Juventus’ game with Parma on Sunday evening took on another level of significance about three hours before it was due to kick off. That was when the final whistle blew at the Stadio Via del Mare in Lecce, confirming a 1-1 draw between the hosts and visiting Inter Milan.
With their closest rivals dropping points for a second consecutive week, Juve was presented with a huge opportunity to stretch their lead from two points to four, effectively giving themselves a one-game margin for error (at least until Lazio play the game they have in hand).
Over the course of Juve’s eight-year reign atop Serie A, they have been ruthless in exploiting opportunities to consolidate a lead. It took some doing, but they managed to do it on Sunday. It was a messy game. Juve dominated possession for long stretches, but they consistently failed to come up with the right pass at the critical moment. They outshot their opponents 17-8, but only five of those shots were on target, and constantly lost the ball through loose passing and bad control. The skeleton of the crisp, precise passing we saw on Wednesday against Udinese was there, but it didn’t have anything to fill out. Juventus saw their defense give a worrying bend once again when Parma put one in on a corner kick, but that concession was bookended by a pair of goals from Cristiano Ronaldo, who has now scored 11 times in the last seven league games. Those strikes and a late rearguard action resulted in a 2-1 final score that did indeed consolidate Juve’s lead and give them a momentary safety zone at the top of the table.
Maurizio Sarri restored a lot of the players who were rested in midweek to the starting lineup, making a total of seven changes and returning to a 4-3-1-2 formation. Wojciech Szczesny stepped back into goal, with Juan Cuadrado, Matthijs de Ligt, Leonardo Bonucci, and Alex Sandro forming the defense in front of him. Adrien Rabiot swung back into the right side of midfield with Rodrigo Bentancur serving the last game of his three-game suspension. Miralem Pjanic and Blaise Matuidi returning to the lineup to join him. Aaron Ramsey stepped into the trequartista spot, while Ronaldo returned from a sinus infection to join Paulo Dybala in the strike pair.
Parma manager Roberto D’Aversa had some injuries to deal with up front. Gervinho, a talisman for the team since they returned to Serie A last year, would miss this game due to injury, as did Yann Karamoh. That meant some switching up to his front line, and a move to a 4-2-3-1 for the first time this season. Luigi Sepe, who at one point was Sarri’s goalkeeper at Empoli, took up his place between the posts. Matteo Darmian, Simone Iacoponi, Bruno Alves, and Riccardo Gagliolo made up the defense, while Hernani and Matteo Scozzarella formed the double pivot in midfield. Soon-to-be Juventino Dejan Kulusevski took up the right wing, with Juraj Kucka and Jasmin Kurtic — usually midfielders who play deeper — manned the positions in the hole and on the left, all behind Roberto Inglese, who was making only his fourth appearance since suffering an injury in October.
The opening half-hour of the game was, at least in terms of possession, a one-sided affair. Juve had Parma sealed in for long stretches of play, but that possession wasn’t paying all that much. Ronaldo had a shot blocked by Alves within the first five minutes, but for the most part they couldn’t produce the final ball. Time and time again some nice moves and sequences ended up being fumbled away by bad control or a poorly executed pass. In fact, for all the defending the visitors were doing it was they who came up with the game’s first shot on target, a long-range effort from Kucka that was easy for Szczesny to handle.
An alarming development came just after the 20-minute mark when Sandro, who to that point hadn’t shown any signs that were visible to the television viewer that he might have been in distress, was subbed out for Danilo and was immediately met by the training staff on the sideline.
In the meantime, Juve continued to keep a chokehold on possession, and continued to frustrate with their final product. Ronaldo managed to finally get Juve’s first shot on target in the 26th minute, twisting and turning on the right side of the box before firing at an acute angle and forcing a smart save out of Sepe. He got his head to the ensuing corner kick but headed it over.
Five minutes from the half Ronaldo got Dybala into a good spot, but his left foot uncharacteristically deserted him and he sent the ball into orbit. But three minutes later the Portuguese got Juve onto the scoreboard out of nowhere. Matuidi had flicked the ball to him just before Darmian could clear it, and he cut in from the left side found himself some space, and sent a shot toward the far post. Sepe was headed in that direction, but the ball hit Darmian in the backside, diverting it in at the near post past the completely helpless keeper.
As Parma headed downfield looking for a quick response, de Ligt and Inglese hit each other hard going up for the ball, and the forward had to be helped off the field with what looked like some sort of core injury, and was replaced by Andreas Cornelius. The effort to respond came up empty, and Ramsey had the chance to put Juve two up at the break when he latched on to a loose ball after Danilo was taken out on the run. Referee Marco Di Bello played the advantage and the Welshman had a sitter in front of him with Sepe rooted to the ground, but he steered it wide. It was a chance that he really should have converted.
Juve forced a succession of corner kicks in the early going of the second period and Ronaldo tried for a repeat of his Sampdoria sky-goal but mistimed it. Six minutes in it was Danilo who nearly got a big goal, taking a back-heel from Dybala and sending a low, hard shot across the goal, but Sepe made an excellent one-handed save.
The inability to extend the lead came back to haunt them four minutes later, when Cornelius took advantage of a physical mismatch produced by Juve’s zonal marking and rose up to head a corner kick into the top corner.
But parity didn’t last long. It was only three minutes before Pjanic snagged the ball back from Parma in their own half and send Dybala running down the right side. He drove into the box and spotted Ronaldo, who was charging through an empty space in the Parma line. He slid him a perfectly weighted square ball, and Ronaldo swept it home with the side of his foot to put the Bianconeri back on top.
Sarri kept the pressure on, sending in Gonzalo Higuain for a less-than-effective Ramsey right on the hour mark. The Argentine almost put the game away within six minutes of coming on, but missed just wide with a 20-yard effort.
Slowly, ever so slowly after Higuain’s introduction, Parma started to finally claw a foothold in the game. And once they finally established themselves, they pushed hard. For the final 15 minutes or so, the team that had been completely dominating possession was suddenly hanging on for dear life.
Hernani started the real siege in the 79th minute with a long shot that Szczesny comfortably held, but the Poland international had to fly for another effort from Kurtic a minute later. Kulusevski started exerting an influence as Parma grabbed hold of the ball, and teed up substitute Mattia Sprocati with five minutes to go, but de Ligt blocked the shot with an outstretched leg. Another sub, Luca Siligardi, had another attempt from range but like Hernani only put it right at the keeper.
Ronaldo made a late play for a hat trick to seal the game, forcing another excellent save out of Sepe at the near post after darting in from the right side. He rose up to meet the ensuing corner, but didn’t get his jump quite right and caught the ball on the temple rather than the forehead, sending it over. Parma had an opportunity in the last seconds of the three minutes of stoppage time on a corner, but the defense held one last time, and when Szczesny put the ball back into play Di Bello blew his whistle, bestowing the reward for such a slog: a four-point lead over Inter.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 7.5. Made a really great save against Kurtic and handled everything else that came his way with ease, although he was the tiniest bit timid on his last intervention of the night when Parma had a last-second corner. All in all did what he needed to do.
JUAN CUADRDADO - 4.5. NOT a good day for Juan. What damage Parma did do in the first half tended to be on his side. He was caught out of position and/or dribbled around multiple times, and while his passing completion numbers were high at 94 percent, the six percent tended to be the most important ones. Everyone has a Day, and this one certainly seems to be his.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 8.5. The Dutchman was imperious today. I hope anyone in the media who kept on feeding the narrative that De Ligt was failing and being forced out of the lineup by Merih Demiral now realizes how stupid they’ve been for the last month. He won four aerial duels and won countless other headers to help seal Parma in, especially in the first half. He also made three tackles, two clearances, two interceptions, and another critical block.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 6.5. Didn’t do anything as specatularly as De Ligt did, but he was steady throughout and also made some daring runs forward, including a run into the center of the box that opened up some of the space that Ronaldo needed for the winning goal.
ALEX SANDRO - NR. I’m hoping his injury isn’t too serious, but given the amount of minutes he’s played this year it really isn’t a surprise.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 6. Another steady performance from the Frenchman, who looks like some consistent game time is starting to get him on his feet. He’s clearly not as comfortable on the right — he rarely uses his right foot for anything other than a short-range pass — but he could have begun to earn himself some more time in his real position over the last four games.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 6. Made two key passes and got his nose in a couple of times on defense, but it felt like he could have taken this game by the scruff of the neck a little more, and he did make a couple of boneheaded mistakes, including his weekly “get dispossessed close to your own box” routine that is really getting old.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 5.5. Yes, he got the assist on Ronaldo’s goal. Yes, he led the team with three interceptions and added a pair of tackles and a clearance. But goodness, his feet are where attacking moves go to die. His first touch is so awful. So many nice passing moves were disrupted because he just couldn’t control the ball.
AARON RAMSEY - 5.5. Missed a chance he really should have buried, and wasn’t really connecting with Dybala or Ronaldo. He was also the victim on Cornelius’ equalizer, although he really never should have been in that position in the first place (more on that later).
PAULO DYBALA - 7.5. Fluffed a couple of shots you don’t usually see him fluff, but he had four key passes and his assist on the goal was excellent. He continues to flourish in his natural position.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 8.5. Two more goals, four key passes, and even a couple of interventions on the back end on set pieces. He’s in a rich vein of form right now.
DANILO - 7. Forced into the game on his non-natural side and had one of his best games as a Juventus player. Nearly scored in the second half and co-led the team in tackles with three.
GONZALO HIGUAIN - 6.5. Had a near miss shortly after coming on and two key passes, but for the most part was trying to help break the team out of Parma’s late surge.
DOUGLAS COSTA - NR. He attempted three passes in his 10 minutes on the field. Two of them were key passes. That’s efficiency.
***BONUS LOANEE RATING***
DEJAN KULUSEVSKI - 6. The way this game developed, it was never going to be the greatest showcase of his skills, but in the last 10 minutes he showed some flashes of why Juve jumped into the race and pipped Inter for his services. Sunday certainly did nothing to temper the anticipation of his joining the team next year.
I hate zonal marking, and I don’t know why otherwise excellent coaches insist on employing it. When it works, it looks fine, but then there are the times when you end up with someone like Aaron Ramsey, a midfielder who stands 5-foot-10, suddenly having to mark a 6-foot-5 mountain of a human being like Cornelius. There are zero scenarios in which Ramsey wins that matchup. It’s madness that any marking system for a set piece would allow that eventuality to happen. I’m not expecting Sarri to see the light and switch to man-marking, but something has to be done to make sure that mismatches like that don’t happen.
I heard the odd rumbling of discontent when the lineup came out and the Big Three weren’t playing together, but in the 20 minutes that they were together on the pitch the team slowly started losing some of its balance. The coach himself said after the game that he introduced Douglas Costa to “balance things out again.” He’s clearly of the opinion that playing the three together for long stretches leaves the team unbalanced, and the empirical evidence is starting to look like it supports that conclusion. We’ll have to see how things work out as the season progresses, but it’s looking more and more like Sarri thinks they should only be deployed all together at the same time.
Juve are now four points ahead of Inter, who still stand in second. Lazio are only two points behind Inter and have a game in hand. Assuming no one drops any points between now and that game and they win it, they’ll pass Inter for second and cut Juve’s lead at the top to three.
The next game on the docket is a home tilt against Roma in the Coppa Italia quarterfinals, followed by Maurizio Sarri’s first trip back to Naples as an opposing manager to face a struggling Napoli side.
Author’s Note: I’d like to take this opportunity to belatedly thank everyone for their well wishes when I got married in August. Becky and I will be taking our honeymoon this week, so Hunter will be subbing in for me on the match reviews for the Roma and Napoli games. I’ll be back in two weeks for the Fiorentina match. Fino alla Fine!