The city of Bergamo has not been kind to Juventus in recent times. Yes, Juve went into their Saturday afternoon kickoff against Atalanta having not lost to them in league play since 2001, but their more recent history has been problematic. They had only won one of their five trips to what is now officially known as the Gewiss Stadium. The most recent of those games was most certainly the nadir of this run, when the Bianconeri were butchered 3-0 in the Coppa Italia quarterfinal in January, a game that, more than anything else, was the first real signal that Massimiliano Allegri’s time with the club was probably coming to an end.
No higher a footballing mind than Pep Guardiola recently compared playing Atalanta to an unwanted visit to the dentist — and his team had just blitzed Gian Piero Gasperini’s team. This game was always going to be unpleasant. We even listed it as one of Juve’s five most intriguing fixtures when the schedules were released in July. If ever there looked on paper like Inter might have a chance to vault back into the lead, this was it.
The game lived up to its billing. Both teams were missing influential players, and the driving rainstorm only added to the complexity. Juve were dominated for long stretches of each half, and had to endure an early injury-related substitution, but Wojciech Szczesny and a solid back line limited the damage — which by halftime could have been significant — and managed to find another gear after falling behind in the early stages of the second half. Two goals in eight minutes by the resurgent Gonzalo Higuain and a perfect stoppage-time counterattack finished by Paulo Dybala turned the game on its head, and Juve walked out of one of the most important games of the young season to date with the victory.
The 3-1 scoreline — the first time Juve had won a Serie A game by more than a goal in nearly two months — certainly flattered the visitors. But this is the kind of game that champions win, and the points became even more important after Inter walked over Torino later in the day.
The biggest hole in Maurizio Sarri’s lineup, of course, was Cristiano Ronaldo. Having come back from international duty still not as fit as Sarri would have liked after his back-to-back appearances with Portugal during the break, the manager chose to leave him home with an eye toward having him closer to 100 percent for the midweek Champions League tilt with Atletico Madrid. That meant that Higuain and Dybala would form the strike pair in Sarri’s 4-3-1-2. Szczesny started behind the defensive line of Juan Cuadrado, Leonardo Bonucci, Matthijs de Ligt and Mattia De Sciglio, who took the place of another injured contributor in Alex Sandro. Sami Khedira, Miralem Pjanic, and Rodrigo Bentancur made up the midfield, while Federico Bernardeschi again took the trequartista duties behind the two Argentines.
Gasperini’s squad was actually far more depleted. Elite striker Duvan Zapata was still out with a long-term muscle injury, while one of his partners in crime, Josip Ilicic, was serving the second of a two-match ban. Ruslan Malinovskyi was also serving a suspension, and Luis Muriel wasn’t considered fit to start due to his late arrival home from international duty with in South America. The fact that they pushed Juve so close to the brink shows just how good he, and they, really are. La Dea lined up in their standard 3-4-1-2, with Pierluigi Gollini starting between the sticks and Rafael Toloi, Berat Djimsiti, and Jose Luis Palomino forming the defensive screen in front of him. Hans Hateboer and Roben Gosens lined up as the wingbacks, flanking Marten De Roon and Remo Freuler in the middle of the park. Mario Pasalic played in the hole, backing the ever-dangerous Papu Gomez and 21-year-old Musa Barrow, who made his first start of the season in the stead of the two Colombian strikers.
The game’s first chance came early. Djimsiti, who a year ago scored an own goal in this fixture, rose above the rest on a fourth-minute corner, but his header soared narrowly over the crossbar. Juve couldn’t quite carve out the same kind of chances on the other end, but Dybala and especially Higuain were moving well. The latter latched on to a fantastic through ball by Cuadrado in the seventh minute, but Gollini came out to beat him to the ball, and referee Gianluca Rocchi rather harshly showed the striker a yellow card after he caught the keeper in the follow-through.
The game took on a rather open character, with the ball flying back and forth between each end, but both defenses remained organized and there were few other real chances in the first 15 minutes or so of the game.
That changed in the 16th minute thanks to a moment of absolute madness by Khedira, who was trying to defend Gomez in the box but had his arm well out to his right. The diminutive No. 10 flicked the ball forward, and it struck the German in the hand. An argument could be made that Khedira’s foot had hit the ball first — keep that rule in mind, it’ll be important later — but it’s difficult to definitively say.
Here Juventus saw a bit of good fortune. Somewhat inexplicably, it was Barrow who took the ball for the penalty kick and not Gomez. The youngster got Szczesny going the wrong way, but smacked his effort into the crossbar, and Pasalic’s attempt to head in the rebound flew over for a goal kick.
Juve lost their way a bit after this, and Atalanta seized control. Szczesny was forced into a series of interventions in the 22nd and 23rd minutes. The first was an excellent one-handed save on a header by Pasalic, the second a cross/shot by Gomez. The latter he palmed into the path of Hateboer, but De Sciglio made a fanatastic block to protect his empty net. On either side of these incidents Bernardeschi, who had taken some sort of blow to the torso, crumpled to the turf, and Aaron Ramsey eventually came on to replace him.
Juve eventually managed to lift the siege, but only managed to get the game back into the pre-penalty rhythm that saw the ball get into decent enough positions only to run into a pair of well-organized defenses before either goalkeeper needed to do much of anything. This state of affairs ran right through to the half.
The TV cameras showed a determined-looking team emerging from the locker room after the break, but Atalanta looked in total control once the ball began rolling. Ramsey had the ball nicked off him barely two minutes in, but the defense was able to recover and stop the counter. Moments later, de Ligt, who had been immense in the first half, went to ground to block a by Pasalic and stayed down, clutching his shoulder and screaming in pain. He’d used his arm to break his fall and it very much looked like he had dislocated his shoulder. Merih Demiral immediately made ready on the sideline, but in a display of grinta worthy of the man he’s had to replace in the lineup, the young Dutchman returned to the field and played on.
Atalanta finally made their pressure pay 11 minutes into the second period. Playing on the attacking right, Barrow tried once to get the ball into the box but was denied by Bentancur. Getting the ball back, he he blew past a somewhat halfhearted attempt by the Uruguayan to contain him and got to the byline, where he sent a cross in to the far post. Waiting for it was Gosens, who had stood completely unmarked for a good seven seconds while Khedira wandered somewhere in a world of his own making, for some reason gravitating toward Pasalic and Toloi, both of whom were being marked. It was easy for the German to slam home his header past a despairing Szczesny.
Douglas Costa was sent on almost immediately, with Ramsey moving deeper into the midfield in Bentancur’s spot. Dybala, who had acted as one of the main creative forces for most of the match, dribbled his way through four Atalanta defenders on a long run, but was closed down by a fifth just as his window to shoot finally opened. With 21 minutes left Sarri played his last card, sending on Emre Can for the completely ineffectual Khedira. That’s when things began to change.
Within five minutes of swapping Germans, Juve had equalized. It wasn’t anything pretty, but at this point style points meant nothing. Dybala had been feed into the right channel by Costa but then dispossessed by substitute Timothy Castagne. Palomino tried to clear it but it pinged off Pjanic at the top of the penalty arc and to the feet of Higuain, who immediately turned and fired. Gollini had already started moving to his right, but the ball took a mammoth deflection off Toloi, giving him no chance to recover as it nestled into the opposite side of the net to tie the game.
Both teams had quick attempts to break the deadlock. Higuain had a shot blocked two minutes after scoring, and moments later Muriel, on in place of Barrow, unleashed a swerving long-distance effort that Szczesny did well to parry away. Atalanta then clamored for another handball when Can, leaping to try to block a cross from Freuler, saw the ball hit his arm. This time, though, the ball had clearly hit the German’s leg first, and after running over to the sideline screen to check it, Rocchi rightly denied the penalty appeals.
The ref was again the center of attention when Higuain put the Bianconeri in front with eight minutes left. The finish was classic Pipita, exploiting a load of space in the middle of the penalty area to run on to a ground cross from Cuadrado and slam it home first time. As he wheeled around to celebrate the entire Atalanta team swarmed Rocchi. They were screaming for the goal to be chalked off for a handball on Cuadrado in the buildup. The Colombian had indeed landed with his hand on the ball while going to ground for a tackle, but Rocchi and his assistants hadn’t spotted it, and by the time the goal had been scored, both teams had already exchanged possession, which meant that VAR couldn’t call for a review.
Juve was improbably on top, but there was still time left for the league’s most potent offenses. It was all men to the barricades for the last few minutes as the hosts desperately looked to bring the score back level. But it was Juve that carved out chances, with Higuain jumping a man in the backfield and looking to complete his hat trick, but he missed wide.
With a VAR review and the long injury delay for de Ligt at the beginning of the half, there was always going to be a lot of stoppage time, and the board went up with six minutes — a huge amount by the standards of Serie A. Fortunately for Juventini everywhere, they didn’t have to sweat those six minutes out, thanks to a textbook counter two minutes into the added time. This time Higuain turned provider, finding a streaking Dybala with a diagonal ball on the counter. The No. 10 charged into the box and cut in to the right channel. Everyone, including Gollini, was expecting him to take one of those far-post curlers that he so loves to take from that spot — so Dybala subverted expectations and fired a low rocket to the near post. Gollini was leaning the other way and couldn’t recover in time and watched the ball snap the net behind him to seal the match.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 7.5. Made six saves, two of which were quite impressive indeed. Secure when claiming crosses, which was really impressive considering the rain. His last two games have seen some great stops out of the Pole.
JUAN CUADRADO - 6.5. A smart assist on the winner and a solid night defending as well.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 6.5. Had nine clearances and three blocks, and didn’t put many feet wrong.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 8. Immense at the back. He led the team in the tackles (three) and interceptions (four) while making all sorts of other plays. Oh, and he did all this in what had to be a significant amount of pain after suffering a shoulder injury that would have chased most players from the game. This was his Juventus coming-out party.
MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - 6.5. A solid day on the left side, not letting much of anything get past him. His first-half block on Hateboer was crucial.
SAMI KHEDIRA - 3. A complete negative in every way. Gave away a penalty when he put his arm in a dangerous spot and was in La La Land on Gosens’ goal. Was he expecting the wingback to follow him in the box? Everything changed for the better when he was taken off.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 5.5. Was credited with an assist on the equalizer, but didn’t really know much about it. He’s not been the influential force he was earlier in the year, and made only a single key pass. Salvaged his rating somewhat with a good defensive effort. He has a track record of falling off if he plays too much, so it might be time to start looking at managing his workload.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 5. I love the kid, but Saturday wasn’t his day. Made a good effort at recovering the ball but wasn’t really a factor in possession.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - NR. Whatever caused that injury looked painful. He made some contribution in the press, but didn’t the opportunity to try to put a stamp on things.
PAULO DYBALA - 7. Led the team with four key passes, and the entire game in dribbles. Made a couple of good runs and skill moves to keep possession. His finish on the last goal was excellent.
GONZALO HIGUAIN - 8. Two goals and an assist as the Higuain Redemption Tour™ continued. Made some of the most trouble for the Atalanta defense all game long.
AARON RAMSEY - 5.5. Didn’t make all that much of an impact after coming on for Bernardeschi in the first half, failing to create much of anything before being moved back to accommodate Costa.
DOUGLAS COSTA - 5. He didn’t make much of an impact, which is a bit of a surprise. Sarri’s explanation that he suffered an adductor problem makes sense.
EMRE CAN - 6. His introduction seemed to shift everything. He was far more dynamic than Khedira, and just made everything move a little better.
Why does Sami Khedira start? What blackmail material does he have on Juventus management? He made absolutely no contribution on Saturday, and the team played far better when he left the field.
More concerning than that was the inability of the team to handle Atalanta’s pressing game. The hosts prevented Juve from making any real buildup play in the first phases of the match, and Sarri will have to work with the team on making their way through such aggressive approaches. This does, of course, allow for the fact that the team still has to grow into the new system, something that will still take some time given Sarri’s track record. But that kind of pressing has always been the most effective counter to the passing attack that Sarri considers ideal, so learning how to get out of it will be a key as the season goes along.
Champions League play continues on Tuesday, as Atletico Madrid comes back to Turin for the first time since last year’s epic round of 16 comeback. Juve lead Group D by three points over Atleti, so all they need is a draw to secure the top spot in the group with a game to spare. After that is a Sunday lunchtime kickoff against Sassuolo at home.