It’s been 20 years since Atalanta won a game against Juventus in Serie A, and more than 30 since they’ve done so as the away team. But over the last few years, they’ve made a concerted effort to change that. They’d drawn each of their last two fixtures at the Allianz Stadium coming into Wednesday’s clash between the two sides, and despite some inconsistencies in their play they still constituted the biggest domestic challenge Juve has confronted to date in the 2020-21 season.
The game that resulted was entertaining as hell. It ended 1-1, but it could’ve easily been 3-3 and just as easily 3-1 to either side. Both goals were spectacular, both goalkeepers had to make some big saves, and both teams ran themselves ragged.
And yet — and yet — there is a whiff of a missed opportunity in this game. Juve could’ve put the game away rather early had more chances been taken, and Cristiano Ronaldo was standing over a penalty on the hour mark and hit one of the worst spot-kicks he’s ever hit in his life, resulting in an easy save and the game staying tied. Indeed, there was sloppy play throughout, although it’s difficult to determine whether or not that’s something coachable or simply the result of this insanely compressed match schedule finally getting to players of even Ronaldo’s stature.
Andrea Pirlo took his biggest test in Serie A to date with his usual hybrid 4-4-2/3-5-2 setup. Wojciech Szczesny sat at its base, behind Matthijs de Ligt, Leonardo Bonucci, and Danilo. Juan Cuadrado and Federico Chiesa served as the wingbacks around the midfield trio of Weston McKennie, Arthur, and Rodrigo Bentancur. Ronaldo was joined by Alvaro Morata up front.
Gian Piero Gasperini’s team has been beset by internal strife in recent weeks in regards to captain and talisman Papu Gomez, who had been frozen out of the squad for some time after having a confrontation with his manager over tactics — one that may have become physical — at halftime of a Champions League game. Gomez was in the squad but left on the bench, leaving his teammates to fill out Gasperini’s usual 3-4-1-2 formation. Pierluigi Gollini took the starter’s gloves, protected by Berat Djimsiti, Jose Palomino, and Juve loanee/why-the-hell-was-he-loaned-out Cristian Romero. Marten De Roon and Remo Freuler were sandwiched by the standout wingback pair of Hans Hateboer and Roben Gosens, while Matteo Pessina filled the hole between Ruslan Malinovskiy and the ever-dangerous Duvan Zapata.
Neither team was particularly sharp in the early going. Misplaced passes, bad touches, and lapses in concentration were all happening quite a bit, and Juve really should’ve been in front in five minutes when Morata took advantage of a miscommunication between Gollini and Romero to burst past the latter and pounce on a back pass. He played a fantastic ball to the corner of the six-yard box to his strike partner, but Ronaldo ballooned a chance he normally buries well into the stands.
Things weren’t as great for the Spaniard in the 12th minute, when he ended a counterattack by nonchalantly back-heeling the ball, which was loose after a tangle between Ronaldo and a defender, in the general direction of an open goal, albeit well wide. In hindsight, the gaffe is somewhat mitigated by the fact that Morata probably would’ve been hit by his old friend VAR for offside — and the fact that he immediately looked for a flag on the sideline tells you he probably did what he did because he expected it to go up — but he also made a bad decision by making an extra pass to Ronaldo as opposed to taking the shot himself.
Atalanta, meanwhile, were having trouble getting into the game. Without Gomez, their buildup play looked disjointed, and it wasn’t helping that Pirlo had wisely instructed de Ligt to shadow Zapata, preventing him from making those powerful turns of his after receiving passes. They finally got their first really dangerous moment thanks to a gift giveaway by Arthur in the Juventus half, but the Dutchman made a perfect block on Zapata’s shot, and the game stayed goalless. A few minutes later, Arthur was forced off the field after getting his leg caught in Romero’s as the two landed following an aerial challenge, replaced by Adrien Rabiot.
Up to this point in the game, Federico Chiesa had been a ghost. He’d touched the ball twice in 29 minutes, but he apparently lives by the third-time’s-a-charm rule, because when Bentancur intercepted a poor clearance and passed him the ball, he came alive. Already in the middle of the field, the second-generation star moved to his right to free himself some space and then sent an absolutely gorgeous curler around two defenders and past Gollini, who was unsighted and didn’t even move until the ball was almost halfway to him. It was a gem of a finish for his first Serie A goal in a Juventus shirt.
That goal finally provoked a reaction in the visitors, and three minutes later Zapata was sent through by a nice Pessina through ball. Finally managing to isolate Bonucci as opposed to de Ligt, the Colombian used a quick stutter step to get past him, but Szczesny was quick and charged him down. Zapata’s shot nearly got through the Pole’s legs, but his trailing foot got enough of a touch to loop the ball over the crossbar. Gasperini’s men thoroughly controlled the last 15 minutes of the half and came close when Malinovskiy ripped a left-footed shot that hit the side netting so hard it sounded like it’d come off the post, but the Bianconeri kept their lead and headed into the locker room in front.
They very nearly doubled their lead in the opening moments of the half when pressure from McKennie saw the American gain the ball on the left sideline and send Morata clean through on goal. Gollini charged and Morata maybe released his shot a tad late, but he was still rather unlucky that his shot ended up blasting the keeper full in the face. Referee Daniele Doveri stopped play due to the head injury as Juve tried to press the advantage, the proper move as it looked like Gollini might not have known where he was for a second or two.
After that close call, Gasperini took off the kid gloves. Putting aside whatever differences he might currently have with his captain, he sent Gomez on after just seven minutes, and four minutes later he Argentine was a factor in the equalizer, battling for possession as the ball eventually squeaked to Freuler, who beat Rabiot’s challenge and then, as Bonucci gave ground to give him an opening, ripped an outstanding dipping shot over the head of Szczesny and in off the bottom of the bar to tie the score.
Juve responded to this goal the way Atalanta had to theirs, and after just four minutes Ronaldo found himself at the penalty spot when Hateboer was whistled for a slight tug and trip on Chiesa. It wasn’t the surest of penalties in the world, Doveri was certain and VAR backed him up. Unfortunately, Ronaldo, who had scored four times from the spot in the two games going into today, completely bottled it, sending a tame shot to his right that Gollini not only saved but held. It was one of the worst penalties I’ve ever seen the man take at the exact wrong time. A few minutes later, Gollini had considerably more work to do, adjusting to a shot that Morata scuffed into the ground and shooting a hand straight up as he dove past it to parry for a corner.
It was this point in the game where one would be forgiven for wondering why Andrea Pirlo wasn’t making any changes. Gasperini had gone to his bench again, sending on supersub Luis Muriel and their latest overlooked gem, Aleksey Miranchuck, to add some new flavor to the attack. But with Ronaldo failing to make any sort of impact and Morata in danger of being sent off after getting worked up by a series of rough challenges, Dybala wasn’t anywhere to be seen. Eventually he sent on Alex Sandro, but he didn’t send in his own Argentine until there were only six minutes left in normal time — not nearly enough time to make an impact.
Over the last 20 minutes both keepers were made to work. Szczesny had to get two hands to a Romero header on the second ball off a corner, and Gollini had to get down to kick away an angled drive from Danilo after the defender bombed forward and played an excellent one-two with Ronaldo. Dybala’s first touch was to meet a low cross from Sandro, only to be blocked by Palomino, with Ronaldo following up with a shot from the left corner of the box that didn’t start to dip until it was already level with the bar.
After one last push by Atalanta, Doveri brought his whistle to his lips for a final time, bringing to a close a game that was entertaining to the neutral, but left a bad taste in the mouths of anyone with a rooting interest as they rued missed chances.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 8. Completely faultless on Freuler’s goal, but man did he do work in this game. He made five saves, most of which ranged from challenging to excellent. Without him this scoreline ends up different.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 8. His counting stats were impressive — four tackles, three interceptions, two blocked shots — but that doesn’t even begin to tell the whole story. He kept Duvan Zapata, one of the strongest and most dangerous strikers in Serie A, from doing anything that he wanted to do. If the Colombian managed to make anything happen, it was the few times he managed to get himself isolated on Bonucci. Here’s hoping this is an early preview of what Romelu Lukaku has in store for him next month.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 6. Big counting stats — two blocks, two tackles, four interceptions, and a team-high four clearances — but his sagging off of Freuler was a big factor in the Swiss midfielder having the space to unfurl that shot. It almost feels like he’s afraid to stand his ground these days.
DANILO - 7. Solid defensively, making four tackles and four interceptions and generally preventing Hateboer from making those big diagonal switches to Gosens that are a major part of Gasperini’s game.
JUAN CUADRADO - 5.5. Led the team with five interceptions but was scattershot going forward, lacking the control and creativity that has been so key to Juve’s attack the last few games. He’s looking like he might need a day off again.
WESTON McKENNIE - 7. His energy in the press is becoming indispensable. He created a couple of opportunities up the field and even notched a pair of key passes. Schalke are looking more and more like suckers by the game.
ARTHUR - NR. His problems when it comes to passing forward as opposed to sideways continue to crop up, and he made a really poor giveaway that nearly led to Atalanta going in front in the first half. If he’d lasted longer he’d have had a hole to dig himself out of when it came to grading. Hopefully his injury won’t keep him out too long.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 7. Made a game-high seven tackles in midfield and completed 96.6 percent of his passes, including the assist to Chiesa’s opener. He’s starting to get settled a little. If he can unlock some of the regista moves he made under Maurizio Sarri — like, say, the second game against Inter — it would help tremendously.
FEDERICO CHIESA - 6. That goal was excellent, but besides that and earning a (slightly soft) penalty, he didn’t have the influence on the game that he needed. He only touched the ball 18 times in 75 minutes, and only completed 54.6 percent of his passes. That’s not good enough, no matter how pretty your goals are.
ALVARO MORATA - 5.5. This was a tough one to grade, because Morata’s effort was excellent as usual but he made a few bad decisions and missed a few chances you expect him to convert. He also needs to stop letting himself get baited by bad challenges — although to be fair Doveri didn’t do quite enough to keep Atalanta honest in that regard, especially just before the penalty when he was decked by Hateboer off the ball.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 4.5. I’m gonna be real here, guys. The last few games Ronaldo has done precious little of value besides score penalties. On Wednesday, he didn’t even manage that when the opportunity was presented to him. He’s been absent in open play for much of the last 10 days. This mostly says to me is that this crazy schedule is getting to him just the way it’s getting to the mere mortals and that it’s time for a game off.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 6. Four tackles and three interceptions made for a normal day when it came to ball-winning, and his two dribbles led the team, but his passing wasn’t great, and it dragged the attack down when the ball was on his side.
ALEX SANDRO - NR. Worked hard and got in a few good balls down the left side. It was a good decision to put him in, as Atalanta was starting to turn the screw and he provided some more defensive solidity without necessarily sacrificing everything in attack.
PAULO DYBALA - NR. Didn’t have the time to make an impact.
Andrea Pirlo has turned a couple of games around this year with his use of substitutes. That’s why his complete failure in that regard in this game was really quite surprising.
Putting on Dybala with only six minutes left in the game was almost pointless. That’s not enough time for him to make an impact. The fact that the likes of Aaron Ramsey and Dejan Kulusevski were left on the bench entirely when the game was still there to be won is puzzling to say the least, especially with Atalanta spending more time in the Juve half than most teams and Kulusevski’s devastating ability on the counter. With Cuadrado and Ronaldo both misfiring badly, it could have changed the game in a big way had Pirlo been more aggressive with his changes, especially in their timing. Gasperini went to his bench earlier and his subs, Gomez especially, had a serious impact on the outcome of the match.
As for some of the other worrying things about this game — sloppy passing and play out of the back, control issues, things like that — I question just how much of that is really in Pirlo’s control. Juventus has played an insane amount of games since the November international break, and the players are human beings. These mistakes start to happen when you’re exhausted. Apart from trying to rotate as much as possible, there isn’t much that a manager can do to mitigate the stamina issues that come from such an obscene schedule crunch.
Speaking of obscene schedule crunch, there are still two more games to go before the miniaturized Christmas break is upon us. The craziness continues on Saturday with an away game against Parma, before Fiorentina arrives to confront Federico Chiesa for the first time in Juve colors.