Yes, it was Brescia. Yes, it was Brescia without their best player and a flight of others besides. Heck, they were down to third-string goalkeeper before 10 minutes were gone.
But one should never allow the perfect to be the enemy of good — and there were some good things happening on the field at the Allianz Stadium on Sunday afternoon. The ball was moving faster than it has in several weeks. There was more off-the-ball movement than we’ve seen in a long time. Juventus took 27 shots on the day, which was only nine fewer than they had in their last three Serie A matches combined. They held Brescia to five, after allowing 40 over that same span. The result? A 2-0 win that saw Juve finish at a canter, which was a welcome relief after a stretch of games that weren’t the best for the blood pressure.
OH! And a certain center back made an appearance that kinda drove the stadium nuts.
This game was a step in the right direction after two weeks or so of utter frustration. Juve allowed few, if any, threats, to their goal. They played something more resembling Sarrismo than we’ve seen in a month or more. Their finishing left something to be desired, but eventually they managed to put the game away. Yes, the team has been on something of a one step forward, two steps back trajectory this season, but at the end of the day you can’t move forward for good without that first step. Is this game the first definitive step to ultimate satisfaction or just another false start? Only time will tell. But for today, Juve did take a step, and are back alone in first place after Lazio beat Inter 2-1 in the final game of the night.
Apart from Juve’s two-week long funk, the biggest story for Maurizio Sarri going into the game was the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo, who has been on his most productive stretch as a Juventus player but was left out of the squad for rest. With Douglas Costa also out until at least March, that left Sarri with a question about how to handle the front line. Eventually, he settled a on a 4-3-3 that was ... unorthodox at the top. Wojciech Szczesny took his normal place in goal, with Danilo, Daniele Rugani, Leonardo Bonucci, and Alex Sandro protecting him. Miralem Pjanic was also given the day off — at least at first, and that we’ll definitely get to — so Rodrigo Bentancur was put into the regista position, flanked by Aaron Ramsey and Adrien Rabiot. Juan Cuadrado, Gonzalo Higuain, and Paulo Dybala.
Brescia’s Diego Lopez was in an even bigger fix, and it wasn’t by choice. He was missing no fewer than six players, including his top goalkeeper, Jesse Joronen, and his best player, midfielder (and reputed Juventus summer target) Sandro Tonali. The shape of the lineup he produced has been labeled no less than three different ways by different sources, but what consensus there was saw it go down as a 4-3-1-2. Enrico Alfonso took up the gloves in place of Joronen, with Stefano Sabelli, Ales Mateju, Jhon Chancellor, and Bruno Martella arrayed in front of him. Birkir Bjarnason, Dimitri Bisoli, and Daniele Dessena formed the midfield, with Jaromir Zmrhal in the hole behind the strike pair of Florian Aye and captain (!!) Mario Balotelli.
Juve jumped onto the front foot immediately. There was no probing phase, no time to take stock of the opponent. They simply went at it, and the ball was moving faster than it had in a long time. Within four minutes Brescia had already been credited with two blocked shots, and Juve were effectively sealing them in their own half.
Things got worse for them in the seventh minute when Alfonso took an inadvertent knee to the head when attempting to beat Higuain to a ball in the box. The Brescia training staff worked on him for several minutes and he tried to continue, but play had barely begun again before referee Daniele Chiffi noticed him clearly struggling and stopped the game. He made way for third-string keeper Lorenzo Andrenacci, who was making his Serie A debut.
For all of this possession, they weren’t testing the goalkeeper all that much. Juve were making nice, quick passes and trying to move the Brescia defense around, but the visitors stayed relatively organized, and Juve’s passing let them down on the final critical ball. Even when they did get themselves into good spots they struggled with the final product. In the 32rd minute Higuain got himself on the end of a low square from Sandro and wriggled clear of Mateju before centering the ball for Dybala. Andrenacci had move too far over to cover a potential shot and had left the goal gaping, but the ball found Dybala’s weaker right foot and he scuffed his attempt wide.
Believe it or not, Brescia actually ended up being credited with the game’s first shot on target when Bjarnason got himself on the end of a cross from Martella, but his header was right at Szczesny who easily smothered it.
But the game finally turned thanks to a moment of madness from Aye. The Frenchman had already been booked in the 33rd minute when he knocked Danilo over while trying to press the fullback. He didn’t heed the warning, because three minutes later he crashed into Ramsey from behind as the Welshman tried to rush onto a low cross from Dybala. There had been no attempt whatsoever to play the ball, and Chiffi immediately blew for the foul and again went to his pocket. The ball was placed a foot away from the penalty arc on the right side — prime Dybala territory. The Argentine took a short run and pulled a surprise, bending it for the far post rather than the near, bamboozling Andrenacci, who was already edging his way to his left and was left completely rooted to his spot as the ball sailed into the net.
The goal triggered a long five minutes for the Brescia defense. Higuain was released down t he field on a long ball and just missed the near post from an angle, then Bentancur found Dybala with a wonderful diagonal long ball that the Argentine met with a volley to match. Andrenacci nearly let it roll under him but managed to do just enough to keep it tangled up in his legs, robbing Dybala of another goal-of-the-season candidate. Dybala then turned provider on a free kick, sending in a great ball that Rugani met with a great header that was heading for the far corner, but Andrenacci made a true sparkler this time, tapping the ball onto the crossbar.
Brescia managed to get themselves a corner in the first moments of the second half, but had to scramble four minutes into the period when Higuain found a pocket of space in the channel and was met with a ball from Cuadrado. He skipped by Chancellor and side-footed it toward the net from the corner of the six-yard box. Andrenacci was beaten and it looked destined to double the lead, but Sabelli somehow managed to back-heel it off the line. Bonucci met the ensuing corner with a powerful free header, but it was right at the keeper when six inches on either side would have scored.
The game continued in the same rhythm, with Juve keeping Brescia sealed in save for the rare foray upfield, but with the final ball just that slightest bit off. Frankly, the most notable moment of the middle of the second half had nothing to do with what was going on on the field. That was the cheer that came up from the fans just after the hour when they realized that Giorgio Chiellini, out since he tore his ACL in training two days before the Napoli game in August, was warming up on the sideline.
Sarri made his first change of the day shortly after that, sending Pjanic on to spell Ramsey. But, only seven minutes later, the Bosnian was off again after going down in the box clutching at his groin. The midfielder has gotten a niggle here and there this season only to be back the next game, but this one looked more serious — serious enough that one could catch him pounding at the turf in frustration. Blaise Matuidi replaced him, and almost immediately made the kind of play you don’t expect to see from him, sending Cuadrado one-on-one in the left channel with a smart back-heel pass on the back end of a one-two with the Colombian. F$@#& Juan made no mistake, settling with one touch and then slotting past Andrenacci to double the lead.
They immediately set their sights on a third, with Higuain hitting a ball from the seat of his pants that went right at the keeper before a long shot from Bentancur whacked into the goalpost — all within two minutes after the goal.
It was after that shot that the crowd rose and roared. Bonucci, who had been booked earlier in the match, had seen his number go up on the board, and as he jogged to the center line he removed his captain’s armband, handing it over to the returning Chiellini.
Bentancur celebrated the return of his captain with another long drive, this one on target, and Andrenacci had to make another save, with the defense scurrying to get the rebound away. Higuain was the next one to take a crack, rising to head the ball into the net off another excellent Dybala free kick, but he was marginally offside and the goal was chalked off.
Anytime the ball got anywhere near Chiellini all eyes were drawn to the man, and it was clear he wanted to make up for lost time. He tried to thread a pass down the field for Matuidi but overshot his mark, then went up with Balotelli and headed the ball away from him two minutes from time. If there were any doubts as to whether he has trust in his body, he allayed them when he threw himself into a bicycle kick attempt at the end of a series of corners just as stoppage time began.
The best Brescia could come up with in all this time came right at the end, when substitute Emanuel Ndoj hit a low shot that could have set up a grandstand finish, but Szczesny got across just in time to tip it around the post. Instead, it was the home team who nearly landed a final punch, as Cuadrado bombed down the middle and slipped it to Dybala, whose first-time shot nearly broke the crossbar in half. It was the last meaningful kick of the game, and Chiffi called a halt to proceedings seconds later.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 7. Made one really nice save at the end but otherwise had very little to do other than occasionally recycle the ball after a back pass. One of his easier games of the season.
DANILO - 7. Had a very understated game, but it included two key passes to go along with a pair of tackles on defense. Played a lot of the game overlapping with Cuadrado and Dybala.
DANIELE RUGANI - 6.5. Made a pair of interceptions, had one or two mildly shaky moments passing the ball but overall was very comfortable. Would have had a goal were it not for a fantastic save by Andrenacci.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 6.5. Had so little defending to do. He was often further up the field to contribute his passing abilities to the buildup. His first-half booking means he’ll be suspended for next week’s trip to SPAL.
ALEX SANDRO - 6.5. A pair of key passes as well as a pair of tackles. He was high up the field all day long, helping set things up on that side. Did well to help corral Brescia in their own half.
AARON RAMSEY - 6. Better from Ramsey, but he still looks a little lost from time to time. He did play an excellent defensive game, constantly sealing Brescia in and making a team-high six tackles and was joint-leader in interceptions with three. If he can really settle it will help a whole lot.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 8.5. This was a tour de force. Had an insane 136 touches, attempted 113 passes, nearly broke the goalpost, forced an incredible save, and made three key passes. He was absolutely everywhere, and played the regista position the way Pjanic did in the first game or two of the season and how we wish he’d played it the rest of the way. It’s almost a shame, because I think his talents are best expressed as a mezz’ala, but if he can get the team moving like this on a consistent basis, then it will be a huge factor as the meaty part of the season truly begins.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 6. Completed 94 percent of his passes and did a good job to keep the ball in the Brescia half. He wasn’t as incisive as Bentancur, but didn’t really need to be the way guys like Dybala and Cuadrado were buzzing around.
JUAN CUADRADAO - 8. After a bad game on Thursday in the Coppa, Cuadrado came back with a vengence today, notching four key passes and scoring an excellent goal to put things to bed.
GONZALO HIGUAIN - 7.5. Who had more successful dribbles, Higuain or Dybala? If you picked Dybala, come down and pick up your nice consolation prize of car wax! He also had three key passes, found the target with two of six shots, and had one more spectacularly cleared off the line. It’s a shame he was offside in the 81st minute, because he deserved a goal for how he played today.
PAULO DYBALA - 8.5. What. A. Day. Had he managed his second goal this would have edged into 9 territory. Took eight shots, found the target with three of them, including another peach of a free kick. He also had six key passes and touched the ball 124 times, orchestrating the attack from the front. A fantastic performance.
MIRALEM PJANIC - NR. Hopefully he dodges another bullet and isn’t out too long, because a depth crisis in midfield is the last team this team needs as the Champions League revs back up.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 6.5. That assist was an absolute peach, and not exactly what you’d expect from him.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - NR. What a wonderful moment when he returned. His leadership and skill will be a huge boost should he manage to return at full force, but his minutes will certainly be closely monitored. Oh, and he led the team in clearances despite only playing 12 minutes. Because of course he did.
Why was Pjanic in the game? Why? The guy needs rest in the worst way, and while a sub appearance certainly isn’t as much of a load and getting to play against 10 men might have been a way to get him into a rhythm after getting man-marked into oblivion for the last few months, but the rest should have been prioritized over that. We have to hope that he won’t be gone too long.
With limited options up front, Sarri’s choice to put Dybala and Cuadrado in midfield around Higuain produced something that was a little unorthodox ... but it worked. The two forwards pinged the ball all over the place, setting up their teammates over and over, and kept Brescia off balance by frequently swapping sides. They helped keep the ball moving, both with their own passing and by making good off-ball runs.
The big question now is whether this step forward will be the first one in a pattern of long-term improvement, or whether the team just looked better because they were playing a team so deeply inferior to them. At the peril of summoning the stans, it’s worth wondering whether the ball will move this way when Ronaldo, who is a bit more dependent on isolation dribbling, is back in the lineup. Or it could be that Bentancur taking the regista spot is the key. It’ll be up to Sarri to make sure this isn’t another false start.
With Lazio’s win, Juve is now in sole possession of first place again, a single point ahead of Lazio and three ahead of Inter.
Next up on the docket is a trip to Ferrara to face SPAL — a fixture that Juve has failed to win in the two years since SPAL was promoted back to the top flight. After that, the business end of the season truly begins, with Juve going to Lyon for the first leg of the Champions League Round of 16. There won’t be much rest for the weary, because Inter comes to town that weekend for a major scudetto showdown.