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Sluggish Juve beat Sassuolo to keep the pace in Serie A title race

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Juve followed up their biggest win of the season with a flop, but managed to take the result despite an awful performance.

Juventus v US Sassuolo - Serie A Photo by Giuseppe Cottini/NurPhoto via Getty Images

In the latest episode of The Old Lady Speaks, I talked about how impressed I was with how Juventus took the opportunity that was presented to them by the results on Wednesday. On Sunday, Juve was presented with yet another opportunity when Inter and Roma played a 2-2 draw in the lunchtime kickoff. With the chance to gain more ground on the two teams sitting between themselves and AC Milan, they took the field against Sassuolo looking to establish a three-game winning streak for the first time all season.

Now, Sassuolo are no slouches. They entered the weekend in fifth place, 10 points better than they were to this point last season, and have played some of the best football in the league since play restarted in July. Gone are the days when the Neroverdi come into the Allianz Stadium and get subjected to a 7-0 hammering like they were three years ago. This is a very good team that is very difficult to beat, even without Domenico Berardi, who continued his career-long tradition of missing games against Juventus due to suspension or injury (the latter, in this case).

That being said, few were expecting Juventus to come out and look quite so bad. Things started out OK, with a relatively open game that was looking about even, until Weston McKennie left the field with an apparent muscle injury. From that point on, Juve’s intensity and pace took a nosedive. Sassuolo looked clearly the better team, but were hamstrung when Pedro Obiang was sent off for a studs-out tackle on Federico Chiesa just before halftime. But even with the man advantage, they were so poor it was often Sassuolo who looked the better side.

But ultimately, Juve were able to do what they hadn’t done against teams like Crotone and Benevento earlier in the year and slog out a victory with a pair of late goals, leaving the Allianz with a 3-1 victory that they completely didn’t deserve. But points are points, and the three that Juve gained at the end of the night saw them gain ground on Roma (now only one point ahead in third) and Inter (four ahead in second).

Andrea Pirlo made three changes to the team that beat Milan in midweek, one of which was forced when Matthijs de Ligt tested positive for COVID-19. He was, however, given the boost of the returning Alvaro Morata, even though he started him on the bench and was hoping not to need to use him. The usual 3-5-2/4-4-2 hybrid setup was anchored by Wojchiech Szczesny in goal, with Danilo, Leonardo Bonucci, and Merih Demiral screening him in defense. Chiesa joined Gianluca Frabotta as the wingbacks, sandwiching Rodrigo Bentancur, Arthur, and McKennie. Cristiano Ronaldo and Paulo Dybala rounded out the formation up top.

Sassuolo’s Roberto De Zerbi is truly one of the country’s up and coming coaches. He is a disciple of Zdenek Zeman, which explains much of their ultra-attacking ethos, although he favors a 4-2-3-1 to his mentor’s 4-3-3. Andrea Consigli took up the starting gloves behind the back four of Mert Muldur, Gian Marco Ferrari, Vlad Chiriches, and Giorgios Kyriakopoulous. Obiang joined Manuel Locatelli — who has been heavily connected with Juve the last few months — in the midfield double pivot, while Gregoire Defrel, Filip Djuricic, and Hamed Junior Traore played in the bank of three behind striker Francesco Caputo.

The visitors got off the mark first, forcing Demiral into a headed block only two minutes in. Juve responded, though, taking their first shot six minutes later when Ronaldo got under a Dybala cross and popped it over. Three minutes later they found the target for the first time when McKennie was put into the box by a Bentancur through ball and hit a gorgeous back-heel for Frabotta, whose angled drive was tipped over by a leaping Consigli.

Juventus v US Sassuolo - Serie A Photo by Daniele Badolato - Juventus FC/Juventus FC via Getty Images

A few minutes later, Bonucci put himself in a dangerous spot when he positioned himself poorly against Caputo and had no other choice but to bring him down lest he get a free run at Szczesny. Referee Davide Massa immediately brandished a yellow card for a professional foul, but judged that it was not the denial of a clear goal-scoring opportunity but the call was really borderline and Bonucci was lucky to stay on. The game continued in a fairly balance manner until McKennie, who according to Pirlo was trying to play through a slight muscle injury, left the field and was replaced by Aaron Ramsey. Ramsey immediately bogged the team down, botching a one-two with Dybala minutes after coming on and generally being where attacks went to die. Sassuolo, meanwhile, gradually turned the screw and started dominating possession.

Some more misfortune befell Juve as halftime approached when Dybala tracked back on defense and tangled with Obiang near the top of of the box. Dybala landed awkwardly and stayed down for a long time, and his return to the field was short-lived before he dropped to the ground again, unable to continue. He was replaced by Dejan Kulusevski, and as Juve was regrouping after yet another key personnel loss they got a huge break when Obiang slid dangerously into Chiesa’s foot and ankle with his studs out. Massa originally booked him, but Chiesa stayed down for a long time getting treatment, which gave the VAR booth ample time to look at the play and eventually told Massa to have a second look, and he immediately came back brandishing a red instead, giving Juve the man advantage.

They should have taken advantage of it immediately, but fluffed two excellent chances in stoppage time. The first came when Demiral pushed a cross forward in the box past an onrushing Consigli. Ronaldo had an empty net in front of him had he just slid for it and made contact, but he badly misjudged things and thought he could catch up to it on foot, and he ended up having to scramble to keep it from going out for a goal kick. Then Kulusevski sent Ramsey into the box, but the Welshman couldn’t get into a shooting position and pulled up, eventually finding Kulusevski again in the box. Consigli had come out to try to close down Ramsey and was in no-man’s land, but he elected to try to chip the ball instad of hitting it and popped it over.

Those missed opportunities sent the game into the half goalless, but the extra man promised to turn things around. Pirlo brought on Adrien Rabiot to try to give the midfield some spark, while De Zerbi sacrificed a pair of forwards in an attempt to try to give the team more solidity. The buildup play was still sluggish, but six minutes into the period Danilo decided he didn’t need no stinkin’ buildup play and charged forward when Ferrari cleared a Rabiot pass into empty space. He met about 25 yards out and absolutely drilled it past a diving Consigli at the far post. It was one of the purest strikes you’ll ever see, and the poor keeper had absolutely no chance.

Juventus v US Sassuolo - Serie A Photo by Giuseppe Cottini/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Unfortunately, the Juve defense didn’t live up to the goal, and within seven minutes the shorthanded visitors had drawn level when Traore slipped a pass in to Defrel, whose first touch split Bonucci and Demiral and whose second — Sassuolo’s first shot on target in the entire game — lifted it over a stranded Szczesny. The defense all over the place was poor, particularly on the part of Demiral, who had no one else to mark but allowed a huge space to open up into which the striker could break into.

Juve had to do it all over again, but the question was whether or not they had it in them. Their attacking play suggested perhaps not, although there was the occasional flash, like in the 67th minute when Chiesa nearly netted for the third straight game when he thumped one off the outside of the post from traffic. But for the most part they were playing terribly, to the point that De Zerbi began throwing on attacking players to start trying to actually carry the game away.

It didn’t help that Ronaldo was having yet another day when he was doing little to nothing. he missed another sitter with just over 15 minutes to go, taking good pass from Kulusevski and firing it straight, allowing Consigli to make a relatively simple save when putting it to either side meant a certain goal.

Juve were seriously looking the second-best team as the half wore on, with Sassuolo spending long amounts of time defending against a team with one fewer player. Sassuolo weren’t managing to get much in the way of shots off, but they were keeping Juve from even sniffing the goal on their own.

Pirlo had his last change ready on the sideline, including Morata, but before they could be introduced the Bianconeri took advantage of a mistake from Chiriches, who declined to make a play on a low cross from Frabotta. That left Ramsey to run through the right channel and lunge for the ball and fire it in under the diving keeper to restore Juve’s lead.

Juventus v US Sassuolo - Serie A Photo by Stefano Guidi/Getty Images

Even then, the last eight minutes were an adventure. Arthur gave the ball away cheaply and deeply but Brian Oddei wasted the opportunity, not getting any power behind his shot for a simple Szczesny save. Juve were running risks as the game drew to a close, passing the ball along the ground to get out of their own half when simply thumping it away would do, but sealed things with the last passage of the game when Danilo sent one upfield for Ronaldo, who charged into the channel and fired it home with essentially the final kick of the game.

LE PAGELLE

WOJCHIECH SZCZESNY - 6. He didn’t have to face much in the way of shots on target, but dealt with things that he could do well. Had no chance on the goal.

DANILO - 9. An immense performance. His goal was absolutely gorgeous and was worth a couple of grades all on its own, then he helped clinch things with a great long pass. In between all of that he registered a game-high six tackles. Is anyone bemoaning the swap with Joao Cancelo anymore?

LEONARDO BONUCCI - 5. A pair of key passes out of the back drives his grade up a tiny bit, but his bad season continued Sunday night. He definitely could have been closer to Defrel on his goal, and he was lucky he was as far up the field as he was when he took down Caputo in the early going. A little closer to the goal and he might’ve been off.

MERIH DEMIRAL - 5.5. Not a good first game back for him. He was ball-watching on Defrel’s goal and could’ve done more to prevent the ball from getting to him before that great first touch. It was deuces wild on his counting stats: two tackles, two interceptions, two clerances, two blocked shots.

FEDERICO CHIESA - 5.5. The co-leader in dribbles and hit the post, but didn’t have the impact he had against Milan and was often simply trying to take a man on and beat him as opposed to trying to pass.

WESTON McKENNIE - NR. Here’s hoping he’s OK to play in a week when the Derby d’Italia kicks off.

RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 5. Another lackluster showing from Bentancur, who’s had a really rough season. He was able to turn into the playmaker in Maurizio Sarri’s system, but for Pirlo he looks like he’s better moved forward — problem is there’s no one else to try and be creative in midfield on the roster right now.

ARTHUR - 5. Dude doesn’t pass the ball forward. It’s amazing how reluctant he is to do it, and even more amazing that he was credited with two key passes given that reluctance.

GIANLUCA FRABOTTA - 6. Started brightly but was a step slow in his decision making at times, until his first-time assist for the winner — his first as a first-team player. He also made three interceptions.

PAULO DYBALA - 6. Made a key pass and was also putting in effort defensively — though that’s ultimately what forced him from the field. He was fairly effectively connecting the team’s lines before getting hurt.

Juventus v US Sassuolo - Serie A Photo by Daniele Badolato - Juventus FC/Juventus FC via Getty Images

CRISTIANO RONALDO - 5.5. The last-second goal was lipstick on a pig. This was a bad game from Ronaldo, who missed a pair of sitters and spent a lot of time trying to dribble through crowds while getting dispossessed.

SUBS

AARON RAMSEY - 5.5. Amazing to give the guy who scored the winning goal a rating this low, especially as it was coupled with four key passes, but he was really poor all night long, often getting the ball stuck at his feet and inviting a dispossession. He simply doesn’t have the dynamism of McKennie, and the team’s energy was just sucked away after he came on.

DEJAN KULUSEVSKI - 5.5. Made four key passes playing as the seconda punta, but was shaky when the chances fell to him. Could’ve opened the scoring had he not gotten cute at the end of the first half.

ADRIEN RABIOT - 6. Buzzed around the midfield with his usual energy, contributed something that Bentancur was missing in this game.

ALVARO MORATA - NR. Came on after the go-ahead goal and helped shut things down from the front.

FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - NR. Helped to see the game out late after the lead was re-taken.

MANAGER ANALYSIS

How much of this performance is on Pirlo and how much of it was an inevitable dip in focus after spending so much emotional capital to beat Milan just three days ago? I think it’s mostly the latter. A manager can only do so much when his players don’t show up, and many of Pirlo’s men didn’t show for long stretches of this contest. It didn’t help that he lost perhaps his most important midfielder just 20 minutes into the game. The team lost a lot of energy and dynamism with McKennie out, and Pirlo simply doesn’t have anyone that brings that kind of game to replace him with. Between injuries and COVID, Pirlo’s options to change the game were fairly limited, and he did what he could with what was available to him, but he’d love to get some of his missing players back before the big Inter game next week.

One of Pirlo’s biggest problems is that doesn’t have the kind of player that can orchestrate the game from the midfield — the kind of player like, say Locatelli, who did exactly what Juventus needed from the other side of the field. If you want to play that kind of possession game you need that kind of player, and the lack of it will be a serious problem for Pirlo until the front office acts. Here’s hoping that Fabio Paratici spent some time with Sassuolo’s brass hashing out terms for Locatelli before the Neroverdi left.

LOOKING AHEAD

Next up on the schedule is Juve’s first foray into the season’s Coppa Italia. The Bianconeri welcome Genoa to Turin for their round of 16 matchup having beaten the Grifone 3-1 in league play in December.

After that is another mammoth fixture, as the Old Lady travels back to the San Siro for a matchup against Inter, with the opportunity to pull within a single point of their hated rivals. Then another midweek tilt comes against Napoli in the Supercoppa, then the andata is closed out with a lunchtime kickoff against Bologna.