The condensed nature of the schedule of the restarted Serie A season always lent itself to some whiplash. Juventus has proven that over the last two weeks.
Seven days ago everyone was so bullish about this team. They had romped to wins over Genoa and Torino by a combined 7-1 score and had punctuated it with some absolutely beautiful goals. Fast forward a week, and there are questions galore about the exact same squad after they blew a 2-0 lead against AC Milan in midweek and struggled mightily in Saturday’s 2-2 draw against Atalanta.
Based on form, it may have been the team’s most difficult game of the entire restart. Atalanta have been flying since calcio returned, and they kept on rolling as the game began at the Allianz Stadium. They put down a bright Juventus start and then controlled the entire half, going into the break 1-0 up. The Bianconeri managed to get themselves somewhat righted in the second half and picked up an equalizer from the spot on a controversial handball call, before regaining the lead with 10 minutes to go just as it looked like Juve might be taking control. But the penalty spot beckoned again thanks to another handball call, also sauced with questions, and that Ronaldo guy converted again to knot the game, giving Juve a point that they perhaps didn’t deserve but that extends their lead over Lazio, who lost their third consecutive game earlier in the day, to eight points.
Maurizio Sarri was able to re-install two key players from suspension into his 4-3-3, but had to make a change in midfield. Wojciech Szczesny started in goal with the quartet of Juan Cuadrado, Matthijs de Ligt, Leonardo Bonucci, and Danilo in front of him. Miralem Pjanic has been the usual starter at the regista position, but was surprisingly out of the starting XI. Sarri later explained at his post-match press conference that Pjanic was held out with a muscle issue. Rodrigo Bentancur started in his place, flanked by Adrien Rabiot and Blaise Matuidi. The now-familiar trident of Federico Bernardeschi, Paulo Dybala, and Cristiano Ronaldo formed the attack.
Gian Piero Gasperini’s men had won nine straight league games coming into this game, and the coach sent them out in his now-famous 3-4-3 formation. Pierluigi Gollini sat behind the back three of Berat Djimstiti, Jose Luis Palomino, and Rafael Toloi. Robin Gosens, the usual left wing-back, pulled up during pre-game warmups and had to be scratched. Timothy Castagne replaced him opposite Hans Hateboer, while Marten de Roon and Remo Freuler made up the midfield. The Big Three of Josip Ilicic, Duvan Zapata, and Papu Gomez joined forces up front.
Juventus actually made a fast start in this game. Dybala was dancing on the right wing, forcing a foul near the end line and then putting in a nice cross that had to be dug out by the defense. But within five minutes Atalanta had reversed the stream and began to thoroughly dominate the game. The first warning shot came in the sixth minute, when Castagne shook Cuadrado out of his shoes and got down the wing, sending in a great cross that an unmarked Zapata headed over.
It wasn’t just Juan having problems out wide. Six minutes later Danilo whiffed trying to interdict a fun by Hateboer, who fed Ilicic in space. His shot from range had power but didn’t bend and flew past the far post.
The home team was pinned, and the goal wasn’t long in coming. It started when Dybala was dispossessed near midfield. The ball rolled to Gomez, who maneuvered past Bentancur as he got himself upfield. The Argentine played a one-two with Zapata and cut inside, carrying De Ligt with him. He cut back against his own trail to open up a lane and slipped a final pass to Zapata, who fended off Bentancur — knocked him on his ass, really — and knocked it past Szczesny to open the scoring.
Juve started to at least find a foothold after the goal. Dybala managed the team’s first shot only two minutes after play restarted, but only managed to put it right at Gollini. The team spent the next passage of play moving it upfield and then trying to squeeze the ball into insanely tight passing windows that the defense closed with ease. On the half-hour La Dea very nearly doubled their lead when Castagne sent a cross just over the head of Zapata, then two minutes later Dybala came close to a response when he shook loose of Palomino and took down a diagonal lob from Bentancur. He aimed his shot to the far post but Palomino recovered just in time to get in a touch that sent the ball wide.
The half ended with Juve needing to answer a ton of questions. The broke out of the restart looking better, but they still had the occasional lapse, giving Gomez way too much space in shooting position six minutes in, but Bentancur got back to make a critical block. Three minutes later, Dybala set up to deliver a cross at the left corner of the penalty area. De Roon was in front of him, and as he spun in his attempt to block it, his arms flew ever so slightly out in front of him and blocked the cross. Referee Piero Giacomelli pointed to the spot with no hesitation whatsoever. This call and the one we’ll come to later will be debated ad nauseam over the next few days, but the fact is that it’s been called like this all season long, and if you’re going to call handball on the plays that involved de Ligt and Bonucci in recent games, you have to call this, too. The play stood, and Ronaldo stepped up to the spot. Gollini guessed which way he was going, but Ronaldo hit it with so much power that it was past him almost before he moved. It was game on.
Sarri had been prepping changes before the goal and went through with them anyway, sending on Douglas Costa and Alex Sandro. Gasperini responded by sending on Mario Pasalic for Ilicic, and a few minutes later pulled the rest of his Big Three, replacing Zapata with Luis Muriel and Gomez with Ruslan Malinovskiy. The but for this Atalanta team the talent dropoff up front isn’t really that big, and they’re so well versed in Gasperini’s system that it doesn’t really matter anyway. Malinovskiy, who is known for his thunderous long shots, proved that in a major way, very nearly giving Atalanta the lead with 15 minutes to go with a shot from the left channel that went wide of the far post. Ronaldo then came close to giving Juve the advantage when he took down a long ball from Cuadrado and fired a shot across the grain, pulling a diving save out of Gollini, although if he had held it he might’ve been able to tee up Gonzalo Higuain for a better shot.
With 10 minutes to go, Malinovskiy did put Atalanta ahead. Bentancur had been dispossessed to trigger a run. Matuidi stood ball watching at the penalty arc instead of moving to cover the Ukrainian, who took a square ball from Muriel and unleashed a blast with his right (allegedly weaker) foot from 17 yards. It went under Sandro’s leg, which may have unsighted Szczesny, but the Pole probably wasn’t going to get to it regardless.
It was desperation time for Juve, but they seemed to throw the playbook out the window and just start running wherever they thought would do the most good. The best they managed out of open play was a long-range worm-burner that didn’t cause too much trouble for Gollini, while Malinovskiy almost sealed the deal after a weaving run, but he pulled his shot wide. It was looking bleak, but then the visitors shot themselves in the foot.
Ronaldo was presented with a free kick with two minutes to go and tried to go around the wall, but it deflected wide for a corner. The ensuing set piece came in with pace and Gollini elected to try to punching as far as he could. The ball landed to Higuain, tried to back the ball out to Costa to be sent back in. In between them was Muriel — whose trailing arm was out. This was also a source of controversy but that’s frankly silly, because the Colombian’s arm was way off his body, and to his credit Giacomelli again made his call with no hesitation. Ronaldo lined up the shot for a second time, and went the exact same way, to his left. Gollini guessed him right again, but Ronaldo’s low shot was angled perfectly and he didn’t have a chance to save it.
There were only three minutes of stoppage time, and Juve had the better of them but couldn’t get themselves another opportunity to score, and when Giacomelli blew his whistle, Juve had managed to wriggle away with a point that they perhaps didn’t deserve but certainly could use.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 5.5. I don’t really blame him for either goal, the defense in front of him left him out to dry, but his distribution since the restart has been really shaky and he gave away possession with a couple of unforced errors.
JUAN CUADRADO - 6. Dropped a really nice pass for Ronaldo and defended adequately, but wasn’t as influential as he’s been in previous games. He put himself over the suspension threshold with a booking, but the rest will probably be good for him.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 6. Led the team with five clearances, but struggled at times with the slipperiness of Gomez, especially on the first goal. Shored up, and his duel with Zapata was one to watch.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 6. An average day for Leo, who blocked a shot as well as notching a pair of clearances. He also is starting to look a little gassed, and if Giorgio Chiellini can go it might be time to let him have a game in midweek.
DANILO - 6. Adequate. Nothing special, but certainly wasn’t a liability, and even notched a key pass, which was rare for Juve in Saturday’s game. He’ll start on his natural side next week with Cuadrado suspended.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 5.5. Tied for the team lead with three interceptions, but didn’t have as good a day with the ball at his feet, although that might have something to do with the fact that he wasn’t on his natural side.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 5.5. A real opportunity for him, but it just didn’t work as well as the Inter game this time around. He did lead the team with two key passes, but he was scattershot with his passing in the first half and Zapata made him look feeble when he scored. He had a better second half but then got dispossessed for the move that led to Atalanta’s second.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 5. Tied Bentancur for the team lead in tackles, but was really rough going forward and was caught ball-watching when he should’ve been attending to Malinovskiy on his goal.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 4. Touched the ball less than Szczesny. That’s not good. Actually had a decent shot lined up early in the second half but pulled it badly. One to forget for him.
PAULO DYBALA - 6. One of the only sources of creativity on the team. His close control was excellent, but the midfield wasn’t able to get the ball to him for him to do much with it, and Sarri eventually pulled him when he began to drop deep to get himself the ball.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 6. He took both penalties with aplomb, but he did hardly anything in open play, and spent a lot of time standing around. Toloi man-marked him for a lot of the game and did a pretty good job.
DOUGLAS COSTA - 5.5. Had a couple of almost moves, but didn’t create the way he can.
ALEX SANDRO - 5.5. Made a tackle and two interceptions off the bench but failed to do anything going forward.
GONZALO HIGUAIN - 4.5. Didn’t get much in the way of service but you should be touching the ball more than 12 times in 22 minutes.
AARON RAMSEY - NR. Is there a point to putting him on at this point? I’d almost rather see a kid like Muratore given a shot to do something with these minutes if he’s going to play like this.
Sarri did manage to get the team to muster up some response after a really bad first half, but Atalanta are a team on fire right now, and with the midfield the way it was with Pjanic absent there was going to be a struggle against a team as good and as well-versed in its manager’s system as this one.
He made the right subs at the right times, but it couldn’t really get the team over the hump. This is the kind of game that will have Sarri’s critics screaming about his lack of a Plan B, but guess what, kids? Pep Guardiola doesn’t have one, either. The difference is Pep has a team at Manchester City that’s tailored to his system. Sarri doesn’t. I’d be really interested to see what a game between these two teams might look like if he ever does. But frankly, getting ugly points is something coaches need to be able to do, and Sarri certainly managed it against Atalanta. There are definitely things to sort out, and the question of rest for players like Bentancur, Bonucci, and probably even Ronaldo is going to have to be addressed soon.
Juve are now eight points up on Lazio with six games to go, with Atalanta a further point back. For the record, Juve now owns the tiebreaker with Atalanta on the strength of their win in Bergamo in November.
Juve’s next match is a trip to face Sassuolo. The Neroverdi contributed to Juve’s scudetto effort earlier in the day by grabbing a 2-1 win over Lazio in stoppages, but they’ve hit a stride and will look to take a scalp at home on Wednesday. After that, it’s what everyone assumed would be the title decider when the season resumed when Lazio arrives at the Allianz Stadium. It still very well may be — just a little more anticlimactically than we thought.