went down under pressure, but again referee Paolo Valeri waved to play on, although he did pull out his yellow card a few seconds later when Calderoni hacked down Dybala. It was another one that would have probably been soft had it been given.
It looked like the breakthrough had finally come on a quarter of an hour, as Higuain poked in at the far post after what was probably a really badly skewed shot by Sandro rather than a true cross, but he had been a good half-length offside and after the goal was initially given, the VAR called down and Valeri correctly chalked it off.
Lecce had been running the odd attack in the first phases of the game, but by the 20th minute Juve had them well and truly sealed in their own half, and the chances — and misses — started coming quickly. In the 22nd minute Dybala’s attempt at a through ball was actually touched into Higuain’s path by Rossettini, but the Argentine’s angled drive rolled in front of the far post. Dybala then fashioned a chance, taking a curler from his favorite spot in the right channel but missing high. A minute later, Bernardeschi threaded a great through ball in to Dybala, who had ghosted in front of Calderoni on a diagonal run. He was past the defenders and one-on-one with Gabriel, but decided to use his left foot to shoot back across the grain rather than use his right to take advantage of the bigger target. Gabriel made a fantastic reaction save, pushing the ball around the post with one hand and again leaving Juve wondering how they hadn’t rippled the net.
In the next 10 to 15 minutes Juve had another three decent chances and either missed them or had a shot blocked. With three minutes left until halftime Danilo was put into a fantastic position on the right but elected to cross rather than shoot, and no one could get a significant touch to it. At the end of the half Juve had put in 15 shots and had had a couple of really good chances, but nothing to show for it.
That changed quickly as the second half began. The penalty came about from a corner kick. The initial effort had been headed out, and Pjanic came charging in to try to first-time it from the edge of the box. Petriccione went to ground to stop him and made contact as Pjanic got to the ball. Valeri initially signaled a free kick, but was summoned to the VAR screen on the sideline moments later, where it was clear that Petriccione’s foot had met Pjanic’s right on the line — which, by rule, is a part of the penalty area. With Ronaldo at home, Dybala stepped in to take up his old duties as penalty taker, and bent an inch-perfect penalty to his right that eluded Gabriel and snapped the net just inside the post to give him a deserved goal and Juve a deserved lead.
Unfortunately that lead lasted only six minutes.
De Ligt and his arms have been the subject of much discussion the last few games, and he was again the center of a handball incident. This time it was clear as day: a cross from Calderoni went into a crowd and was deflected off Lucioni and onto the Dutchman’s arm. It was close range, but the arm was far enough away from his body that he should have known better, especially given the more punitive rules in effect this year. Mancosu stepped up to take the kick. Szczesny is an excellent penalty stopper, but Mancosu is one of the better takers in Serie A, having already hit three going into the game. He held his shot until Szczesny made a false move to his right, then dinked it the other way to tie the game.
Sarri immediately lifted Danilo for Cuadrado to add a little more impetus to the attack. Five minutes later, though, Juve should have re-taken the lead. I say should because even at this early stage, this passage of play will likely go down as the worst miss of the season come June. The culprit was Bernardeschi, who timed his run perfectly to receive a gorgeous ball over the top from Sandro. He took the ball down perfectly, rounded the keeper, and then, having done all of the hard part perfectly, thumped the ball against the outside of the near post with the rest of the goal sitting empty.
Two minutes beyond that, things got substantially harder when Pjanic pulled up after making a pass, clutching at the area that usually indicates some sort of groin strain. He was replaced by Khedira, with Bentancur sliding into the regista position. The loss of the Bosnian, however, coincided with the general drying up of quality chances in open play. The only real danger they created in the last 20 minutes came on a dangerous free kick from Bernardeschi that Bonucci stretched for but couldn’t keep down, and another of Dybala’s curlers that just missed the far post.
The most noteworthy part of the game’s last minutes was a scary moment when Higuain went up for a cross and got hit full in the forehead by Gabriel’s elbow as the keeper went to punch it away. Higuain went down like a ton of bricks and for a second it looked like he’d been knocked cold. He’d also been busted open to a nasty degree, and stayed down for several minutes while he was treated. A concussion was clearly a concern, but the player insisted on returning to the field. He blasted wildly over just before stoppage time and had a shot saved at the near post at the end of the seven minutes that were added on, but after the game collapsed and had to be stretchered off and taken to a hospital for tests. The Lecce defense had to hold on one last free kick lofted in from near midfield, but when it fell to the ground the game was blown dead.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 6.5. Had a significant save to make early and was alert again just before the penalty incident to deny Mancuso. Wasn’t under siege but did have to be alert all game.
DANILO - 6. A solid return from the Brazilian. Made two key passes and worked well to overlap on the right.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 6. Solid but not spectacular. Didn’t see any of the bone-headed decisions that plagued him in midweek.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 4.5. Do they not teach defenders to keep their arms in at Ajax? This is the third time in a month that this has been an issue for him, which is not a trend you want to start. It is in no way, shape, or form time to go ballistic on the kid — he’s 20 years old and making a huge step up in league quality, and don’t forget how badly Bonucci played his first year before spending the next five or six seasons as one of the game’s best center backs. It’s frustrating, but he needs to be allowed his growing pains.
ALEX SANDRO - 7.5. Locked down his side of the field all day. Shared the team lead in tackles (3) and interceptions (2) with Bentancur and had a key pass on that gorgeous long ball that Bernardeschi wasted. He’s back.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 8. The best Juventus player on the field by a good margin. Along with his defensive performance had three key passes and led the squad in dribbles with four. All this while playing two separate roles. He’s going to have to step up majorly if Pjanic misses any extended time.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 6.5. Kept the midfield humming. Didn’t directly create many of the big chances before he went off, but everything he did in midfield facilitated the rest of the team doing so. Losing him would be huge.
EMRE CAN - 6. A pretty good outing for the Germany international, who put in a key pass and completed 92.3 percent on the day while also making a solid defensive contribution in midfield, including a pair of tackles.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 4. You HAVE to make that shot. You simply have to. You do all the hard shit perfectly, and then the easy part you screw up that royally. Add in getting the ball stuck at his feet on a really great chance in the first 10 minutes, and Berna had a horrifying day in front of goal. If you delete his finishing from his performance it actually wasn’t terrible — he had three key passes and put in a couple of good balls that were well defended. But that kind of miss is just inexcusable.
PAULO DYBALA - 7.5. Really excellent game. Denied in the first half by a really great save by Gabriel, and had a couple of close calls with those curlers from the right side. His penalty was top-notch, and he also made some noise as a provider, notching three key passes.
GONZALO HIGUAIN - 5.5. For a guy like Higuain, finishing is paramount, and he didn’t put a shot on target until the last minute of stoppage time. He could have been more aware of his run on the goal that was disallowed as well. He’s shown the occasional ability to serve as a pivot point for Dybala and the midfield runners, but that didn’t show today. A final word about the end of the game: while it’s admirable that he wanted to stay on the field to keep his team from going down to 10 men, it’s time to insert concrete mechanisms into the game that will protect players from themselves in that situation, because he had no business going back out there.
JUAN CUADRADO - 7. Only on for half an hour, made three key passes off the right flank and notched a tackle and an interception as well. He’s settling in really well as a full-back, which is something I never thought I’d actually say.
SAMI KHEDIRA - 6. Made a nice effort to keep a ball in play that resulted in a near-miss by Dybala. Didn’t cause any problems but he’s never going to be dynamic out there.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 5. Didn’t do anything particularly noteworthy out of the midfield in his 20 mintues.
I’m not going to join the chorus of criticism about leaving Ronaldo off the squad. If his post-game press conference is to be believed, Ronaldo himself indicated how tired he was, and if Ronaldo, who is notorious for not taking days off, is saying he needs the day, then he needs the day. Juventus created plenty of chances to finish this match off early and simply had a bad finishing day. That’s not something the manager can really deal with.
One thing he could have a say in is creating a little more space in the box. The last two games have highlighted how narrow the 4-3-1-2 can get in attack, and Lecce blocked nine shots today. Switching to a wider formation could have been an option if Ronaldo had been available, as he could have slotted into the left wing with Bernardeschi or maybe Cuadrado on the right and Higuain or Dybala through the middle. With the personnel available to him, though, Sarri didn’t have a lot to work with. When Douglas Costa comes back, he could make things really difficult for opponents with the right sub at the right time.
The calendar is a crowded one, with Juve playing every three days between now and the November internationals. Struggling Genoa and their new coach Thiago Motta will come to the Allianz Stadium on Wednesday before the away leg of the Derby della Mole the following Saturday. Then comes the return against Lokomotiv Moscow, and finally a home match against AC Milan before the international break finally allows a break.