“What the hell is he doing?”
That was probably the thought going through every Juventino’s mind halfway through stoppage time when Mario Mandzukic, trapped in his own corner by a Parma player, flicked the ball up towards his own penalty area.
That flick was the first in a cacophony of stoppage-time failures by Juventus. Leonardo Spinazzola failed to get to Mandzukic’s attempted pass, and it was deflected to Parma striker Roberto Inglese in the box. Inglese, who was having an excellent second half, dashed toward the byline and pulled the ball back. The pass took a slight deflection off Daniele Rugani and sat perfectly for Gervinho, who had been left completely unmarked in the right channel. Even after all this, Juve seemed to get a break when the Ivorian winger’s first-time shot ended up going right at Mattia Perin — but in spite of the keeper getting his hands to the ball, it still dribbled into the net, tying the score at 3-3 and stealing a point for Parma.
Twice Juve held two-goal leads, but the Crusaders were still able to come back — at Allianz Stadium, no less — and punish Juve’s lackadaisical defending.
It’s easy to blame the makeshift backline that Massimiliano Allegri was forced to send out in the face of injuries to Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci, and Andrea Barzagli. But the fact of the matter is Rugani and Martin Caceres, who was starting at center back only days after making his latest return to Juventus, didn’t play all that badly. They were often exposed by the rest of the team, and while Rugani did share some responsibility for Parma’s second goal, the midfield completely lost runners to set up both of those scores.
At the end of the day, though, this game constituted a massive choke, and will have a lot of people questioning both Allegri and the players under his charge.
The coach was already under pressure after seeing his team play like flaming garbage in the preceding week. Juve had eeked out a win against Lazio last Sunday despite a terrible performance, then were absolutely dominated against Atalanta in the Coppa Italia quarterfinal in midweek. With the first leg of the Champions League Round of 16 tie against Atletico Madrid looming, fans and media alike were looking for improvements. While Juve certainly did look a little better Saturday night, at times dominating possession and keeping Parma pinned in their own half for long stretches, the end result was not what anyone was looking for, and kept the fans on the edge of their seats looking for signs that they’ll be ready to compete for the ultimate prize when the Champions League comes calling.
Allegri obviously had a bit of a selection crisis in the back. Saturday was the first time the entire BBC was not in the Juventus matchday squad since March 11, 2012. Oddly enough, Caceres was playing center-back that day as well, partnering with none other than Arturo Vidal, who was drafted in as an emergency defender that night. This time, Caceres partnered with Rugani, with Joao Cancelo and Spinazzola bookending them in front of Perin, who got a rare start in relief of Wojciech Szczesny. Sami Khedira, Miralem Pjanic, and Blaise Matuidi formed the midfield, while Mandzukic made his first appearance since before the winter break, anchoring the front line with Cristiano Ronaldo and Douglas Costa.
Parma manager Roberto D’Aversa elected a 4-3-3 of his own. Luigi Sepe protected the goal, with Simone Iacoponi, Alessandro Bastoni, Bruno Alves, and Riccardo Gagliolo arrayed in front of him. Antonino Barilla, Juraj Kucka, and Matteo Scozzarella made up the midfield, while Jonathan Biabiany joined Inglese and Gervinho up front.
The game’s opening stages were cagy. Kucka got in the game’s first shot fairly early, but Perin smothered the long-range effort with ease. Khedira blazed one over the bar on 10 minutes, and Ronaldo’s first shot seven minutes later forced the Parma defense to scramble to intervene after Sepe spilled it. Kucka then gave Perin a sterner test, but the keeper managed to fingertip it away.
Pjanic joined the “Crack a Free Kick into the Wall” club just before the half hour, and five minutes later Khedira was slipped in by a nice piece of work from Costa. The German had a good angle with the goal gaping, but could only bang the shot off the post.
But Ronaldo spared him the blushes within minutes. It was a bit of an Ugly Goal™, as the forward stopped a pass from Matuidi dead with his first touch only to slip and fall as he was shooting, but Sepe had overcommitted to the shot and a slight deflection put it into the net to give Juve the breakthrough.
Ronaldo thought he’d have the chance to make it two before the break when referee Piero Giacomelli pointed for a penalty after Caceres tangled with Iacoponi at the far post following a corner, but a VAR check correctly ruled that it was the Uruguayan that initiated the contact, and the call was reversed. He then did get a chance in stoppage time when Mandzukic cushioned a beautiful header into his path of a long ball, but missed the far post by inches.
Federico Bernardeschi took the place of Costa at halftime after the Brazilian reported a muscle problem, but Parma were the ones who came out firing, running a few really dangerous counters into Juve territory, aided by some questionable clearances by the likes of Cancelo. The visitors were starting to look dangerous, but it was Khedira who came closest in the early stages of the second period, leaping for a header that once again crashed into the post with Sepe again stranded.
Parma had their most dangerous thrust right at the hour mark when Inglese managed to split the center-backs, but the long ball into him got him turned around and the back line managed to recover and smother him. Khedira then actually found the target with an excellent shot, but was denied by a one-handed Sepe save. The ensuing corner saw Spinazzola’s attempt at a shot blocked, but Pjanic ran in to keep possession and Mandzukic lifted a cross to the back post. Ronaldo strained for it but only popped it into the air behind himself—right into the lap of Rugani, who executed a really good volley to beat Sepe at the near post and double Juve’s lead in the 62nd minute.
It was the first strike in a crazy sequence that saw the two teams combine for three scores in four minutes. Parma quickly got themselves back into the game when Barilla made a run from deep in midfield that was completely missed by Khedira, who in no way has the pace anymore to catch up in a situation like that. Kucka flew in a perfect ball, and Barilla slammed a free header past a stranded Perin. Ronaldo, though, reestablished the two-goal cushion almost immediately, bouncing a header in off a Mandzukic cross.
But with 15 minutes left the game was back on again. Gervinho had eluded the attentions of Khedira and gotten himself into the box. Rugani was late to react to his presence and got caught in no man’s land, and the winger’s back-heel flick ended up deflecting off him as Perin went the other way.
Allergi saw yet another man go down when Bernardeschi had to leave the field after an elbow in the ribs ended up too much for him to continue. Ronaldo almost had his hat trick after his replacement, Emre Can, put him into a fantastic spot to shoot, but Iacoponi got across to block.
And then one of the most frequent and welcome sights of the last three years — that of Mandzukic tracking back to help out in defense in the closing moments of a tight game — went horribly, horribly wrong, and Juve edged themselves a little bit closer to crisis mode.
MATTIA PERIN - 5.5. Didn’t have much fault in the first two goals, but I really think he should have done better on the equalizer. He was in good position and got a lot of hand to it. If I had to put money on it I’d say that Szczesny or even Gigi Buffon last year would have kept that out.
JOAO CANCELO - 6. Made a pair of key passes and led the team in both tackles (jointly with Mandzukic) and clearances, but was also really shaky on some other clearance opportunities and didn’t really influence the game going forward the way we’re used to.
MARTIN CACERES - 6. Given the fact he was playing with completely new teammates days after his transfer was official, this wasn’t that bad of a game. Brought a lot of energy to the backline and was generally in the right spots.
DANIELE RUGANI - 6. His goal was really well taken and is what gets his rating this high, but he was way too late to react to Gervinho on the second Parma goal. Khedira may have been the one who lost him initially, but Rugani needed to get to his run sooner. An up-and-down day.
LEONARDO SPINAZZOLA - 6. Got forward really well and made a pair of key passes. He’s showing himself a very good option on the left to give Alex Sandro a break.
SAMI KHEDIRA - 5.5. He was far better than on Wednesday, but both shots that he hit the post with should have been put in, especially the first one. He had some pretty ugly moments on the other end, completely losing Barilla for Parma’s first and not doing particularly well to follow Gervinho on the second.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 6. Made three key passes and had a couple of shots blocked from good positions. The midfield is just better with him, but I can’t help but feel like he’s a step off his best.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 6. Notched the assist on the opener, and at times overwhelmed Parma’s midfielders physically.
DOUGLAS COSTA - 6. Put in some good crosses in the opening half and made life difficult for the Parma defense. Hopefully he’s not out long.
MARIO MANDZUKIC - 5.5. Produced some really excellent crosses, including the assist on Ronaldo’s second and the final ball for what turned into Rugani’s strike. But, Mario ... what were you thinking????
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 8. Two great goals, including a picture-perfect header for the second. Also got credited with the assist for Rugani’s, although he didn’t look like he knew all that much about it. When he scores two, Juve should win.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 6. Not a bad shift, although the attack really shifted to Ronaldo’s side on the left in the second half so he didn’t get a ton of touches. Hopefully he just had the wind knocked out of him.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - NR. Had a fairly busy 10 minutes on the field, registering a key pass, an interception, and a clearance. Gave the midfield a little life by replacing Khedira.
EMRE CAN - NR. On for the last few minutes for the ailing Bernardeschi, he almost set up Ronaldo for his hat trick at the end.
The usual “Why is Sami Khedira playing?” theme doesn’t quite come into play here, because he had a much better day than usual. Allegri didn’t have much in the way of choices when choosing his defense, and his attempts at rotating his players wasn’t all that bad, either. Both Paulo Dybala and Alex Sandro had played most, if not all, of the team’s last two games and needed to sit.
But we really do have to start talking about how little the team is showing in terms of improvement. Allegri’s teams have often had rough starts to a season, and January has always seemed to be a weird month whether it was him or Antonio Conte on the bench. But the team has always started rounding into form by February. That’s ... now.
There are 10 days until Atletico Madrid. Allegri has harped for years about how much Juve has to buckle down and focus late in games, but the problems continue. Between this game and the home match against Manchester United, there have been some pretty massive brain farts on this team. At some point you have to start wondering whether the problem is with the players or the man delivering the message.
I’m not saying I’m on the #AllegriOut side of things — yet. But Juve have been coasting on superior talent and individual moments of brilliance for two months now. If Allegri can’t find a way to get the best out of this group of players, which is undoubtedly the most talented group he’s had here, we’re going to have to start asking some more questions.
The team gets a week to rest before heading to the Mapei Stadium to visit Sassuolo. Then the team welcomes Frosinone to Allianz Stadium before Champions League play begins.