The 2019-20 season certainly hasn’t been a smooth road. It was a season of ups and downs well before COVID-19 pandemic swept through the world and brought it to a screeching halt. When it was finally safe to resume play, the compressed nature of the restarted campaign made things even more unpredictable.
It certainly wasn’t the kind of season we hoped it would be. The expectations after signing Maurizio Sarri to replace Massimiliano Allegri in the manager’s office were that Juve would play a more free-flowing, offensive style of football, one that would, hopefully, see the team dominate more teams in the league and bring them to another level in their pursuit of the UEFA Champions League.
Those expectations certainly weren’t met. The Old Lady of Italian football slogged her way to the end the same way Allegri’s did a year ago, with the odd flash of true Sarrismo here and there giving us a tantalizing glimpse of what might be. The defense, so long the cornerstone of the team’s run of dominance, was decidedly un-Juve-like, having conceded more goals than any champion since the Juventus team of 1960-61 and keeping the fewest clean sheets of any team in Juve’s title run.
But throughout all the fits and starts and calls for the manager’s head, we sit here two games from the end of the season in a familiar place: Juventus celebrating a ninth consecutive Serie A title and Juan Cuadrado covering the coach with foam from the referee’s spray bottle.
After bottling their first chance at clinching the title Thursday at Udinese, Juve came into Sunday’s home game against Sampdoria knowing that if they didn’t get the job done this time it would only build the pressure as the season ended. It wasn’t pretty, and had Samp been more clinical in the second half we could have been having a much different conversation right now, but this time Juve held their lead, scoring a 2-0 victory to start the celebrations and give themselves two games to rest and recuperate before the Champions League begins—something that may be especially important after three players had to leave the game due to injury.
Maurizio Sarri deployed his usual 4-3-3 formation, although the exact makeup contained a few wrinkles. Wojciech Szczesny took up his normal place in goal, screened by the quartet of Danilo, Matthijs de Ligt, Leonardo Bonucci, and Alex Sandro. Rodrigo Bentancur, who had started every single game since the restart — and played 90 minutes in all but one of them — was finally given a rest, with Adrien Rabiot, Miralem Pjanic, and Blaise Matuidi making up the midfield. Cuadrado was pushed up to the front three, joining Paulo Dybala and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Facing Sarri was a team that had a couple of Juve connections, starting with manager Claudio Ranieri. He started the team out in a 3-5-2, with Juventus academy product Emil Audero in goal. Lorenzo Tonelli, Julian Chabot, and Maya Yoshida formed the back three, with Fabio Depaoli and Tommaso Augelloas the wing-backs and Morten Thorsby, Karol Linetty, and Jakub Jankto making up the midfield. Old friend Fabio Quagliarella joined Gaston Ramirez in the strike pair.
The first stages of the game were a little open, with Samp getting in the first shot in after four minutes when Augello found Ramirez in a tiny bit of space behind a gaggle of defenders. His header was powerful but right at Szczesny, who grabbed it on a hop.
Juve got their first big chance six minutes later, when Rabiot intercepted a pass and started one of those surging runs downfield that have become a hallmark of his rejuvenated game. He had Ronaldo in excellent position to his right, but pass was too heavy and Ronaldo couldn’t get himself into a shooting position before the defense closed him off.
The first half ended up costly for both sides. Samp had to change formation when Chabot couldn’t continue after a leg injury. Ranieri replaced him with Mehdi Leris and shifted to a 4-4-2. Juve got a double blow later in the half. The first came when Danilo went up to challenge for a cross and clashed heads with Ramirez. Danilo hit the ground hard and looked like he was out cold for a second. Ramirez wasn’t all that much better off—he was busted open and had to be patched up Chiellini-style. It was about time for a cooling break anyway, and referee Francesco Fourneau called it so that the two players could get treatment. Danilo clearly wanted to continue, but wobbled slightly on his way to the halfway line trying to get back in, and he was taken out for his own good. He was replaced by Federico Bernardeschi, with Cuadrado moving back into the fullback spot.
There was worse to come with five minutes left in the half, as the touchline suddenly became a flurry of activity and Dybala, who hadn’t been visibly struggling until that moment, limped to the sideline. Higuain replaced him, and Juventus fans started sweating bullets.
The Bianconeri hadn’t managed to do much in the way of threatening Audero’s goal throughout the half, despite managing to grab the majority of the possession after the cooling break, but the late stages of the period saw that change. Ronaldo came close on one of his solo cut-ins, then teed up Bernardeschi for a shot after Pjanic pressed to regain the ball, with the winger’s shot being palmed away by the keeper. Bernardeschi then missed a free kick, and three minutes later Rabiot gained another free kick in almost exactly the same spot. Bernardeschi stood over this one along with Pjanic, and this time Juve ran a play off the training ground. Pjanic approached and cut the ball into the box to Ronaldo, who hit it first time from 17 yards and past Audero with the last kick of the half.
Juve were in exactly the same position they were on Thursday, 45 minutes from confirming the championship. The question was, would they be able to hold on, or would they waste another lead? Juve nearly got the insurance goal they didn’t get against Udinese five minutes into the second half when an excellent free kick from Pjanic evaded both Ronaldo’s head and Higuain’s foot by inches, and after that it looked like another one of Juve’s blackouts might be setting in.
In the 51st minute Leris got ahead of Sandro and side-footed a cross from Jankto just to the wrong side of the near post. Ramirez put in an excellent free kick in the 54th minute that was begging for a touch but evaded everyone save for Szczesny, who pushed it to the side. Tonelli very nearly scored on a free header from the ensuing corner, flashing it just wide. Moments later it was Ramirez again getting behind a header and sending it right at the keeper.
But after that 10-minute surge Juve seemed to stabilize. Just after the hour Rabiot made another steal in midfield and drove down the field again. He had runners on both sides but probably should have taken the shot himself. Instead he passed to Ronaldo on his right, flattening out his shooting angle enough for Audero to be able to parry away the Portuguese’s powerful shot — although a reverse angle showed just how close it came to getting through his arms and into the net.
The insurance finally did arrive with 23 minutes left, when Higuain and Matuidi converged on Tonelli and dispossessed him, and Higuain began pushing downfield. He passed it upfield to Ronaldo, who skipped inside and found an opening to shoot from 20 yards. Audero could only parry it, and Bernardeschi, who had been following the play, charged in, beating Augello to the ball and tapping home from six yards.
Sampdoria very nearly got right back into things four minutes later when a good cross from Leris was met with a powerful header by Quagliarella, but it was in reach of Szczesny and he made an excellent reaction save to keep his sheet clean. A few minutes later the newly introduced Manolo Gabbiadini was denied by a lunging block from de Ligt, who stayed down and was grabbed a hamstring — another worrying display moment. Fortunately de Ligt didn’t look worried and it’s entirely possible it was just a cramp, but Daniele Rugani was introduced moments later to be sure.
A third goal would have sealed things up tight, and Juve had a couple of chances to get it. Higuain missed a sitter with eight minutes to go, and six minutes later Sandro earned a penalty after being taken down by Depaoli, but Ronaldo, usually such a sure thing, missed his second penalty since the restart, whacking it off the crossbar. A corner deep into stoppage time was sent into the box instead of taken short to waste time, and was met by Rabiot at the near post. Audero made the save and Bonucci’s attempt to tap in the rebound was thwarted by Yoshida, who made an incredible clearance off the line.
By that point, though, it was academic. The seconds ticked away, and when Fourneau blew his last whistle, the Bianconeri were nine-time defending champions of Italy.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 6. Made a couple of really great saves, but was also a little wonky with his distribution, almost getting the team into trouble a few times.
DANILO - NR. Wasn’t playing a bad game but it was good that the team protected him from himself and got him off the field. No one should be allowed to play after taking a head shot like that.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 6. Defended well and completed 91.8 percent of his passes, but that hamstring is going to worry a lot of people with only two weeks until the Champions League resumes.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 6. Let a couple of guys get free for headers but overall played well. If Merih Demiral can play in the next week it wouldn’t be a bad idea to get him off his feet.
ALEX SANDRO - 6.5. Won the penalty with a nice driving run that reminded us of the Sandro that arrived from Porto. Also led the team in tackles with three and made two key passes.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 7.5. The Adrien Rabiot Redemption Tour continues! Led the team with four interceptions and made a couple of really powerful runs through the middle of the field. He didn’t have his passing touch on those runs — otherwise the game might’ve been settled a lot earlier — but he’s coming into his own well, and showing versatility on the left and right side of midfield.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 7. Led the team with four key passes and made a smart assist to Ronaldo on his free kick. He’s picked up form since the resumption of league play.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 6. Made a pair of tackles and completed 91.9 percent of his passes, keeping the midfield stable on his side. Didn’t put as much into the attack.
JUAN CUADRADO - 5.5. Got a little wonky in terms of control, spilling at least two balls over the touchline in the second half under no pressure. Also let Jankto get a couple of opportunities on his side.
PAULO DYBALA - NR. We’ll be sweating this one for the next two weeks. Hopefully he stopped moving in time to prevent any lasting damage. Registered a tackle and an interception on the press, which is a good step for the entire forward line, but couldn’t get into shooting range.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 7. Great goal on the free kick, but missing a penalty is a little upsetting. He could’ve had two assists were it not for Audero making a good save and Higuain missing a sitter. Good opportunity to get him off his feet as well.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 7. Scored his first Serie A goal in almost two years and nearly had another but for a great save. He took four shots overall, which is also a good sign because he’s usually far too timid in front of goal. With Douglas Costa sidelined at the moment he needs to be this version of himself.
GONZALO HIGUAIN - 5. Apart from helping to set up the counter that ended in Bernardeschi’s goal, he didn’t have a great time out there. He missed an absolute sitter after a great setup by Ronaldo, and lost the ball too much.
DANIELE RUGANI - NR. Kept things clean late after de Ligt started hurting.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - NR. Replaced Pjanic to keep things tight in midfield at the end.
For all the grief he’s been given, let’s congratulate Maurizio Sarri on his first domestic trophy. He has had to overcome a lot to get to this point, and despite the prior failures in the Supercoppa and Coppa Italia, he’s needed a lot of skill to keep this team together and get to this point.
He was given a team whose characteristics didn’t match his system and was fundamentally lacking in depth in key areas, and he’s won the league with two games to spare—becoming the oldest man in history to coach a team to the scudetto.
Now his focus needs to shift to the Champions League. Juve have a mountain to climb in that competition, being on the crappy end of the draw, but he has to prepare for it any way he can. That means getting key men like Ronaldo, Bentancur, and de Ligt rest, and getting guys like Dybala healthy. If there’s any chance of making a respectable run in the European restart, Sarri will need to let some of the U23 kids play the last two matches and focus all the team’s energy on what happens in Portugal.
The last two games of the Serie A season are dead rubbers. The next will be on Wednesday in Cagliari, where, thanks to the COVID-19 restrictions keeping stands empty, it’s fair to hope that no Juventus players will be racially abused this time. Then trophy day is the final game on Sunday.
Five days after that, the real business begins, with Juventus finishing their round of 16 tie against Lyon. As if we could forget, Juventus trail 1-0 after the first leg in France.
Now, let’s go celebrate.