A trip to relegation-threatened Bologna should, in theory, have one of the best possible follow-ups for a Juventus team reeling from a sorry midweek performance in the Champions League that saw their chances of advancing past Atletico Madrid reduced to a whisper and a prayer.
The reality was rather different.
Juve arrived at the Stadio Renato Dall’Ara on Sunday in body, but certainly not in mind or spirit. There they were thoroughly outplayed for the vast majority of the game by a team that they had beaten two times before this season by identical 2-0 scores. Of course, this was a different Bologna that they had played twice prior, now under the stewardship of Sinisa Mihajlovic after six listless months under Filippo Inzaghi. And yes, Massimiliano Allegri, thanks to injury, illness, and suspension, had to rejigger his setup and rely on players in unfamiliar positions with little familiarity. But to be nearly run out of the building by a team in the relegation zone, a team that has won two games since September—and one of those against a team that is currently in danger of being relegated from Serie B—was not what people wanted to see after Wednesday’s gut-punch.
But as bad as the performance was, the result ended up, somehow, going Juve’s way. A combination of poor finishing — Bologna had only three shots on target on the night, two of which came at the beginning of stoppage time — and a fortuitous bounce to Paulo Dybala saw Juve somehow carry a 1-0 win back home, keeping their advantage over Napoli at 13 points ahead of next week’s head-to-head clash in Naples.
In some fairness to Allegri, he was dealing with a significant selection crunch in addition to the need to rest some players — which he didn’t exactly achieve. A freshly shorn Mattia Perin did relieve Wojciech Szczesny in goal (seriously, I did about a quadruple take when I first saw him). Giorgio Chiellini was also rested in favor of Daniele Rugani, who partnered with Leonardo Bonucci in the center of defense. Mattia De Sciglio and Alex Sandro flanked them at the fullback spots.
Juventus’ midfield was ... a mess. With Sami Khedira out for a month due to heart surgery, Emre Can suspended due to yellow card accumulation, and Miralem Pjanic still looking like he was sick enough to drop to the ground at a moment’s notice, Allegri only had two healthy midfielders heading into the match. Rather than use Blaise Matuidi and Rodrigo Bentancur in a double pivot, he kept to the 4-3-3 that has been the standard almost all year and inserted Federico Bernardeschi into the midfield, enacting an experiment that has long been clamored for by a section of the fan base. Cristiano Ronaldo and Mario Mandzukic started up front, joined by Joao Cancelo, who was freed from his defensive responsibilities in a more advanced role.
Mihajlovic deployed his charges in a 4-2-3-1. Lukasz Skorupski took his usual place in the Bologna goal, with Ibrahima Mbaye, Danilo, Filip Helander, and Mitchell Dijks arrayed in front of him. Erick Pulgar and Andrea Poli formed the pivot, while Nicola Sansone, Roberto Soriano, and Simone Edera formed the attacking line behind striker Federico Santander.
Bologna stated their intent early when Santander flicked a nice cross from Dijks over his shoulder and over the near corner less than three minutes in. Sansone was the next man with a good opportunity, getting away from Bonucci to fire a low strike that just pulled wide.
“Just wide” was pretty much the story of the first half for the home side, as they saw nearly half a dozen shots from about the edge of the penalty area skitter within a yard or so of the post, including an effort from Edera that got between Matuidi and Sandro and only just swerved wide on its very last bounce. By the half hour mark Bologna had managed six shots but hadn’t put any of them on frame. Juve, by contrast, had only managed a single effort at goal, a tame header from Ronaldo on a corner that Skorupski easily gobbled up.
Bernardeschi, was the one making the most danger for Juve, albeit when he moved beyond the midfield and pushed up into more familiar forward areas. In the 20th minute, he took a nice ball from Cancelo in the middle and tried to slide Matuidi through. The Frenchman’s run was quite good, but the pass had just a little too much to it and the keeper ran out to claim it. Then, in the 32nd minute, the Italy international created the best chance of the game for Juve to that point pretty much by himself, taking a pass from Cancelo on the right wing and cutting back inside. He left Poli in his dust and had the keeper beaten from a tight angle, but put a little too much on the shot and it sailed just over the top corner.
The second half began much the way the first half went, with Juve missing a ton of passes and Bologna keeping pressure on Perin’s goal. Sensing the game going his way, Mihajlovic took a leaf from Diego Simeone’s book midweek and made an early, proactive substitution, sending in Juve prospect Riccardo Orsolini on to face his parent club.
Ten minutes into the half, Juve lined up to defend a Bologna corner kick. What followed was nearly a carbon copy of the two goals Atleti scored midweek. The delivery came in and pinballed around the box. It looked like deja vu all over again as the ball found its way to Santander. Rugani got a foot out to block the shot but it ricocheted back inside almost like a square ball to the feet of Mbaye. Perin had overcommitted to Santander’s shot and was nowhere to be found, but Sandro dropped to the ground and blocked the defender’s attempt to slot into the empty goal before the move was ended when Danilo hit De Sciglio in the face trying to bicycle the rebound in and was called for a foul.
While that sequence was eerily similar to the loss at the Wanda Metropolitano, one thing was fortunately not: This time, Allegri made his first change early — or at least early enough. Dybala was sent on for Sandro just before the hour, shifting De Sciglio to the left back spot and bringing Cancelo back into defense. Eight minutes later, he executed a nice give-and-go with Matuidi, who put in a pretty good cross from the left. With Ronaldo lurking at the back post the retreating Helander had to reach back to try to clear it, but only managed to deflect it into the path of the Argentine, who had the simple task of slotting the ball past the now-stranded Skorupski from 14 yards.
A brief period of control for Juve followed, but the best they could do in their attempts to double their lead was a Ronaldo cross that was too high for Mandzukic to get good purchase on, and it was immediately gobbled up by Skorupski. But in the last 10 minutes Bologna regained the initiative and pushed forward again. Allegri surprisingly put on the ailing Pjanic for Matuidi, a testament to how bad the midfield situation was for this game (and, it has to be said, the determination of Pjanic). Chiellini was likewise introduced for the last five minutes, and he promptly cleared a through ball away from Mihajlovic’s third sub, Diego Falcinelli, in the channel.
As the game ticked into stoppages, Pjanic tried to back-heel a pass from Falcinelli out of the box, but his effort only succeeded in teeing up Sansone for a rocket of a shot from about 24 yards away. He had struck it so well that he was already wheeling around to celebrate a late equalizer, only to be left stunned when Perin made his best save of the season, parrying the ball with one hand onto the post before getting up and lunging the other direction with two hands to punch away another powerful effort from Orsolini on the rebound. After once last corner kick, Juve managed to get the ball the other way and ran out the rest of the four minutes of added time, bringing to an end one of the ugliest victories they’ve seen in quite some time.
MATTIA PERIN - 7. Easily his best game in a Juventus shirt. More authoritative in the box, and while he overcommitted a bit on the corner kick scramble early in the first he more than made up for it with that phenomenal double save in the game’s dying moments. Maybe the makeover did him good.
MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - 6.5. Focused on defending with Cancelo playing wide higher up and made an absurd seven tackles, along with three clearances. He’d be higher here if he’d carried any threat on the overlap.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 5.5. Allowed enough space for a couple of those near misses in the first half but did lead the team with six clearances.
DANIELE RUGANI - 6. Blocked four shots and kept his positioning well. Solid but not spectacular. A lot of people will rush to judge him for the overall performance of the defense but Bonucci was the one making the mess.
ALEX SANDRO - 5.5. A good day defensively with three tackles, two interceptions, and that massive block on the corner scramble, but his passing, especially at long distances, was really poor, and he didn’t make much of a threat going forward.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 6.5. Bernardeschi gets this grade with a caveat: I don’t think the experiment of him playing as a mezz’ala was particularly successful (more on that down below). He did lead the team in key passes and had the best chance of the first half.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 5.5. Excellent defensively — he made six interceptions, three tackles, and two clearances. But his passing was all over the place, and he didn’t do much to keep the midfield moving. Like Danny said, WhoScored making him the man of the match clearly shows the flaw in their rating system.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 6. A strong physical presence in midfield, and actually made a significant offensive contribution today, delivering the cross that was deflected into Dybala’s path for the goal. His touch still makes you cringe, but this was a good game for him overall.
JOAO CANCELO - 5. I was looking forward to seeing him with the freedom to attack without needing to pay too much attention to defense, but he didn’t do much with the opportunity. He did make one key pass on Bernardeschi’s first-half chance but didn’t get any balls in for Mandzukic or Ronaldo to get into the air.
MARIO MANDZUKIC - 6. Got back well on defense, at one point making a sliding challenge at the top of the box to dispossess an attacker in a good shooting position. Was starved of service for the most part up top but worked hard when he did get near the ball.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 5. The stats will say he hit the target with both of his shots. Those shots were a tame header from a corner in the first half and a squib from an angle that Skorupski kicked away about halfway through stoppage time. He was a passenger for most of the game, being dispossessed about as often as he found a teammate. Frankly, he looks like he needs rest.
PAULO DYBALA - 7. Probably his easiest goal of the year, but he gave Juve a bit of energy at the front for a while before Bologna sealed things off going for the equalizer. Also dropped in a key pass and four accurate long balls, all in the space of 22 total touches.
MIRALEM PJANIC - NR. It’s a testament to his spirit that he came on, but Max Allegri straight up had to ask him if he could breathe before putting him on. He should have been in bed.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - NR. If I gave number grades for players who play less than 15 minutes I’d have given him an 8 for just his five minutes on the pitch. Made an excellent clearance on the cusp of stoppage time that could have fallen for an equalizer and got in an interception to boot.
I know there was a bit of a selection crisis going on, but seriously, there are people who need rest, and a game against Bologna is a good opportunity to give some out. Cristiano Ronaldo needs rest. A few years ago he was struggling early and a lot of analysts started to wonder if he was in his decline phase, but Zinedine Zidane finally got him to accept the idea that it was OK for him to rest against the lesser sides in La Liga. A rested Ronaldo exploded the second half of the year, especially in the Champions League, and the doubts were put to rest.
Why, then, was he playing against a team that has been in such bad form? Surely Moise Kean could have been given some minutes against a team so low in the table, even in an experimental team. Add to that the fact that his two goals in a Juventus shirt have both come at the Dall’Ara, and the recipe to play the kid was there. Allegri’s squad rotation has slowly deteriorated over the last few years. Two years ago he could barely rest his forwards at all due to injuries, but he doesn’t really have that excuse anymore. Still, he’s reaching Maurizio Sarri levels of deficiency in this area. This may not end up mattering much anymore three weeks from now, but if Allegri pulls something off against Atleti then top players will have to rest in Serie A down the stretch.
One thing he shouldn’t be tempted to do again is play Bernardeschi in midfield. It’s a nice idea — one that fans have been positing ever since he arrived last year — but it didn’t really come off today. When Juve did create some danger he was right in the thick of it, but had moved farther up the field into his more familiar forward roles to do so. In an emergency like this again, against a small team, this is maybe tenable for a little while, but much like the Juan Cuadrado-as-fullback exercise, shouldn’t be something that’s done often.
Juve get a much-needed week of rest before taking the train to Naples for the year’s second matchup against Napoli. With 13 points separating them in the standings even a loss won’t be particularly alarming, while a draw or a win would most likely put a stake in the title race.
After that comes a Friday tilt with Udinese at the Allianz Stadium as a final warm-up for the second leg of the round of 16 against Atletico.