There’s been a lot of worry over Paulo Dybala this season, and particularly in the last few weeks.
Yeah, about that.
Dybala was the best player on the field in Friday’s 3-0 win over Frosinone, which served as Juventus manager Massimiliano Allegri’s final dress rehearsal before UEFA Champions League play resumes on Wednesday. Allegri played almost his full lineup against the second-to-last team in the league, which may have seemed like overkill at first but proved to be useful, as the team played one of its most fluid games of the year and rolled over a team that they were supposed to roll over.
Allegri surprised a lot of observers when he decided not to rest some key players and instead use it as a final run-through for his starters in the run-up to Wednesday’s game against Atletico Madrid. Wojciech Szczesny took up his usual place in goal behind a team that looked most like a 4-3-1-2. Alex Sandro was suspended for yellow card accumulation, but Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini both started in the middle after missing the last 2-3 weeks with ankle and leg injuries, respectively, and Joao Cancelo and Mattia De Sciglio bookended the two. Rodrigo Bentancur, Emre Can, and Sami Khedira started in midfield, while Dybala slotted into the hole and operated as a facilitator behind Mario Mandzukic and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Frosinone manager Marco Baroni, who coached Juve’s primavera side from 2011 to 2013, countered with a 3-5-2 formation. Marco Sportiello started between the sticks, with Edoardo Goldaniga, Marco Capuano, and Bartosz Salamon arrayed in front of him. Raman Chibsah, Federico Viviani, and Francesco Cassata formed the midfield trio, bookended by wing-backs Francesco Zampano and Cristian Molinario. Daniele Ciofani and Camilo Ciano partnered up front.
The game started off with a bang. Just six minutes in Dybala, starting in his first game since he stormed off the bench before the final whistle of the 3-3 draw against Parma, took a square pass from Ronaldo, controlled it with one touch and drilled a beautiful 25-yard shot into the top corner of Sportiello’s goal. It was his first league goal since the beginning of November. The strike was the kind of extraordinary goal that an in-form Dybala makes look so simple, and to celebrate he mimicked the way Ronaldo combined his celebration with his own trademark mask move before embracing his fellow forward.
It was an encouraging sign to see Juve score so quickly, and even more encouraging to see them keep surging forward after the goal, actively seeking out a 2-0 lead rather than dropping back to defend. Ronaldo had an opportunity to take a free kick only three minutes later and took a different tack than usual, trying to drive the ball under the wall rather than into it, but he fired it right at Sportiello. Frosinone clawed a couple of entry passes out of the box before the second goal came only 10 minutes after the first.
The second goal was as ugly as Dybala’s was pretty. A Dybala corner kick bounced through a crowd all the way at the back post to Mandzukic, who dropped into a dive to head for goal. Sportiello clawed at it, but only succeeded in popping the ball straight into the air. Bonucci was quickest on the draw and got his foot to the ball just before Khedira contacted it with his head and poked it into the goal. Khedira apparently got some kind of touch to it and was given credit for the assist.
Juve continued to move toward a third, but Frosinone finally got their first real opportunity on half an hour when Ciofani got a free header from a Ciano cross, only to put it wide. Ronaldo got another chance at a dead ball in the 38th minute, and actually cleared the wall this time, but put it well over the crossbar. With five minutes left, Cancelo volleyed a ball into the mix but hit it too hard for anyone to be able to do with. Frosinone had a good opportunity to get back into the game right on the stroke of halftime when Ciano earned a free kick in a good spot and took it well, but he just couldn’t get it to drop in time and it curled just over the bar with Szczesny rooted to his spot.
The attacks continued as Juventus began the second half. Frosinone’s back three had to intervene on several occasions. Khedira put a shot right at Sportiello four minutes into the half, then Salamon had to get a decisive touch in when Dybala tried to pick out Ronaldo with a cross.
The pressure built until the 63rd minute, when an excellent move saw Bentancur send Mandzukic into the right side of the box. The big Croatian squared it off to Ronaldo, who hit a powerful drive that flat beat Sportiello at his near post. It was the third time in the last three games that Ronaldo recorded both a goal and an assist, and it amounted to his 19th goal of the campaign.
At that point Juve could well and truly set up shop. Ronaldo was replaced almost immediately to save his legs for Wednesday, and Chiellini, who was highly questionable to play as of Allegri’s pre-match press conference on Thursday, was likewise rested before the 70-minute mark. Federico Bernardeschi came on and had a couple of chances to extend the lead even further, most notably in the 82nd minute when he met a Dybala free kick meant to tee him up with a ferocious drive from distance that Sportiello was able to punch away. But Frosinone really failed to put together another meaningful attacking situation apart from when Ciano stood over yet another free kick, this time only putting it into the wall. The Canarini may have had 15 shots to Juve’s 18, but only one of them was on target the entire night.
As the whistle blew, Juve had a performance under their belt that could serve them very well. The win extended the team’s lead in the league to 14 points, pending Napoli’s result on Sunday against Torino. It also stood out as one of Juve’s more fluid games all season, and will serve them well in terms of confidence as the Atleti game now officially looms large.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 6. It seems almost unfair to rate him considering how little he had to do. But he got to the stuff he needed to in the rare times he was called into action.
JOAO CANCELO - 6. Was a little rough defensively, especially from a positioning standpoint, but recovered to make a pair of tackles and clearances. Got forward well and linked with runners to get the ball into the box.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 7. Didn’t let Frosinone have a sniff at things and scored the goal to boot.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 7. Like Bonucci, let nothing through. Won a whopping eight aerial duels.
MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - 6. Unspectacular on the left, but highly effective at doing his job day in and day out, no mater what side of the field is on.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 6. A little rough going on the attack, but he made up for it defensively with a four-tackle day, as well as a team-leading four clearances.
EMRE CAN - 7. Prolific defensively, making a team-high six tackles and three interceptions. He also set things up well downfield, making two key passes and winning six aerials. One of his better games in a Juve shirt.
SAMI KHEDIRA - 7. This was actually a pretty darn good performance. Was somehow credited with an assist on Juve’s second goal, but in this game he actually participated in buildup play, making two key passes and blocking two shots on the other end.
PAULO DYBALA - 8.5. Dude was everywhere. His goal was a thing of beauty, and he connected the lines beautifully. He made four key passes, completed 93.1 percent of his passes overall, and looked supremely confident. Between his late sub appearance at Sassuolo and this game, he is looking like the kind of guy that can unlock a defense like Atleti’s.
MARIO MANDZUKIC - 7. Got the assist on Ronaldo’s goal with a smart square ball, and was active all night with a pair of key passes and winning the ball in the air four times. His presence in the squad is nigh-on indispensable right now.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 8.5. He recorded both a goal and an assist for the third straight game, only the second time in his career he’s done that. The assist was a good one and came at the end of a good decision after it looked like he was ready to take the ball in to shoot for himself, but he slipped and opted to pass to Dybala instead. The goal was clinical and powerful.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 6.5. Active up front and nearly added a fourth late.
MARTIN CACERES - 6. Kept the Frosinone in the same state of quiet that Chiellini had for the majority of the game.
MIRALEM PJANIC - NR. On for the last few minutes to see the game out.
Going into the game I was prepared to start getting out the pitchforks and torches if the likes of Ronaldo were in the starting XI. At the end of the day, though, using this game as a dress rehearsal for Wednesday wasn’t a bad idea at all. Yes, it was Frosinone, but the team looked as fluid as it has all season long, and the great teams need to pummel the teams they’re expected to pummel. Allegri did very well getting Ronaldo and Chiellini off the field to rest them up for Wednesday once the game was in hand. I would have liked to see Moise Kean in a game like this, but we can’t have everything, can we?
Dybala looks much better now playing as what amounts to the trequartista as opposed to the false 9 he was often deployed as when Mandzukic was out. He’s not playing that role specifically, because Allegri has given his forwards complete license to roam wherever they see opportunities in the attacking third, but it’s his responsibility to link the midfield and attack in this setup and he did so in this game very well. Usually not having Pjanic in the team would make their performance stuffer, but Dybala dictated things from the get-go, often dropping deep to make the ball and then distributing it from there. This is the role he needs to stay in. If he does that, Allegri will suddenly have a very dangerous team there that will realize that they can, like, score goals and stuff.
The one we’ve all been waiting for since December is here. The Champions League is back, and Juve travel to the brand-new Wanda Metropolitano to face Atletico Madrid in the first leg of the round of 16. Atleti will be motivated by the chance to play the final in their home stadium this year, but they’ve played poorly of late and and have lost numerous contributors to injuries. This will be one of the ties of the round, and will be a fantastic tactical matchup.
After that Juve will make another road trip, this time to Bologna in Serie A.