It’s been a taxing week for Juventus. Huge games against Atalanta and Atletico Madrid saw them put in a ton of physical and mental effort and come away with important victories.
But that kind of effort takes its toll. Maurizio Sarri even mentioned it in his pre-match press conference, highlighting the danger a fixture like this one against Sassuolo posed, despite the fact that the Neroverdi were struggling for form and suffering an injury crunch so severe they promoted an 18-year-old from the primavera squad to start in goal.
Unfortunately, Juve’s first-year manager turned out to be a little too prescient, because the Juventus team that came out for Sunday’s lunchtime kickoff looked completely drained. Only one or two of the starting XI came out firing. They continually gave the ball away and made catastrophic mental errors. Despite scoring first, they always looked second best, and after the biggest brain fart of them all gave Sassuolo a lead, Sarri was forced into a couple of early changes in order to get the team back into it. Those switches eventually got Juve back into the game from the penalty spot, but Sassuolo’s callow keeper stood on his head at the end, making a couple of good saves and ensuring that a late siege didn’t result in a late winner.
The 2-2 draw opened the door for Inter, who about two hours later finished a closely-run 2-1 win over SPAL to take a one-point lead in the standings.
Sarri chose to make a few changes to the team, but as we’ll see, perhaps not enough. Gianluigi Buffon took over for Wojciech Szczesny in goal, with Juan Cuadrado, Leonardo Bonucci, Matthijs de Ligt, and a returning Alex Sandro in front of him. Emre Can — whose continued whining over his playing time has been in the news repeatedly over the last couple weeks — picked up his second start of the year, joining with Rodrigo Bentancur and Miralem Pjanic in midfield. Federico Bernardeschi picked up the start in the hole of the 4-3-1-2, with Gonzalo Higuain and Cristiano Ronaldo forming the strike pair.
Sassuolo coach Roberto De Zerbi had to dig down his depth chart a bit in this one. Domenico Berardi, Gregoire Defrel, and Vlad Chiriches all missed the trip, but above all De Zerbi had a problem in goal. With both Andrea Consigli and Gianluca Pegolo both sidelined, he was forced to turn to Primavera product Stefano Turati. The disparity in experience between the two men in goal can best be illustrated by the fact that Turati was quite literally a fetus when Buffon made his first professional appearance for Parma. In front of the teenager was a 4-4-1-1 formation, with Jeremy Toljan, Marlon Santos, former Juve prospect Filippo Romagna, and Georgios Kyriakopoulos protecting him in the back. Jeremie Boga, Manuel Locatelli, Francesco Magnanelli, and Filip Djuricic formed the second bank, with Junior Traore in the hole behind Francesco Caputo.
Sassuolo had never so much as drawn a game at the Allianz Stadium before Sunday, and when they had played there they had tended to adopt a parked-bus strategy. That wasn’t the case this time. They came out of the gate pressing hard, and within five minutes had created the game’s first shot, a tame effort by Traore that buffon had no issues collecting. Two minutes later Juve got in on the act, with Bernardeschi sending Higuain into the box. The pass was a little long, but the striker was still able to pull the ball back into a good spot in front of the goal. Can was right in its path, but somehow managed to completely whiff at a simple tap-in.
The early stages of the first half saw some end-to-end action. Can tried to make up for his mistake with a long-range snap-shot, but Turati flew to beat it away, and Bonucci head the resulting corner over from a good position. Kyriakopoulos rifled a free kick that Buffon parried away, and on the other end Pjanic dinked a ball over the top that Higuain redirected into the path of Ronaldo, but the Portuguese star couldn’t get to it. Boga then got a step inside on his man and fired a shot that went well over.
With 20 minutes on the clock both teams had had their chances, but it was clear Juve wasn’t playing particularly well. Bonucci decided that enough was enough, and took it upon himself to bomb forward. Taking a simple square from Bentancur, he took a touch and rifled it toward the far post. It took a bit of a deflection but it was a still an excellent strike that likely would have spelled trouble for Turati. It nestled itself into the net on a bounce, drawing first blood and putting Juve up 1-0.
Unfortunately, Juve’s alarming tendency of immediately coughing up leads decided to rear its head. To be precise, it took two minutes and six seconds before Boga exchanged passes with Caputo and walked right past a ball-watching Bonucci. One-on-one with the keeper, the Frenchman opted for the chip rather than the low, hard shot that Buffon was obviously expecting, and his execution was perfect, nestling into the net to level the score.
The rest of the half calmed down a little bit, with both teams firing wide of the target in the last 15 minutes as the interval approached. There was hope that the break would allow Juve to iron out some of the mistakes that they had been making, but instead we got their nadir when a compound mistake saw Sassuolo go up 2-1 just two minutes into the second period. It started with Cuadrado, who made a horrible back pass that put De Ligt into a huge bind. The Dutchman tried to play it to Bonucci on the right but missed him and put the ball right at the foot of Caputo at the edge of the box. The striker took one touch and then half-volleyed it toward goal. Buffon misjudged the shot and actually dove past it, allowing it to bounce off his hip and past him, where it trickled into the goal.
Juve had the opportunity for a quick response of their own in the 50th minute when Ronaldo actually (zounds!) put a free kick on target, only to see Turati whack the ball over the bar with one hand. Seconds later the teenager again came up big, swallowing up a point-blank poke from Higuain off a low cross by Can.
That cross, however, is about as positive as Can had been all game long, and he was hauled off the field just seven minutes into the half, replaced with Blaise Matuidi. Paulo Dybala also came on in the double change, relieving Bernardeschi. The latter’s introduction represented, for Sassuolo anyway, a significant disturbance in the Force. They didn’t have a shot from open play for the remainder of the game, and found themselves defending hard for the balance of the time.
Just after Dybala’s introduction, referee Federico La Penna somehow managed to miss De Ligt getting pulled to the ground by his shoulders on a corner kick and declined to give a penalty. It was a blatant infraction, but the VAR didn’t intervene either. Just after the hour mark Ronaldo thought he had the equalizer when he rounded Turati and put the ball in, but the assistant, who had chosen to keep his flag down at first despite the forward being well offside, finally raised it.
The No. 10 just missed with a free kick in the 65th minute, then helped get his team back on level terms a minute later when he burst into the left side of the penalty area and was felled by Romagna. There was no hesitation on La Penna’s part this time, nor was there any argument from any of the Sassuolo players. Ronaldo dispatched it coolly to his left, with Turati going the other way.
Dybala nearly added a deserved goal to his stat line two minutes after the equalizer after a nice exchange with Higuain, but Ronaldo ended up in the path of Dybala’s shot, and he inadvertently blocked the potential winner. Turati then denied him again three minutes later when a loose ball fell to him.
It was all Juve the last few minutes, but they just couldn’t finish the deal. Aaron Ramsey came on and quickly dovetailed with Dybala for another shooting chance at the top of the box, but this time Dybala flew it over the bar. Ramsey then had a chance himself at the end of normal time when he volleyed an errant defensive header. Turati initially fumbled it, but managed to pounce on it just before it rolled over the line. A last-gasp attempt came in the form of a cross from Sandro, but Ronaldo pushed a free header well wide of the far post, and La Penna ended the game seconds later, leaving Inter with an opportunity that they managed to take.
GIANLUIGI BUFFON - 5. Considering the fact that he’s my own personal saint, this hurts, but Caputo’s goal was one he had to stop. I don’t blame him for the first goal — that was all on the defense.
JUAN CUADRADO - 5.5. Didn’t look too bad on the whole, and his counting numbers were impressive, including a team-high five tackles, but that back pass that led to Caputo’s goal is too much to ignore.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 5.5. His goal was well taken, but he cancelled it out all on his own when he let Boga walk past him to score the equalizer. You can’t lose focus like that.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 4.5. Probably his worst game since his debut against Napoli. His horrific scuff on the Caputo goal was the most glaring, but he was spraying the ball all over the place for most of the afternoon. It was a poor follow-up to his best two games of the season, but was likely the result of his being gassed, both physically and mentally.
ALEX SANDRO - 5.5. He looked like a guy who had missed a few weeks. Didn’t get into the game offensively until the late stages, although he was solid defensively, making three tackles.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 6.5. A nice performance in the middle by the Uruguayan. Got the assist on Bonucci’s goal, completed 98.1 percent of his passes, and added three tackles and two interceptions on defense. He just looks more dangerous than Sami Khedira on the right side of midfield working with Cuadrado to make chances.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 6. Solid on both ends. Led the game with five key passes and also had three tackles and three interceptions. Didn’t dominate the game the way he was doing earlier in the year, but he was still the attack’s best supply line.
EMRE CAN - 3. If you’re going to publicly bellyache about how unhappy you are at not playing, you have to take opportunities when they come. Can did the precise opposite here, doing hardly anything positive. Missed an absolute sitter early and should have done better on an effort right before he was deservedly hauled away at the beginning of the second half.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 5. Another off night in the middle for Berna, who simply doesn’t have the dynamism as a trequartista as he does from out wide. He did rack up a key pass and did well on the press, but this team needs more out of that spot.
GONZALO HIGUAIN - 6. Was one of the only players on the team who was worth a damn in the first half and was unlucky not to score. Made three key passes as well and really should have had an assist if Can had shown basic competence in front of goal.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 5.5. Apart from his penalty kick, he didn’t have much in the way of positive contributions. Neither of the shots he put on target came from open play, and while he gets credit for (finalmente!) getting a free kick on target, the rest of the game largely saw him step over the ball a few times and then fail to get by a guy, and he had a golden chance to put it in the win column at the death but put his free header wide.
PAULO DYBALA - 7. Completely changed the entire game. His introduction saw a dynamism enter the attack that was seriously lacking. He is the team’s most in-form attacker right now and needs to be starting.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 6. Turned the midfield around with basic competency, something Can completely lacked.
AARON RAMSEY - NR. Made a couple of nice interchanges with Dybala and was unlucky not to win it towards the end.
One of the biggest worries about Maurizio Sarri coming into the season was whether or not he would rotate players. He’s done so a little more than possibly anticipated, but in one key area he has not: center back. Leonardo Bonucci and Matthijs de Ligt have started all but four games combined this season. One of those four starts came before Giorgio Chiellini got hurt, one came when de Ligt was out with a minor ankle knock, and the other two were simple rest games. Whatever lack of confidence there might be in Daniele Rugani and Merih Demiral, there has to be a balance between that and the absolute need for rest, especially in a game like this after a week that saw two intense and draining games. Both De Ligt and Bonucci made mental errors that are clearly born out of fatigue. At least one of them should have sat today. That they didn’t is very much on Sarri.
And now a word on the attack.
Paulo Dybala is easily the team’s most in-form player right now, and he is simply a must-start. Gonzalo Higuain is also playing excellent football right now, and it’s hard to justify him not playing, either.
If playing the two of them together comes at the expense of Cristiano Ronaldo, I say so be it.
Ronaldo has been out of whack for nearly two months now. He hasn’t scored from open play since Oct. 19. Whether it’s because he’s not 100 percent healthy (he certainly doesn’t look like it), just experiencing a dip in form, or some combination of the two, he isn’t contributing right now. No player is more important than the team, and if Ronaldo isn’t helping the team get results, it may well be time for him to sit for a bit. Not only would it get him right physically, it could perhaps give him some time to clear his head. But based on what we’ve seen the last six weeks, it may be that keeping Ronaldo in the starting XI at the expense of the Argentine pair is becoming counterproductive.
Thankfully, there is no midweek game coming up, so the team can get some much-needed rest before taking a trip to Rome on Saturday to take on a red-hot Lazio team that has won six consecutive games. After that comes the final game of the Champions League group stage, a dead rubber against Bayer Leverkusen in Germany that should definitely be used to allow some of the team’s more important players to kick up their heels.