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Manu’s Grab Bag: Return in Form

A rock-solid win over Cagliari gives Juventus a smooth comeback after the international break.

Juventus v Cagliari Calcio - Serie A Photo by Filippo Alfero - Juventus FC/Juventus FC via Getty Images

The first game after an international break is always so filled with expectations. When you stop watching your club for a couple weeks, you tend to put on those rose colored glasses and kind of forget about their up-and-down, frustrating form and talk yourself into what could be.

To their credit, Juventus played a whole heck of a lot more like the team we want them to be than the team they had been up until now this season. The Bianconeri rode a strong first half performance and a Cristiano Ronaldo brace to a relatively easy and comprehensive 2-0 win over Cagliari. And I don’t know about you, but it really makes it a happier weekend when Juve give you a nice, easy win like this one rather than the frustrating bottle jobs that we were being accustomed earlier in the season.

There’s a lot to discuss, so let’s get right to it.

MVP: Cristiano Ronaldo

The Portuguese forward gets on the board with his first Grab Bag MVP of the season. I’m sure Ronaldo was eagerly waiting for this, so I’m happy to finally give him his due. Rest easy, my guy.

In what was an overall strong performance from the team, Ronaldo was his usual goal-scoring self. However, it was more some of the shots he didn’t take that were more impressive than the ones he did. We saw Ronaldo play a significantly more fluid style, setting up his teammates as much as finishing plays himself. It was something we haven’t always seen from him and an exciting wrinkle to his already pretty well-rounded game.

Runner Up: Matthijs de Ligt — Stonewalled absolutely anything on his path and reminded everyone why he is considered one of the best center backs in the world on his return to the pitch. Should be a mainstay for this team the rest of the season and hopefully his career.

Season Leader: Alvaro Morata (6 points)

Winner: Juan Cuadrado

He had an OK game overall with an insane 123 touches and was all over the field. There were some shaky moments on defense, but that’s to be expected at this point with the Johnny Square Experience.

I wanted to give him a shoutout, though, because for the first time in his Juventus career we got Johhny Square captain of the team!

(I know he has worn the armband before but not from the start of the game, that’s wholly different than being captain from the jump.)

Quietly but surely, Cuadrado is now on his sixth year as a Juventus player — which somehow feels like a lot and not that long simultaneously. What has been most impressive about Cuadrado has been his complete and utter unselfishness to put himself at the disposal of the club. We are talking about a dude that was originally a straight winger but has since covered as a midfielder, fullback and wingback on both flanks since he’s been a Bianconero. Sometimes the end product is a bit maddening and the performances are not always there, but it’s time to give Cuadrado his due as a legitimately important part of not only the current squad, but the historic Juventus streak is still currently on.

Props to you, five-time Serie A winner, three-time Coppa Italia winner and now captain, Juan Cuadrado.

(Fun Fact: Cuadrado had won nothing at the club level up until 2015. After that, he has won at least one trophy every year, including technically the Premier League and the League Cup during his half a year with Chelsea. Wins come in bunches apparently.)

TV Interference

We interrupt your Grab Bag to bring you an MLS update.

Is this annoying? Were you expecting to see something and then I just cruelly switched it up on you? Well, you can imagine my surprise when the scheduled start of the Juventus game I had been looking forward the entire week was delayed because the freakin’ MLS playoffs went to overtime and the ESPN Deportes broadcast had to remain there until it was done.

I will cop to the fact that I do not watch nor pay attention to MLS. Like any good Mexican football fan, I’m legally required to look down on MLS and constantly denigrate the level of play found therein. I’m also compelled by law to state that any Mexican footballer that plays in that league is, by all intents and purposes, retired and has now transitioned to the stage of their career where one does not have to pay attention to them.

(When I briefly lived in Colorado, however, I did attend a couple of Rapids games. They sucked that year, but I always had a good time at the Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. Apparently this year they made the playoffs, so, go Rapids, I guess.)

Anyway, while fuming and putting the start of the Juve game on my iPad on ESPN’s streaming service, New York City FC and Orlando City SC went to penalty kicks to decide who would move forward to the next round of the MLS Cup or whatever it is you get when you win that third-rate competition.

(I’m warning you the rest of this section will continue to be filled with MLS slander. This is the way.)

However, imagine my surprise when the penalty shootout in Orlando turned out to be the most entertaining, bonkers and insane sporting moment I’ve seen in the last year. This wasn’t because the shootout was particularly well executed or whatever, it was because how incompetently managed it turned out to be.

The relevant part starts at the 4:45 mark on that video. Orlando keeper Pedro Gallese makes a save on the deciding PK to give his team the win, celebrations ensue, Orlando’s coach runs to the dressing room in ecstasy, everything looks dandy. Then after VAR review, the ref calls that the keeper was off his line, replaying the PK and showing Gallese a second yellow card sending him off.

Backup keeper Brian Rowe attempted to get in as Orlando still had a sub to make, but the refs were not quite sure if that was allowed. So a weird standoff ensued in which Rowe put his gloves on, only to take them off and on and off for minutes while the ref conferred with someone about the rules of the game he is currently officiating. After a lengthy delay, the official ruling was that Rowe couldn’t come in and defender Rodrigo Schlegel had to put on a blank keeper kit and gloves to try to make the deciding save which he didn’t, allowing the shootout to go on.

(I particularly like that they had to give him a blank kit. Did they already have that ready to go just in case? Or did they have to send a ball boy or something to the fan shop in the stadium to quickly procure one? Odds are the former but I kinda hope it’s the latter.)

Still, Orlando had the lead so they only needed to score once more to end the game. Nani — he of Manchester United fame — stepped up and missed, putting his team on a sudden death shootout with a freaking defender as the keeper.

Both teams scored on the sixth round only for NYCFC’s Gudmundur Thórarinsson to shoot a lame duck, easy shot that Schlegel somehow managed to beat away prompting him and the entire team to again celebrate like crazy, which I get, the defender turned keeper saved the shot! How crazy is that! Except that they still had to score their own PK to actually win the match, which prompted the baffled announcer to say “I don’t understand the celebration here, maybe they are just excited.”

Even after that, the ref had yet another VAR review to see if Schlegel had moved off the line, which put the entire Orlando team on edge. He didn’t, and finally, mercifully, Benji Michel scored the game-winning PK that sent Orlando into hysterics for the third and final time in the shootout.

The whole thing was a circus that resembled a Sunday League match significantly more than the highest level of football in the USA — which on second thought can’t be all that different, playing level wise. HEY-OH. Either way, I would be lying if I said it wasn’t preposterously entertaining, so much so that I just spent over 700 words describing it.

Seriously, if you take nothing else from this article watch that clip above, it’s fun.

Back to your regular Grab Bag.

Winner: Federico Bernardeschi

Even more surprising than an MLS game being captivating — last shot at the MLS, I promise — was that Federico Bernardeschi played an honest to goodness good game ... for Juventus! In 2020! ON THE LEFT FLANK!

It wasn’t perfect by any means — he missed a sitter in the second half that could have put the game away — but it was significantly better than what we had seen from him in the whole calendar year. Maybe it was the confidence boost he got from featuring during the international break with the Italian national team or something, but his performance was a welcome change of pace from what we have grown accustomed to with the Italian winger.

He brought energy, pace, decent defensive chops and legitimately good off the ball movement that helped open up spaces for his teammates. Had a goal disallowed through no fault of his own and was, like, legitimately good.

This is one game — I’m not ready to start selling the Berna Revenge Tour merch quite yet — but you gotta start somewhere and this was a fairly good start for him.

Midfield Rankings

  1. Adrien Rabiot — Still heads and shoulders above the rest for this team. He’s starting to get back to the form he had closing last season, and is legitimately one of the most important members of the team at the moment.
  2. Arthur — Saturday night’s game was his best showing of the season and it’s not particularly close. I posited before that he was missing something to take his game to the next level and we saw some glimpses of that next level against Cagliari. Not ready to crown the guy, but significantly improved.
  3. Weston McKennie — Came on as a sub, brought his usual fight and energy. Lowkey racking up minutes for Juventus.
  4. Rodrigo Bentancur — Better as of late, but he’s clearly failed to make a big impression on Andrea Pirlo so far. Had huge expectations for this season and it will be a shame if he can’t deliver.
  5. Aaron Ramsey — Didn’t see the field against Cagliari. Has he fallen out of favor or are they maybe saving him for the Ferencvaros game?
  6. Sami Khedira — Recent rumors link him to England and Carlo Ancelotti’s Everton. Still an enigma, is he really that freaking washed or is Juve completely freezing him out? Kind of a sad way to go if this is it for Sami.

Parting Shot of the Week

You know what? I’m done with caveats, yes it was against Cagliari, but so what? This is the same team that was struggling against Crotone and the like. Are those teams significantly better than Cagliari? They are not.

This was a really good performance, they left a couple more goals on the table that would have made the score line reflect what happened on the field more closely, but it was still a complete, dominating performance that for a team that hasn’t had a lot of those as of late, it’s an encouraging sign.

With Ferencvaros visiting Turin for some European action, this is the time for Juventus to start getting into gear to finish the year as strongly as possible. And, you know what? I kind of think they can.

See you Tuesday.