Juventus have been spending the last week or so proving the old adage that 2-0 is the most dangerous scoreline in soccer.
Juve looked like they had begun to answer the questions of the previous two games when they went into the Mapei Stadium and took a 2-0 lead over Sassuolo in the first 12 minutes of the game. It looked like they were back to the grind after a brief bobble. They even came close to twisting the knife all the way, missing a 3-0 lead by inches after an error in goalkeeping.
But after Atalanta, the Neroverdi have probably been the league’s form team since the restart, and they started showing why. Juve suddenly found themselves hanging on for dear life, and were lucky go into the break up 2-1. Then two Sassuolo goals in a three-minute span early in the second half had things looking exactly the way they had looked at the San Siro the week before.
Fortunately, Juve did one thing that they didn’t do against AC Milan: they found a response. A set piece goal brought the team back level, though they needed some more heroics from Wojciech Szczesny in goal to be able to limp back to Turin with a 3-3 draw ahead of Monday’s showdown with Lazio, which at the beginning of the restart was circled on everyone’s calendar as decisive but now may end up being somewhat anticlimactic.
Maurizio Sarri needed a response after the twin duds against Milan and Atalanta, but was without two of the men he had leaned on hardest since the season restarted. Juan Cuadrado was suspended due to yellow card accumulation, while Sarri revealed in his pre-match press conference that Leonardo Bonucci is dealing with a foot problem, which may explain some of his recent performances.
Without those two, the back four in Sarri’s 4-3-3 had to be rejiggered, with only one holdover from Saturday’s game against Atalanta. Szczesny was thus fronted by the quartet of Danilo, Matthijs De Ligt, Giorgio Chiellini, and Alex Sandro — the latter two making their first league starts since the restart after coming back from injuries. Miralem Pjanic’s adductor problem cleared up in time for him to start with Rodrigo Bentancur and Blaise Matuidi flanking him, while Federico Bernardeschi, Gonzalo Higuain, and Cristiano Ronaldo making up the attacking trident.
Roberto De Zerbi’s team had lost their first game of the restart against Atalanta, but haven’t been defeated since. They had been involved in some pretty wild games, outscoring opponents 17-11 in that span. De Zerbi has settled into a 4-2-3-1 formation with some fearsome attackers. Andrea Consigli started in goal, with Mert Muldur, Federico Peluso, Vlad Chiriches, and Georgios Kyriakopolous forming the back line. Manuel Locatelli and Francesco Magnanelli made up the double pivot midfield, with Domenico Berardi, Filip Djuricic, and Jeremie Boga banked behind Andrea Caputo in attack.
Things started out quite well. In the first minutes the game was clearly flowing toward Consigli’s goal, although Sassuolo did show a glimpse of things to come when they went on a powerful counterattack that sputtered out when Caputo mishit the last ball.
Juve earned a pair of corners in the first five minutes, and it was the second corner that saw Juve open the scoring. Sassuolo was defending deep in their own penalty area, leaving Pjanic a clear lane to send a ball along the ground to Danilo, who was waiting at the top of the box. We’ve seen it hundreds of times. Lay off the corner to the top of the box for someone to hit toward goal. I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen it work until this moment — and the man who was waiting for the pass was Danilo, of all people. The Brazilian celebrated his birthday with a first-time strike with an insane bend that carried it behind Consigli and into the goal.
Juve kept control of things, limiting Sassuolo to a potshot in the 10th minute before doubling their lead in the 12th with a gorgeous long pass from Pjanic to Higuain, who had lost his marker and was all alone. He let it run into the box and, after taking a quick look to see where Ronaldo was in support, then stroked it expertly past the onrushing keeper.
It looked like the team had settled themselves again, but Sassuolo’s response was immediate. A similar ball over the top saw Caputo 1-on-1 with Szczesny after splitting the center backs, but the keeper, who has been criticized over his performances in the last few games, came out of his goal quickly and smothered him before he could shoot with any danger. It looked like Sassuolo would rue that missed opportunity a few minutes later, when Consigli came out of his box to meet a long ball with his head when he really didn’t need to. Ronaldo got to the ball near the right sideline and took a pot shot at the open goal, but just missed and hit the side netting. It wasn’t necessarily the easiest of shots given the angle, but the game might’ve been very different indeed had it gone in.
Sassuolo finally bore down in the aftermath of that escape. They passed the ball with precision and pace, and their team speed was something to behold, filling space with terrifying swiftness. Szczesny was kept busy. He pulled out an excellent save in the 24th minute when Muldur’s shot was deflected by Sandro, forcing him to backtrack and punch away the powerful effort with one hand. He then won another one-on-one, this time with Berardi.
A goal was inevitable given the way the home team was playing, and it duly came in the 29th minute. Muldur was again key, running from his own penalty area into a great open tract of land and bearing down on the Juve penalty area. Bentancur was backtracking to try to help defensively and won the ball off the Turk, but his heavy touch was too much for Sandro to handle and it pinballed into the middle of the box. Caputo managed to nudge the ball to Djuricic, who clipped it past a stranded Szczesny and into the top corner.
The momentum was firmly in Sassuolo’s hands now, and Berardi — once considered the future of Juve’s attack — was running rampant, barely missing the far post with a curler after some uncertain defending from Chiellini and forcing another save from Szczesny minutes later.
Juve did manage one pretty passage of play in first-half stoppages, with all of the front three exchanging quick passes ending in a pretty layoff from Bernardeschi to Ronaldo. He was in great position, but Chiriches managed to get a foot in and block it over the bar. De Ligt was required to block two shots in quick succession as the half came to a close, but they Old Lady got into the locker room with their tenuous lead intact.
The opening moments of the second half were mainly devoted to referee Paolo Valeri sorting out the disposition of an indirect free kick in the Sassuolo penalty area after Consigli handled an errant back pass. The ball was placed on the left end of the six-yard box, but Ronaldo only managed to slam a tightly angled shot into a crowd of green-and-black shirts. At the other end a moment later, Bentancur made a great tackle with a bad follow-through to leave Sassuolo sitting with a free kick in a dangerous area. Berardi stood over it and delivered an absolutely stunning free kick that no goalkeeper alive could have stopped — although Ronaldo and Bentancur could’ve done better in the wall. Szczesny simply stood and watched it fly into the top corner to tie the score.
It only took two minutes for the game to be completely turned on its head. Berardi was again key, taking a pass from Caputo and then sending in a cross back to his teammate, who the Juventus defense had managed to entirely lose track of as he took a route to the back post. The cross slithered through the defense and Cauputo turned it in on the slide, setting a team record for top flight goals in the process.
Sarri responded to the team’s second brain fart in three games by getting Paulo Dybala and Adrien Rabiot on within a few minutes of Sassuolo’s third goal. Dybala immediately made an impact, injecting a creativity to the team that hadn’t been there for some time. Within minutes both were in the thick of things. Rabiot got on the end of an excellent cross by Bernardeschi but couldn’t get his free header on target, and seconds later Dybala picked out Ronaldo with a gorgeous pass that the Portuguese inexcusably dribbled straight into Consigli’s feet.
But this game would be different from the Milan collapse in one respect: this time Juve managed a response. Sassuolo responded to Juventus’ defensive lapses with one of their own, and no one picked up Sandro at the near post on a corner in the 64th minute. The left-back, who had been handed the captain’s armband when Chiellini exited at halftime, slammed home Bentancur’s delivery to make the game 3-3.
For the next 15 minutes or so neither team managed much in the way of chances, but Juve managed to create a pair of them with a little over 10 minutes remaining, including Ronaldo’s best play of the day when he dipped into the left channel and got in a good shot, but Consigli was up to it, getting down to parry it away. Dybala got a chance a second later when a failed pass ricocheted back to him, but he couldn’t get any purchase on the shot and Consigli gathered it easily.
Sassuolo weren’t done either, and could have won with six minutes to go had it not been for more heroics from Woj. This time it was substitute Hamad Traore who threatened, playing a one-two with Caputo and walking through the middle of the box, only to be denied by the Pole. The parry fell to Boga, who lined up a shot to the far post that left Szczesny stranded — but Sandro had stationed himself at the far post and headed the ball off the line. The keeper’s day wasn’t done, as he was needed one last time in stoppages to palm a powerful drive from Mehdi Bourabia over the bar to preserve the final draw and make sure Juventus left with a point.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 9. He stood on his head Wednesday night. He had to make seven saves, the most any Juventus keeper has made in a league game since 2014. Almost all of those saves were of the top-shelf variety. Had he been only slightly worse, Juve would’ve lost this game, perhaps badly. After a couple of rough games, he showed why the team has so much faith in him.
DANILO - 8. An understated but really excellent day for him. He led the team either jointly or outright in all defensive categories save blocks, and added a pair of key passes and a very well taken goal. This might’ve been his best day in a Juve shirt.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 6. Blocked three shots on the day but let a few too many people get between him and his partner for runs up the middle. On another note, his continued shoulder problems, which date back to before New Years and are the real reason that Merih Demiral was starting through most of December, are really starting to become a concern.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 5.5. A little off the pace in his first game since the restart, and far more timid than usual. Coming off at halftime with more muscle injuries is a concern, especially if Bonucci misses more time.
ALEX SANDRO - 6.5. A good goal to knot the score and a pivotal block off the line to keep it that way late. Also notched two tackles and two clearances but could do more in buildup.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 5.5. Tied for the team lead with four tackles, but his passing was less than precise at times and overall he’s been less than sharp. A rest might be in order for him, he’s been running like crazy since the word go last month.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 7. Two assists, the second of which was absolutely gorgeous. I’m not entirely sure why he was pulled, he was doing a decent job keeping moves running when Juve managed to keep the ball. Five key passes overall.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 5.5. Blocked a pair of shots but just wasn’t able to contribute the game going forward very much.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 6. Started strong and made a couple of really nice passes but faded late. Still had three key passes.
GONZALO HIGUAIN - 6.5. His goal was a pretty one, but he didn’t do much in buildup otherwise. There’s the big difference between him and Dybala.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 5. With the exception of that one really good move in the 78th minute, he just didn’t do anything out of open play. Few of his 10 shots had any substance, and he wasted a golden opportunity on the hour mark.
DANIELE RUGANI - 5.5. Didn’t make any egregious defensive errors but his pass completion was less than 60 percent. If Chiellini and Bonucci still have problems, he could become an unexpectedly key part of the end stage of the year.
PAULO DYBALA - 6.5. Injected some life in the team with his creativity and passing. Couldn’t get into much shooting position but he finally connected the lines in a way that Higuain wasn’t.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 5.5. Couldn’t get into a groove in midfield, having to jump from position to position. Added some energy and was better technically than Matuidi, but he really had to hit the target with that free header.
DOUGLAS COSTA - 6. Notched in a key pass but wasn’t able to pull the defense apart the way he can.
AARON RAMSEY - NR. Is there a point to putting him on? He clearly has no rhythm out there right now and the only thing he seems to be good for is giving the ball away, either stupidly or in a critical moment.
Sarri is essentially playing the cards he’s dealt. He really doesn’t have much in the way of things up his sleeve right now. Part of that has to do with injuries and suspensions, but Sarri’s sub strategies have always been plug-and-play. That might work better down the line if the front office gives him players that fit him better, but right now he has to work what he has. He made the best moves he could given his options and his ways, and there’s not much else to say at the moment. Some rotation would be useful — De Zerbi had done a lot more of it, which is one reason Sassuolo have been looking so good — but his options have been limited in that area because of injuries and suspensions. Getting Cuadrado back for Monday will be a boon, but the last five games are going to be an endurance test and Sarri should get as many fresh legs in as he can.
There are five more games left in the season. Juventus need 10 points out of those five games to lock up the title.
They lead Atalanta by seven points and Lazio by eight, although Inter could close to within six if they win their game in hand (Thursday vs. SPAL). For the record, Juve hold the tiebreakers over both Atalanta and Inter, while the Lazio tiebreaker will be determined by the head-to-head game matchup on Monday that now seems a little anticlimactic after the capital club’s fall nosedive.
After Monday’s game, the opposition quality drops off a bit, with games against Udinese (away), Sampdoria (home), and Cagliari (away, but at least no one will racially abuse our players this time), before the season finale against Roma in Turin.