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Subs make the difference as Juve return to the win column vs. Spezia

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A returning Cristiano Ronaldo proved the difference against the Serie A newcomers.

Spezia Calcio v Juventus - Serie A Photo by Danilo Di Giovanni/Getty Images

After a run of rough form, a game against a team like Spezia was certainly a welcome sight on the fixture list for Juventus. The Ligurian club has been around for 114 years, but this season is its first ever in the top flight. Funnily enough, Spezia had been in Serie B when Juventus spent their calciopoli-enforced year in the wilderness, and had come out of the season with a draw and a win. But the gulf in quality between the two rosters was immense, and going into Sunday’s afternoon matchup it looked like the kind of game that would snap Juve back into winning ways after an extended period of struggle, which came to a nadir during Wednesday’s 2-0 loss to Barcelona in the Champions League.

For the first half hour or so, it looked like exactly that. Juventus opened the scoring in the first 14 minutes, had several chances to extend that lead, and had the home team — playing at the Stadio Dino Manuzzi in Cesena while their own ground, the Stadio Alberto Picco, is being renovated — pinned back in their side of the field for long stretches. But the team took a wobble around 30 minutes in, let in an unlucky equalizer on a deflection, and found themselves under sustained pressure for the first 10 minutes of the second half.

That’s when Andrea Pirlo did what he didn’t do against Barcelona and dipped into his bench early enough for them to make an impact. It didn’t hurt that one of the guys he could go to was Cristiano Ronaldo, who was finally available after his three-week battle with COVID-19. Ronaldo’s presence changed the match. He combined with Alvaro Morata to put Juve back in front within minutes, and keyed a dominant last half-hour that put the game to rest with a 4-1 scoreline that gave Juve their first league win — on the field, anyway — since the opening week win against Sampdoria and, coupled with other results, vaulted Juve from fifth to third, four points behind leaders AC Milan and two behind Sassuolo for second.

Pirlo made his first big adjustment after watching his usual double-pivot midfield get run off the field by Barca on Wednesday, instead arranging in a 3-5-2 with three men in the middle. Gianluigi Buffon was given the starting gloves to give Wojciech Szczesny a break, and was screened by Merih Demiral, Leonardo Bonucci, and Danilo. Juan Cuadrado and Federico Chiesa slotted in as the wingbacks around the midfield trio of Weston McKennie, Rodrigo Bentancur, and Arthur, while Paulo Dybala joined Morata in the strike pair.

Spezia manager Vincenzo Italiano countered with a 4-3-3 setup. Ivan Provedel started in goal behind a back line of Salvador Ferrer, Julian Chabot, Claudio Terzi, and Simone Bastoni. Matteo Ricci, Paolo Bartolome, and Tommaso Pogeba were grouped together in midfield, while M’bala Nzola led the attacking trident, flanked by Daniele Verde and Diego Farias.

Juve started the game on the front foot and quickly had the home team on their heels. By the sixth minute they had registered their first shot when Morata latched on to a Dybala through ball and put his shot into the side netting. Five minutes later Dybala burst through the line to latch on to a ball from Cuadrado, but he was offside even as he cracked his shot into the post.

But only three minutes later the champions were in front. Danilo had driven up the field and tapped a pass through to McKennie, who had walked through a massive gap between defenders in the middle of the box. Provedel charged him, but the American squared it to Morata on his left, who slotted it home into the empty net. Things haven’t been easy for Morata when it comes to offside calls lately, and in this case the referee’s assistant actually flagged him on the field, but in a role reversal VAR determined that while he had been in an offside position on the initial pass to McKennie, he hadn’t influenced that play and was behind the ball when McKennie squared it to him, and referee Rosario Abisso gave the goal after a relatively brief consultation with his earpiece.

Spezia Calcio v Juventus - Serie A Photo by Daniele Badolato - Juventus FC/Juventus FC via Getty Images

Juve continued to pile on the pressure, and four minutes later they very nearly doubled their lead when McKennie and Morata combined to put Chiesa through on goal, but with Provedel stranded he failed to hit the target, instead skipping the ball wide at the near post on a chance he really should have finished.

Just when you thought Morata’s luck with the offside rule was changing, he was flagged again after a strong run from a pass over the top, ruling out his excellent one-on-one finish. Still, it was looking like the beginning of a long afternoon for Spezia. Their only shot to this point had come when Buffon had kicked the ball right to Ricci under pressure, but the midfielder’s attempt to catch the legendary keeper out of his goal had little power and Buffon easily got back to claim it.

Their first real chance came in the 31st minute when Nzola was sent through a gap between Demiral and Bonucci, but missed his kick as he arrived in the box, eventually letting the defense clear it. But a minute later the game was indeed tied when neither McKennie nor Arthur realized that they were leaving Pobega all kinds of space, allowing him to receive a pass from Bartolomei on the right and take a first-time shot that took a deflection off Demiral and over Buffon, who looked like he would’ve had an uninterrupted shot measured up.

The hosts had another chance right after Juve kicked off, with Nzola pulling well wide after Cuadrado lost the ball. It looked like the game was starting to shift, but Juve did manage to at least stabilize things and just before the break had a fantastic chance to go back in front when Morata and McKennie went on a two-man break, but the striker’s attempt to return the favor to McKennie was poked away at the last moment by Chabot for a corner.

The teams went into halftime deadlocked, but Spezia had a renewed confidence. Juve generated a really good chance in the opening minutes, Bentancur finding Cuadrado with a neat diagonal pass before the Colombian’s cross was interdicted by another good effort by Chabot. But after that Spezia started turning the screw, and spent a good 10 sustained minutes in the Juve half, forcing a pair of blocked shots and certainly causing the blood pressure of every Juventus fan watching to spike.

Pirlo had waited too long to make changes against Barcelona, but he didn’t make the same mistake twice. He took a struggling Dybala off the field in the 56th minute, replacing him with Ronaldo, who was playing his first game in a Juve shirt in almost a month after his 19-day fight with the coronavirus. Ronaldo’s impact was immediate, and within three minutes the Portuguese split a huge gap between defenders and latched on to an excellent Morata through ball. He blew past Terzi, who resignedly pulled up rather than take him down and risk a red, then rounded Provedel to slot into the empty net to restore Juve’s lead.

FBL-ITA-SERIEA-SPEZIA-JUVENTUS Photo by VINCENZO PINTO/AFP via Getty Images

The game still wasn’t 100 percent comfortable, and five minutes after Ronaldo’s strike Spezia almost pulled even again on a corner when Buffon parried Chabot’s header into the path of substitute Juan Aguedelo, who put the ball into the net from an offside position. Four minutes later they finally gave themselves a margin of error when Chiesa popped a pass over the top for Adrien Rabiot, who had come on several minutes earlier for Bentancur. The Frenchman had walked through another gaping hole in the Spezia defense and cut into the middle. Morata was unmarked at the far post, but Rabiot instead kept it, making Chabot look silly before side-footing it in off the near post with his weaker right foot.

Things still weren’t quite under control. Bartolomei missed the target after three defenders converged on Nzola to leave the midfielder open for a layoff, and then Demiral was forced into a block after Cuadrado let an overhit cross run all the way to Farias.

But soon they had the game out of reach. Chiesa, who had been quiet in the first half before picking up the assist on Rabiot’s goal, latched on to a loose ball after the midfielder had been pulled back on a run by Bartolomei. Chiesa pushed forward into the box and, after getting turned around, shielded Bartolomei off and hit the dirt. It was incredibly soft but it convinced Abisso, who pointed to the spot immediately. Ronaldo stepped up and punctuated his return with with a cucchiaio finish past Provedel to provide the final margin. Spezia had a couple more half-chances for a consolation to tighten the gap, but none of them found the target, and Juve headed for the showers with a much-needed victory.

LE PAGELLE

GIANLUIGI BUFFON - 6. Faced any shots he needed to well, and would’ve probably had Pobega’s shot covered were it not for the deflection. His distribution, however, especially under pressure, left something to be desired and led directly to at least one shooting opportunity.

MERIH DEMIRAL - 5.5. I didn’t like it from him in this game. Allowed a few too many guys to get behind him on counters and was in on the deflection for Pogeba’s goal. We’ve said this so much the last few weeks on the blog, but it’s true: he’s incredibly talented but still incredibly raw, and that roughness can cause unnecessary risks.

LEONARDO BONUCCI - 6. Fine defensively, but his passing was scattered, completing only 87.9 percent and going only 5 for 12 on long balls. He was clearly trying to launch some attacks by himself while the midfield was scuffling, but was overhitting things.

DANILO - 7. Continued excellence. The counting stats weren’t quite so nuts as they were against Barca, but he didn’t let up any major chances and was also in the mix on the buildup to Morata’s opener. He’s maybe the team’s top performer to this point this year.

JUAN CUADRADO - 6. Made a team-leading five tackles and contributed to some dangerous attacks going forward, but also made a couple of really bad decisions in defense that created some potential danger.

WESTON McKENNIE - 7. Easily the best out of the starting midfielders. Made a lot of the good runs from midfield into the box that were missing with the double pivot, and his assist to Morata was both well-executed and admirably unselfish. I’d like to see him be a little more aggressive when he gets possession in dangerous spots — he shied away from two situations in the first half where he got the ball at the top of the box but passed out of the situation — but this was a good rebound after his scuffle in his last league game against Roma.

Spezia Calcio v Juventus - Serie A Photo by Danilo Di Giovanni/Getty Images

RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 5.5. Really poor in the first half, but was a little better in the second. Did lead the team in interceptions and made a couple nice long passes in the second half, but also failed to help out on Bartolomei in the buildup to the goal. He’s scuffling a little bit, and it makes me wonder if he’s still feeling the effects of being run into the ground by Maurizio Sarri last season.

ARTHUR - 5.5. A lot of really short passes that didn’t create all that much. It’s telling that one of his longest passes of the night was one that helped set up Ronaldo’s goal, putting Morata in position to make the assist. He needs to be more incisive.

FEDERICO CHIESA - 6. Mixed bag of a day. His second half means it was mostly a positive one, but he missed the target on a chance that he really should’ve scored, but his assist to Rabiot was quite good. The penalty he earned was really soft and won’t do anything for his reputation as a diver, but it got things done.

PAULO DYBALA - 5. With the midfield failing to provide the forwards all that much in the way of service, he gave in to his demons and started dropping into midfield to try and do things himself. It’s one of his worst habits and it didn’t help things here. He was marginally better than he was on Wednesday but he’s got to get things going.

ALVARO MORATA - 8. Excellent again. Took his goal well, and dropped a great assist to Ronaldo. He’s getting killed by the flag and VAR, but the fact that he’s making such great runs will only pay dividends as the season goes on.

SUBS

CRISTIANO RONALDO - 8. Instantly sucked defenders in to him and took advantage of the massive swaths of space that the Spezia defenders left them between them to make his run and give Juve the lead back. That penalty was enough to know that he hasn’t lost his confidence at all.

ADRIEN RABIOT - 7. What a pretty goal. Completed all eight of the passes he made, completed a pair of dribbles, and played hard on defense as well, intercepting a pass and blocking a shot.

AARON RAMSEY - 5. Completely anonymous. I kinda forgot he was on the field during the half-hour he was there.

DEJAN KULUSEVSKI - NR. Just on to finish things out and manage minutes.

GIANLUCA FRABOTTA - NR. Spelled Bonucci at the end so that the older man could get off his leg.

Spezia Calcio v Juventus - Serie A Photo by Danilo Di Giovanni/Getty Images

MANAGER ANALYSIS

We’ve seen our first major tactical shift from Andrea Pirlo, so let’s discuss. Pirlo had been using a double pivot all season until Sunday, maintaining that the team’s midfielders were better suited for it. But after getting run over by Barcelona in midweek, Pirlo obviously decided he needed another body in the middle of the park.

The results were mixed. Bentancur didn’t attempt many passes and was often inaccurate, whereas Arthur’s passes were often of the shorter, Sarri-type variety that maintained possession but didn’t exactly create huge threats. The plus was McKennie, who made the kind of forward runs into the box that the midfield hadn’t been making up to this point, wreaking havoc a couple times and eventually creating Morata’s goal. Rabiot scored off a similar run on the other side in the second half. Getting the forwards some serious support from midfield would be a big help, especially if it comes in the form of McKennie, whose ability in the air can provide another serious threat for the wing-backs to aim for.

It will be interesting to see if Pirlo keeps this new formation in play. If he does, then there’s going to be some questions about the midfield’s depth. Aaron Ramsey would have to play a little further back to help out, and Pirlo may — and I can’t believe I’m saying this — have to bite the bullet and knock the dust off Sami Khedira if the depth takes any hit. Fabio Paratici may have to pull some strings in January.

LOOKING AHEAD

There are two more games before the next international break. First is a trip to Hungary to face Ferencvaros in the Champions League on Wednesday, followed by a lunchtime kickoff on Sunday against a depleted Lazio side that won a seven-goal thriller over Torino this weekend.