After flopping hard in the Coppa Italia as Italian soccer emerged from the COVID-19 shutdown, Juventus needed a response in their first Serie A match since they beat Inter 2-0 on March 8.
Good news, folks.
While not exactly a peak performance, Juve finally emerged from the doldrums on Monday night in Bologna. While not exactly peppering the Bologna goal with shots — indeed they were outshot 20-14 — they finally found the back of their opponent’s net. The attack got a big shot in the arm from an unexpected place in the form of Federico Bernardeschi, who took a chance at his natural right wing position and ran with it, recording an assist and setting up many other chances, one of which was converted with aplomb by Paulo Dybala. The team kept up its energy longer than it had in their previous two games, and the defense stayed excellent, allowing only one of those 20 Bologna shots to hit the target.
The whole thing combined to form the recipe for the team’s first win since the restart, a 2-0 result that put Juve four points up in the Serie A standings pending Lazio’s game against Atalanta on Wednesday. That win, however, may have produced a bind for Juve’s next game.
Maurizio Sarri was forced into one change after the final last Wednesday after Alex Sandro took an injury to his knee against Napoli. He finished out the 4-3-3 lineup with three more tweaks. Wojciech Szczesny stepped onto the field for his first game since the restart. He was protected by Juan Cuadrado, Matthijs de Ligt, Leonardo Bonucci, and Mattia De Sciglio. Rodrigo Bentancur and Miralem Pjanic were joined by Adrien Rabiot in midfield, while Bernardeschi took up his position on the right with Dybala and Cristiano Ronaldo filling out the front line.
It should be recognized how much courage it must take for Sinisa Mihajlovic — who must be seriously immunocompromised as a result of the treatment he’s been undergoing for the leukemia he was diagnosed with in August — for even taking the field while there is still any danger at all from the coronavirus. The team he sent out took a 4-2-3-1 shape, with Lukasz Skorupski at the base. Takehiro Tomoyasu, Danilo (not that one), Stefano Denswil, and Mitchell Dijks formed the defensive line, with Gary Medel and Mattias Svanberg forming the double pivot in midfield. Former Juventus prospect — and, if rumor is to be believed, current transfer target — Riccardo Orsolini headlined the attack at right wing, with Roberto Soriano and Nicola Sansone in the bank of three behind Musa Barrow.
The signs weren’t encouraging in the opening minutes. Juve got themselves caught under pressure at the back seconds after play began and de Ligt nearly scored an own goal with a wonky back pass. Bologna played well out of the gate, but it was Juve who registered the game’s first shot on target when Ronaldo cut inside from the left into a patch of space and ripped one for goal. Skorupski got down well to parry, and Bernardeschi was just beaten to the rebound by Denswil, who got his positioning exactly right to get the ball on his chest and not his arm. Bernardeschi did nick the ball back as Bologna tried to pass out of trouble and got the ball back to Dybala, but the Argentine put it wide and over.
Both teams probed their opponents without much success for the next 10 minutes or so, until the visitors lined up for a corner kick. The ball was headed out of the box, and Rabiot eventually called for a foul at the top of the Bologna penalty area. The call was rather ridiculous, as the Frenchman had been the one taking contact rather than initiating it, but that refereeing mistake was soon made moot by VAR. Replays clearly showed that Denswil had completely lost the plot and taken De Ligt down by the front of his shirt as the corner kick came in. Referee Gianluca Rocchi headed to the screen and came back in short order signaling for the penalty kick. Ronaldo, who had missed a spot kick 11 days ago against AC Milan, converted this time, waiting for Skorupski to commit to a side before sending the ball down the middle for Juve’s first goal in 203 minutes of play since the restart.
After half an hour we saw one of the oddities of games being played behind closed doors. After Ronaldo was bowled over without a call, only for Rocchi to whistle Rabiot for a foul seconds later, someone on the Juventus bench shouted something that, under normal circumstances, probably wouldn’t have been heard over the din of a crowd, but in the current state of affairs was clearly audible. Rocchi brandished a red card, and one of Sarri’s assistants ended up trudging off to the locker room.
A few minutes later, Juve finally put one away from open play. It started with Bologna’s first and only shot on target of the game, which stemmed from a mistake by Szczesny, who played a pass right at Medel and was lucky when the Chilean slipped as he shot. The keeper gathered it and sent it back upfield. It ended up at the feet of de Ligt, who had pushed upfield. He passed the ball in to Bernardeschi, who pulled off an outrageous no-look back-heel pass to Dybala. The striker finished the rest, controlling and firing bolt into the top corner from just inside the penalty arc.
He nearly killed the game off four minutes later when Ronaldo found him with a good cross at the back post, but he caught it with his right foot and shanked it wide from close range. Ronaldo had a similar chance six minutes into the second period when he lost Tomoyasu’s marking and was fed into a one-on-one by Bernardeschi, but his attempt to stab the ball past the charging keeper wasn’t hit right and flew wide.
A minute later Bernardeschi nearly got himself a goal, cutting in on his left foot and unleashing a piledriver of a shot that thumped off the far post.
Things were generally going well. The defense was holding well and not allowing the Rossoblu anything but the occasional long-range pot shot. However, Juve were dealt an unwanted complication with 25 minutes to go. De Sciglio had been put down the left side on an overlap and looked to be in an excellent position to scoot in a low cross, but just as he would have made the hit he pulled up, grabbing at his hamstring. He limped off the field but then tried to get himself back on without Rocchi’s permission, earning himself a yellow card before he limped off the field in the company of trainers and was replaced by Danilo (the other one).
Ronaldo had another close call in the 73rd minute, cutting in again and then shooting across the grain at the near post, just missing. Orsolini tried to respond with 10 minutes to go, curling a left-footed shot just past the top corner. In the last minute of extra time Ronaldo thought he’d placed an exclamation point on things when he tapped in from a Douglas Costa cross, but the sub had been offside when Szczesny sent a long ball over the top.
Rocchi added five minutes of extra time, but in the first of those minutes the selection crisis at full-back turned into a full-blown emergency when Danilo — who had already been booked eight minutes before when he hit Bologna sub Musa Juwara with his studs — bundled over the teenager again, and Rocchi brandished a second yellow card. By my reckoning it was a soft booking, but he should’ve been more careful regardless. He’s now suspended for Friday’s game against Lecce, leaving Juve with precisely zero natural full-backs available to them for that game, assuming De Sciglio’s injury is as bad as it looks.
The red card and the subsequent reaction added a full 2 1⁄2 minutes of stoppage time for some reason, but Bologna didn’t manage to do anything with the extra time, and when Rocchi finally did blow his whistle, Juve finally had their first victory of the restart.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 5.5. When the team allows so few shots on target I often consider not rating the goalkeeper, but the rust was showing in Szczesny’s distribution. He made a couple of really dangerous passes and is lucky Medel didn’t take advantage of his gift in the first half. I expect he’ll cut down on that once he’s got his legs under him.
JUAN CUADRADO - 7.5. He had a great day on the right flank, leading the team in interceptions and tying for the lead in tackles. He did well going forward as well, registering a key pass that probably would’ve been an assist if Bernardeschi’s shot had evaded the post.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 6.5. His pass completion was rough (77.3 percent), but he helped set up Dybala’s goal and led the team with six clearances and also picked up three interceptions and blocked three shots.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 6. He also had an uncharacteristic sub-80 pass completion percentage, but held the line together well and also pushed into the attack to lend a hand.
MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - 6. Had three interceptions and defended well down the left flank, although the sequence when he was injured was really his first big involvement in the attack. In the compressed schedule over the next six weeks, the team is going to need him quickly.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 6. Defended well and was the only starting midfielder to register a key pass, but he wasn’t as dynamic as we’ve seen him, and he may be in need of a breather after three 90-minute appearances in 11 days.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 5.5. Didn’t make all that much impact with his passing. The team’s creativity mostly came from up front. We’ll probably see him in this position again next week, as the selection crunch at full-back likely will mean Blaise Matuidi will play in the back, but this spot really needs to go to Bentancur full time.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 6. Had a quietly solid game, at least defensively. Racked up two tackles and three clearances, but needs to use his talents going forward better.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 8. Put a guy in his natural position and he has a great day. Who’da thunk it? Seriously, this might have been the best game Bernardeschi has put together since the second leg comeback against Atletico Madrid last season. He was the team’s creative force, leading the way with four key passes and that incredible assist for Dybala. Had he been a little luckier he’d have had a goal, too. But wait! There’s more! He also registered three tackles and two interceptions tracking back on defense. If he does this again, he could go a long way toward keeping himself in Turin.
PAULO DYBALA - 7. That goal was something special, and Dybala worked his tail off up front, leading the team in dribbles and adding in a key pass. He finally got a breather late on, but looks strong and seems to be lining up his sights a little more.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 7. I have to admit, the sight of Ronaldo tracking back and making a sliding tackle on defense bugged my eyes out a little bit, and frankly it’s what edged him from a 6.5 to a 7 on the day for me. He looked far more dangerous in general than he had in the two Coppa games. He nearly had an assist to go with the penalty goal with a great cross for Dybala late in the first half.
DANILO - 4.5. This man is weird. The last two games he’s come off the bench and played pretty well overall, only to undo that with a dumb mistake. On Wednesday it was the penalty that never had a prayer, this time it was a needless second yellow in stoppages after having made three tackles and a clearance in only 25 minutes of work.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 6. Racked up a key pass, a tackle, and a blocked shot in his 20 minutes on the field.
AARON RAMSEY - 6. Mucked up a counterattack in stoppage time but had a key pass, as well as a tackle and a block.
DOUGLAS COSTA - NR. Almost had a great assist to cap off the game but was a shade offside. Spent more time defending as the team retreated into a defensive stance later in the game.
Sarri hasn’t done well by Bernardeschi this year. He’s pigeonholed him into every position imaginable except his natural one on the right wing. Then he sends him out in that position from the start of a game for the first time all year and he goes bananas. That goes to show you why you don’t shoehorn guys into positions they don’t belong in.
All in all, Sarri hit the right notes in this game. Putting Ronaldo back out on the wing and using Dybala as a false 9 seemed to help both players, and added to the dynamism of Bernardeschi made a more cohesive attacking unit than we’ve seen since the restart. He could still do with putting Bentancur into the regista position, which has proved to make the team as a whole more effective before the shutdown. I also wouldn’t have been so conservative with using some of the youth call-ups like, say, Marco Olivieri, late in the game in order to get guys like Cristiano Ronaldo off their feet a bit. It’s entirely possible that the club wants to keep a tighter leash on these guys to make sure they’re eligible for the Under-23 team when Serie C resumes next year, but as games come one on top of the other and injuries begin to pile up, he’ll have to give some of these guys minutes. With three games in 11 days, I’d have let Ronaldo kick up his heels with a late two-goal lead and let one of these youngsters have a crack.
That being said, I don’t envy his task picking a left back on Friday.
Juve’s win puts them four points ahead of Lazio, pending the result of the latter’s game against Atalanta on Wednesday. Given the way Atalanta played over the weekend, that game might be one of the best opportunities to get some distance over the capital club between now and the head-to-head matchup in late July.
Juve’s next match will come at home on Friday against Lecce, who are flirting with the relegation zone in 18th. After that comes a potentially thorny trip to face Genoa at the Stadio Luigi Ferraris, which has been something of a bogey ground for the team over the course of their 8-year title run.