You had to think that this was in the cards this weekend.
After the insane effort Juventus made on Tuesday in coming back from a 2-0 first-leg deficit to eliminate Atletico Madrid and qualify for the quarterfinals of the Champions League, there was every chance that the Bianconeri would go into their Serie A clash with Genoa on Sunday afternoon mentally and physically drained. Add in a trip to the Stadio Luigi Ferraris — a difficult place to play even in the best of times — and you had the recipe for a letdown. Indeed, Juve had lost a game to either Genoa or Sampdoria at the Marassi in three of the last four years and have dropped points there in five of their seven championship seasons since the beginning of the Antonio Conte/Max Allegri era.
Sunday’s game added to that statistic. With the exception of a few isolated periods, Genoa had the better of the game from the word “Go.” Juve didn’t manage to put a shot on target, and Grifone manager Cesare Prandelli pushed all the right buttons in the second half — including the introduction of Stefano Sturaro, who scored within 120 seconds of taking the field for the first time since Juventus sold him back to his old club last month to give Genoa the lead — to earn the home side a 2-0 victory.
Allegri made six changes to the lineup that beat Atleti midweek. Cristiano Ronaldo wasn’t even included in the traveling squad so that he could rest after his exertions on Tuesday and ahead of his first Portugal call-up since the World Cup ended. Wojciech Szczesny was also rested in favor of Mattia Perin, who got to play in his second game against his old club. The coach opted for a back three to rest Giorgio Chiellini, with Martin Caceres and Daniele Rugani joining Leonardo Bonucci in the back. Joao Cancelo and Alex Sandro slotted in as wingbacks in the 3-5-2, bookending Emre Can, Miralem Pjanic, and Rodrigo Bentancur. Mario Mandzukic was a surprising choice up front to join stand-in captain Paulo Dybala.
Prandelli countered with a 4-4-2 formation. Ionut Radu started in goal, defended by Pedro Pereira, Cristian Romero, Ervin Zukanovic, and former Juve man Domenico Criscito. Esteban Rolon and Ivan Radovanovic played in the midfield, flanked by Lukas Lerager and Darko Lazovic. The strike pair was formed by Antonio Sanabria and Christian Kouame.
The signs were there early that this wouldn’t be Juve’s day when Sandro — arguably the freshest Juve player on the field after sitting out Tuesday’s epic clash due to yellow card accumulation — was dispossessed near midfield and the ball was matriculated to Kouame, who earned a corner when Bonucci clocked his square ball. Juve target Romero earned a yellow card for taking down Cancelo on the counter on the ensuing corner.
Juve’s passing was rough, and they couldn’t keep much possession for long. Genoa, on the other hand, were finding the lanes through the back three, with Kouame running amok amongst them. In the 16th minute, he took a long ball that slipped in behind Bonucci and tried to cut back inside. Rugani hung with him and got in a good block, but the deflection went straight to Sanabria, who hit a powerful shot from 14 yards that was met by the gloves of Perin, who punched it away for a corner.
Juve mounted their first true threat in the 22nd minute, when Mandzukic and Pjanic played a neat series of one-two passes that finally fed Dybala, whose attempt to shoot with his right foot was blocked by Zukanovic and easily swallowed up by Radu.
The hosts thought they had a penalty on the half hour when a square header hit Cancelo’s hand. The fullback was in the process of jumping and had his back to his opponent, although his arm certainly was out. A penalty call wasn’t 100 percent out of line, but referee Marco Di Bello decided after a look at the VAR screen that it was not worthy of the spot-kick he had originally called for.
But Juve wouldn’t be able to take advantage of the reprieve. They didn’t register a shot in the rest of the half, even though they managed to buckle down and get a good spell of possession toward the end of the period. After a short free kick routine didn’t even result in an effort on goal, the teams went in for halftime deadlocked.
Juve seemed to start a little bit brighter in the second half, and five minutes in they really should have had a penalty when Romero shoved Mandzukic to the ground as he chased a ball over the top. The only explanation for not giving it would be that the ball was far out of the Croatian’s reach, but even then it was a blatant shove by the youngster. Six minutes later, Juve thought they had scrounged out the opener when Cancelo danced down the left side and squared to Dybala, whose shot was deflected past the keeper and into the Genoa net.
But Dybala’s celebrations were short-lived. The VAR official called down to Di Bello to report an tight offside in the buildup, and it was chalked off.
Federico Bernardeschi was sent on to the field just before the hour — a radically early substitution for Allegri this season — while Prandelli made his first move at the same time, sending on Goran Pandev for Sanabria. Bernardeschi’s introduction seemed to change the system to a 4-3-3, with Caceres turning into the right back. The Uruguayan was still going up for corner kicks and very nearly contacted a delivery in the 66th minute, but it was just too tall for him, then Dybala got on the end of a loose ball on another corner but tried to volley it with his weaker right foot, blasting it absurdly into the stands.
With 20 minutes left, Sturaro got the call — his first appearance since returning to Genoa in January. Two minutes after that, he got a simple pass from Pandev and fired a shot toward the far post. It took a bounce, but it wasn’t a fantastic hit, and Perin really should have had it read and stopped it. Instead, it bounded into the net. It was Sturaro’s first goal since 2016, when he tied the first leg of the Champions League Round of 16 tie with Bayern Munich that year.
Moise Kean was immediately thrown on to try to get a spark on the field, but he didn’t see any service to create anything. Kouame was gifted a chance on an errant back pass by Can, but two minutes later the Ivorian charged down the field on the counterattack. Rugani had been forced into playing Kouame in possession or Pandev as he made a diagonal run in front of him looking for a pass. A pass Kouame made, and Rugani couldn’t quite recover in time to get to him to block. There was no stopping this shot, and the lead was doubled.
The last 10 minutes would be a picture of fatigue and frustration. Bonucci lost the flight of a ball and allowed Kouame a free run down the field, but the young forward looked a little gassed himself and couldn’t control his run well enough to threaten Perin. Can then caught Criscito with his cleats and was duly shown a yellow card, and in the final minutes Bernardeschi, who had been so influential in midweek, ballooned a pair of balls miles over any teammate who might be able to play it in the Genoa box. Di Bello blew his whistle for the final time and Genoa celebrated their biggest win of the year, while Juve headed into the international break needing to recover on multiple levels.
MATTIA PERIN - 5.5. The Sturaro goal shouldn’t have gotten into the back of the net. That one moment ruined what was turning into a very good performance, with a couple of excellent saves in the first half keeping the game scoreless. His streakiness isn’t surprising considering the fact that Szczesny has never given him a chance to challenge for the top spot.
MARTIN CACERES - 5. Never really filled in the channels that Kouame managed to run through time and again.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 5.5. Tuesday clearly took a lot out of him. Mishit a lot of his long balls, although he did get back to stop up Kouame’s cross attempts more than once, registering three interceptions and blocking a pair of shots.
DANIELE RUGANI - 5.5. Didn’t do badly defending, but was uncharacteristically wayward with his passing, completing only 74.4 percent. That was somewhat offset by winning seven aerials.
JOAO CANCELO - 5. Not a particularly influential day on the right, creating very little danger and registering only one key pass.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 4.5. Really not his day. Didn’t do much with his passing and couldn’t make much in the way of effective channel runs. He’s gonna be a great player, but today was rough.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 5.5. On the rare occasion that Juve sustained possessions he managed to orchestrate things fairly well, but he and his fellow mids couldn’t make that happen often enough. It’s rare to see a zero in his key pass column.
EMRE CAN - 5. Clearly exhausted after his exemplary performance on Tuesday. Didn’t have the same influences on the game going forward, although he did match the team high in clearances and blocks.
ALEX SANDRO - 5. This was a really disappointing day considering how fresh he was coming in. His attacking influence on the left was almost nil, and he let himself get dragged down a bit by the rest of the team’s performance.
MARIO MANDZUKIC - 5.5. Led the team in key passes (yes, it was two) and worked as hard as he could, but he clearly needs rest more than almost anyone on the team. We’ll see if the international break recharges his batteries a bit now that he’s retired from Croatia duty.
PAULO DYBALA - 5.5. Worked hard to create threats when he could and was involved whenever Juve did do something dangerous. Would’ve changed the game were it not for that very close offside call.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 4. Looked burnt out from Tuesday, and by the end his service was frightfully bad.
MOISE KEAN - NR. My usual cutoff for giving number grades to subs is 15 minutes of field time, but when you only get enough service for four touches it’s hard to judge anything.
LEONARDO SPINAZZOLA - NR. Tried his hardest to create some sort of threat, but by that point the game was beyond saving.
Thankfully, Allegri’s finally being inclined to rotate players. Leaving Ronaldo home was the best decision he’s made on the player rotation front all season, and it was also good to see Blaise Matuidi kicking up his heels. It was a surprise, though, to see Mandzukic play from the start. After the knock he took against Atleti, this seemed like a good time to give Kean another chance to shine from the off. Kudos as well to Allegri to switch formations in order to get some players time to rest their legs. His refusal to do so in 2016-17 led to the forward corps looking like they were exhausted by the time Cardiff came around.
His attempts to change things up with Bernardeschi were likewise admirable. Allegri may currently be on a reprieve from discussions about his job after Tuesday — look out for some ruminations about that during the international break — but this certainly shouldn’t bring them back up too quickly. This had less to do with the team not responding to its coach than it did with sheer exhaustion from the effort it made midweek.
Now, if this starts happening again after the break — especially against Ajax — then there might be cause for concern again.
It’s international break time, so for the next two weeks the team will scatter to its respective national teams as Euro 2020 qualifying begins on the Continent, while South America begins its grueling three-year World Cup qualifying program.
After the break, a home game against Empoli will rev Juve back up.