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Big three create big first half as Juve cruise past Udinese

Maurizio Sarri finally gave us the attack we’d wanted to see from the start, and the first stage of the experiment was a success.

Juventus v Udinese Calcio - Serie A Photo by MB Media/Getty Images

Fans and pundits have been looking for it for weeks now. With Federico Bernardeschi’s seeming inability to play the trequartista position and Aaron Ramsey’s recurring injury problems, there has been a rising clamor to drop Paulo Dybala into the hole and play him together with Gonzalo Higuain and Cristiano Ronaldo. Such desires had been expressed all year, but the volume on the calls have grown louder as Juventus has struggled for form since October.

Sarri has put them on together mid-match when he was chasing a game, but he never put them together from the start, arguing that it harmed the team’s balance. It wasn’t a bad argument — we’ll get to that later — but on Sunday he spotted an opportunity, and he gave the fans what they’d wanted.

It worked.

The trident attack crushed Udinese underfoot for the first 45 minutes of Sunday afternoon’s 3-1 win at Allianz Stadium. They scored three times in the first half for the first time since that epic 7-0 annihilation of Sassuolo in February 2018. Juve slowed down in the second half, allowing Udinese to play a little bit more and eventually giving up a consolation on a mental lapse in stoppage time, but overall this was one of the best, most Sarri-like game of the season.

Yes, it was against a bad team in Udinese. Yes, there will be games that will show us whether or not this lineup is viable on a week-to-week basis (again, we’ll get into that later) but you can only beat the team in front of you. And in a year when provincial sides have been giving Juventini heart attacks on a weekly basis, a win like this was a breath of fresh air—one made even sweeter by the result of the game between Inter and Fiorentina later in the day.

Sarri was missing a couple of players coming into the match. While Aaron Ramsey and Douglas Costa had just returned to action, Miralem Pjanic and Juan Cuadrado were suspended due to yellow card accumulation. Giorgio Chiellini and Sami Khedira were also long-term injury absences, and earlier in the day Wojciech Szczesny pulled out of the squad with a shoulder issue. That sent Gianluigi Buffon out for his third start in four games in all competitions, behind a defensive line of Danilo, Merih Demiral, Leonardo Bonucci, and Mattia De Sciglio. Rodrigo Bentancur slid over from the right side of midfield to the regista role in place of Pjanic, flanked by Adrien Rabiot and Blaise Matuidi. The aforementioned big three rounded out the 4-3-1-2.

Udinese had started the year under the guidance of former Juve defender Igor Tudor, but a rough start had seen him sacked and replaced with interim manager Luca Gotti, a former assistant of Sarri at Chelsea. Gotti trotted out a 3-5-2, with Juan Musso in goal with Sebastian De Maio, Bram Nuytinck, and William Troost-Ekong in front of him. Rodrigo De Paul, Seko Fofana, and former Juve prospect Rolando Mandragora manned the midfield, with Hidde ter Avest and Jens Stryger Larsen serving as wing-backs. Stefano Okaka and Kevin Lasagna completed the lineup up top.

Juve broke from the gate with immediate pressure, sealing Udinese into their own half and eventually putting themselves into shooting position within seven minutes. They found the target for the first time, albeit on a weak shot from Matuidi, 60 seconds later, and by the ninth minute the second stage kicked in and they went off like a Saturn V rocket.

It started, as so many Juventus goals have over the last eight years, with a glorious long ball by Bonucci, this one from well into his own half. The pass found Dybala in the left channel, who chested it down and tried to turn with it. Troost-Ekong prevented that, but his effort only poked the ball into space, teeing it up perfectly for Ronaldo, who was following the play. He smashed a worm-burner across the goal and past a helpless Musso to give Juve an early lead.

Juventus v Udinese Calcio - Serie A Photo by Matteo Bottanelli/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The pressure didn’t stop. Less than a minute later, Dybala was slipped in by Higuain and had a goal-bound shot blocked out for a corner. Rabiot then had a volley on the second ball blocked for another set piece, and Dybala then got into a great position and would have had a tap-in from a Matuidi cross had the defense not made an excellent play to dig the ball out.

It seemed like every minute Juve was either taking a shot or forcing Udinese to claw the ball away from an impending goalscorer at the last minute. For the first 20 minutes of the game one didn’t actually see any shots of Buffon on the TV screen, because Udinese hadn’t gotten the ball deep enough into the Juve half to make the cameras pan that far.

Dybala thought he had a second goal on 22 minutes with a great-looking chip, but it was disallowed for a rather blatant handball, an infraction that got Dybala booked as well. A while later he triggered a strong counterattack and attempted to thread the ball through to Ronaldo. Even two years ago the Portuguese would have had the wheels to get to the pass and hit it first time, but this one had a little too much power for him. He was able to get to it first, however, and eventually pulled back for Higuain, whose powerful shot was parried away one-handed by Musso. He had another shot saved in the 36th minute before turning provider a minute later, placing a beautiful through ball into the channel. This time the weight was perfect for Ronaldo, who had ghosted between Troost-Ekong and Nuytinck. He hit an incredible first-time shot that took a left-hand bend as it powered past the stranded keeper.

The Bianconeri weren’t done, and after Higuain earned another corner on the stroke of halftime, Demiral headed the ball back across the face of goal, where it was met by Bonucci. The ball bounced off the underside of the crossbar and down into the ground. Bonucci wheeled around to celebrate, but the ball had landed so close to the goal line that he felt compelled to turn to referee Fabrizio Pasqua to confirm whether the goal was being given. It was indeed, with goal-line technology confirming the goal by one of the smallest margins I’ve seen since the system was introduced.

Juventus v Udinese Calcio - Serie A Photo by MB Media/Getty Images

That goal ended the half, and Juve was back at it after the break, and six minutes into the second period Dybala unleashed a sick chip that would have threatened his free kick against Atletico Madrid for goal of the season had it not skimmed off the top of the crossbar.

The visitors did have more of a say in the second half. They started working a few more passing moves, and that caused a bit more trouble. Buffon was forced into a couple of saves, including a twin effort in the 74th minute that denied first Lasagna then Fofana within 15 seconds of each other. There was a worrying moment in the 69th minute when Bonucci went to clear a powerful ball into the box with his head and immediately crumpled to the turf. He managed to continue for a little while, but was eventually replaced by Matthijs De Ligt.

Ronaldo was twice denied a hat trick late on, first by a one-handed save from point blank range and the other by the post. To their credit, the Friuli outfit continued to play hard until the very end of the game, and after an unnecessarily large five minutes of stoppage time went on the board, they managed a consolation through a pair of substitutes. Ilija Nesterovski had received a pass from ter Arvest just to the right of the penalty spot and tried to cut it back, but the ball deflected off of Bentancur and into the path of Ignacio Pussetto, who swung a foot at it and slapped it past Buffon to make the scoreline a little more bearable for Udinese as the match ended.


GIANLUIGI BUFFON - 7. Made a couple of really nice saves in the second half after barely being seen—literally, if you were watching on TV — in the first half. A big rebound game after his last Serie A game had ended so poorly for him.

DANILO - 6.5. Made three clearances and also provided a pair of key passes in relief of Cuadrado on the right side. He’s had a couple games in a row now where he’s shown improvement over his early-season struggles.

MERIH DEMIRAL - 6.5. People have been waxing philosophical about him this week, and I’m not saying they’re wrong to be excited about him, but I’ve also seen a couple people claim he’s better than de Ligt, which is objectively wrong. He did make two tackles, two interceptions, and lead the team with seven clearances and a pair of blocked shots, but a some of the big plays he makes are really him cleaning up his own mistakes, like the block he laid on Lasagna early in the second half. Be excited about him, yes, but temper that enthusiasm just a bit.

LEONARDO BONUCCI - 7. Quick to react to Demiral’s headed assist for his goal, and was strong in defense all game. The shot he took to the head, however, looked very unpleasant indeed, and it’s a good thing he came out of the game. Hopefully he’ll be ready next week when there’s silverware no the line.

MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - 6.5. De Sciglio continues to do what he’s done for the last few years: completely lock down his flank and provide the occasional overlap. He actually showed a few offensive tricks today, making one really nice dribble down the flank and nutmegging a guy for the second game running a little later.

ADRIEN RABIOT - 6. He led the team with a whopping six tackles, but he’s still not quite playing to his ability. Part of that can possibly be explained by him needing to fill in on the right side of midfield, which isn’t what he’s used to as a left-footed player, but he’s also losing the ball in possession and losing control of passes in the attacking third, which is showing either a lack of sharpness or focus.

RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 6.5. Made an absurd number of passes and completed them at a 93.3 percent clip. This grade would have been higher but for his inexplicable lack of focus that caused him to help set up Udinese’s consolation and to pick up a yellow card—one that will suspend him for the midweek fixture against Sampdoria — in the final minute of stoppages with the game already well in hand.

BLAISE MATUIDI - 6.5. Made a pair of key passes and was a constant thorn in Udinese’s side as they tried to build up possession.

PAULO DYBALA - 7.5. Made a pair of key passes and skimmed a layer of paint off the crossbar with a really audacious chip. He was playing confident today, and it was showing. He deserved a goal for his efforts.

GONZALO HIGUAIN - 8. Led the team with four key passes and notched a beautiful assist. Deserved a goal of his own as well. His work rate was through the roof.

CRISTIANO RONALDO - 8. Both goals were superbly taken, and he would have had a hat trick if not for some bad luck. He dovetailed well with his attacking partners, notching a pair of key passes.


FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 6. We saw his season in a nutshell in the 83rd minute when he made a fantastic solo run only to end it with a really weak shot that Musso easily covered. Still, he dropped a key pass in his 15-minute run and his only cross found its mark.

MATTHIJS DE LIGT - NR. Not quite sure why it was de Ligt instead of Daniele Rugani who came in here given the situation. After so many minutes it was good to see the Dutchman keeping his heels up. He did well after his introduction, making three clearances in only 14 minutes, but his lack of playing time alongside Demiral showed.

DOUGLAS COSTA - NR. Got a 10-minute cameo as he came back from (another) injury.


So, the elephant in the room has finally been downsized. Sarri has put Dybala, Ronaldo, and Higuain together at last, and it produced a stunning result.

But while the first phase of the experiment has been an unqualified success, it’s important to remember that it isn’t over. It remains to be seen whether the big three can play together and stay balanced against teams that will pose more of a threat than Udinese. Even in this game, things started going south a little bit in the second half. Sarri acknowledged in his pre-match press conference that he used the three players together in the knowledge that Udinese’s preferred method of attack is the long ball, and that when they started playing a more passing style in the second half things began to get difficult. Indeed, against Inter the team was so badly unbalanced after the trident was tried that Sarri pulled one of them off the field to add an extra midfielder while the game was still tied.

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t use this lineup in games going forward, but it will remain to be seen whether it can be viable on a full-time basis. On that, the jury is still out.


After Inter gakked a way a 1-0 road lead to Fiorentina in stoppge time, Juve confirmed themselves as league leaders yet again — level on points but with the Nerazzuri but ahead of them by virtue of their head-to-head win.

On Wednesday Juve travel to Genoa to face Sampdoria, then jet over to Hell on Earth Saudi Arabia for a the Supecoppa Italiana against Lazio, which will surely grab viewers given the desire for revenge against the Capital club after their 3-1 win at the Olipico a week ago.