You would be forgiven to think during the first 20 minutes of so of Juventus’ trip to play Sassuolo that the team hadn’t shaken off its recent struggles. The home team was keeping possession of the ball, busted Juve’s attempts to break their press, and forced the visitors into a couple of very bad mistakes.
But shortly thereafter Juve managed to stroke home the opening goal, and the game changed. Juve started to settle, and though there was an alarming moment here or there — we’ll get to that — they eventually turned in a solid performance, and took home a 3-0 win that extended their lead over second-place Napoli, who drew on Saturday, to 11 points. In addition, the performance will likely do something to assuage the fears of Juventini who had seen their team play some of the worst football of their seven-year title run over the last couple of weeks.
Massimiliano Allegri was still scraping the bottom of the depth chart in defense, although Andrea Barzagli was deemed fit enough to sit with the subs for the first time in three months. Wojciech Szczesny reclaimed his starting shirt after resting last weekend, and sat behind a 4-3-3 formation. Mattia De Sciglio, Daniele Rugani, Martin Caceres, and Alex Sandro were arrayed in front of him in defense. Sami Khedira, Miralem Pjanic, and Blaise Matuidi formed the midfield, while Federico Bernardeschi, Mario Mandzukic, and Cristiano Ronaldo made up the attack, with Paulo Dybala again sitting on the bench from the off.
Up-and-coming Sassuolo boss Roberto De Zerbi countered with a 4-3-3 formation of his own that was chock full of Juventus connections. Andrea Consigli started in goal. Former Juve farmhand Pol Lirola manned the right fullback spot, while center back Giangiacomo Magnani was partnered in the middle with Federico Peluso, who won two scudetti in black and white during the Antonio Conte years. On the left was Rogerio, the 21-year-old Brazilian on loan from Juve’s youth system. The midfield was made up of Medhi Bourabia, Manuel Locatelli, and Stefano Sensi, whose move to Sassuolo in 2016 was subsidized by the Bianconeri. Domenico Berardi, whose saga with Juve we all know, started on the right wing, bookending Khouma Babacar along with Filip Djuricic.
Juve were very nearly in the hole twice in the first five minutes of the game. The first opportunity came on a textbook counter following a Juve set piece, but Sensi put the final effort just over the bar. The next was the product of a compound mistake, with Pjanic making an ill-advised cross-field pass that put Rugani in a bad position. The young defender made the wrong choice on how to deal with it and waited for the ball rather than attacking it, allowing Djuricic to catch him in possession and race into the box.
Szczesny charged out to meet him. The two came together, with the Pole catching the winger with his legs while almost simultaneously getting to the ball with his hands and pushing it out of the way just far enough for Caceres to clear. The Neroverdi clamored for a penalty and referee Paolo Mazzoleni did run to the sideline for a brief check with the VAR screen, but the play was practically 50/50 and there was no way it could have been overturned even if the call had been incorrect. (Which, for the record, I don’t think it was.)
Sassuolo continued to control proceedings for the next 10-15 minutes. Locatelli, who several years ago with Milan beat Juve with a screamer at the San Siro, tried a long-range drive from left of center to the near post, but Szczesny made an excellent save.
But the game can turn on little things, and on this day it was a bad mistake by Sassuolo’s usually solid goalkeeper.
Consigli had taken receipt of a back pass and was put under pressure by Mandzukic. That pressure caused Consigli to hesitate until he was pinned up against the end line and had to hoof the ball upfield. His pass attempt was intercepted by Ronaldo and rolled into empty space. Pjanic got to it and slid in to poke it back through to Ronaldo, who took one touch into an excellent shooting position. Consigli was able to claw the initial shot away, but the rebound rolled to Khedira, who was perfectly positioned on the back end and beat Peluso to the ball to slot into the empty net.
Juve got a better grip on the game afterward, although Sassuolo still got their chances in. Ronaldo got a nice cross in but it was just too high for Mandzukic to get proper purchase on. Then the Croatian ran all the way back to the other end of the field to poke the ball away from Babacar in the Juve box and force a corner. That corner was headed out but latched on to by Berardi, who put in a nice volley that curled over the crossbar.
Those two chances bookended a yellow card for Bourabia, and he really should have been given his marching orders a few minutes later when he jumped over Mandzukic’s back and hit him in the face with an elbow, but Mazzoleni decided against a second yellow. Then Khedira had a golden chance to make it two in stoppage time with a free header from six yards out, but he somehow managed to put it wide of the target with Consigli rooted and the goal gaping.
Rugani began the second half with a similar miss off a fine cross from De Sciglio that he may have done better to leave to Mandzdukic behind him. But the Juve that came out of the locker room for the second half was a different one than the one that started the game, and the opportunities started flowing. Bernardeschi put just too much power on a through ball for Mandzukic six minutes into the half, then Ronaldo put the ball into the net but was correctly flagged for offside. Sassuolo nearly made Juve pay for Khedira’s miss at the end of the first period when Szczesny had a rare brain fart and ran almost to the center circle to try to clear a long ball, only to scuff it backwards and into the path of Berardi. The man who once scored four against AC Milan as a teenager somehow managed to miss the unguarded net by almost a yard.
Just after the hour came a weird moment that saw Ronaldo blast the ball right into Khedira’s face after play had been stopped for offside in the buildup, leveling the German. Whether or not that had made him a little woozy may have played a part in him missing his second sitter of the game a few minutes later. Mandzukic headed a De Sciglio ball back across goal and into a beautiful position, but Khedira simply whiffed at it from point-blank range. Moments later he was lifted for Rodrigo Bentancur and was immediately met on the sideline by medical staff, so a concussion was clearly a concern.
With 20 minutes to go, the pressure finally paid and Juve managed to double their lead when Pjanic swung a corner in to the middle of the box. Ronaldo set himself up well away from goal and a yard or two behind Mangiani, who looked to be the one who was supposed to mark him. The forward made an excellent diagonal run across Mangiani’s face, then beat Consigli, who came out and made a lame attempt at a punch, to head into the net. It was his 18th of the year, and his ninth straight away game with a goal. The Portugal international celebrated with his trademark leap, then finished it with Dybala’s trademark mask gesture, a show of support to his fellow star.
Sassuolo tried getting right back into the game through Berardi, but his shot in the aftermath of a corner was blocked by — who else? — Mandzukic. Juve protected the lead, then put an exclamation point on it when Dybala, who came on for the last few minutes for a run-out, executed a perfect one-two with Ronaldo, who sent another sub, Emre Can, through the left channel. The midfielder hit first time with his left foot and rolled it just inside the far post to make it 3-0, and after five minutes of stoppage time the whistle blew for the final time, sealing the victory and extending Juve’s lead at the top.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 7. Made some really good saves early, but that mistake coming out...that gave me agita. Would’ve been higher otherwise.
MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - 6.5. He’s back to his excellent defending on the right side and led the team in clearances with five. Made a couple of really nice balls into the box as well, but his teammates couldn’t take advantage of any of them.
DANIELE RUGANI - 6. He deserves a good portion of the blame for the early scare in the fifth minute, but not all of it — that pass from Pjanic really hung him out to dry. After that mistake he played very well. Efficient in his positioning and made a good block midway through the second half.
MARTIN CACERES - 7. A really good game that didn’t see him put a foot wrong. Also highly efficient in his passing, completing 98.4 percent overall and both of his long attempts. For an emergency buy after your other center back abandons the team for money rather than fight for his place, you could do a lot worse.
ALEX SANDRO - 7. Led the team with five tackles and did a good job overall holding down his flank. He led the team in dribbles and also drew four fouls, but wasn’t as dangerous in general going forward. His first-half yellow card puts him over the suspension threshold, so he’ll miss Friday’s game.
SAMI KHEDIRA - 6.5. What matters more, the goal — which was well taken — or the two missed sitters? Both of those chances really should have been put away, and had he finished either of them this rating would be a lot higher, but I can’t justify a better grade to myself with so much left out on the field.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 6.5. Grew into the game after a rough start. Good delivery on the corner for Ronaldo’s goal and three total key passes on the night.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 6.5. Great day in the middle of the park winning balls and clogging passing lanes.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 7. Had a really great defensive day, as he drifted in and largely negated Sensi later on in the game. He made four tackles and was very active going forward. Really should’ve had an assist at the end of the first half but Khedira’s finishing let him down.
MARIO MANDZUKIC - 7. Wasn’t put into shooting positions very often but peeled off a few times and put in some dangerous second balls into the box. His work pressing Consigli into a mistake directly led to the opening goal. As usual, he constantly came back to help his defenders and led the team in interceptions.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 8. He didn’t exactly take over the game, but he was incredibly efficient with what he was given. His rocket shot set up the rebound for Khedira. The run he made for his goal was just pitch-perfect, and the pass to set up Can was perfectly weighted.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 6. Kept the midfield running very well, and perhaps even better than it was before his introduction. Made two tackles, an interception, and a key pass with 95.8 pass completion.
PAULO DYBALA - NR. Was really excellent in his brief time on. The give-and-go he executed with Ronaldo was picture perfect and his used his passes to knit the lines together.
EMRE CAN - NR. Given the angle and the fact that he was on his weaker foot, that finish was pretty fantastic. Hopefully that will give him a little confidence.
Allegri explained his decision to leave Dybala on the bench for a second consecutive game in his post-match press conference, and I for one actually buy his explanation this time around. Bernardeschi is a better defensive contributor from the front, and as noted before he ended up having a really great game on that front. He was instrumental in finally throttling Sassuolo’s passing lanes and getting Juve back into the match. Dybala proved an able supersub in his cameo, helping set up the brilliant passing move that gave Can his goal. At the end of the day, Allegri got his starting XI right.
As well as the game ended up going, it was still a little bit distressing that Allegri is still struggling to figure out ways to beat the press. It’s strange, because four years ago he quite effectively neutralized Jurgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund — one of the greatest pressing teams of all time — in the Champions League knockout stages. That teams with inferior talent manage to stifle the Bianconeri so effectively, particularly in the midfield, should be setting off some alarm bells in whatever cave Allegri retreats to to formulate his tactics, because if a Champions League-caliber team starts pressing like that and the team can’t respond, the road to elimination is going to become a lot shorter.
A rare Friday game is in the offing, as Frosinone travel to Allianz Stadium as Juve get their last run out before Champions League play resumes. The following Tuesday, Juve fly out to Spain to take on Atletico Madrid at the brand-new Wanda Metropolitano for the first leg of the Round of 16.