I wish the biggest story to come out of Juventus’ game against Cagliari on Tuesday night was how a badly shorthanded Juventus team went to the Sardegna Arena and played a pretty excellent game and shackled a Cagliari team that had been a tough out at home in a well-deserved 2-0 win.
Unfortunately, the actions of the home fans after Moise Kean scored the team’s second goal to salt the game away makes that impossible. The racist abuse that he endured at the end of the game was an unacceptable stain on things, and will surely be the main talking point about it in the foreseeable future. Suffice it to say, I am willing to wager that there will be far fewer people in attendance at Cagliari’s next home game.
The big story going into the game was just how long Juve’s injured list was. One wouldn’t have been blamed for expecting Alan Alda to show up with a surgical kit. Nine first-team players were unavailable for Tuesday’s game. Long-term absentees Andrea Barzagli, Juan Cuadrado, Douglas Costa, and Sami Khedira were joined on the trainer’s table by Leonardo Spinazzola (nursing a new knee injury), Mattia Perin (shoulder), Cristiano Ronaldo and Paulo Dybala (both with muscle injuries to the leg). In addition, Mario Mandzukic was out due to illness. Massimiliano Allegri was in a serious selection crunch that came at an inopportune time, with Juve staring down the prospect of playing six games in 18 days.
With few options, Allegri opted for an old Juve staple — the 3-5-2. Wojciech Szczesny took up his place as the starting goalkeeper, with Martin Caceres, Leonardo Bonucci, and Giorgio Chiellini forming the back three. Mattia De Sciglio and Alex Sandro served as wingbacks, bracketing the midfield trio of Emre Can, Miralem Pjanic, and Blaise Matuidi. Kean served in the strike pairing alongside Federico Bernardeschi.
Cagliari manager Rolando Maran countered with a 4-3-1-2. Once a promising youngster, Alessio Cragno is now firmly established as the keeper for the Isolani, and he took his usual spot. Darijo Srna, Fabio Pisacane, Luca Ceppitelli, and Charalampos Lykogiannis (say that three times fast!) screened him. Paolo Farago, Luca Cigarini, and Artur Ionita manned the midfield, while Nicolo Barella, one of Italian football’s brightest young stars, pushed forward into a trequartista role. Joao Pedro and Leonardo Pavoletti were paired together up top.
Given the circumstances, you would be forgiven for expecting this game to be the kind of ragged slog that Saturday’s fixture against Empoli was. But while Cagliari did press and mark the Bianconeri tightly, it didn’t end up disrupting things quite as badly as it sometimes does, and all that pressure didn’t turn into any chances in front of Szczesny’s goal. The first chance of the game was created nine minutes in by Sandro, who was marking his 150th game as a Juventus player. The Brazilian’s cross was very good, and Can really needed to do better than putting it way over the crossbar.
Cragno was called into action for the first time two minutes later, when Pjanic sent in an excellent free kick. It ended up going over the head of Bonucci and finding Caceres at the back post. The Uruguayan must have expected Bonucci to get a head to the ball, because it looked he was surprised by its arrival, and he wasn’t able to properly connect on the half-volley and only managed to bundle it forward with his knee. Cragno was caught in the middle as well, and had to dive to his right to punch it away for a corner.
Referee Piero Giacomelli called a decent game on the night, but made some interesting decisions when it came to giving out cards. Early on Matuidi was caught by the studs of Ceppitelli, but Giacomelli declined to caution the defender. He did, however, correctly show a card to Kean after a blatant dive 20 minutes in. It was after this incident that Kean started getting jeered pretty much every time he touched the ball — including by some who went beyond mere heckling.
The teenager had been having a difficult opening to the game. His control and holdup were scattershot, and he missed a pass here and there. But he didn’t let that affect his game, and less than a minute after his booking he pressed Ceppitelli hard near the Cagliari captain’s own end line, forcing him into conceding a cheap corner. As hard as Cagliari was playing during the game’s opening phases, it was a moment of softness that led to the opening goal. Bonucci was left completely unmarked on the set piece, and Bernardeschi’s delivery was perfect. The center back rose up and headed down across the grain, into the bottom corner of the net.
The goal seemed to break Cagliari a bit, and Juve dominated the rest of the half. Matuidi nearly doubled the lead in quick order when he headed a De Sciglio cross just over, and they attacked Cragno’s goal with crosses and channel runs for the rest of the half. Cagliari offered little in response save a single counterattack six minutes from the break, when Pavoletti won an aerial ball against Chiellini and then passed it to Barella, whose neat square in the box was poked just past the upper 90 by Joao Pedro.
The visitors continued to seek out an insurance goal early in the second half. Chiellini appealed for a penalty after he felt he was held on an early free kick, but the VAR official didn’t advise a review. Bernardeschi scuffed a good pull-back by Kean less than a minute later.
Maran’s men got lucky just under 10 minutes into the half, when Lykgiannis, who had been booked in the first half, hip-checked Kean into the advertising boards as they chased a ball along the sideline. The full-back made no attempt to play the ball and didn’t have body position either, but somehow Giacomelli not only declined to give the Greek a second yellow card, but declined to even call a foul, instead awarding Cagliari a throw. It was, frankly, a glaring error.
Given the current situation, the last thing anyone wanted to see was another injury. So the sight of Caceres pulling up and grabbing his hamstring on the hour mark was about as welcome a sight as a feline at a field mouse convention. The Uruguay international immediately signaled the bench that he needed to come off. He was replaced by Rodrigo Bentancur, who slotted into the midfield while Can dropped back to the back three.
Kean had been frustrated in the first half, but as the second wore on he was in the thick of the action. Just after Caceres was subbed off he chased down a long ball, powered his way between both fullbacks, and got himself into position to try to poke the ball past an advancing Cragno, but he couldn’t get much power on it and the keeper managed to bat it off his own defender’s chest before claiming it. With 20 minutes left, Bernardeschi hit him with a hooked shot that looked destined to go in at the far post. He found himself in excellent position for low balls across the box on two occasions, but the deliverers of the crosses, Bentancur and De Sciglio, missed in front and behind him, respectively.
Cagliari, in the meantime, had only managed a pair of shots in the early stages of the period, both of which had been blocked. A free kick lobbed into the box gave them their best chance at punishing Juve’s inability to extend their lead, but Pavoletti mistimed his header and sent it over.
Kean again had a chance to put the game away when Cragno misjudged a long ball and got caught in no man’s land, but Kean’s attempt to chip him was met outside the box by a deliberate — and successful — attempt to head it away. Unfortunately for Cragno, there was nothing he could do five minutes from time when Can stepped up into midfield and released Bentancur down the right side. This time the midfielder’s ground cross was perfect, and Kean had a step on Srna for an easy tap-in.
That’s when the trouble started.
Kean, who had been the subject of fairly constant jeers from the moment he got booked for his first-half dive, stood next to the goal with his arms outstretched in a gesture of challenge to the Cagliari ultras. The entire crowd immediately erupted in anger, and in much of the ultras section it quickly became racial in nature.
The taunts didn’t stop, and Matuidi, who was racially abused in Cagliari 14 months ago, lost it, and required the intervention of Allegri to calm him down after the ball went out for a throw. Giacomelli spoke to several players, including Matuidi and Chiellini, near the midfield line while Ceppitelli went to the crowd and indicated that they should stop.
Eventually, a warning was broadcast over the PA system, but from that point until the end of the game Kean and Matuidi were loudly insulted every time they touched the ball. It was a shameful end to what had been a good match to watch and, given the circumstances, an excellent performance from Juve.
WOJCHIECH SZCZESNY - 7. Didn’t face a shot on target, but commanded his box well. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before this year, but if I have I’ll say it again: Woj has some deep black magic when it comes to time wasting late in games. He’s one of the best I’ve ever seen at it and it’s kinda fun to watch.
MARTIN CACERES - 6.5. Provided some very good marking in the box before pulling up with his hamstring injury.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 7.5. Had one of the easiest chances he’s ever had as a pro on that goal, but he executed to perfection. Completed nine of 13 long balls and was generally stress-free at the back.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 6.5. A tidy game at the back. Shared the team lead in clearances with Bonucci, but it tells you how well the team played that that number was three.
MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - 7. A really fantastic game for him. Didn’t let anything by defensively and proved a pleasant surprise going forward, providing two key passes and a constant outlet on the right side.
EMRE CAN - 8. Should have put his early header on target, but he gets a bonus point for seamlessly transitioning to a center back role after Caceres got hurt. Overall, it was an excellent day, and he was a key part of the second goal, winning the ball and sending Bentancur on his way.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 7.5. The birthday boy provided two key passes and led a midfield that really outplayed Cagliari’s and kept the team on the front foot. Also made a pair of tackles and led the team with three interceptions.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 7. Who do you think led the team in key passes today? If you guessed Matuidi, I’m calling you a liar. Seriously though, he ran all over the place, and nearly got his name on the scoresheet in the first half. An impressive performance, although I wouldn’t be surprised if he got rested against Milan with Ajax looming.
ALEX SANDRO - 7. Did well down the left, especially early on, when much of the team’s attack went down his side. Two of his four crosses found their mark, and he made a pair of tackles as well.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 6. His delivery on the corner for Bonucci’s goal was picture-perfect, but he started trying to go for the hero ball a little too much, especially in the first half, although he would have had a goal had Kean not been in an unfortunate spot.
MOISE KEAN - 6.5. Had a really rough first half, but grew into the game in the second half and could have had more than just one had he managed to beat Cragno on some of those 1-on-1s.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 7. Made two key passes in only half an hour, and did well without the ball to harass anyone trying to dribble. A nice performance after his last few starts have been rather disappointing.
Allegri had relatively few options given how many players he was missing. The only alternatives he really had was playing Joao Cancelo instead of Caceres and playing him either as a winger in a 4-3-3 or as a wide mid in a flat 4-4-2 with Matuidi moonlighting on the other side.
It was a surprisingly effective setup. Juve had one of the better games they’ve had this year against a provincial side, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see this more in the end phase of the season, especially if Juve end up playing multiple dead rubbers at the end.
If I was to quibble with Allegri at all, I would have maybe given some of the B team call-ups a run out after the second goal. The game was safely in hand at that point and letting someone like Hans Nicolussi Caviglia or Stephy Mavididi get a few kicks in and allowing someone like Matuidi or Bernardeschi to kick up his feet a few minutes early wouldn’t have been the worst thing. The Champions League is eight days away and the roster looks thin as it is — it’s imperative to keep legs as fresh as possible.
Juve’s lead is now 18 points, although Napoli will have something to say about that when they visit Empoli on Wednesday. If Napoli win, they’ll be 15 points back with eight games to go, meaning Juve, who hold the tiebreaker over the Partenopei, need just three more wins to lock in an eighth consecutive Serie A title.
The next team up is AC Milan, who visit the Allianz Stadium on Saturday. Then, comes the big one, as the Champions League quarterfinals kick off with the first leg at the Amsterdam Arena. Will Ronaldo, Dybala, et al be ready by then? Soccer gods ... ?