Saturday’s early-season clash between Juventus and Napoli had a little bit of everything.
Tantalizing look at just how bad Juventus can make even their top competition in Serie A look when they’re operating at full tilt? Check! Inexplicable mental collapse causing fans to slam their heads repeatedly into walls? Check! Improbable last-minute victory? Check!
It wasn’t quite a game of two halves at the Allianz Stadium, but it definitely did have two acts. For the first 60 minutes of the contest, Juve were dominant. The kind of dominant that made the biggest story going into the game — the unfortunate training-ground ACL tear suffered by Giorgio Chiellini on Friday — look like it would be an afterthought. But once Cristiano Ronaldo made it 3-0 with 28 minutes left, the Bianconeri simply switched off. It was a mental breakdown reminiscent of a few of the worst of the later Allegri era, and perhaps an early sign of just how much the leadership of Chiellini is going to be missed.
But this is a team that doesn’t give up, and after allowing Napoli to equalize in the span of 16 minutes, they managed one final push that saw Kalidou Koulibaly’s attempt to clear a free kick instead fly off his shin and into the top corner, giving Juve a 4-3 last-gasp victory and perhaps an early leg up in the title race.
There had been hope this week that Maurizio Sarri would make an early return from his pneumonia recovery to coach against his old team, but ultimately he remained in the stands, leaving the sideline to top assistant Giovanni Martusciello. The lineup remained unchanged from the 4-3-3 that went out for last week’s win over Parma — with, of course, that one glaring exception. Wojciech Szczesny took his place in goal. Matthijs de Ligt was given his competitive debut for Juventus in place of Chiellini, partnering Leonardo Bonucci, who carried the captain’s armband on the night. They were bookended by Mattia De Sciglio and Alex Sandro. Sami Khedira, Miralem Pjanic, and Blaise Matuidi formed the midfield, while Gonzalo Higuain led the line, flanked by Douglas Costa and Ronaldo.
Carlo Ancelotti countered that lineup with a 4-2-3-1 formation. Alex Meret started behind a back four of Giovanni Di Lorenzo, Kostas Manolas, Koulibaly, and Faouzi Ghoulam. Piotr Zielinski formed the double-pivot midfield with Allan, while Jose Callejon, Fabian Ruiz, and Lorenzo Insigne lined up behind Dries Mertens.
Things started rather briskly, with Koulibaly making a statement challenge on Ronaldo three minutes in. The Portuguese star responded to this in less than 60 seconds, taking a feed from Matuidi and firing from distance toward the near post, only for Meret to beat it away.
Both teams then spent the next 10 minutes or so scrapping for control of midfield, and it was Napoli who got the next salvo in, with Insigne driving into the box and then backing it off to Allan, who hit a powerful shot that Szczesny tipped around the post with one hand. Before the corner could taken, De Sciglio hit the deck. He was tended to by the medical staff and immediately replaced by Danilo.
The Brazilian, who has spent the majority of his time with Juventus getting derided by those who still pine for Joao Cancelo, then went on to have one of the best Juve debuts in recent memory.
It started 26 seconds after he was introduced, when Napoli finally took the corner off Allan’s shot. It was a short one that ended up being squared off to Insigne, whose shot from 22 yards hit Bonucci in the face. The rebound flew over the Napoli captain’s head and was tipped to Douglas Costa, who sped down the left side, cut in on a defender, and left it on a plate for Danilo, who poked it in off the foot of a lunging Meret for a goal with his first touch in his first competitive game as a Juventus player.
Three minutes later, Juve doubled their lead from another less predictable source. Matuidi was the man who supplied a simple square pass to Higuain. The Argentine’s incredible turn left Koulibaly bamboozled, and he fired a diagonal shot into the roof of the net. It was his sixth goal against Napoli as a Juventus player.
Shortly thereafter Koulibaly really should have been shown a yellow card after leading with his elbow while leaping for a corner kick and striking Bonucci square in the face with it. This would have been otherwise unremarkable but for what the elbow did to Bonucci. Just as had happened to Chiellini so many times in the past, Bonucci had been busted open, and a few minutes later, was ordered to the sideline by referee Daniele Orsato to stop the bleeding. It was almost a passing of the torch moment.
Throughout this offensive assault, Napoli were generating almost nothing offensively besides a few long-range efforts that never came close to the goal. Juve, on the other hand, nearly had a 3-0 lead in the first half hour when Higuain set the ball on a tee for Khedira, but Meret managed to get off his line and get in the way. Three minutes later Khedira — yes, KHEDIRA — took a pass from Ronaldo, carried the ball to the edge of the left channel, created a little bit of space with a spin, then popped off an incredible lob shot that beat an outstretched Meret only to crash into the bottom of the crossbar.
By the end of the half, Napoli were holding on for dear life. Juve were getting themselves downfield very well and not allowing Napoli a sniff. The half was pretty much summed up when Zielinski fired a shot into his own player. There was a noteworthy moment just before that saw Di Lorenzo get booked for a hard tackle on Alex Sandro. The new Napoli signing had his studs out and the challenge looked like a borderline red in real time, but Orsato opted for a yellow and there was no input from VAR.
So comprehensive was Juve’s control of the first half that Ancelotti was spurred into two changes at the break. Ghoulam, who had been booked and also abused a few times on Napoli’s defensive right, was replaced by Mario Rui, while Insigne was surprisingly withdrawn for the debuting Hirving Lozano.
The Partenopei took the first few shots of the half, but none of them carried much in the way of threat. Matuidi, on the other hand, brought a marvelous save out of Meret. Szczesny was then called into serious action for the first time since his big first-half save when Mertens got himself into the box and slapped a shot toward the roof of the net that the Pole had to tip over the bar.
But just after the hour it looked like everything was done and dusted when Matuidi slipped Costa through down the left side. The winger sent it along the ground with one touch to Ronaldo, who had taken a step back to give himself the room to flick the ball into the net. Rather than use his traditional celebration, Ronaldo made the hand signal for VAR and motioned for the crowd to wait, just in case — a clear callback to the goal he had chalked off by millimeters last week in Parma.
With less than half an hour left, it looked like things were in the bag—but then Juve shut down.
The first wobble came in the 66th minute, when Manolas got on the end of a Mario Rui free kick. Everything about the defending was off — de Ligt let Manolas get a step on him, and Emre Can, who had come in for Khedira six minutes earlier, was a step too deep to keep him onside. Less than two minutes later, Zielinski slipped down the left side and put in an excellent cross to Lozano, who was free down the middle thanks in full part to de Ligt, who was ball watching. Szczesny tried to make himself as big as possible and Sandro scrambled across to try to make some kind of intervention, but Lozano had an easy finish to make it 3-2 and to become the first Mexican ever to score in Serie A.
Juve had suddenly begun to list hard, but Costa came very close to righting the ship immediately, unleashing a long-range piledriver that a flying Meret somehow managed to tip onto the bar. Ruiz launched a similar shot on the other end that Szczesny almost parried into the path of Lozano, but Sandro was on hand to clear it. The left-back then put in a tantalizing low cross from the left side, but neither Higuain nor Ronaldo could get into position to tap it home.
Paulo Dybala made his first appearance of the season with 14 minutes to go as Martusciello opted for fresh legs up front to get an insurance goal. Unfortunately the No. 10 couldn’t get involved in the offense before Napoli completed the shocker.
It came off another set piece — and a rather dubious one, with Sandro being whistled and booked on a challenge that saw him get a chunk of the ball before ever touching Lozano. Callejon took on delivery duties and dropped it in at the far post, where Di Lorenzo bundled it past Szczesny with his thing. Again de Ligt was the defender, but he simply didn’t do enough to keep Di Lorenzo completely covered.
There were nine minutes left in the game, and Juve mounted an assault on the Napoli goal, but didn’t have the cohesiveness or crispness to create the kinds of chances they had in the first half. Dybala got himself to the byline and unleashed a cross into a good area, but there weren’t any teammates there to attack it. Costa got himself on the end of a clearing header right at the end of normal time and fired a shot that flew just over the bar. As the board went up for a surprisingly small three minutes of stoppage time, it looked like Napoli had engineered a huge comeback and that maybe their fortunes at the Allianz Stadium, which had been dismal aside from the last-minute winner Koulibaly had potted two seasons ago, were beginning to turn.
When Dybala earned a free kick a minute into stoppage time, it looked like a last gasp. Pjanic took the kick, but his delivery was a poor one. Koulibaly didn’t have any Juventus players around him as he went to play it. The only pressure he could have felt was coming from the moment itself—and he proved not to be able to handle it. He misjudged the ball badly, and it skipped off his shin towards the goal. The ball went into the place that most strikers dream, into the top corner with hardly any room to spare. The defender sank to the ground in despair as Juve players celebrated. It ended up being practically the last kick of the game, as Orsato only allowed 30 or so seconds more beyond the minimum three minutes, and Juve headed into the locker room jubilant — but knowing there was a lot to work on.
WOJCEICH SZCZESNY - 7.5. Left stranded on all three of Napoli’s goals, and was equal to all the things he did have control over. With Chiellini gone, though, he’s going to have to step up and become the leader at the back that Gianluigi Buffon was for so many years.
MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - NR. Unfortunate that he had to come off early, as he was looking really solid on the right flank, even making a rather outrageous run up the wing that involved flipping the ball about 10 feet over his opponent. With the full-back position so thin, you have to hope his injury isn’t serious.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 6.5. Not a bad day from the man who, you have to assume, will be holding the lion’s share of the captaincy in Chiellini’s absence. He was where he needed to be for the most part all night long. Another man who will need to step up and lead now.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 3.5. Quite good for an hour, but then he fell apart. He led the team with five clearances on the day, but was primarily responsible for all three goals. The second was the most egregious, as he let Lozano go clear after a heavy does of ball watching. It’s clear that he’s still learning what it takes to defend in Serie A, but unfortunately he no longer has the luxury of time.
ALEX SANDRO - 6.5. Provided a lot of danger on the left side, and was solid defensively, providing a tackle, two interceptions, and three clearances. These first two games he’s looked more like the Sandro of old.
SAMI KHEDIRA - 6.5. Didn’t make a lot of passes, but was in some good positions and nearly scored twice. Part of me does wonder if a quicker player would have gotten to that Higuain layoff before Meret got into position to save, but credit has to come where credit is due, and—I can’t believe I’m saying this—Juve lost its hold on the midfield after he left.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 6.5. Kept Juve’s passing attack humming, especially in the first half. Completed 91.4 percent of his passes overall and added three interceptions.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 6.5. Another surprise, because Matuidi created a lot of Juve’s most dangerous attacks. He finished tied for the team lead in key passes (3) and tackles (2), although you do wonder if he’s still in the shop window before Monday’s transfer deadline.
DOUGLAS COSTA - 8. Two assists, three key passes, and constant danger on both sides of the field. Denied a goal by a fantastic save by Meret, and came very close to the winner at the end as well. He’s going to thrive in this system.
GONZALO HIGUAIN - 7.5. That turn on Koulibaly was really something else, and he also had a couple of nice setup passes. Could he be finding his old magic again?
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 7.5. Had a pair of key passes in addition to his goal. A good all-around night for the legend.
DANILO - 8. Scored with his first touch and didn’t put a foot wrong after that. Made two tackles, two interceptions, and four clearances, and made some more defensive plays that won’t show up on the stat sheet but made huge impacts, particularly denying several crosses at the point of origin. Supplied a couple of dribbles in support of Costa on the right as well.
EMRE CAN - 4. Didn’t look very good at all. Misjudged passing lanes on defense and didn’t make much impact at all on the attacking end. Juve’s control of the game ended when he checked in.
PAULO DYBALA - NR. Didn’t get much service to work with as the false nine upon his entry, but he worked for what he did get and drew the foul that prompted the winning own goal. He should be able to play easier now that Fabio Paratici has ruled out his departure this summer.
It’s so hard to critique the game management knowing that Sarri isn’t the one making real-time decisions. Over the last two weeks fans everywhere have been upset with the continued reliance on Matuidi and Khedira in midfield, but the two delivered in a big way Saturday. Eventually, Adrien Rabiot ought to move past one of them on the depth chart by the middle of the season, and Rodrigo Bentancur needs to be given a chance to continue his development as well, but for now, with Sarri on the mend and the system still in the earlier stages of installation, the staff seems to be opting for continuity. It worked Saturday — but that doesn’t mean this will be the best lineup all year.
The collapse in the second half, though, was unacceptable, and perhaps a holdover from Allegri, who in his later years seemed fine with doing the bare minimum to win a game. One does have to wonder whether the presence and leadership of Chiellini would have prevented such an occurrence. There are a couple of players that are going to have to step up in his absence and provide that on-field leadership, lest another of these brain farts occur at an inopportune time.
Traditionally, Serie A starts later than the rest of Europe. That gives us another wonderful tradition: an international break after only two games. The international players will scatter to their respective teams over the next week, and once league play resumes Juve will have another high-intensity game on their hands in a trip to Fiorentina.