Everything seemed to be set up right for Juventus on Thursday. Inter had dropped yet more points the day before, giving them the opportunity to win a record-extending ninth consecutive scudetto with a victory over Udinese. That Udinese team were dealing with a depth crisis almost as bad as the one Lazio was going through. Juve had controlled Monday’s game against Lazio pretty much from start to finish, and Udinese was a big step down in quality from even that depleted Biancoceleste side.
So of course Juve played down to their competition in an extreme way.
The first half was insipid in the extreme until a stunning opener by Matthijs de Ligt just before the break. The Old Lady was 45 minutes away from ending the Serie A season — but it seemed like no one realized that in the locker room at halftime. They came out exemplifying the form they’ve been in for the last two weeks — patchy as the Dacia Arena pitch — and collapsed. After allowing a quick equalizer thanks to some horrendous defending, they failed to make any kind of inroads into an organized Udinese defense and had a few harrowing moments in the back themselves, until in stoppage time Seko Fofana tore downfield on the counter, turned de Ligt around and fired the ball home to give Udinese an improbable 2-1 victory and a valuable win in their quest for Serie A survival. At the other end of the table, Juventus were left somehow comfortable and uncomfortable at the same time, needing only one win out of the final three games but with so many questions about their form that Sunday’s game against Sampdoria will be awash in speculation.
Maurizio Sarri was without Leonardo Bonucci due to yellow card accumulation and revealed after the game that Miralem Pjanic was sitting out with a muscle issue. The 4-3-3 he sent out was almost identical to the one that beat Lazio three days before, barring one change. Wojciech Szczesny took up his place in goal, with Danilo, de Ligt, Daniele Rugani, and Alex Sandro protecting him. Aaron Ramsey, Rodrigo Bentancur, and Adrien Rabiot took up their places in midfield, while Federico Bernardeschi, Paulo Dybala, and Cristiano Ronaldo forming the attacking trident.
Udinese manager Luca Gotti was down to the bare bones in midfield, but was able to field a 3-5-2 setup, with the underrated Juan Musso in goal. Rodrigo Becao, Bram Nuytinck, and William Troost-Ekong screened him, with the Dutch pair of Hidde ter Avest and Marvin Zeegelaar acting as wing-backs. Rodrigo De Paul, Ken Sema, and Fofana ran the middle of the park, while Ilija Nestorovski and Stefano Okaka started up front.
The tone for this game was set Ramsey got himself booked 35 seconds into the game. But it looked like things would pick up a bit when Ronaldo shot first bolt of the game, dummying a cross from Sandro and then getting the ball back from Bernardeschi and firing in a shot right at Musso on the turn.
But soon after it was almost Udinese who were in front when a cross by Sema glanced off Danilo’s head and off the far post, leaving a stranded Szczesny thanking the goalkeeping gods. Five minutes later it was Musso praising fortune when a back pass by Nuytinck rolled under his foot and just wide of the post. The ensuing corner was headed out to Ramsey, whose volley was blocked into the path of Dybala, who hit his own volley that Musso had to fly to parry.
While this start seemed positive, it was a bit more of a slog than the words make it out to be. Juve’s spacing was horrible, with multiple players drifting into the same area and pulling their defenders with them, creating huge crowds that teammates had no choice but to try to force their passes through. Not much they were doing was moving the Udinese defense out of place, and the majority of the team’s threat came from long-range shots, like the 23-yard effort by Ronaldo that just bent around the post in the 26th minute.
Apart from the almost-own-goal Udinese’s biggest moment of the first half offensively came in the 35th minute when De Paul went down in the box under pressure from Ramsey. The ball fell to Sema, who had to try to force a ball near post because two of his teammates abandoned the play to rush referee Massimiliano Irrati screaming for a penalty. Replays clearly showed he went down on his own and probably deserved a booking for simulation.
The game looked headed to the half goalless when de Ligt, tightly wrapped shoulder and all, pulled out a moment of brilliance. He took a brilliant first touch after a Rabiot cross was headed out into his path, then unleashed a 25-yard daisy-cutter that flashed past the feet of three defenders, leaving Musso unsighted until it was too late for him to get to it.
But the team that came out of the locker room didn’t look anything like the one that had at least kept Udinese from presenting any serious threats in the first half. Within two minutes Nestorovski had beaten the offside trap thanks to a misplay by Danilo and latched on to a through ball in all kinds of space, fortunately hitting the ball tamely at Szczesny. But things didn’t go so well five minutes later.
The Udinese equalizer was a cavalcade of failures. Ramsey took an age getting back on defense, leaving Danilo incapable of closing down Sema without opening up a massive swath for Zeegelaar to exploit. Meanwhile, on the other side of the field, Sandro had left Nestorovski completely alone to make an uninterrupted run into the box. Sema sent in an excellent cross and Nestorovski was all alone in the right channel to lunge in and power a header past a stranded Szczesny.
Ronaldo had a shot blocked over in an attempt at a quick response, but the home team had the better of the next few minutes in terms of creating danger, with Sema being a key man running down the attacking left. Sarri sent Douglas Costa and Blaise Matuidi out in an attempt to switch things for the last half hour, but things only got progressively more bogged down. Dybala put a nice ball on frame in the 63rd minute that Musso quite impressively caught out of the air on the dive, but apart from that the Argentine keeper didn’t have all that much to do. Juve couldn’t get any sort of move together that got them close to goal, instead having to settle for long shots from outside the box, none of them much coming anywhere close. With Gonzalo Higuain unavailable, Sarri was without an important asset he could have used to change the team’s focal point and maybe unmoor the defense enough to get the goal they needed.
Juve poured forward looking for that title-winning goal, and in the end Udinese took advantage of that to strike on the counter. It was two minutes into stoppages when Becao managed to take a pass off Ronaldo’s foot, then chase the ball down and head it to Fofana. The Ivorian shrugged off Sandro, who at that point really should’ve just grabbed on and taken the yellow card, then nutmegged de Ligt as he cut in and slotted under the arm of a charging Szczesny.
Becao had taken such a shot going up for the 50/50 ball with Rugani that he had to be withdrawn for the last few minutes of the match, while Juve managed only chance at a response when Musso came out and skewed a punch to Costa, only for substitute defender Samir to get in for the block, and once Irrati decided it was enough, the Bianconeri were headed back to Turin still just on the precipice, besieged by questions.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 5.5. Made a pair of simple saves but was hung out to dry on both goals, especially the first. But that equalizer does leave a lot of questions about his marshaling of the defense — no attacker should never be allowed that much space, and Szczesny is ultimately responsible for keeping things shipshape.
DANILO - 5.5. His counting stats were quite impressive — second on the team in tackles (3) and first in interceptions (5) — and he had no choice but to sag off on Sema’s cross on the equalizer in a two-on-one situation. But that wasn’t the only time Sema was a danger in Danilo’s defensive area, he very nearly put the ball into his own net, and his offensive contribution was close to nil.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 7. An absolutely gorgeous goal that brought to mind the Total Football center backs of old, he also tied for the team lead with four clearances and completed 97.1 percent of his passes, including 11 of 12 long balls. He’s grown up before our eyes.
DANIELE RUGANI - 6. Two interceptions, three clearances, and a decent defensive day all told for Rugani. I’ve seen people reflexively blaming him for the blown lead because it’s the thing to do, but he wasn’t a substantial part of either goal.
ALEX SANDRO - 4. Terrible defending on both goals. Where he was on the equalizer I have no idea — I’ve yet to see an angle wide enough to figure out what he was paying attention to. On the winner he simply had to grab on for dear life and take the card — de Ligt was right there, he wouldn’t have been sent off, and he certainly wasn’t going to do much else once he was beaten to the ball. Didn’t do anything going forward to offset those two huge mistakes.
AARON RAMSEY - 5. He just looks lost out there. Was way late getting back on defense on the equalizer, putting Danilo in an untenable position, and at one point triggered a counterattack with the sorriest attempts at a back-heel we’ve seen in a long time. He was making huge progress at this position before the shutdown but he’s back at square one here.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 6. Buzzed around the midfield and made a lot of ball recoveries. A constant nuisance for Udinese mids, especially in the first half.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 7. DANG. This kid has exploded. He led the team with six tackles in midfield and added in three key passes. If only everyone else was able to do anything with all his work.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 5. He touched the ball 30 times in an hour on the field. Douglas Costa, the man who replaced him, touched it 22 times. He did make a little something out of those touches, as he apparently registered two key passes — although that stat was a surprise to me when I read it after the game. He has to impose himself better in games like this.
PAULO DYBALA - 5.5. Had three key passes and put two nice shots on target, but was also on the ground more than he needed to be and couldn’t dictate play from up front the way he did against a superior team on Monday. One positive note, however, was his ability to
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 5. Came close from distance once but other than that was mostly nullified. Neither of his two shots on target troubled Musso all that much, and he was most often spotted trying to drive the ball into multiple defenders. Back in the day he could come out the other end with the ball in that situation with regularity, but now? Not as much.
DOUGLAS COSTA - 5.5. I was surprised by a couple of the entries in the key pass column in this game and Costa was one of them. He was credited with three — tied for the team lead with Dybala and Rabiot — but it certainly didn’t feel like he was doing much on the field. He didn’t have space to work and the blasted pitch didn’t help either.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 5.5. Made a pair of tackles in half an hour but there isn’t much he can bring as an offensive replacement.
JUAN CUADRADO - 5. Another guy I was surprised recorded much of any stats. The hope was that he and Costa could destabilize Udinese’s left flank, but he didn’t do much at all off the bench.
There comes a point where the manager needs to take responsibility for his team’s mentality. Maurizio Sarri definitely has to take it for the craziness that happened Thursday. The team didn’t look all that great in the first half, but they went into the break with the lead and came out completely unraveled. There was little focus, as evidenced by Sandro’s trip to La La Land on Nestorovski’s goal, and the team’s inability to pull apart a set, organized defense once again reared its ugly head.
I’ve generally defended Sarri over the course of this season. He came to a team that wasn’t built for his system and was handed a team that had some deep flaws — flaws that are the responsibility of upper management, not the manager. But the one thing that the manager is responsible for is making sure his team stays with it mentally, and in the last two weeks or more Sarri has been presiding over some blackouts. At the time, the loss to AC Milan looked like a blip. Now, after blowing three leads in their last five games, Sarri needs to answer some serious questions about how the team handles themselves mentally.
From a tactical standpoint, Sarri did about as much as he had available to him. With Higuain shelved, he only really had two guys who could affect the attack, although I would’ve personally put Cuadrado on earlier. Injuries and suspensions have limited his ability to rotate, and fatigue is probably a factor when it comes to some of the team’s problems, but the mental question is paramount right now, because so many lapses so often isn’t acceptable.
Juve lead second-place Atalanta by six points and hold the head-to-head tiebreaker, so all they have to do is win one of their next three games to assure their ninth consecutive title. Inter still technically have skin in the game in third at seven points back, although Juve again hold the head-to-head tiebreaker.
Their next opportunity to do that will be on Sunday at home against Sampdoria, a team that has had real struggles this year but are coming off a loss in the Derby della Lanterna and, unlike Udinese going into Thursday, are now far enough away from the drop zone that they won’t be fighting for their lives.
Atalanta will get round 36 started on Friday with a game against AC Milan, who have been one of the league’s hottest teams since the restart and could be one of the few teams that could take points off La Dea at this point. Inter play on Saturday against a Genoa team that is still not assured of safety, only four points above the drop zone. If Atalanta and Inter both draw their games, all Juve would need would be a draw on Sunday. If they were to both lose, Juve would be crowned champions sul divano.