After a week that saw a drab draw at Fiorentina, a blown lead at Atletico Madrid, and reports of infighting among the teams fans, Juventini everywhere were probably hoping that they’d finally be able to do some celebrating after newly-promoted Hellas Verona visited the Allianz Stadium for the fourth round of the young Serie A season on Saturday.
They ended up able to do just that, but the route to the party wasn’t as straight as they had hoped. The visitors have looked good this year, posting four points in their first three games and making AC Milan work hard to beat them 1-0 last week, and they put in another very good performance in Turin. They worked hard and made Juve sweat for the entire game, even scoring the day’s first goal on a stunning half-volley by Miguel Veloso. But Juve’s superior talent eventually ground them down, and while it wasn’t easy — and required the work of an old friend made new in the game’s dying moments — the Bianconeri were able to secure the 2-1 victory.
Maurizio Sarri had spent part of his pregame press conference on Friday essentially calling player rotation overblown, but the new coach made a raft of changes to his 4-3-3 formation after the effort expended in Madrid. Wojciech Szczesny was given his first day off of the season, so Gianluigi Buffon took the gloves for the first competitive game since his return to the club this summer. It was his 902nd career appearance for all clubs in all competitions, tying the record set by Milan’s Paolo Maldini. The defensive line protecting him was also sporting a new face, as Merih Demiral made his first official appearance in a Juventus shirt. He partnered with Leonardo Bonucci in central defense, with Danilo and Alex Sandro bookending them as the fullbacks. Aaron Ramsey had made his club debut as a sub in Madrid, and made his first start Saturday in midfield, joining Rodrigo Bentancur and Blaise Matuidi. Paulo Dybala also made his first start of the season, taking up a false 9 position between Juan Cuadrado and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Ivan Juric has had has had Verona playing competitive football in the first three games of the season, and he deployed his charges in a 3-4-2-1 shape. Marco Silvestri took charge of the goal, screened by Marash Kumbulla, Koray Gunter, and Amir Rrahmani. Sofyan Amrabat and Veloso played in central midfield, with Marco Faraoni and Darko Lazovic out wide. Mattia Zaccagni and Valerio Verre took up positions behind Samuel Di Carmine, who was making his first start of the year in place of the suspended Mariusz Stepinski.
Juve made things interesting immediately, with Ramsey and Dybala combining on a passing move that sent Cuadrado clean through into the box before the first 60 seconds were off the clock. Full of confidence from Wednesday’s super goal, the Colombian loaded up to shoot, but completely shanked it well off-frame. The visitors responded by gaining a free kick in a good spot, and the delivery went just past everyone in the box, bouncing harmlessly out for a goal kick.
After a quick opening two minutes, the game settled down as the teams began probing for more openings. Just short of 15 minutes, Ronaldo found one when he cut inside and unleashed a long shot that popped over the bar. Three minutes later, he tried to get on the end of a great pass from Cuadrado and tangled with Kumbulla. The Verona player had his arm around Ronaldo, but referee Federico La Penna made no move to make a call.
La Penna was much quicker on the other side of the field in the 19th minute, when Demiral crashed clumsily into Di Carmine, bringing him to the ground. The striker stepped up to take the penalty himself and went to the left. Buffon went the other way, but the shot slammed into the post. It fell immediately to Lazovic, who watched in shock as his attempt to put back the rebound also hit the woodwork, bouncing back off the crossbar. But Ronaldo was jumped trying to run the ball out, and back it came. Demiral headed the ensuing cross out, but only as far as Veloso, who took one touch and then launched a half-volley from 25 yards out that knuckled away from a flying Buffon. It was an early candidate for goal of the year, and put Verona into the lead.
Indeed, Juve were now trailing for the first time all season — but the deficit only lasted 10 minutes. It was Ramsey who equalized, taking a pass from Ronaldo and firing from even further out than Veloso did. The shot took a wicked deflection off Gunter, and by the time Silvestri figured out where it was going it was too late for him to do anything about it, and Ramsey had his first goal in a Juventus shirt.
(On a personal note, knowing the worrying correlation between Aaron Ramsey scoring and famous people dying, I would like to make sure we have a 24-hour watch on Betty White and Mel Brooks in the next few days. Thank you.)
Ramsey might have had a chance to add to his tally in the 37th minute when an attempted pass by Ronaldo was deflected almost directly into his path, but he was looking in the opposite direction and rather amusingly realized what was going on a split second too late. Juve made a couple of forays into the box before he halftime whistle, but neither one of them managed to get into a shooting position before fizzling out.
It was Verona who had the shot right out of the gate in the second half. Demiral’s rough day continued, as he took his time on the ball, considered his options, and decided that he could simply pass the ball straight through the solid matter that made up Di Carmine. This physics experiment ended up unsuccessful, and Di Carmine charged toward Buffon’s goal. He had support but chose to take the shot himself, and Bonucci was able to get back and block it out for a corner. He and his teammates would rue the missed opportunity, because minutes later Juventus was on top.
Demiral wasn’t the only defender having a bad day. Gunter, who had been responsible for the deflection on the equalizer, was forced to chase Cuadrado into the box and took his legs out from under him, leaving La Penna little choice but to point to the spot again. Ronaldo stood over the kick and fired it high up the middle, with Silvestri moving early to the shooter’s left.
Verona were getting their fair share of possession and making some problems, but Juve’s forward line was showing some really good signs of coalescing as a unit. Dybala and Ramsey again combined to create an opportunity, this time for Ronaldo, who saw the shot blocked. Then Ronaldo combined with Cuadrado to release Ramsey in the left channel, but the Welshman couldn’t get the ball onto his right foot until the angle was far too acute, and it flashed across the goalmouth.
But as the game wore on it was Hellas who were causing the biggest problems. In the 63rd minute Zaccagni fired a 30-yard screamer that Buffon did well to parry away, then six minutes later a free kick fell into an awkward spot, forcing Buffon to parry it into his own six-yard box. Di Carmine latched on to the loose ball, but his shot hit Bonucci in the rear end and spun out for a corner. In between Cuadrado came close to hitting one of those diving far-post headers of his off a good ball from Matuidi, but again the angle was a little too sharp and the shot flew across the goalmouth.
Match fitness has been one of the reasons some of the later arrivals to training hadn’t been able to find the field early in the season, and that continued to be dealt with in this game. Ramsey was replaced by Sami Khedira just past the hour mark, with Dybala coming off 11 minutes later for Higuain. The latter was then sandwiched between a couple of Verona defenders on a free kick, and his nose started bleeding freely. He had to come off the field twice to get it stopped up, but generally looked lethargic for the rest of the game, either because he was having a hard time breathing with his nose stopped up or because he was potentially concussed.
Verona was still going for the equalizer, and in the last minute of normal time came very close to getting it. The two Verona wing-backs combined on the play, with Faraoni finding Lazovic on the back end in all kinds of space. Juve had allowed a number of similar plays against Atletico on Wednesday, and here Lazovic had all day to measure the ball and hit a ferocious volley, but Buffon was equal to the task, rolling back the years and denying the Serbian. Veloso had drifted in behind his teammate and hit the rebound first-time, but it glanced off the bar and over.
Juve had the last few parting shots in stoppages. Matuidi nearly rounded the keeper after receiving a long clearance, then a minute later burst down the middle and was tripped up by Kumbulla just outside the box, earning the teenaged Albanian his second yellow card. Ronaldo stepped up for the free kick and, predictably, slammed the ball waist-high into a guy in the wall with what was pretty much the last kick of the game before La Penna blew his final whistle.
GIANLUIGI BUFFON - 6.5. Looked a tad shaky on a couple of free kicks into the box, but delivered two really smart saves, including that 90th-minute effort to save the game.
DANILO - 6. Much better from Danilo. Tied for the team lead in tackles with four, added three clearances as well. Didn’t bring out much going forward, but much improved on the defensive end.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 7.5. Could we be seeing a little of the pre-Milan Bonucci coming out? He was excellent on Saturday, leading the team with five clearances and adding on two key passes as well. He’s beginning to wear the captain’s armband the way we though he would before he left.
MERIH DEMIRAL - 4.5. This looks like a case of first game jitters to me. A lot of mistakes, although he did provide the odd intervention here and there. There will be better games than this.
ALEX SANDRO - 8. A second consecutive immense game. Led the team with four key passes, added a pair of tackles, interceptions, and clearances. Touched the ball more than anyone else on the field.
AARON RAMSEY - 7.5. A goal on his debut as well as two key passes. Constantly made problems up front by dovetailing with the forwards to form passing triangles. If he does say healthy, this is a huge piece for Sarri’s system. Predictably withdrawn after an hour as he continues to build match fitness.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 5.5. A work in progress along with the system as a whole as Pjanic’s understudy. Completed 90.3 percent of his passes, but didn’t seem to control the midfield and make the passes flow the way the Bosnian does in this one. An early exit was a bit of a surprise.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 6.5. Joint-second on the team in key passes with three, and often running into the box to add to the attack. His touch is still just so rough though, it makes for a few blown runs.
JUAN CUADRADO - 8. All over the place in this one — in the good way. A constant threat up the right side and also co-led the team with four tackles. Back-to-back excellent games in the stead of Douglas Costa.
PAULO DYBALA — 7.5. This is what we were thinking would happen. Dybala was fantastic in his first start. He showed some impressive chemistry with Ramsey, repeatedly combining with him to spring a third teammate into space. Also dovetailed well with Ronaldo while playing through the middle as opposed to on the right side last year. His close control was fantastic as well, keeping possession with a couple of nifty moves that just aren’t in Higuain’s repertoire. This needs to stay a thing.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 7. When you finish the day with a goal, an assist, and three key passes it’s hard to give a lower number than this, but this is one of the most underwhelming 7s that I’ve ever given. Took 10 shots but only found the target on the penalty he scored to put Juve ahead and seemed to be forcing things a bit. Still, he ended up making a difference.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 5.5. Felt a little disjointed after coming on for Bentancur early in the second half. Only completed 84 percent of his passes and made a couple of those head-scratcher passes in his own half.
SAMI KHEDIRA - 6. Completed all 12 of his passes, including one key pass. Had to do a lot more defending as Verona pushed for the equalizer late.
GONZALO HIGUAIN - NR. He came on a little bit outside my cutoff for an automatic “no rating” line, but that blow to the head clearly affected him in a way that would make grading his performance unfair. He looked concussed.
We keep getting sneak peaks of what this team should eventually be able to do when the new system is fully uploaded into their muscles and thought processes. The changes Sarri made made things quite interesting. It’s clear that Ramsey is going to be a fit to the way Sarri wants to play. He speeds the ball up when he’s in midfield — seeing what he and Pjanic might be able to do from the start of a game is a tantalizing prospect.
Dybala did the same playing from the start. The oft-repeated idea from last year that he and Ronaldo aren’t compatible certainly started becoming unglued Saturday. Sarri famously turned Dries Mertens from a mildly-productive winger into a high-level goal scorer by turning him into a false 9, and if he uses the same principles here Dybala could have one of his best years.
The defense is still a little bit of a concern, but things are as new for them as they are for the rest of the team, and the set piece defense was ... better? Slightly? Certainly no goals allowed, which helps.
It’s going to be a busy two weeks for Juve. The first midweek round of Serie A comes up this week, On Tuesday, Juve face off against Brescia, in what will likely be Mario Balotelli’s debut for the team. Then Juve welcome SPAL to the Allianz before a home Champions League game to Bayer Leverkusen and then the Derby d’Italia just before the October internationals.