I think it’s fair to assume that after a disappointing end to 2019, a lot of Juventus fans were awaiting the resumption of play after the winter break with bated breath. Would the time off to recuperate and train eliminate the uncharacteristic mistakes the team had been making in the back? Would Sarrismo work its way into the players’ bones in a way that could manifest in more than fits and starts? Would Juve finally become the kind of team that would ease past lesser competition?
To be fair, Monday’s opponent, Cagliari, didn’t exactly qualify as lesser competition — not this year, anyway. The Isolani came into the game in sixth place, with a real opportunity to qualify for European competition for the first time in a quarter of a century. History wasn’t on their side, though — they hadn’t won a game against Juventus since November 2009, a victory engineered, ironically enough, by Massimiliano Allegri and that featured Alessandro Matri on the scoresheet for Cagliari — but this team had been formidable all year long. They fired off a long winless run from the middle of September to the beginning of December, and even though they came into the game on a two-game losing streak, they were a formidable bunch, with Radja Nainggolan and Joao Pedro forming the base of a potent attack.
But the home team was able to blunt that attack on Monday. Juve allowed the Sardinians few real opportunities in the first half en route to a badly-needed clean sheet. The attack looked a bit sputtery in the first half, but clicked into gear after the visitors made a crucial early mistake and ended up overrunning their opponents, as Cristiano Ronaldo recorded his first Serie A hat trick en route to a 4-0 victory.
Maurizio Sarri was a bit limited in his selection in midfield with Sami Kherida on the long-term injury list and Rodrigo Bentancur suspended, while Giorgio Chiellini was still in rehab for his ACL injury. That didn’t stop him from staying with the 4-3-1-2 formation that has now become his standard. Wojciech Szczesny took his usual place in goal, with Juan Cuadrado, Merih Demiral, Leonardo Bonucci, and Alex Sandro forming the defense in front of him. Adrien Rabiot took Bentancur’s spot on the right side of midfield, joining Miralem Pjanic and Blaise Matuidi. Sarri eschewed the top attacking trident that he experimented with for much of December and instead installed Aaron Ramsey in the hole behind Ronaldo and Paulo Dybala.
Cagliari’s Rolando Maran usually used a similar setup, but tweaked things on this occasion to a 4-3-2-1 Christmas tree. Robin Olsen took up the starting gloves in goal. Fabrizio Cacciatore, Ragnar Klaven, 19-year-old debutant Sebastian Walukiewicz, and Juve loanee Luca Pellegrini formed the defense. Marko Rog, Luca Cigarini, and Nahitan Nandez formed the midfield, while Nainggolan and Pedro backed up Giovanni Simeone up top.
The game started cagey, as Juventus probed against a well-organized Cagliari defense. Eventually Juve found the game’s first shot in the ninth minute, when Sandro latched on to the back end of a cross from Cuadrado and twisted to get a shot off, missing the mark high. Two minutes later Ronaldo stood over a long-distance free kick and...slammed a long shot into the wall. New year, same result in that department.
Ronaldo had a better sight at goal on the quarter-hour when Ramsey flipped a through ball from Dybala into his path, but Walukiewicz managed to block his shot. The Welshman then had a couple of sights of the goal himself, but his first was airmailed and his second was a tame effort that Olsen easily saved. Dybala couldn’t find the target either, ballooning a half-volley into the crowd from a good position.
The closest either team came to scoring in the first half came in the 35th minute, when Demiral leaped to meet a corner kick from Pjanic. He didn’t quite get his jump right, and he didn’t hit the ball as much as the ball hit him — almost in the back of his head, at that — but the result was still tantalizingly close to the opener, beating Olsen but hitting the crossbar. Cagliari’s best chance came on a powerful counter that saw Nainggolan, one of Juve’s biggest nemeses the last few years, got the finish horribly wrong and simply tapped it wide.
The first half ended with Juve in control of 62 percent of the possession, but neither goalkeeper had been seriously challenged, with Cagliari not registering a single shot on target and the hosts only managing a couple of tame efforts that Olsen easily handled.
But after playing incredibly organized defense for the first 45 minutes, the visitors shot themselves in the foot within four minutes of the restart when Klaven played a lazy pass across the top of his own penalty area. Ronaldo pounced on the errent ball, easily rounded Olsen, and slotted the ball past Walukiewicz’s attempt to defend his line.
Just like that, Cagliari crumbled. Three minutes after the opener Olsen was forced to make a double save after Sandro got to the byline and pulled back for Dybala. Olsen stopped the low shot, but the rebound hit Klaven and headed back to the goal, forcing the Swedish goalkeeper to lunge to prevent an own goal.
Cagliari were under siege at this point, but managed one big counterattack on the hour mark that very nearly tied the game, but Nainggolan’s cross was headed onto the bar by Simeone. Dybala then got to take a direct free kick, but put it a little bit too central and allowed Olsen to dive to parry.
Three minutes later, though, Dybala helped double the lead when he drive into the box and was taken down by Rog. Ronaldo stepped up and rolled it in to his right as Olsen went the other way.
Now up 2-0, Juve’s intensity dropped a bit, allowing Cagliari their best stretch of the game. In the 71st minute Szczesny had to jump over Simeone and punch a ball clear, and a few more minutes saw Sarri take more action, sending Douglas Costa on for Ramsey. He had already replaced Dybala with Gonzalo Higuain, and with nine minutes left the Argentine put the game firmly out of reach when Ronaldo lofted a ball in behind the defense for him. He cut inside and snapped in a shot that took a slight deflection off Klaven and past Olsen.
Less than a minute later Costa got in on the fun, intercepting a lax pass and charging forward. Somehow the entire Cagliari defense left Ronaldo alone on the back end of the play, and Costa found him with a simple pass to leave him one-on-one Olsen. He stabbed it through Olsen’s legs and in, completing his first domestic hat trick as a Juve player.
Cagliari nearly got themselves a consolation in stoppage time when Joao Pedro received a ball in the middle of the box, turned Cuadrado, and fired for the far post, but the ball thumped against the pipework, preserving Szczesny’s clean sheet and providing the game’s last big moment before the final whistle blew.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 7. It’s almost hard to rate him here, as he only saw a single shot on target and that came in the 90th minute. But he kept the ship really tight at the back, with hardly any mistakes being made. An excellent start to the season.
JUAN CUADRADO - 6.5. Completed 96.5 percent of his passes and made some good interventions defensively, but wasn’t the offensive threat he can be down that side. Not a lot of the threats originated from him today.
MERIH DEMIRAL - 7. In December, his biggest moments were often necessary because he’d initially made an error. This time around that wasn’t as much the case. He still showed just how raw he can be with that header, which was essentially a blind whack that nearly hit him on the back of his head. Still, a solid performance.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 7.5. Didn’t put a foot wrong when he had to defend, and led the team with four clearances. Would have been higher but his passing was uncharacteristically scattershot when he was trying for incisive long balls.
ALEX SANDRO - 7. A threat down the left side most of the day, recording two key passes and denied an assist by a nice Olsen save on Dybala. Strong defensively.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 6. Started somewhat slowly but grew into the game and was pretty solid by the end. Completed four dribbles, along with a key pass and a pair of tackles. Some consistent playing time with Bentancur unavailable may finally round him into game shape.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 7. Had a whopping 142 touches in this game, but only managed one key pass. Still, he kept the team moving and helped distribute the ball to the guys who did eventually put the ball in position to score. Led the team in tackles with three.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 6. Did well to keep the ball and maintain possession, but was kind of along for the ride in attack on a day where Juve kept Cagliari pinned back for long stretches.
AARON RAMSEY - 6. Made a team-high four key passes, but he looked so awkward up front at times that that’s almost a surprise. He did well defensively, especially when the front three went up to press, but he needs to work on being a bit more clinical.
PAULO DYBALA - 7.5. Exploded in the second half, when he was robbed of a goal by a nice Olsen save and earned the penalty for Juve’s second goal, among other excellent play. Connected the lines nicely from the second striker spot.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 9.5. Had a slow first half and put another free kick into the wall, but he exploded in the second and put away all three goals with aplomb, adding an excellent assist on Higuain’s goal. Probably the second-best game he’s played for Juve after the Atletico Madrid comeback.
GONZALO HIGUAIN - 7. A clinically taken goal continues the Gonzalo Higuain Revenge Tour. Putting him on up 2-0 was almost unfair.
DOUGLAS COSTA - NR. Had an assist with practically his first touch. It would be interesting to see him play in that position from the start of a game if his match fitness is up to the task.
EMRE CAN - NR. On to see out the game after it was put to bed.
***BONUS LOANEE RATING***
LUCA PELLEGRINI - 7. Pellegrini really impressed me in this game. He defended very well, fairly well shackling Cuadrado on the overlap and finishing the game with a tackle, three interceptions, and a team-high five clearances. He also looked pretty good on the off chance he could go forward, at one point nutmegging the Colombian as he tried to help build an attack. Whenever his loan ends, he’ll be an asset on the flank as a backup — and potential successor — to Sandro.
At halftime it’s looking like there would be a lot to parse in this section. Once full time came around, not so much. The team had the upper hand for almost the entire contest, even if the first half was a little bit slow. The ball moved much faster after the break, and the chances became more frequent and dangerous.
If there is anything to wonder, it’s when Matthijs De Ligt will finally get himself back in the lineup, but everything Sarri did worked very well. Using Ramsey in the trequartista spot was, in spite of his unevenness in attack, a good decision, giving the team some more defensive balance against a team with a really good midfield. As exciting as seeing the top trio of Dybala, Higuain, and Ronaldo playing together from the start is, the Supercoppa may have proven Sarri’s worries about the team’s balance, especially against better teams. If Ramsey ups his game with the ball at his feet, this might be the play from the start, with the big three used as a situational lineup the way Sarri always intended it to be.
Juve take their second trip of the year to the Stadio Olimpico on Sunday, this time to face Roma. Then the midweek fixtures start up again, this time in the form of Juve’s first Coppa Italia game of the season at home to Udinese.