It wasn’t against the greatest opposition. Heck, it wasn’t even against the greatest opposition’s greatest lineup.
But Wednesday’s Coppa Italia tie against Udinese was the biggest sign yet that this Juventus team has more gears to it. It may have been the most dominant whistle-to-whistle performance the Bianconeri have put forward since the day they subjected Sassuolo to a 7-0 curb-stomping nearly two years ago.
Juventus’ opponents simply couldn’t get anything started. While Udinese held around 40 percent of possession, according to the numbers, their share of the ball felt significantly smaller than that, largely because they were barely ever allowed to do anything with it. Their first shot on target didn’t come until past the hour mark — and that turned out to be their ONLY shot on target in the game. Juve, meanwhile, repeatedly tore their opposition apart with deft passing moves and devastating counters. The game ended 4-0, but could very easily have resembled that Sassuolo scoreline had it not been for the intervention of the goalposts multiple times.
The standout on a fantastic day was Paulo Dybala. Given the captain’s armband with Leonardo Bonucci resting, Manu’s large adult son put on a performance worthy of the totem. By the time he left the field he had scored twice and notched an assist, each of them displaying a level of skill that left your jaw on the floor and your brain wondering why on earth Fabio Paratici had ever considered selling him off over the summer.
This was one of the most encouraging signs yet that Maurizio Sarri’s system might be taking hold. There are certainly caveats — the quality of the opposition certainly being one of them — but as the business end of the season now looms large, the idea that Juve could play like this without some of their best players and running an experiment in midfield just might send a chill down an opponent’s spine.
Sarri made eight changes to the team that had beaten Roma over the weekend. Some were forced. Merih Demiral, of course, won’t play again until next season after tearing his ACL and meniscus on Sunday. Cristiano Ronaldo was also unavailable after coming down with a sinus infection, and a host of regulars like Bonucci, Wojciech Szczesny, and Miralem Pjanic were rested. All the moves saw a slight deviation from the 4-3-1-2 that Sarri has played for several months now and instead saw a move back to a 4-3-3. Gianluigi Buffon started in goal, protected by Danilo, Matthijs de Ligt, Daniele Rugani, and Alex Sandro. Rodrigo Bentancur’s suspension only affects Serie A, so he was available to spell Pjanic in the center of midfield, flanked by Adrien Rabiot on the left and the aforementioned experiment, Federico Bernardeschi, on the right. Gonzalo Higuain served as the striker, while Douglas Costa and Dybala played out wide with significant license to roam.
Udinese have found some form after the dismissal of former Juve player Igor Tudor as manager, but interim coach Luca Gotti did lose 3-0 on this ground last month, and he saw fit to rotate his own squad, giving important players like Rolando Mandragora, Seko Fofana, and talismanic forward Rodrigo De Paul the day off. They lined up in their customary 3-5-2, with Nicolas at the base of it in goal. Bram Nuytinck, Nicholas Opoku, and Sebastien De Maio formed the back three. Hidde Ter Avest and Ken Sema served as wing-backs around the midfield of Antonin Barak, Mato Jajalo, and Wallace. Ilija Nesterovski and Lukasz Teodorczyk made the strike pair.
Juve made a statement of intent within five minutes, with Dybala setting up Higuain at the top of the box, but he scuffed his shot and it rolled easily to Nicolas to claim. Three minutes later Dybala again set up his countryman, this time in the right channel, only for Opoku to slide in with an impressive last-ditch challenge just before the striker pulled the trigger.
Those moves were just a warm-up, however, and no one could do anything to stop the two Argentines when they decided it was really showtime. In a move that started roughly 30 yards from the goal, the two exchanged six quick passes with each other. Higuain’s last one was a little bit behind Dybala and looked to have taken him out of the play, but the No. 10 circled back to it and — without even looking, mind you — hit the ball first-time through a window that had opened up between Nuytinck and De Maio. It was the perfect weight for Higuain to chest it down and then slam it past a charging Nicolas from seven yards out.
It was the culmination of a dominant opening which barely saw Udinese get a touch in the Juventus half of the field, and unlike previous outings where their opponents eventually found their feet, this Juve kept on steamrolling. It wasn’t until the 24th minute that Udinese got in their first shot, and a minute later they found their deficit doubled when Higuain played Bernardeschi in behind the defense. Nicolas ran out to try to claim it but Bernardeschi got there first and the keeper could only bring him down. With Ronaldo out sick Dybala stepped up to his old duties as penalty taker and fired a powerful effort low and to his right that Nicolas had no chance at stopping even after choosing the correct way to dive.
Dybala continued to find Higuain in fantastic positions, but after taking down the back-post cross the latter skewed it wide. Bentancur was more on target in the 41st minute, sending a piledriver of a shot that Nicolas was able to fingertip onto the goalpost, which looked liable to crack in two given how hard it was hit.
Gotti brought in Kevin Lasanga at halftime to try to get some thing going, but it was more of the same in the second half. The opening phases were little cagey, but then exploded in the 56th minute. Bernardeschi tried to shoot from distance after a set piece but the ball was deflected in traffic and landed at the feet of de Ligt, who turned and fired the ball at goal. Nicolas was up to it, but Higuain tucked in the rebound for what was seemingly the game-sealing score, only for it to come back for a very tight offside call.
Undeterred, Dybala took it upon himself to end things two minutes later. Taking a simple pass from Higuain out on the right wing, he settled the ball into his path, then did what Dybala do, lofting a soft curler toward the top far corner. Nicolas flew to stop it and got a hand to the ball, but only managed to divert it to the underside of the crossbar, where it bounced down and into the net.
But things still weren’t done. It only took two minutes to turn things into a full-on rout when a long-distance shot from Sandro was parried back into the Brazilian’s path. He crossed this time, but Nuytinck’s arm got in the way of the shot by Rugani. The ball had hit his chest first, which usually kills any potential penalties, but in this case the position of the defender’s arm was all kinds of unnatural, and referee Gianluca Aureliano pointed for another spot-kick. Dybala could have claimed his hat trick with ease, but instead he ceded the duties to Douglas Costa, who he could tell was about to be subbed out. Costa went the same way Dybala had, low and to the right, and this time Nicolas went the other way.
By this point there was zero doubt about the result, but we saw another encouraging sign as the last half-hour ticked off the clock: Juve didn’t stop. They pressed upfield and poured forward in waves. Higuain forced a point-blank save in the 73rd minute and Rugani really ought to have made it five with a powerful header off a set piece that again assaulted the goalpost. Those two incidents bookended one of the feel-good moments of the night, when Dybala was withdrawn and Marko Pjaca, who hadn’t played a game in a Juventus shirt since before he tore his ACL in 2017, took his place to a nice ovation from the Allianz Stadium crowd.
Juve had one last go at it with five minutes left when Sandro put Juan Cuadrado in over the top, but the Colombian skewed his shot wide. The minutes ticked off and Aureliano (to his credit I think) didn’t even add any stoppage time to the half, blowing his whistle as soon as Lasagna took a last-second free kick and ending a dominant night at the office for the home side.
GIANLUIGI BUFFON - NR. There is no way one can rate Gigi here. He had absolutely nothing to do. WhoScored unfortunately doesn’t give stats for the Coppa until its later stages, but it felt like he touched the ball only about two dozen times. There wasn’t even much need to play passes back to him. This was about as easy a game as any Juve keeper has had since the height of the BBC era.
DANILO - 5.5. Wasn’t terrible on the defensive end, but was a little rough in possession, especially in the early stages of the game. He certainly isn’t any kind of great legendary thing, but at least I don’t get palpitations when the ball goes down his side the way I did last year when Joao Cancelo was doing whatever approximation of defense he was capable of.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 7. Looked pretty good for someone who’s barely played in a month. His shoulder looked healthy enough, but it remains to be seen whether it’ll stay that way if he takes a bump anywhere down the line.
DANIELE RUGANI - 6.5. Given Demiral’s injury and the uncertainty surrounding what kind of production (if any) Juve can count on from Giorgio Chiellini when he gets back, Rugani badly needed this game to go well in order to take some of the pressure off him. For the most part it did. He made a couple of smart clearances and it was his shot that earned Costa’s penalty.
ALEX SANDRO - 7. Made some good runs down the left side and nearly beat Nicolas with a long one that eventually led to the second penalty kick. Completely shackled anyone going up his side.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 6.5. Here’s another player that very much needed things to go right for him today. After failing to adapt to the trequartista role, playing as a mezz’ala might be the only chance Bernardeschi has in having a place in this team. I was a little skeptical, because Massimiliano Allegri tried this once before and it didn’t work too well. This edition, however, was far more successful, and gives him a foundation on which to build.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 7. Boy did we miss this kid. He was all over the place today, constantly winning back the ball and getting it up to the forwards for them to do their work. Oh, and he very nearly broke both the goalkeeper’s fingers and the goalpost with that incredible strike. His return after finishing his suspension on Sunday will be much-needed.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 6.5. Another solid performance turned in by Rabiot, who has now played three games in a row and will almost certainly make it four on Sunday. The consistent playing time is finally rounding him into something like what we thought we were getting when he arrived.
DOUGLAS COSTA - 6. Not a peak performance from the Flash, but that’s to be expected as he gets himself back into game shape after his injury. His penalty was well-taken, though.
GONZALO HIGUAIN - 8. His interplay with Dybala was excellent all night long, and he constantly sliced through the defense and into dangerous positions. The lead-up to that goal is going to be remembered for a while.
PAULO DYBALA - 9. La Joya got the armband and put in a big boy performance today. Not only did he get the job done, he got it done in style. His assist and his second goal were things of beauty, and his penalty was so well taken that it would have taken Inspector Gadget’s extending limbs to have a chance at saving it — and even then he might have snuck it through. This was a top-level performance.
JUAN CUADRADO - 5.5. Didn’t make much threat once he came on and missed a big chance to add insult to injury, but fortunately by that point Juve didn’t need anything heroic out of him.
AARON RAMSEY - 5.5. Also just shy of effective. He repeatedly got into great positions from midfield, but just couldn’t release the final ball in time. That could be a product of his coming back from injury as well.
MARKO PJACA - 5. It was nice to see him back, but he certainly played like someone who was making his season debut in January. He could make for an interesting option to spell people up front, though.
Is this it? Is it finally here?
Of course it’s impossible to say definitively, especially given the level of the opposition they were facing, but you can only play against the team in front of you, and boy did Juve steamroll the team in front of them. The passing was crisper and quicker, the give-and-goes were working really well, and players were finding and exploiting the space that the passing was creating. Even at the end of the match they were still pressing for more instead of withdrawing into a shell the way they did against Roma on Sunday. And it was really evident how much fun they were all having out there.
This is how Sarri likes his teams to approach games. Whether things will stay like this against better opposition than the B team of the 12th-placed team in Serie A is a legitimate question, but Juve have been showing us this kind of performance in longer and longer stretches since the winter break ended, and this was the first time they’ve kept it going for the entire 90 minutes. If this really is it, and Juve really are beginning to click into true Sarrismo, Juve’s opponents could be in real trouble.
Juve will head to the quarterfinals of the Coppa Italia, the stage at which they were knocked out last year against Atalanta. This time around they will play either Roma or Parma, who play each other on Thursday in the final round of 16 clash, in two weeks time.
As for the next thing on the docket, that’ll be Parma, who visit the Allianz Stadium to get the ritorna started in the late Sunday kickoff. That’ll be followed by Maurizio Sarri’s first trip to Naples since leaving Napoli for Chelsea.