The blood was in the water, the prey was wounded and flailing, but instead of sinking teeth into AC Milan in order to secure a near-impenetrable 10-point lead in the Scudetto race, Juventus elected to go for some synchronized swimming.
Whether or not you agree with Maurizio Sarri’s “blackout” comments, no matter what you think about what appears to be his shirking responsibility for the epic meltdown against the Rossoneri, the Bianconeri’s first-year manager is right about one thing: there isn’t time to dwell on this defeat. I mean, almost literally, there isn’t time.
Having failed the first test out of four in the gauntlet, on Saturday Cristiano Ronaldo and Co. play an Atalanta side that has scored 83 league goals entering its game against Sampdoria, followed by a date with a Sassuolo outfit undefeated in their last four and having not scored fewer than four goals in that run, and punctuated by a showdown versus the Scudetto-hungry Lazio, who have molly-whopped Sarri’s men on two separate occasions.
I am not advocating that anybody panic, but despite the seven-point lead this thing is far from over. Onto the awards.
Nietzsche’s Horse Award
For the player whose play demonstrated an insanity indicative of a serious decline in form.
While Daniele Rugani may not have a future at center back at Juventus (unless he wants to be the Carlo Pinsoglio of the unit, which he may very well want), I think I could find him a very good job as a professional usher at various celebrity weddings across the globe, such was the skill with which he escorted Milan’s to sink Juve.
What was particularly impressive about that play, however, was the fact that Rugani mustered the alacrity to both foul Ante Rebić after getting badly beaten and then show Rafael Leão exactly where he should go to score.
I must, therefore, disagree with my esteemed colleague Sam Lopresti, who must have been feeling particularly forgiving when he gave Rugani a 5/10 for that performance, citing all of the Italian’s time on the bench as reason for rust. I’d hand Rugani a solid 2/10. Or worse. I’d hand him a practice bib and send out Giorgio Chiellini or Merih Demiral with a crutch. Play Simone Muratore at center back. Re-sign Mario Mandzukic to play center back. Damn it.
For it wasn’t only the game-winning goal on which Rugani spectacularly failed. In the game-tying goal, Rugani practically gave Zlatan Ibrahimović a nice little shoulder rub when the Swede held the ball up in the box, only to then guide Franck Kessié to wherever the midfield wanted, which, it turned out, was closer to the goal and scoring.
On both goals, Rugani somehow managed to fail two separate times as he helped Juve lose the game. Brilliant stuff.
Ivrea Orange Festival Award
For the player who takes something crappy and makes it beautiful.
The fact that Matthijs de Ligt has been a top two or three player for Juventus on the year has been clear to most over the last few weeks, but in case that fact wasn’t clear to any stragglers, now it’s crystal clear: the Dutchman is Juve’s best center back, he’s one of the best center backs in the world, and when he’s not on the pitch things go very differently.
De Ligt earns the Ivrea award for this specific fact: he is the seatbelt that keeps everyone from flying off what is the Juan Cuadrado right back roller coaster.
The Johnny Square experience certainly has its ups and downs, all of which were on display yesterday, but in Sarri’s preferred starting lineup any mistake, mishap, or otherwise out-of-position stupidity that Cuadrado can accomplish is covered by de Ligt.
The only reason I haven’t peed my pants yet ahead of the Atalanta game is that de Ligt is returning. Even so, I’m pretty darn nervous.
For a notable demonstration in both grit and flair.
Adrien Rabiot has arrived, and that’s good news for a lot of reasons.
The jury is out on whether Juventus will make yet another midfield splash in the transfer market next season — as has become quite apparent, the club should also be in the market for fullbacks — but whether Fabio Paratici does or does not pull the trigger on another midfielder, Rabiot leveling up is huge for the depth of the unit and the potential of the existing set of players. Suddenly the club looks almost young and promising there, with Rodrigo Bentancur, the Frenchman, and Arthur Melo occupying three spots. Sure, that may not be the best trio in the world, but that’s not a bad place to start at all.
Rabiot’s goal on Tuesday showed what he can do. I venture that a solid 75 percent or more of players would’ve gone down to draw the foul on Kessié at the beginning of this run, but the 6-foot-2 Rabiot decided to keep going. And going, and going. He runs through the would-be foul, nutmegs a defender, carries the ball across most of the pitch, uses a brilliant Gonzalo Higuain run to occupy the center of the pitch in front of goal, and half-chips a surgical shot past Gianluigi Donnarumma.
He deserved that goal, and he deserves that spot on the left side of the midfield.
There’s less than a month left to go, and although seven games feels like a lot, the breakneck speed with which the post-COVID-19 schedule has been set means this is absolutely going to fly by. As I said in the beginning, I don’t think anybody — Sarri, the players, us, the executives — should hit the panic button quite yet, though certainly we should collectively rue the missed opportunity to have take a gigantic step forward.
Phase one of the gauntlet was a failure. On to phase two.