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Uninspired Juventus fall to efficient Napoli at the San Paolo

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Juventus followed one of their best performances with one of their worst performances.

SSC Napoli v Juventus - Serie A Photo by MB Media/Getty Images

Here’s the good news: I am speaking in absolutely literal terms when I inform you that more than 3,000 days have passed since Inter Milan have won a trophy.

Here’s the bad news: Napoli beat Juventus 2-1 on Sunday, and other than a last-gasp connection between Rodrigo Bentancur and Cristiano Ronaldo in the waning, putrid moments of the game, the hosts completely outplayed the reigning champions at the San Paolo in Naples.

From the opening whistle, frankly, Juventus did not look up to snuff in this game. The team looked completely out of shape. Blaise Matuidi, probably the least valuable player for the Bianconeri, repeatedly found himself drifting to the center or even right-hand side of the pitch. Paulo Dybala was pushed to the chalk. Gonzalo Higuain and Ronaldo were both completely isolated. Miralem Pjanic and Bentancur had very few options other than going back to the Juventus center backs, and that was that.

Here’s one thing we probably ought to do, though, no matter how sour it feels: give Napoli credit. Without some of their best players, Gennaro Gattuso’s side dug in deep and defended the hell out of Juventus, and did what Juventus often does to other teams by taking advantage of one — or, as it happened in this case, two — critical mistakes to score a goal.

When the ball landed with Matuidi on the left side of the pitch in a decent attacking position for Juventus, surely we all thought, “Look, there’s a pretty wide-open Paulo Dybala ready to receive a pass and put some sort of effort on goal,” but, sadly, the universe, and Blaise Matuidi, had other plans.

The oft-maligned Frenchman proved to his detractors why many Juventus fans wonder about his constant presence on the pitch. Not only did he miss a pass to No. 10, but he sent a horrible, no-good, infinitely errant cross into the center of the pitch for the opposition to collect without missing a step and start a counter-attack. That was the first mistake.

The second mistake was Wojciech Szczęsny deflecting rather than catching what appeared to only be a medium-powered shot from Lorenzo Insigne; I understand it’s easier said than done to make that kind of catch, but the Polish shot-stopper has been a reliable presence in the net and that shot seemed like something he’d pin down a fair amount of the time. But Szczęsny didn’t just not catch it; he pawed it straight to a waiting Piotr Zieliński, left unguarded by Juan Cuadrado.

The second goal occurred when Juventus seemed ready to be defeated, a fact made all the more unfortunate by Ronaldo’s would-be tying goal just a few minutes later. As reality would have it, Arkadiusz Milik sent a shot wide in the sliver of space between Szczęsny and Alex Sandro, and José Callejón retrieved the ball, sent an untouched cross into the middle, and the man from Naples himself made no mistake with the opportunity to put the game away.

This loss is going to hurt for a lot of reasons; it’s going to hurt especially for Sarri, making his return to Naples, and for Higuain, making another return, and for the team in general, which failed to take advantage of both Inter and Lazio dropping points earlier in the day. The loss is not season-ending. It is not reason to burn the roster to the ground and start over. But it should, if nothing else, sound the alarm.

Napoli performed well, but Juventus looked uninspired, tepid, and unimaginative. There was no fire in the heart, no grinta. If the Bianconeri want to make noise in the Champions League, the Coppa Italia, or even the league race, they need to rediscover that motivation.

SSC Napoli v Juventus - Serie A Photo by Daniele Badolato - Juventus FC/Juventus FC via Getty Images

LE PAGELLE

Wojciech Szczęsny: 4.5 – You could see how angry Szczęsny himself was after the goal, as he pulled the ball from the back of the net and booted it down the field. In the end, he didn’t have too much work to do, but he made a costly mistake when his side needed him.

Alex Sandro: 6 – A decent day for Juve’s rock at left back, though he offered nothing extra in a day when the attack needed it.

Leonardo Bonucci: 6 – The center backs didn’t have too much to do, but one thing that I would like to see more from Bonucci is creativity in his distribution. We know he has the ability.

Matthijs de Ligt: 6.5 – I thought de Ligt was one of the best players on the pitch for Juventus, though that’s not saying a lot. It was unfortunate that the second goal deflected off his foot. The Dutchman showed good aggression and intelligence on a number of plays.

Juan Cuadrado: 5 – Not the best day for the Colombian, who hasn’t regained that early-season form we were hoping he’d continue.

Blaise Matuidi: 4 – The cross that sparked the Napoli counter-attack was really one of the worst passes I’ve seen in a long time. That was far from Matuidi’s only mistake of the game. He was out of position constantly.

Miralem Pjanic: 5.5 – For everyone’s sake we hope Pjanic isn’t seriously injured, but it must be said that Juventus didn’t get much worse without the Bosnian on the field. We need the metronome back.

Rodrigo Bentancur: 6.5 – For me, Juve’s best player of the day next to de Ligt and Ronaldo. He wasn’t perfect, but he provided the gorgeous assist to Ronaldo and led the team in tackles. In a very short amount of time, we may find that Bentancur is indispensable.

Cristiano Ronaldo: 6.5 – The streak goes on, but for most part Juve’s best player couldn’t get anything going.

Gonzalo Higuain: 6 – Twenty-four touches for Pipita in another return to Napoli is terrible. He had one glorious touch early in the first half to spring Dybala free for a moment, but other than that he had no chance really to get involved.

Paulo Dybala: 6 – I don’t imagine Dybala was happy getting subbed off, and I wonder if Higuain maybe wasn’t the right person to step off the field instead of No. 10. In the end, it doesn’t matter, and Dybala wasn’t particularly effective.

SUBS

Adrien Rabiot: 6 – Rabiot should’ve been on the pitch instead of Matuidi. If I wasn’t convinced of that fact earlier in the season, I am now.

Douglas Costa: 6 – The tiny Brazilian was about as effective as Juve’s other attackers, which is to say not effective in the least. Would’ve liked to see him come on the pitch earlier.

Federico Bernardeschi: N/R – He got a yellow card. Did he do anything else?

MANAGER ANALYSIS

As I said at the beginning of this recap, even the layman could tell that Juventus were not anywhere near sniffing success in the final third in this game. Keep in mind that Kalidou Koulibaly was out injured for Napoli, and Juve’s only goal came from an over-the-top ball — pretty as it was — from Bentancur to Ronaldo. That’s not Sarriball, and that’s not sustainable.

SSC Napoli v Juventus - Serie A Photo by Daniele Badolato - Juventus FC/Juventus FC via Getty Images

I fault Sarri in this case for not responding in his attacking game plan when it clearly wasn’t working. I suppose he was hoping for a 0-0 game to be broken eventually by a moment of magic from Ronaldo or Dybala, but, correct me if I’m wrong, isn’t Sarri’s whole thing to outscore the opponent and not think too much about the clean sheet? A week after a very successful showing of a Rabiot-Pjanic-Bentancur midfield, Sarri elected to reinsert Matuidi back into the lineup instead of his compatriot, and Juventus paid the consequences. I’ve defended the Frenchman in the past, but he was abysmal in Naples, constantly out of position and committing a fairly egregious turnover that led to Napoli’s counter-attack and first goal.

LOOKING AHEAD

Mercifully, Sarri’s men don’t have a midweek game for the next two weeks, with back-to-back games against Fiorentina (in Turin) and Hellas Verona (away from home) on the schedule before things get very busy again with the Coppa Italia and, later in February, the return of the Champions League.

I don’t know that Juventus should go into full-on panic mode; that seems premature and a bit unfair to some performances earlier in the month. The team and manager should, however, spend seven full days dissecting exactly what went so wrong with the attack, which seemed so, so flaccid for the entire game minus a single play.