When Juventus issued its starting lineups for Wednesday night’s Coppa Italia quarterfinal fixture against Roma in Turin, I had the same thought that I assume many of you, my dear Juventus fan compatriots, had: that is one tasty midfield.
Indeed, the Bianconeri’s (mostly) dominant 3-1 win over the Giallorossi was in large part fueled by the solidity, creativity, defensive output, and contributions of Adrien Rabiot, Miralem Pjanic, and Rodrigo Bentancur. Each influenced the game in his own way, and we could surely talk ad nauseam about the possibilities of that combination in the center of the pitch if those three are firing on cylinders.
We got a taste of it here in the Coppa Italia — all three are technically solid and possess the ability to carry the ball smoothly throughout the pitch, all three can whip on-point passes around the field, and the Rabiot-Bentancur physicality on the left and right flanks, respectively, pesters the hell out of opponents trying to work through the Juventus defense. What’s more, all three have the ability to slide into that holding midfield slot where Pjanic customarily presides, allowing a tactical and physical flexibility that you don’t get with, say, Blaise Matuidi and Sami Khedira to the left and right of the Bosnian.
First things first, though: before Cristiano Ronaldo’s goal, Roma were the better side.
The visitors stormed out of the gates with confidence, pressing high up the pitch on Juventus, controlling large spells of early possession, and generally looking the better side. Two or three times they played all the way out of the back from Pau Lopez to the front of Gianluigi Buffon’s goal, but were unable to put together the final product. Not having Edin Dzeko in the lineup, who was serving a suspension after last year’s Coppa Italia, did not help Roma.
Roma’s inability to do anything with their possession cost them dearly, because Cristiano Ronaldo collected the ball with what looked to be, at best, a half-chance, and he stuck the ball into the back of the net.
The build-up to the goal was started by a nice Rabiot pirouette in midfield, who then sent the ball forward to Douglas Costa. The speedy Brazilian gave the ball to Gonzalo Higuain, who made a pretty poor pass, all things considered, to Ronaldo. But it didn’t matter. No. 7 frightened the Roma defenders into not defending, and put too much power on his effort to beat the keeper at the far post on the ground.
After Ronaldo’s goal, Juventus hummed for about 50 minutes of game time.
Douglas Costa was out here completing 30-yard outside-of-the-foot passes, Daniele Rugani (yes, it’s true!) was bossing his penalty area like never before, Pipita was holding up play and facilitating attacks like he was three years ago, and Roma started falling apart. A bad giveaway at the back. A yellow card.
Bentancur’s goal, incidentally, came after yet another giveaway from the visitors, who did look completely flummoxed after Ronaldo punched them in the gut. Juve moved the ball through the field quickly, and the Uruguayan did well to give the ball a hardy toe-poke and see it dribble into the back of the net. It turned out to be the game-winner.
The hosts weren’t done for the half, of course, as Maurizio Sarri’s side managed to put another one on the board to more or less seal the game with an entire half remaining. Douglas Costa’s perfect delivery — and Leonardo Bonucci’s cleverly timed run — saw the captain put an uncontested header past Lopez to send the good guys up 3-0 at the break.
The second half, to be honest, was kind of amazing. The game was up and down the pitch. Higuain nearly scored twice. Somehow Rugani made a goal-saving header. Buffon made a couple “wow that looked like an old man in goal making a save” saves and then one spectacular save at the end of play, with just a few minutes left. It was nice to see such a reaction save from the saint.
Roma did, however, threaten pretty severely, and the visitors did also manage to put one goal away. There’s not a lot to be said about it other than this: if you rewatch the play, you’ll notice how literally all three of Juve’s midfielders, one after the other as if in some Three Stooges impersonation, fail to pressure Cengiz Ünder, allowing the Turk to just kind of skim the edge of the box and unleash a nice shot for Roma’s only goal of the day.
All in all, this was arguably Juve’s best game of the year, even if, still, it wasn’t perfectly held throughout the 90 minutes.
Gianluigi Buffon: 6.5 – Old man Gigi wasn’t perfect on the night, and he looked like he’s in his early 40s, but damn if that save there at the end wasn’t worth a little bit of generosity. We may have to figure out a backup goalie for next year, though.
Alex Sandro: 6.5 – Juve’s stalwart left back made a couple of very timely plays in the penalty box, and didn’t really put a foot wrong in this game. At the same time, he didn’t do anything spectacular or aid the offense on the left side. It still seems like he and Cristiano need to figure each other out.
Leonardo Bonucci: 7 – The captain scored a goal and defended well. What else could you want? If I’m nitpicking, the handful of over-the-top passes that failed to connect seemed a little too desperate. I’d like to see Leo be a little more precise on the ground.
Daniele Rugani: 7 – He hasn’t had many games this season, but this was his best of the bunch. Roma didn’t get much of anything past him all game long, and his presence at the back was really impressive. Knowing how little he’s played this season, this was a great sign.
Danilo: 6 – Not a terrible day for the Brazilian right back, but not a great one. You can see why Cuadrado is preferred.
Adrien Rabiot: 6.5 – My favorite thing about Rabiot is his strength. The Frenchman can have two opponents hanging on his shirt, but he’s not going to pull a Neymar and writhe all the way to the bench. He does a lot of things well, and we’re starting to see him stepping up.
Miralem Pjanic: 7 – A methodical game from Pjanic. No huge mistakes, and some nice link-up on the offensive side of the pitch. He seemed a bit freer to move around with Rabiot and Bentancur beside him.
Rodrigo Bentancur: 8.5 – What a display from the 22-year-old. He’s only 22 years old! He doesn’t even turn 23 until this summer! After a performance like that, I’d be willing to wager he’s going to see more minutes.
Cristiano Ronaldo: 8 – Game-changing goal. Cristiano is on a tear. He had another half-chance or two that could’ve carried this streak even further.
Gonzalo Higuain: 8 – A really fantastic game all-around for Pipita. The hold-up play was outstanding, the understanding with Ronaldo was great, and the only reason he didn’t score was because of a great save from Lopez.
Douglas Costa: 7.5 – I love watching The Flash play, but it also makes me nervous because I don’t want him to get hurt. Smart for Sarri to take him out after an hour or so, but his importance was evident from the opening whistle. He offers things that no other player on this squad does.
Juan Cuadrado: 6.5 – Johnny Square was significantly more threatening than Danilo
Aaron Ramsey: 5.5 – I’m still a believer in the Welshman, but he looked a bit lost today. Just keeping him healthy and getting him minutes here and there is going to be the key, in my opinion.
Blaise Matuidi: N/R – Putting in Matuidi to harass opponents for the final minutes of a game is mean, and also awesome.
RANDOM HUNTER THOUGHTS
- Juventus started three Brazilians Wednesday night with Douglas Costa, Alex Sandro, and Danilo. That’s fun! It turns out Brazilians are good at kicking around the soccer ball/football/whatever you call it in Italian.
- For the first 20 minutes of my stream, there was no stadium sound; there was only the solitary voice of the commentator, so that if he wasn’t speaking there was total and utter silence, as if watching the game on mute. Not great!
- Juventus played a 4-3-3 until Ramsey came on for Douglas Costa, and this was my thought: what is it going to take for Federico Bernardeschi to get into one of Sarri’s lineups? If there was every a game to play him in, this was it. Rumors are swirling about No. 33’s future in Turin, and I don’t imagine this game is going to put those to bed.
- Paulo Dybala has been excellent lately, but the rest is probably a good thing for him ahead of Sunday’s game against Napoli. Take a quick glance at the Serie A table: Hellas Verona are two points ahead of Napoli with a game in hand. That can’t be right! Anyway, Napoli is still Napoli and the game is at Stadio San Paolo, so it’s going to be far from a walk in the park.
- The tale of Chris Smalling becoming a very good center back at Roma — which has been extremely true if you’ve followed them this year — is really heartwarming. It’s cool to see embattled players resurrect their careers.
- Juve’s depth is so superior to any other team in Serie A it’s kind of insane, and not really fair. I whine all the time about wanting another top player in the midfield, but it’s also a ridiculous luxury to have the depth we do at the position ... and every position, really.
Maurizio Sarri pulled all the right strings in this game; there’s no other way of saying it. He rested important players in Dybala and Matthijs de Ligt, he experimented a little bit with the midfield, his substitutions were sensible, and he put the players in position to score more goals than the three they did manage to put away.
For all the rumblings there are about Juventus not having an “identity” under Sarri, the man keeps winning. And for what it’s worth, although we may not be witnessing the “Sarriball” of Napoli in years past, I am seeing the club and the manager starting to influence each other, and that marriage is going to lead to some very good places. The Juventus you saw Wednesday night is never something you would’ve seen from Max Allegri (whom, by the way, I love, so please don’t make it a thing that I always hated Allegri or something, because I was defending him for a long, long time). Good things are happening. You can complain if you want, but I’m pretty happy.
Juve take a trip to Naples for a huge game this weekend against a Napoli side that just defeated Lazio in the Coppa Italia (though the game was extremely weird and flukey). The title race is as tight as ever, and keeping the foot on the gas is something Sarri’s men need to continue to do, even as health remains an important factor. Who starts in the midfield is going to be very interesting to watch over the next few weeks as the Bianconeri prepare to reenter the Champions League in about a month.
Fino alla fine.