After the humiliating loss to Inter Milan on Sunday, it was imperative for Juventus to bounce back as quickly as possible.
Thing was, the game they were staring at had a lot of red flags. Three days after being continually ripped open on the counterattack, their opponents in the Supercoppa Italiana were none other than counterattacking specialists Napoli. With the likes of Lorenzo Insigne and Hirving “Chucky” Lozano possessing potent powers on the run and with Juve forced to start the less than fleet-footed duo of Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini after Merih Demiral picked up yet another injury, there was every possibility that we could see yet another disappointing game.
So it was quite refreshing when the actual game played out very differently. Juve were short of dominant, but they controlled long stretches of the game and effectively nullified that vaunted counter. While their attack started slowly, they found enough of an edge to go ahead just after the hour mark and finished things off on the last kick of the game for a 2-0 victory that brought their record-extending ninth Supercoppa — and Andrea Pirlo’s first trophy as a coach — back to Turin.
Wednesday’s game was the long-delayed first meeting between coaches and former teammates Pirlo and Gennaro Gattuso. Both coaches were missing some key players. Pirlo was still missing Alex Sandro and Matthijs de Ligt due to COVID-19 and Paulo Dybala to injury. A late blow came on Tuesday when Demiral was ruled out due to a new muscle injury, but got a last-minute shot in the arm when Juan Cuadrado cleared COVID protocol and was made available hours before the game. Gattuso was still missing summer signing Victor Oshimen, dealing with both a shoulder injury and a COVID diagnosis, while Fabian Ruiz was out injured and Dries Mertens only fit enough for the bench after coming back from a nasty ankle injury he suffered in December.
Pirlo’s options were therefore somewhat limited. He sent out his usual 3-5-2/4-4-2 hybrid setup, anchored by Wojciech Szczesny in goal. Bonucci and Chiellini joined Danilo in the back, while Cuadrado was surprisingly pressed directly into the starting lineup opposite Federico Chiesa in the wing-back spots. Rodrigo Bentancur, Arthur, and Weston McKennie made up the midfield, while Alvaro Morata was rested in favor of Dejan Kulusevski, who started up front alongside Cristiano Ronaldo.
Gattuso countered with a 4-2-3-1 setup. David Ospina started in goal, screened by Giovanni Di Lorenzo, Kalidou Koulibaly, Kostas Manolas, and Mario Rui. Tiemoue Bakayoko and Diego Demme formed the double pivot in midfield, while Lozano, Piotr Zielinski, and Insigne lined up behind striker Andrea Petagna.
The game started extremely cagy. Manolas headed an early Napoli corner over, while Ronaldo and Allan both ballooned shots into the empty stands of the Mapei Stadium. Both teams did well closing the lanes down when their opponents got themselves into threatening areas. The game didn’t see its first shot on target until the 21st minute, when Insigne put a direct free kick right at Szczesny for an easy hold.
Not long after Szczesny was nearly in a spot of trouble when he collided with Danilo as he went to claim a ball into the box. Lozano was nearby, but Chiellini was closer and cleaned things up, although the Mexico international might’ve been judged offside had he made more of things. But just before the half hour mark Woj borrowed Gigi Buffon’s old Superman cape to deny Lozano from point-blank range after the winger met a cross from Demme with a diving header.
The last 15 minutes of the game saw a lot of possession out of Juve, but they weren’t able to get the ball into position to make a real threat to Ospina’s goal. That’s not to say it was the useless possession that we saw for large portions of the Inter game. The ball was moving a lot faster and into better positions, but a combination of good defense and, in some cases, a pitch that was pretty knarly kept Juve from really making much of a threat, and they headed into the half generally in control of proceedings but having failed to put a shot on target over the first 45 minutes.
That changed seconds into the second period, when Federico Bernardeschi, who had replaced an injured Chiesa at halftime, fed McKennie into the left side of the box than continued his run into the middle, getting a glancing shot off McKennie’s low cross that just didn’t have enough power to get away from Ospina.
The game again settled into the pattern of the latter stages of the first half, with Juve taking the attacking initiative and Napoli trying — but largely failing — to strike on the break. Juve still weren’t creating much in the way of shots either, but they still had the initiative, and they finally made the breakthrough just after the hour. Ronaldo had nearly forced Manolas into an own goal, with the Greek defender nearly shinning a low cross inside his own post, but the ensuing corner was initially headed by Lozano and then ricocheted off of Bakayoko and sat perfectly for Ronaldo, who smashed it past a despairing Ospina for the game’s first goal.
Napoli had to start chasing things, but for the next 10 minutes or so Juve were the ones that looked more likely to score the game’s next goal. Juve started racking up their corner count, and Napoli didn’t muster a single shot over the next 15 minutes. Mertens was thrown on for the last 18 minutes, and he was the one who gave the Partenopei their best opportunity to equalize — albeit in the sneakiest way possible.
The Belgian had been on for about five minutes when he came up behind McKennie, who was preparing to clear the ball out of the right side of the Juventus penalty area, and stuck his foot in between McKennie’s foot and the ball. He had no intent to play the ball, just to get a part of his anatomy into a position where it was impossible for the Texan midfielder not to kick him instead of the ball. Referee Paolo Valeri initially waved play on, but an uproar from the Napoli sideline and a buzz down from the VAR booth saw him reverse his decision and award Napoli the penalty. By the letter of the law it was the correct call—but the letter of the law is stupid and needs to be changed to address situations like this where the attacking player is clearly trying to buy the penalty.
Perhaps the gods of calcio agree with me, because Insigne completely bottled the penalty, squibing it wide to his left while he had Szczesny going the other way. Pirlo quickly sent on Morata and Adrien Rabiot to finish the game out. Ronaldo forced a fantastic save out of Ospina in the 90th minute, but the flag went up anyway, leaving the game in the balance for the five minutes of stoppage time. In the fourth minute of those five Szczesny made yet another magnificent save, changing direction after Chiellini deflected a shot by Lozano and getting back the way he came to parry it away.
Ospina was sent up for a last-ditch corner a minute later, but the delivery was headed out, and Arthur played the ball forward for once to Morata, triggering a three-on-one break. Morata triggered it down the field to Cuadrado, who charged down toward the goal. Ospina had managed to get far enough back to dissuade an early chip, but now was forced to come out to challenge. With Insigne closing in from behind, Cuadrado decided to be selfless and played it forward into the right channel, where it rolled perfectly into the trailing run of Morata, who guided the last kick of the game into the empty net, finishing a good performance in style and securing Pirlo’s first ever trophy.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 8. He only had to make three saves, but the last two were simply immense, denying Lozano with two incredible reaction stops. Anyone that suggests he isn’t up for manning the goal in big games is, to be frank, a moron.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 6.5. Not a lot in the way of counting stats, but he was solid and well positioned all day. Completed nine of 15 long balls and put one decent ball into the box after a corner as well. When he plays like this, things are so much more secure.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 7. Made a team-high six clearances and completely neutralized Petagna. When he’s healthy, there’s still so much quality in him.
DANILO - 6. Made himself dangerous bombing forward and completed seven of eight long balls, and was relatively strong defensively with the one glaring marking mistake that led to Lozano’s big header in the first half.
JUAN CUADRADO - 8. How? How the f&$% did he do that? The man was out for two weeks with COVID-19 and went straight out on a few hours’ notice, played 90 minutes, and was one of the best players on the field. His crosses weren’t the most accurate, but he still led the team with five dribbles, notched two key passes and the assist on the last goal, and he completed 95.8 percent of his passes. This performance was straight-up magic.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 6. His pass completion left something to be desired (89.1 percent), but he was his usual self off the ball, contributing six interceptions and playing a big part in the press that kept Napoli off their game for much of the match.
ARTHUR - 6.5. He completed 98.4 percent of his passes and led the team with three tackles. As well as he might’ve done, though, I’d still like him to be even more incisive with his passes, as he clearly passed up a couple of good runs in favor of a shorter option.
WESTON McKENNIE - 6.5. Led the team with three key passes and constantly caused problems with his runs into the box. His qualities allow the rest of the midfield to focus on other things, and his presence simply makes the team better. He gets no markdowns for the penalty because, frankly, I found it dumb.
FEDERICO CHIESA - 5. Didn’t really do much after being returned to the left side of the formation, although it’s possible that that has something to do with the fact that he aggrivated the ankle injury he suffered against Sassuolo 10 days ago. Hopefully he isn’t facing too much time out.
DEJAN KULUSEVSKI - 5.5. A little out of control up front. Only completed 50 percent of his passes and couldn’t get himself into any dangerous shooting spots. His talent remains evident, he just needs a lot of refinement.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 7. Much more involved than on Sunday. He was perfectly on the spot for his goal, and while his pass accuracy still wasn’t great, he still looked far more dangerous than he did in Milan.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 6. He was beaten far too easily on Lozano’s stoppage-time chance, but overall had a good shift, making two tackles and almost scoring seconds after coming on.
ALVARO MORATA - NR. Took the goal excellently and held the ball up well as Juve tried to kill the game off.
ADRIEN RABIOT - NR. Made a pair of tackles in only eight minutes of work.
Days after the most insipid performance of his short reign, Pirlo righted the ship for his first trophy as a coach.
The majority of the game went pretty much exactly like he wants it to. The press did great work, keeping Napoli hemmed into their half for long stretches and preventing much in the way of shooting opportunities. After Inter sliced through them on the counter on Sunday, the defense had clearly been drilled in training, because Napoli, whose counter game is as good or better than Inter’s, didn’t have nearly the same success trying to break. That kept Szczesny bored for a lot of the game, especially in the second half.
It is a little concerning that Juve didn’t put a shot on target until after halftime, and there’s still a lot to be desired from the midfield in terms of creativity. Arthur made a few forward passes today but also passed up a few opportunities to advance the ball to a running teammate. Until the front office can get a more natural playmaker into the team, Pirlo is going to have to bash it into the Brazilian’s head that he has to be more incisive.
Juve end the andata on Sunday, with a lunchtime kickoff against Bologna.