It seems mildly weird that over the two years SPAL had been back in Serie A, Juventus had failed to beat them at the Stadio Paolo Mazza. Two years ago, they had played out a limp goalless draw that allowed Napoli to momentarily pull themselves back into the title race. Last season, Juve arrived with a monstrous lead in the table and had the second leg of the Champions League quarterfinal coming up midweek, so they put out a lineup made up of fringe bench players and Under-23 squad call-ups, eventually falling 2-1.
With the first leg of the Champions League Round of 16 tie with Lyon looming on Wednesday and then a crunch showdown with Inter after that, this trip to Ferrara had all the makings of a trap game — and, unlike last year, they didn’t have be benefit of a cushion at the top of the standings. It wasn’t nearly as dominant as a lot of people would have liked in a top-versus-bottom game, but the job was indeed done. Cristiano Ronaldo celebrated his 1,000th professional appearance with a record-tying first-half strike, but the decider turned out to be an exquisite chip by Aaron Ramsey, which allowed the Bianconeri to withstand a penalty that was awarded in ludicrous fashion (oh, we’ll get to that) and head back to Turin with a 2-1 victory.
Maurizio Sarri has begun transitioning back to the 4-3-3 of late, and set that formation out again here. Wojciech Szczesny sat at the base of it. Giorgio Chiellini got his first start since the opening week of the season in defense, pairing with Daniele Rugani in the middle. Danilo and Alex Sandro flanked them as full-backs. Miralem Pjanic was left at home to tend his injury, so Rodrigo Bentancur took over the regista position again, with Ramsey and Blaise Matuidi flanking him. Juan Cuadrado again played on the right wing, with Paulo Dybala as a false nine and Ronaldo on the left.
One boost to Juve’s hopes came in the form of Sarri’s opposite number. When SPAL visited the Allianz Stadium in September, it had been under the leadership of Leonardo Semplici, but as they dropped down the standings to their eventual place at the bottom of the table Semplici finally lost his job. SPAL’s fight for survival wasn’t exactly helped by the man who was selected to replace him: Luigi Di Biagio, whose only claim to fame as a coach is going into each of the last three Under-21 Euros with one of the most talented squad in the tournament only to deliver a product that was far less than the sum of its parts. He’s a bad coach, and it’s not exactly to SPAL’s benefit to have him in the driver’s seat.
Di Biagio countered Sarri’s 4-3-3 with one of his own. Etrit Berisha started in goal. The back four was made up of Thiago Cionek, Ervin Zukanovic, Kevin Bonifazi, and Arkadiusz Reca. Lucas Castro, Mirko Valdifiori, and Simone Missiroli made up the midfield, while Gabriel Strefezza and Mattia Valoti bookended Andrea Petagna up front.
The home team jumped out on the front foot, and Chiellini showed there was still a little rust to knock off when a miscommunication with Szczesny saw them both go for the ball. Within three minutes SPAL had taken the game’s first shot on target, an easy Petanga shot that was low and easy for Szczesny to corral. Two minutes later Juve finally made their first foray downfield and put the ball into the back of the net when Dybala put a beautiful cross to the far post for Ronaldo to head in, but the winger was a stride offside and a quick VAR check chalked the goal off.
The game assumed the character of a back-and-forth midfield battle, and the first third or so of the first half saw little else in the way of serious opportunities created by either side. Cuadrado had the best of them over this period. He ballooned a good ball from Sandro into the stands on the volley, then took a low cross from Sandro in the box but got tunnel vision, taking a touch to try to free himself and firing at point blank range, only to see the the shot blocked when he had a couple of options free to his right.
SPAL nearly snuck in an opener in the 22nd minute when Strefezza streaked into the box and fired in from a tight angle. Szczesny was guarding his near post but the Brazilian nearly megged him, and the Pole only managed to keep it out by flat-out sitting on the ball, avoiding what would have been a really bad goal.
The game barreled forward, not quite boring but not exactly full of fireworks, either, until the late stages of the half. It was the 37th minute when Dybala pulled a magnificent shot out of thin air, dribbling in a circle until he gave himself a shooting lane and unleashing a 23-yard curler that looked destined to open the scoring but instead smacked into the post. Two minutes later they did break the deadlock when Cuadrado timed the offside trap perfectly and ran on to a great ball over the top by Ramsey. He put it across with his first touch, and Ronaldo, who had blown by Cionek, cracked the ball past a stranded Berisha with his own first touch. It was his 11th consecutive game with a goal, pulling him level with Gabriel Batitstuta and Fabio Quagliarella for the Serie A record.
Ronaldo very nearly added a second within minutes of the restart, but Berisha managed to push his angled shot just wide with a desperate kick save.
Chiellini had grown into the game as he knocked off the rust, and showed that he hasn’t lost any of his game-reading ability in the 50th minute when he stood his ground and ended a nice run up the left channel. Five minutes later, he was withdrawn in what was obviously a scheduled move, replaced by Matthijs de Ligt.
He was still walking around the sideline when Cuadrado almost doubled the lead, taking advantage of a bad header from Zukanovic to set up a shot that Berisha managed to parry the ball at a range so close he hardly knew where the ball was when it hit him.
Up to this point, Ramsey was having a mixed game. His pass to Cuadrado had been key to unlock the first goal, but he’d also had some rough touches and passes. Around the hour mark, however, he was in the thick of some important action. The first sequence came in the 58th minute, when he pushed the ball just wide from the top of the penalty area. Two minutes later he was much more successful. Running on to a great through ball by Dybala, he charged into the channel and beautifully chipped the onrushing Berisha.
Things looked to be going smoothly when SPAL got back into the game in a way so ridiculous as to be almost crass.
It was the 66th minute when Rugani tackled a ball away from Missiroli in the box. Referee Federico La Penna made no call at first, and it looked as though the call was right — a reverse angle looked like Rugani had gotten the ball before he got any piece of Missiroli, and it certainly wasn’t clear enough to warrant a reversal of the call on the field. Problem is La Penna never saw that. The VAR official did call down to him to have a look, but when he arrived at the sidelines, all that was on the screen was an error message. Literally, an error message. La Penna’s radio communications seemed to be off as well, because he ended up grabbing a walkie talkie and talking to the VAR instead, eventually allowing the official in the booth to make the decision and reversing the call to award a penalty.
The whole sequence should have been accompanied by the Benny Hill theme, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that if this had happened with the roles reversed, the uproar would have caused the Italian peninsula to crack away from the European mainland and float into the sea. But with the decision made, Petagna stepped up and sent his penalty into the net, with Szczesny going the other way, halving the deficit and setting up a potential grandstand finish.
Fortunately, the game never quite ended up in the balance. SPAL only took two shots the rest of the game, while Juventus came close to putting the game to bed twice, once when a cross from Cuadrado went just a little too deep for Ronaldo to steer on frame, then with four minutes of normal time remaining Ronaldo actually cleared the wall with a free kick for once, striking the bar and then volleying the rebound back at goal, where it was corralled rather easily by Berisha. The Loony Tunes VAR incident added six minutes of stoppage time to the game, but SPAL’s only chance in the added time came from a corner kick that substitute Mohamed Fares headed over the bar. When La Penna put his game to bed, Juve finally had their win at the Paolo Mazza, and the pressure was now on Lazio and Inter to keep up.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 6. He was a little lucky to save Strefezza’s shot in the first half - that would have been a really bad look - but otherwise was solid enough.
DANILO - 7. Played really well on Saturday, leading the team with four clearances and adding a pair of key passes on the other end. He’s had two straight games good games.
DANIELE RUGANI - 6. I’m not docking him for the penalty because I think the call was incorrect and the process by which it was gotten to was idiotic. He was a monster in the air, winning twice as many aerial duels (6) as anyone else on the field for either team, and added a pair of interceptions and a block. A nice game from him.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 6. Shaky early, but that was to be expected given his long layoff. Made some nice plays later on in his performance and had a pair of tackles before heading off as he builds match fitness.
ALEX SANDRO - 8. Already impressed with him in-game, but then I saw his stats, including an eye-popping six key passes, to go along with a tackle, two interceptions, and three clearances. A real force on the left flank today.
AARON RAMSEY - 6. His goal was really pretty, as was the pass that he hit to Cuadrado at the beginning of the sequence that led to the opening goal. He was also a bit shaky at times, with some weird touches and mishit passes. He’s still growing into things with his playing time, but seems to like playing as a mezz’ala better than up front.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 7. Led the team with three interceptions, and completed 90.4 percent of his passes while leading the team in touches. Kid is good. I look forward to watching him play.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 6. Led the team with three tackles and drew a couple of fouls as well, but his offensive contribution was generally limited to allowing Sandro to do his thing on their side of the field.
JUAN CUADRADO - 6.5. A typical Juan game: he made a couple real head-scratchers, but also came really close to scoring and would’ve had one if not for Berisha’s desperate save. He also had a good crossing game, putting in several dangerous balls besides his assist.
PAULO DYBALA - 7. The shot he hit the post with was exquisite, as was his assist to Ramsey. He racked up a total of three key passes and did well distributing up top.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 7. Clinical on his goal, and actually hitting the woodwork with a free kick was a nice change, although several minutes earlier he had again furthered his ongoing effort to defy physics and hit a free kick directly through a solid human being. He was active around the box and a constant danger.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 6. Racked up a tackle and and interception in his 35 minutes of work. Kept the defense relatively strong upon his introduction.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 6. Had some fight in him in midfield, at one point staying with a ball most people thought he would have lost. A good sub coverage.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - NR. Took over in midfield and helped see out the win.
When Sarri was hired, I wondered whether he might use Dybala as a false 9 the way he did with Dries Mertens at Napoli. That was before Gonzalo Higuain ended up staying with the team for the year, and Sarri hasn’t attempted it too much this year. But with Higuain on the shelf with a lumbago-related back problem this weekend and Douglas Costa still recovering from his latest injury, putting Dybala in the middle of the front line was really Sarri’s only option — and it worked out pretty dang well. Whether as a false 9 or in a wider position, Sarri seems to have figured out how to use Dybala in a trident attack better than Massimiliano Allegri did a year ago, when Dybala languished on the outside unable to get the best of his abilities. Earlier in the season it looked like a 4-3-1-2 was the only way to bring Dybala’s full powers to bear, but Sarri’s plugged him into a 4-3-3 the last two weeks and he’s had two great games.
We weren’t seeing peak Sarrismo by any means, but we’re at the phase of the season that style points lose their importance. Getting maximum points from each game is the key - how they come about it is less and less an issue.
Juve have temporarily extended their lead over their pursuers, moving four points ahead of Lazio and six ahead of Inter. Lazio will face relegation-threatened Genoa in Sunday’s lunchtime kickoff. Inter were supposed to play Sampdoria in the day’s late game, but that match (and two others) has been ordered postponed by the Italian government due to concerns about the coronavirus, which has made an appearance in northern Italy.
The week-and-a-half ahead for Juventus could prove a pivotal one in the season. On Wednesday, they head to France to play Lyon in the first round of the Champions League Round of 16. Then a crunch home game against Inter could prove a major point in the title race. After that comes the second leg of the Coppa Italia semifinals against AC Milan.