A lot of things about Saturday’s game between Juventus and SPAL at the Stadio Paolo Mazza felt a little off.
You would think that there would be more excitement going into a game in which a mere draw would extend Juve’s historic run of titles to eight straight titles, and set a record for the earliest any Serie A team has secured the title. You would also expect some gnashing of teeth when they lost 2-1 to a relegation-threatened team, postponing those celebrations for at least 24 hours.
But the circumstances surrounding the game were a little different than normal. With a 20-point lead on second-place Napoli in Serie A and the second leg of the UEFA Champions League quarterfinal against Ajax — in which they hold a slim edge on away goals — on Tuesday, the team’s priorities weren’t what they might have been otherwise.
That was illustrated by Allegri’s declaration in his pre-match press conference that “Any Scudetto celebrations will be postponed until after Juventus-Ajax,” and by the players in the team for Saturday’s game — or perhaps more accurately the players who were not in the team. Cristiano Ronaldo, Giorgio Chiellini, Miralem Pjanic, Blaise Matuidi, and Mario Mandzukic weren’t even called up to the bench, while Douglas Costa was rested in an attempt to heal yet another leg problem. On the bench, but not starting, were Federico Bernardeschi and Wojciech Szczesny, and you got the feeling that if anything happened to Mattia Perin on Saturday it would have been Carlo Pinsoglio to get the call and not the Pole.
The resulting starting XI was a mish-mosh of bench players and call-ups from the B team in Serie C. Perin took his place in goal behind a 3-5-2 formation. Mattia De Sciglio started as one of the back three behind Andrea Barzagli, finally returning from an injury, and Paolo Gozzi Iweru, a Primavera call-up making his professional debut who, at 17, is over half the age of Barzagli. Joao Cancelo and Leonardo Spinazzola served as wingbacks, with Rodrigo Bentancur joined in midfield by B team call-up Grigoris Kastanos and Juan Cuadrado, who was making his own return from a long-term injury. Paulo Dybala was deployed in his usual role as a seconda punta, playing off of the red-hot Moise Kean.
SPAL’s Leonardo Semplici countered with a 3-5-2 of his own. Emiliano Viviano took up the starting goalie gloves, with Kevin Bonifazi, Francesco Vicari, and Thiago Cionek in front of him in the back three. Pasquale Schiatterella, Simone Missiroli, and Alessandro Murgia manned the midfield, bookended by Manuel Lazzari and Mohamed Fares. The experienced Sergio Floccari joined Andrea Petagna up front.
Perhaps predictably, given the team’s unfamiliarity with each other, the Bianconeri started off slowly. The young starters did present themselves early, with Kastanos making a well-timed slide tackle to interdict a run forward from Cionek, making up for losing the ball in the first place. Gozzi made some good plays in defense as well, and showed good instincts by shepherding the ball out of play rather than playing it when the situation required it. He also showed an eagerness to surge out of the back to join the attack, but the adrenaline was clearly pumping for him because his attempts at putting the ball over the top tended to fly over everyone’s heads — teammates and opponents.
There was little in the way of serious attempts on goal in the game’s opening phases. Dybala had a shot blocked at the top of the box after a nice dribble nine minutes in, but was charged down and blocked. Muriga attempted an audacious bicycle kick just after the 15-minute mark but got it wrong and Perin was able to easily pounce on it. The SPAL midfielder had another attempt at the back post five minutes later but put it wide.
SPAL started getting the better of proceedings as the half wore on, forcing a pair of blocked shots, but it was Juve who took the lead out of what looked like nowhere on the half hour with a little bit of history.
Cancelo played a one-two with Bentancur, whose good return set up the wing-back’s cut inside. His shot from 25 yards was actually going wide, but Kean sized it up and instinctually stuck out his leg and side-footed it past a surprised Viviano, who was headed in the direction of the initial shot and couldn’t recover in time. It was Kean’s sixth goal in six games for club and country, and he became the youngest player to have scored in four straight Serie A games since the league went to three points for a win. With his sixth league goal of the year, he also passed Alessandro Del Piero’s team mark of most Serie A goals scored as a 19-year-old.
Juve headed into the half leading 1-0 on the strength of that goal, only 45 minutes from making title No. 8 a reality. Unfortunately, just as the A squad had in midweek, the B squad let their opponents right back into the game. It took SPAL only a little longer than Ajax — it was the 49th minute when Bonifazi easily brushed Cancelo away to give himself a free header to tie the score.
The 1-1 scoreline would still have been enough, but SPAL were looking for breathing space from the relegation zone and continued to push. Perin held a header from Murgia 10 minutes after the tying goal, and Juve had very little in response save for a powerful drive by substitute Hans Nicolussi Caviglia that produced a flying save by Viviano. Allegri gave out another debut to Stephy Mavididi, who became the first Englishman to play for Juventus since David Platt in the early 1990s, but Juve wasn’t able to get any sort of attack going. Cuadrado had a shot blocked by Bonifazi in the 72nd minute, with Dybala finding the target for the first and only time on a tame shot from distance on the follow-up.
Eventually, they paid for their inability to create. Unlike the previous goal, which was the product of ineptitude on the part of Cancelo, SPAL’s winner was the product of inexperience. Nicolussi got caught waiting for a SPAL pass to come to him instead of attacking it, and Murgia got to him first, chesting it down and heading into the channel. Gozzi overcommitted to a run outside, allowing the midfielder to tip it inside to Floccari, who took advantage of the empty space and sent Perin the wrong way while the teenaged defender tried to recover. Referee Daniele Doveri was on the comms with the VAR officials before the game restarted after questions were raised whether or not Murgia handled the ball as he gained possession, but it wasn’t even deemed necessary to send the ref to the pitchside screen.
Bernardeschi was thrown on for the last nine minutes of the game to try to gain the necessary point, but Juve couldn’t make any meaningful opportunities until the very end of stoppage time, when Bernardeschi sent in a free kick that De Sciglio got to, but his header glanced wide, and Doveri’s whistle blew as soon as Viviano put the ball back in play, sealing SPAL’s first Serie A victory over Juventus in 62 years.
MATTIA PERIN - 5.5. Couldn’t do anything stranded against Floccari but could maybe have anticipated Bonifazi’s equalizer a little bit more. Held on to the only other shot that found the target.
MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - 6. Led the team in clearances and generally played quite well as part of a back three.
ANDREA BARZAGLI - 6. It was wonderful to see him subbed off in a tactical change rather than coming off with yet another injury. The generally consistent play we’ve seen from him for years now. Kept what was in front of him in front of him.
PAOLO GOZZI IWERU - 5.5. Wasn’t bad defensively — he shared the team lead in tackles — but his passing at anything but an intermediate distance was shaky, most likely due to nerves, and he was a little naive trying to defend the move that led to the winning goal. He looks like a prospect to keep an eye on, though.
JOAO CANCELO - 5. His defense has regressed as the year has gone on. He was completely brushed aside by Bonifazi on the equalizer and put up almost no resistance whatsoever. He was credited with the assist on the goal, but he’s really just lucky that Kean turned in what looked like a bad shot.
JUAN CUADRADO - 6. Led the team in key passes and added a little bit of flair, but he also had a couple of those Juan moments where he got into a good position and turned his brain off. Still, his return is welcome, and that will be especially so if things go well on Tuesday.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 5.5. Led the team with five interceptions, but didn’t really influence the game from the regista spot. He’s not as suited to that spot as he is to the box-to-box role he played so effectively in Amsterdam.
GRIGORIS KASTANOS - 5. Did well when he had to gain the ball, but almost nothing when he had it. He attempted only 19 passes in 60 minutes.
LEONARDO SPINAZZOLA - 5.5. Fine when tracking back but didn’t turn into the kind of danger man we’ve seen him become in his best moments this season.
PAULO DYBALA - 3.5. This was really shocking. Playing in his best position with a dynamic partner, he did next to nothing to influence the game. Dropped back far too deep into midfield to receive the ball, leaving Kean isolated. This could be his worst performance in a Juve shirt.
MOISE KEAN - 7. Starved of meaningful service for the most part, but his goal was not only dead sexy to look at but also indicative of just how good he can become if his instincts are already that good. He had less than a second to react to Cancelo’s errant shot and redirect it home and did it so effortlessly. Give this kid a new contract and the No. 9 shirt, and do it quick.
HANS NICOLUSSI CAVIGLIA - 5.5. Nearly put himself on a Serie A scoresheet for the first time with a piledriver of a shot that Viviano parried, but his inexperience showed when he let Murgia get in front of him to gain the ball for the winner.
STEPHY MAVIDIDI - 4.5. Not the greatest of debuts, as he couldn’t get into position for any shots and made a couple of bad decisions. He’s young and didn’t have a lot around him, so we’ll see how things go in the future.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - NR. Pitched in to give the lineup some punch in search of the late equalizer, but couldn’t do much beyond sending in a good free kick at the end.
There isn’t anything that can be said about Max Allegri other than he handled everything about this game right. It would have been nice to have set the record for earliest ever clincher, especially because it would come at the expense of the 2006-07 Inter team that won the title in the aftermath of calciopoli. But the smart move was to make sure the team’s best performers were healthy and rested for Ajax on Tuesday, and that’s exactly the move he made. It was also nice to see what players we have in the system that might be able to contribute in the near future, and guys like Gozzi and Nicolussi both showed some flashes. Should Juve advance to the Champions League semifinals these kinds of lineups should precede those games as well.
Juve could still set the record if Napoli drop points on Sunday, but even after a demoralizing loss in the Europa League on Thursday it’s hard to see the Partenopei dropping points to rock-bottom Chievo. If they do win, it would make the next opportunity to seal the scudetto Saturday when Fiorentina visit the Allianz Arena.
Of course, that pales in comparison to the task on Tuesday, when Juve take their slim first-leg advantage to the field against a vibrant Ajax team that has more than enough to pull another surprise. It will be an entertaining game — and one that will likely cause everyone to reach for the blood pressure pills.