It was never going to be easy going to the Stadio Marc’Antonio Bentegodi to play Hellas Verona. The Mastini are the surprise story of Serie A this season. They’re pushing hard for a place in Europe after having to navigate through the Serie B playoffs to get themselves back into the top flight last year. Ivan Juric has them playing a compact and organized defense that has them in the race for a spot in the Europa League despite being in the bottom half of the league in scoring.
Just three days ago, they had seemingly done Juve a huge favor when they gutted out a scoreless draw in
the Derby della Mussolini their rescheduled match with Lazio. Regardless of how well they’ve been playing, Saturday’s game was one Juve should have won. Instead, they came out flatter than even the loss against Napoli two weeks ago. They weathered the storm — thanks in part to a bailout from VAR — and even took the lead with 25 minutes to play thanks to a history-making goal by Cristiano Ronaldo. They proceeded to completely lose their heads, conceding a pair of soft goals en route to a 2-1 loss that throws their latest title defense into a huge state of flux, at least pending the results from Inter and Lazio on Sunday.
Maurizio Sarri selected the same lineup and formation that had beaten Fiorentina last weekend. Wojciech Szczesny sat behind a 4-3-3 setup, with Juan Cuadrado, Matthijs De Ligt, Leonardo Bonucci, and Alex Sandro arrayed in front of him. Rodrigo Bentancur, Miralem Pjanic, and Adrien Rabiot made up the midfield, while Douglas Costa, Gonzalo Higuain, and Ronaldo formed the attacking trident.
Juric’s men formed into a 3-4-1-2 shape. Marco Silvestri, who stood on his head in midweek against Lazio, took up the gloves, screened by the back three of Koray Gunter, Amir Rrahmani, and the up-and-coming Marash Kumbulla. Marco Faraoni and Darko Lazovic were deployed as wing-backs, framing Miguel Veloso and Sofyan Amrabat in midfield. Matteo Pessini slotted into the hole behind the strike pairing of Mattia Zaccagni and Fabio Borini.
Ironically enough, it was Juve who made the game’s first chance when Higuain jumped on a mistaken pass upfield, then exchanged passes with Costa and charged down the channel, but his angled shot was blocked out for a corner.
For the next 40 minutes, it was almost all Verona.
The home side ran a suffocating press that didn’t give Juve a moment’s peace on the ball and caused repeated turnovers. They won seemingly every 50/50 ball. On the occasion that Juve did manage to get any space or time with the ball, their passing was terrible, a mix of terrible execution and a lumpy playing surface that they never seemed to get used to.
So it was that Juve spent the vast majority of the first half defending — in many cases not particularly well. With 10 minutes on the clock Sandro sagged off of Faraoni on the right side, giving him tons of time to set himself and unleash a wicked shot that Szczesny flew to palm over the bar. The ensuing corner found Pessina unmarked at the far post. The midfielder scuffed his volley, but Rrahmani tried to flick the ball in, just missing the far post.
Juve were pinned back, but they came within a fingertip (literally) of taking a smash-and-grab lead in the 19th minute when Bentancur unleashed Costa on the counter. The Brazilian charged upfield and unleashed a powerful shot from 19 yards out that Silvestri maybe got two fingertips to, but that was sufficient to push the ball onto the bar.
Two minutes later, it looked like Verona had finally made their pressure pay when Kumbulla got free at the back post on a free kick. Szczesny didn’t react well to his header, which settled into the goal off his hands, but after conferring with VAR referee Davide Massa chalked off the goal, judging Kumbulla to be fractionally offside.
Juve couldn’t do much with the reprieve, though, and continued to suffer in their own half as the home side fearlessly played their football. It wasn’t until the late stages of the half that Juve started to finally carve out a foothold, and in the 36th minute the woodwork came into play again, this time denying Ronaldo after he cut inside and tried to shoot. The effort was weird-looking and lacking in power, but Silvestri took a wicked curve and Silvestri looked unsighted to boot, staying rooted to the spot until it was too late to do anything except watch the ball bounce off the post.
The last minutes of the half saw Ronaldo get a couple more opportunities, missing wide with a cut-in and a header off a Costa cross, giving Juve at least a little bit of a positive to try to build on at the break. Both teams started the second period slowly, with the biggest incident in the first 10 minutes or so coming when Higuain had a shot blocked by Gunter and started appealing for a handball. Gunter did indeed have an arm extended, but the ball hadn’t hit that arm, but his other one, which was pulled in tight against his body, and Massa rightly waved play on.
Two minutes later the ref again rejected a penalty claim, this one from Verona when Cuadrado made a critical — and legal — challenge on Zaccagni.
Sarri made his first change just before the hour, sending on Paulo Dybala for Higuain. About five minutes later, the Argentine danced away from a challenge in front of his own box and released Ronaldo upfield. The forward exchanged passes with Bentancur, who sent him through with a lofted ball that saw him faced up with Rrahmani. He dribbled forward, took a stepover to get himself the smallest of spaces, and fired the ball past a diving Silvestri to put Juve ahead. It was Ronaldo’s 10th straight league game with a goal, breaking David Trezeguet’s team record.
Three minutes later he nearly added a second after he was played onside by a deflection, but Gunter got in front of him to block the ball for a corner. If anyone was hoping that the goal would demoralize Verona, though, they would be disappointed. Szczesny was forced into a save in the 71st minute off a header by Giampaolo Pazzini, who had been introduced barely 90 seconds before. Five minutes later, the home side managed to even things up, heavily assisted by a series of brain farts on the part of Juve.
The first one came on the part of Bentancur, who up until that point was having a good game but who decided to be a little too nonchalant by trying to clear a ball out with a back-heel, only to whack the ball off the player behind him. It ran into the path of Pjanic, who had a complete brain lock. It looked like he may have been trying a back pass to De Ligt, but only succeeded in essentially passing the ball to Borini and giving him a clear path to the goal. He took full advantage of the gift and fired past a stranded Szczesny to the far post.
The horror show continued for Pjanic almost as soon as play restarted, losing the ball again and triggering a counter that the defense had to mop up. Juve hadn’t managed to create much in the way of opportunity for a second, and then a four-minute sequence late in the game saw them behind.
It started when Borini broke down the field but was thwarted by a really good block by Bonucci. The ensuing corner saw Kumbulla head the ball off the bar, but before play could restart Massa blew his whistle for a surprising VAR check. Nothing had looked untoward in real time, but the replay clearly showed that Bonucci had gone up to challenge for the ball with his arm held over his head, and Kumbulla had headed it off his hand. The call was obvious, and with four minutes left in the regular time Pazzini stepped to the spot to take the kick. Szczesny guessed correctly, but Pazzini’s penalty was hit with so much power that it was in the net almost before he actually dove.
Six minutes of stoppage time were posted, but the closest Juve managed to come to evening the score back up was a ball that Dybala shot into orbit and a Ronaldo mishit off a corner, and when Massa blew his final whistle it set off a bomb in the title race, opening up the door for Inter and Lazio to pull within touching distance.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 6. Made a fantastic save early and had no chance on either goal, but he’s lucky that Kumbulla was ruled offside in the first half.
JUAN CUADRADO - 4. A step slow defensively all game, and Lazovic was able to get in multiple crosses simply by cutting the ball back, with Cuadrado unable to get back and fill the space. Did hardly anything offensively, either from the back or when he was pushed forward toward the end of the game.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 6. A pretty good game from the Dutchman, who didn’t put a foot wrong and tied for second on the team in interceptions. He didn’t make any major mistakes.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 5. This was going to be higher before his inexplicable decision to lead a challenge with his hand. Before that he had a good game, making a team-leading five clearances and a pair of blocks. It was just unbelievable what he did at the end.
ALEX SANDRO - 5.5. Led the team with four interceptions and added two key passes, but also sagged off of guys a little too much, allowing the dangerous Faraoni too much room on too many occasions.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 6. He was playing so well before that brain freeze on the equalizer that this number stays high. Led the team with three key passes and put up a peach of a pass for the assist on Ronaldo’s goal. He just got a little too nonchalant in the lead-up to Borini’s goal.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 4. This would have been even lower if he hadn’t led the team with four tackles. I’ve never seen him pass so poorly (75 percent completion) and he served up the equalizer on a silver platter.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 5.5. Made a pair of tackles and a pair of interceptions, but couldn’t really impose himself from midfield. Still deserves some more time to really integrate himself in the starting XI.
DOUGLAS COSTA - 5. Made a couple of key passes and came a whisker away from opening the scoring with that long solo run, but he wasn’t a consistent threat with the ball, and coming off with another injury was not a welcome sight.
GONZALO HIGUAIN - 5. Couldn’t get himself much in the way of touches and saw both of his shots blocked. He’s the natural center-forward for this formation but he needs to get better service.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 7. Really one of the only guys who came to play on Saturday. The goal was really impressive, and he also provided a key pass. Worked hard to get himself space when nothing else was really happening.
PAULO DYBALA - 5.5. Did his best but he didn’t make the impact he has in past sub appearances this season. Ballooned a pair of shots into the crowd.
AARON RAMSEY - 5.5. Created one opportunity in his 19 minutes on the field but couldn’t inspire the team to anything else over the last 20 minutes.
MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - NR. On to man the right flank when Sarri decided to shake things up and send Cuadrado forward.
On a tactical level, Sarri approached this game fairly well. The 4-3-3 was a better option against an organized three-man defense like Verona, which could have funneled a more narrow formation like a 4-3-1-2 into the teeth of the back line and nullified the attack. The problem is that, with a couple of exceptions, the team simply didn’t show up to play. Verona imposed themselves on the game and the team never reacted in a way that could change things. While watching the game I struggled to come up with ways that he could have used subs to change the game, simply because it wasn’t a tactical problem.
That’s not to say that Sarri gets any sort of mulligan here. I’ve been preaching patience with him all season, but we’re now starting to come up to the point where things need to start coming together. It’s unreasonable to expect that every game will be perfect Sarrismo, but at this point you can’t have your players come out looking like they don’t want to be there, which is how this team looked at points. Sarri tried changing formations by putting on Dybala and moving Costa into the hole, then moved back late in the game when he pushed Cuadrado forward, but nothing seemed to get the team working and motivated. With an important month ahead and a title race that’s looking like one for the ages, Sarri needs to do something to make sure that this never happens again.
Juve could find themselves in a tie at the top if Inter beat Milan in the Derby della Madonnina on Sunday, and Lazio could close to within one point if they beat Parma.
Schedule-wise, Juve will travel to Milan on Thursday for the first leg of the Coppa Italia semifinal, then head home to host Brescia on Sunday.