One would have been forgiven for expecting Sunday’s match between Juventus and Napoli to be low on the anxiety scale. With 13 points separating the two teams, even a Napoli win would have done little to immediately impact the race for the scudetto this year.
So, of course, the two teams played a game that ratcheted up the blood pressure for all involved. Referee Gianluca Rocchi had a very busy night, showing a pair of red cards and numerous yellows. Virtually the entire second half was played with 10 men apiece, adding an unusual twist for a game that grew in intensity until Rocchi lost control of things a bit at the end. At the end of the day, hearts were in mouths and there were more than a few lamentations on both sides, but Juve managed to weather a massive storm and escape the Stadio San Paolo with a 2-1 victory, stretching their lead to 16 points and, for all intents and purposes, clinching their eighth straight Serie A title.
Massimiliano Allegri spent most of his pre-match press conference talking about Atletico Madrid and the fact that he’d deactivated his social media accounts, but had some decisions to make after Juve’s limp win at Bologna a week ago. He settled on his usual 4-3-3, with Wojciech Szczesny reclaiming his spot in goal behind the back four of Joao Cancelo, Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini, and Alex Sandro. Emre Can started in midfield alongside Blaise Matuidi and a healthy-again Miralem Pjanic, while Federico Bernardeschi got the nod ahead of Paulo Dybala up front, joining Mario Mandzukic and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Carlo Ancelotti, meanwhile, looked for his first victory over Juve as Napoli manager with his usual 4-4-2. Alex Meret missed the first game between these two at the Allianz Stadium, but was between the sticks for this one. Top center-back Kalidou Koulibaly was without his usual partner Raul Albiol due to injury and was paired with Nikola Maksimovic instead, with Kevin Malcuit and Elseid Hysaj flanking them in the full-back spots. Fabian Ruiz and Allan formed the midfield pair, sandwiched in between Jose Callejon and Piotr Zielinski. Arkadiusz Milik got the nod up front alongside new Napoli captain Lorenzo Insigne, pushing the misfiring Dries Mertens to the bench. It was the first time in nearly 30 competitive games that Napoli played a game against Juve without Marek Hamsik.
The game started with cautious attacks on both sides. Bernardeschi tried to take a shot on a short free kick play four minutes in, but saw his effort blocked by Zielinksi. The Pole got in Napoli’s first real shot just after the 10-minute mark when Bonucci’s flubbed attempt to control a cross from Hysaj fell right to him, but he couldn’t get his shot to curl and it flashed wide of his countryman’s post.
Sandro blocked a Mancuit cross for a corner just before the clock hit 13 minutes, which provided a nice natural stopping point as play was halted and the image of the late Davide Astori, who died a year ago this week, was displayed on stadium video screens. This tribute had been held league-wide all weekend, and spectators and players alike rose to their feet and applauded for nearly a full minute for a well-respected man that left us far too soon.
The game was still at a cagey stage when a massive mistake by Malcuit looked to have turned the game onto its head. The young Frenchman had received a pass from Meret and tried to play it back to him, only to leave it far short, allowing Ronaldo to jump in and snatch the ball just outside the penalty area. Meret ran out to intervene and slid for it. Ronaldo ended up flying through the air and crumpling to the ground. Any contact between the two was the barest of a whisper, but Meret had certainly impeded the forward, and Rocchi immediately showed the keeper a red card for denying Ronaldo a clear goal-scoring opportunity. After the game Ancelotti accepted the foul call but disputed the idea that Meret was the last man, but the VAR official did not call for a review, and the 21-year-old headed for an early shower.
His manager chose to sacrifice Milik for backup goalkeeper David Ospina, and this ended up costing Napoli dearly on the ensuing free kick, which Pjanic fired over the head of Zielinski — who had been standing in the place in the wall where the much-taller Milik would have been — and past Ospina, who managed to get a finger to it but could do absolutely nothing to alter its path. It was Pjanic’s second goal of the year and Juve’s first off a direct free-kick all year.
Maybe now we can see a little less of Ronaldo standing over these?
Now a man up, the next few minutes played out distressingly similarly to the second half of last April’s match against Inter at the San Siro. Napoli very nearly equalized within seconds of play restarting, when Cancelo whiffed on a long pass from Ruiz to Zielinski only to see the midfielder hit his shot flush against the post. It looked for a little while that without Milik as a reference point Juve weren’t sure where their assignments were, and more than a few times they lost midfield runners as they charged into the channels. Insigne went for a low shot from a free kick on 37 minutes, but it was well-held by Szczesny.
But Juve managed to correct their list after a wobbly 10 minutes, and doubled their lead thanks in large part to the work of Bernardeschi. The winger earned a corner on the right side, and Juve rolled the ball through for Pjanic, whose fierce shot was parried well by Ospina for another corner. This one was taken short, and Bernardeschi swung a cross to the back post, where Can was waiting completely unmarked. His header took a wicked deflection off the head of Hysaj, but it was going in regardless. The only question was what part of the net it was going to hit. Can peeled away and pulled a powerslide to celebrate his third strike of the year.
Going into the half the game looked fairly cut-and-dried. A two goal lead with a man advantage, even in a place as difficult to play in as the San Paolo, is usually a fairly safe bet. Ancelotti went for broke at halftime by sending on Mertens for the unfortunate Malcuit, but that would only open more holes for the Juve attack.
Of course, all that was said in the last paragraph would only apply if Juventus maintained that man advantage. Unfortunately, it only lasted about 90 seconds when Pjanic, who had been booked with 10 minutes left in the first half for taking down Callejon, had a complete brain fart and committed a needless handball in midfield to earn his second yellow card.
Napoli immediately reacted, and this time they completely bottled Juve into their own defensive third. A midfield that was already having some issues in terms of controlling the match was now completely overrun without Pjanic on the field, and there was no breaking out. Napoli’s center-backs charged out from the back to join the efforts and contribute to the overwhelming numbers that the midfield had to deal with. Szczesny came out authoritatively to deal with numerous crosses, but a moment of indecision just after the hour saw him caught in no man’s land on a ball from Insigne on the left, and Callejon did what he always seems to do against Juventus: ghost in from the flank and tap home from a cross. The Spaniard cut the lead to 2-1, and it was truly game on.
Juve mustered one response immediately after the restart that might have seen the situation return to game off, but Ronaldo completely missed Bernardeschi wide open in the right channel. A simple pass would have put him 1-on-1 with the keeper, but Ronaldo got selfish and never picked up his head, instead firing it into a crowd for it to be blocked by Maksimovic. It was an almost unforgivable missed opportunity, and Juve would have their backs to the wall for the rest of the night.
Allegri had reacted to the goal by replacing Cancelo with the more defensive-minded Mattia De Sciglio, but the usually solid fullback was a bit shaky at the start, giving the ball away for Zielinski to fire on goal, only to see Szczesny save. Two minutes later his countryman denied him again, this time from a tight angle.
The introduction of Rodrigo Bentancur finally saw Juventus stabilize a little bit. Napoli was still penning them in, but they weren’t scrambling as much. The Uruguayan immediately blocked a shot, and while there were still some questionable decisions from players in terms of passing and/or holding the ball until they were dispossessed under pressure, the back line began doing a better job dealing with the pressure and Juve even managed a brief run or two with the ball into the Napoli half.
It was the 82nd minute when Rocchi was once again put front and center. Another Napoli corner flew to the far post, and Ruiz lashed a volley that hit Sandro. A few Napoli players threw up their hands appealing for a handball — although interestingly not the man who took the shot who immediately gathered the ball and ran for the corner flag. But, Rocchi stopped him and eventually signaled for a review. Sandro’s arm was definitely in an unnatural position, but it looked like the ball had hit his chest before his arm, which would negate any infraction. Rocchi returned to the field pointing to the spot, leaving Sandro bewildered —and booked — and Napoli with a golden chance to tie the game.
That chance fell to Lorenzo Insigne.
The Naples native has often been accused of disappearing at vital moments, particularly for the Italian national team, and he fell short again here. He sent his penalty to the keeper’s left but slammed it off the post — and even if it had been on target Szczesny had sussed him out and would likely have had it covered for the save. It was perhaps the right result given the dubious nature of the penalty.
Frustration gripped the Partenopei at this point, and Koulibaly really should have been sent off after first sliding into Can (who, it must be said, bought the defender a card by dropping his foot and tumbling to the ground) and then legitimately chopping down Dybala, who had been introduced for the last five minutes, off the ball. That foul produced a scuffle between Allan and Bentancur that produced yellows for both, then Napoli proceeded to show some bad sportsmanship when they failed to return the ball to Juve after the Bianconeri had put it out for Dybala to get some attention.
Five minutes of stoppage time were added on, and Napoli nearly got one last opportunity to draw level with seconds left when a ball fizzed into the box and pinged around, but Insigne couldn’t get on it and it was run out to safety, and Rocchi ended the game, and the title race, seconds later.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 7. Made a serious mistake on Callejon’s goal, but otherwise was a rock back there. Authoritative in dealing with crosses and made some really great saves. It also has to be said that he would have had Insigne’s penalty covered if it had been on target.
JOAO CANCELO - 5. He didn’t have much impact on the attacking side even before Napoli began its siege, and a couple of defensive whiffs put his fellow defenders in rough spots. A yellow card means he’ll be suspended for Friday’s match against Udinese, so he should be well-rested for the second leg against Atletico Madrid.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 6. Nearly gifted Zielinski the opener in the early stages, but did his part during the most desperate times of the game, recording a ridiculous six blocked shots.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 6. Made seven clearances and was sharp to a ton of loose balls, but he did let Callejon get behind him for the goal.
ALEX SANDRO - 6. The penalty call against him was at least a little questionable, and he did make six clearances to go along with three tackles. Also threw in a key pass on the other end.
EMRE CAN - 6.5. He gave away possession a few times too many in the second half, but also made a team-leading five tackles and took his header well for the goal.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 5. I figure a grade smack dab in the middle is probably the fairest way to go here. His free kick was sublime, but the handball that led to his dismissal was absolutely mindless. At least with him suspended on Friday he’ll be rested for Atleti.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 5.5. There were a few too many long-range shots from his side of midfield that were the result of him not closing people down.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 6.5. An excellent cross for what turned out to be the winning goal, and he led the team in key passes (yes, I know, it was only two). He was a little bit shaky defending when pinned back, but he carried most of the team’s threat when they managed to get into the Napoli half.
MARIO MANDZUKIC - 5.5. Rather starved of any service, but he did set up a nice chance for Ronaldo (who promptly fluffed it) and his defensive service tracking back is always invaluable.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 5. He did so little. Had a great opportunity around the 35-minute mark with a Mandzukic square ball, but completely mis-kicked it, and missing Bernardeschi in the Napoli box right after Napoli’s goal was completely inexcusable. All in all, he only had five more touches than Szczesny. He’s looked slow for weeks and needs rest. If he plays on Friday, Allegri should be summarily dismissed.
MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - 5.5. Uncharacteristically rough after being plopped into the middle of a siege situation, and gifted Zielinski some nice chances before settling in a bit later on.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 6. A bit of a settling influence in the midfield, allowing the defense to settle in a bit even though they were still on the back foot. Made four clearances and blocked a shot in 17 minutes of work, and also won a pair of aerials.
PAULO DYBALA - NR. On to close things out in attack and got crushed by Koulibaly for his trouble.
Allegri’s starting lineup can’t really be criticized here. He put out a good lineup, and they were holding their own for the most part in a really difficult place to play. The incidents went his way until they didn’t, but it was then that he maybe made a mistake. I was surprised that he didn’t decide to put Bentancur on earlier than he did. With a two-goal lead he could have afforded to give someone like Mandzukic or, even better, Ronaldo, an early break to give the midfield an extra body.
That midfield was already having problems exerting control over the game when both teams were at full strength and even for a period when Juventus was a man up. With only two in the midfield it wasn’t going to be a contest at 10 v. 10, and introducing a new midfielder might have nipped the siege in the bud and made things a little more even in the second half.
The midfield is going to be the center of attention 10 days from now. As Gaby McKay of Football Italia said while analyzing the game, as the season has gone on Allegri’s team has looked less and less able to take control of games, and unlike previous years, when Allegri managed to find the magic bullet to the season by the winter break, it doesn’t seem like there’s any solution forthcoming. If Allegri can’t find a way to take a game by the scruff of the neck, the prospects against Atleti look exceedingly bleak.
The league race is, for all intents and purposes, over. Juventus have a 16-point lead over Napoli as well as the tiebreaker. With 12 games remaining, Juve are essentially six wins away from mathematically clinching their eighth straight title.
The first step on that road is Udinese, who visit the Allianz Stadium on Friday. Then, the game of the season comes against Atletico Madrid, as Juve try to overturn a 2-0 deficit and muscle their way into the quarterfinals.