Ah, dead rubbers. Don’t you love ‘em?
It’s that time of the season where you can watch a game and not really care all that much about the result at the end of the day. Such was the case in Juve’s 2-0 loss on Wednesday against Cagliari.
I’ve already seen all across the internet people foaming at the mouth with angst over the match, talking about how unacceptable it was and piling it on as more ammunition for the #SarriOut crowd. To those people I have two words:
Did things look out of joint on the field at the Sardegna Arena? Yup. Did Cristiano Ronaldo look for long stretches of the match like he’d completely abandoned any thought of playing for the team as he tried to gain ground on Ciro Immobile in the capocannoiere race? Absolutely. Heck, the team had more shots blocked in this game (13) than they did shots off target (11) — and they still managed to put 10 on frame and force a couple of very good saves out of Alessio Cragno in the Cagliari goal. It was that kind of game, but at the end of the day, it’s all getting angry for no reason.
In a game like this one, there is only one thing that truly mattered: that no one important got hurt as the resumption of the Champions League next week draws closer. Anything beyond that, really, is a lot of worry over nothing.
Maurizio Sarri came in looking to dish out some rest where he could, but a rash of injuries and suspensions meant trying to balance that and keeping a strong lineup out there was a bit more difficult. Giorgio Chiellini was out with his ongoing muscle problems, and both Danilo and Paulo Dybala were still recovering from the injuries they suffered against Sampdoria on Sunday. Also missing were Douglas Costa and Mattia De Sciglio. Two others were left off the squad entirely, Matthijs De Ligt to rest his ailing shoulder, and Aaron Ramsey with little explanation at all. Also missing via suspension was Adrien Rabiot.
With all that in mind, Sarri dredged up the bottom of the first-team depth chart for his 4-3-3 while stocking the bench with Under-23 players. Gianluigi Buffon gave Wojciech Szczesny the day off in goal. Sarri declined to dip into the youth ranks for any full-back help, instead sending Juan Cuadrado and Alex Sandro out to do the work, bookending Leonardo Bonucci and Daniele Rugani. He did decide to dive into the B team to address the absence of Rabiot, plugging in Simone Muratore alongside Rodrigo Bentancur and Miralem Pjanic. Federico Bernardeschi, Gonzalo Higuain, and Ronaldo finished out the lineup up front.
There was a different face on the Cagliari sideline than there had been when Juve had blown the Sardinian club out in January. A hot start had had them dreaming of a European tour next season, but the Isolani had dropped off precipitously. They had only won twice since the beginning of December, dropping them well out of the chase for the European places and condemning Rolando Maran to the unemployment line at the beginning of March, just before the shutdown.
He was replaced by Walter Zenga, who sent out his team in a 3-4-1-2 formation. Cragno stood at its base, with Ragnar Klavan, Luca Ceppitelli, and Sebastian Walukiewicz serving as the back three. Paolo Farago and Federico Mattiello manned the wing-back spots, with Marko Rog and Artur Ionita playing in midfield. Joao Pedro, the league’s joint fifth-leading scorer, played in the hole behind the pair of Giovanni Simeone and Luca Gagliano, who was making first Serie A start.
The 20-year-old Gagliano had a fast impact. He took a tame shot at Buffon’s near post two minutes in, and in the eighth minute saw himself celebrating his first goal. It was a complete breakdown in defense, starting with Alex Sandro, who was ball watching and completely unaware of the fact that Farago was alone on the right wing. The wing-back’s cross went all the way across goal, missing everyone, including Cuadrado, who really should have acted to prevent it from getting all the way back to Mattiello. The Juve youth product — playing in place of Juve loanee Luca Pellegrini — one-timed the ball back across before the center backs could get turned around and reset, and Gagliano was there to lunge forward and poke the ball into the back of the net to give the home team a lead.
Juve began to look for an equalizer and eventually the traffic was very much flowing toward Cragno’s goal. The problem was that Juve wasn’t able to get much in the way of quality shooting opportunities. For all their possession, they couldn’t move the Cagliari defense out of position to get a clear shot. Things weren’t helped by the fact that Ronaldo went on a major selfish streak, firing shots into crowds rather than find a man to pass to. This was particularly the case in the 19th minute, when Ronaldo wasted a fantastic piece of pressing by Muratore, firing a shot that was blocked at the source when he had three outlets to his right.
There were a few close calls in that first half. Bonucci and Higuain both came very close to tying the game on different corner kicks, and Bentancur forced a smart kick save out of Cragno with two minutes before the half after being fed down the right channel. But just as it looked like Juve had pushed Cagliari to the ropes, they got punched back.
It was seconds before the end of stoppage time when Cagliari got out of the cordon and went route one down the field. Gagliano flicked a lob down the field to Simeone, who took advantage of some pretty timid defending from Bonucci to get off an early shot. It was the kind of shot Buffon has parried countless times before, but for whatever reason he was late to react to this one, and it flew into the goal to give Cagliari a 2-0 lead.
The second half was a lot more of most of the first half — tons of possession, not so much in the way of creativity or real chances. There were a couple of moments where Cragno had to make a some real saves. Muratore fired a long-range missile in 54th minute that the keeper managed to palm over, and on the ensuing corner Sandro met the delivery near post in a carbon copy of his equalizer against Sassuolo, except this time the keeper got to it to parry it away.
Sarri made some changes on the hour mark, sending on Blaise Matuidi and handing a Serie A debut to U-23 winger Luca Zanimacchia, and the new-look team tried to turn the screw. But as the clock ticked on they still couldn’t find the key to a quality look. There were half-chances, more blocks, and a couple of shots from distance or tight angles that forced Cragno into action, but nothing that was ever clear cut. Perhaps the best chance fell to the new kid, who hit a powerful, swervy shot from 35 yards that Cragno had to parry awkwardly to the side and then rush out to claim the rebound before another young sub, Marco Olivieri, could get to it.
But that shot was deep into stoppage time, and a few moments later the final whistle came, ending the game and confirming Cagliari’s first win over Juve in 11 years.
GIANLUIGI BUFFON - 5. Buffon hasn’t shown his age too much since the restart — indeed, he looked like his old self six weeks ago in the Coppa Italia final — but he certainly did on Simeone’s goal, which was eminently stoppable. Didn’t have a bad game beyond that, but that goal shows the human behind the god.
JUAN CUADRADO - 5.5. He made three key passes, but was rather pathetic defensively on the first goal — he had to make sure Mattiello didn’t have a chance to get that cross back in. Another game in which he just looked tired.
DANIELE RUGANI - 6. Some people were quick to attack him for the opening goal but he really had no chance to be set when Mattiello put the ball across the second time — it was both fullbacks who really were at fault there. He registered two tackles and two interceptions and while not spectacular wasn’t a drag.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 5. His defending against Simeone was indecisive and weak, and his passing uncharacteristically ineffective. He did have a great chance to tie the game that just bent wide, but this was not a good game.
ALEX SANDRO - 5.5. Completely ball-watching on the opener to give Farago tons of space. Was denied by a couple of good saves but was weirdly absent on the overlap a couple of times and didn’t support well.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 5. Not his greatest game, especially in the first half. Lost the ball a lot in the first half with his passing, and while he got better in the second half and eventually finished with four key passes, he wasn’t as influential as he has been when he’s at his best.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 5.5. Made three key passes and completed 92.2 percent of his attempts, but couldn’t orchestrate the attack in a way that could move the Cagliari defense in a way that kept Juve from settling for long shots in traffic. His yellow card puts him over the suspension threshold, meaning he’s played his last Serie A game for Juventus.
SIMONE MURATORE - 6. The best midfielder in the starting XI, he put two of three shots on target and added three key passes. He had a couple of nice passages of play on the left side exchanging passes with Ronaldo to keep possession and keep the attack moving. I was frankly a little upset he was taken off. Why’s he being sold again?
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 4.5. This was a rough game. He gave the ball away a lot, and missed the target with all six shots—a fact all the more impressive because I didn’t realize he had shot the ball that many times. I couldn’t remember many of his five key passes either, but games like this show the occasional flaw of that stat — when you’ve taken 34 shots key pass numbers are going to be inflated.
GONZALO HIGUAIN - 5.5. It was actually the one shot out of three that missed the target that was his best opportunity, a volley off a corner that just flew over. He also worked as a fulcrum in the attack a little and bizarrely co-led the team in dribbles, but was never put into position to load up and fire.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 5. Selfishness. That’s what punctuated his performance. There were stretches where he’d get the ball and not even bother to look up to see if he had people to pass it to. When he did, they went into open space as many times as they found a teammate. Whether he had it in his head that he had to do everything himself on a day the team wasn’t creating or if he was consumed by catching Immobile in the capocannoniere race, he indulged in his worser instincts Wednesday night.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 5.5. Not much to contribute one way or the other after coming on.
LUCA ZANIMACCHIA - 6.5. Looked dynamic. Showed some quick feet and threw in a bunch of crosses — not to mention that great long shot. I’m interested in seeing what Juventus does with him going forward, he might be a talent to watch.
DAOUDA PEETERS - NR. Got some experience in midfield in the last 15 minutes.
MARCO OLIVIERI - NR. A few minutes to run at the end and try to make a difference up front.
In situations like this, the manager’s biggest job is to manage minutes and get the team to the Lyon game as healthy and rested as possible. Sarri could’ve perhaps gone a little deeper into the Under-23 roster to rest guys like Sandro and Cuadrado, but he did OK in rotating guys like Bentancur and Pjanic off the field. His crack in his press conference about playing the entire U-23 team against Roma on Saturday wouldn’t be a bad idea. Roma is locked into their place in the table and the European race, so there’s no question about the integrity of the competition, and guys need rest — the way Cuadrado has looked the last few games he needs to kick up his heels, and he’s not alone. He can afford to have his mind on Lyon at this point.
It’s trophy day Saturday after the Roma game. That game is a dead rubber for both teams, so it’s entirely possible Juve will take it very easy.
After that, the resumption of the Champions League is on tap, with Juve playing the second leg of their round of 16 tie against Lyon on Aug. 7.