To slightly alter one of Chucks’ favorite quotes of late: every time you think they’re out, they claw their way back in.
After being embarrassed in last week’s Derby d’Italia, it looked like Juventus was done with the 2020-21 title race. We all said as much in the most recent episode of The Old Lady Speaks, pretty much punting on the title race in all realistic trains of thought.
Then this weekend happened.
Over the course of the weekend there was a massacre at the top of the Serie A table. Leaders AC Milan lost 3-0 to Atalanta on Saturday, and Inter followed with a goalless draw against Udinese. Heading into the lunchtime kickoff against Bologna on Sunday, Juventus had the opportunity to play their way back into the title race again.
It wasn’t the prettiest victory they’ll ever get, but they did indeed get what they needed in a 2-0 victory over Bologna. And in fact, even while not firing on all cylinders, they could’ve won by four or even five had Bologna keeper Lukasz Skorupski not played out of his head and made a multitude of excellent saves. Goals from Arthur and Weston McKennie proved enough to weather a big push from the visitors to start the second half, and when Napoli fell to Hellas Verona later in the day, Juve had jumped the team they beat for the Supercoppa and back into the top four, seven points back of the leaders with that Napoli game still in hand and five behind Inter. Had Roma not snagged a stoppage time winner against Spezia earlier in the day, they would’ve been in third.
Andrea Pirlo made only one change from the Supercoppa on Wednesday. Wojciech Szczesny started at the base of the 3-5-2/4-4-2 hybrid setup, with Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini, and Danilo screening him at the top. Juan Cuadrado started as the right wing-back opposite Federico Bernardeschi, with McKennie, Arthur, and Rodrigo Bentancur between them. Cristiano Ronaldo and Dejan Kulusevski joined forces as the strike pair.
Sinisa Mihajlovic’s Bologna countered in a 4-2-3-1. Skorupski was screened by the quartet of Lorenzo De Silvestri, Takehiru Tomiyasu, Danilo Larangeira (who will henceforth referred to as Other Danilo to differentiate him from Juve’s Danilo Luiz Da Silva) and Mitchell Dijks. Jerdy Schouten and Mattias Svanberg formed the double pivot behind the Italian trio of Riccardo Orsolini, Roberto Soriano, and Emmanuel Vignato, who supported striker Musa Barrow.
The game started ominously for Juve when Soriano fouled Bentancur within seconds of the start. The Uruguayan hobbled to the sideline and was down for several minutes receiving treatment, and even after coming on took a while to look like he had shaken free of the knock. The team was still playing with 10 men in the fifth minute when a nice passing move found Cuadrado in the right side of the box. Vignato was defending and made an attacker’s tackle, taking out Cuadrado’s ankle before he ever came close to the ball. But rookie referee Juan Luca Sacchi authoritatively rejected Juve’s penalty appeals, and if the VAR buzzed down to him he gave no indication that he was listening. It was a blatant failure on the part of both the referee and the VAR system in general, as the play was a clear penalty that went completely unaddressed.
Both teams had a few pot shots miss the target in the next 10 minutes, and when Arthur took a layback pass from Ronaldo and decided to take advantage of a bunch of space to shoot from about 20 yards out it looked to be another speculative effort. But the ball took an enormous deflection off of Schouten. Skorupski had already initiated his dive the other direction, and he could only watch it skitter into the net.
The Bianconeri had a couple of opportunities to augment their lead before halftime, but their finishing and Skorupski’s form kept the visitors in the match. The first came only three minutes after the opener when McKennie showed real strength to get through a challenge at midfield and charge toward the box. He played it to Bernardeschi on the left, who had passing options but elected to try a difficult chip from an angle that flew way over the goal. Ten minutes later Skorupski made an excellent double save, first denying a left-footed shot that Ronaldo wanted to get to the far post, then benefitting from some poor finishing from Bernardeschi, whose shot made the Pole’s kick-save, while still truly impressive, a little easier.
Three minutes after that, Cuadrado was released on a 3-on-2 counter, but with options to either side he decided to go for it himself and missed the target completely. Juve then had to wait out a scare five minutes from the break when Sacchi decided that this time he would have a conversation with VAR when Orsolini tripped over Danilo as he tried to lay the ball back to Soriano. The conversation lasted longer than it needed to once Soriano missed his shot, but eventually there wasn’t even an on-field review. Eventually the stop-and-start period that saw a foul committed every three minutes, but it held a slight air of regret, as Juve could very easily have put the game away.
For the first 15 minutes coming out of the break it looked like Juve might indeed rue those missed opportunities. Just three minutes into the second period Schouten put in a good cross from the right side that Cuadrado had to get a touch to to keep substitute Nicola Sansone from having a tap-in. Problem was that touch was a powerful header that forced Szczesny into an incredible reaction save to parry the ball over the bar for a corner.
Woj was kept busy, smothering a shot from Barrow on the ensuing corner and then making a fantastic save from former Juve man Orsolini, not only stopping the curling shot but also punching it past the onrushing Sansone, who was looking to do what Bernardeschi couldn’t and tap home, and the sub finished a good 15-minute stretch by blasting over from a narrow angle after a good passing move across the field found him in the left end of the box.
But Cuadrado forced Skorupski into another save on the hour mark, and from that point on things seemed to settle down. Juve forced a series of corners, which Other Danilo found a novel way to defend—run into the back of Giorgio Chiellini and fall to the ground, then wait for a gullible Sacchi to whistle for a foul. Morata came on for Bernardeschi to try to provide more punch on the counter, and he forced Skorupski into yet another save at the near post with his first opportunity. On the ensuing corner Other Danilo got a bit of a comeuppance for his faking when he got caught in a crowd and lost McKennie, who broke free into the box and met Cuadrado’s delivery with an excellent header that finally beat Skorupski to double the lead.
The American almost had himself a brace four minutes later when Ronaldo broke out some old-fashioned wing play and found him with a cross, but his side-footed effort was central and the keeper got right back to it with a kick save. Szczesny’s Poland international teammate made three more saves in the final 15 minutes, denying Ronaldo, Adrien Rabiot, and Ronaldo again right before stoppage time began. The seconds ticked away in the added minutes, and when the final whistle pierced the air, Juve had taken their opportunity and put themselves right back into the conversation as the first half of the season came to a close.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 8. After having nothing much to do in the first half, he kept the lead intact on his own in the opening phases of the second. Who knows what happens if he doesn’t make those stops.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 6.5. Tied for the team lead with three tackles and added a pair of clearances. He’s been looking better these last few games as Chiellini has provided him with some cover.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 6.5. He’s played four games in a row now and is staying healthy, which is a great sign. He was his typical rock-like self in this one, making six clearances and hardly putting a foot wrong.
DANILO - 6. Moved up a few times to present some danger, throwing in a key pass, and played well in the back.
JUAN CUADRADO - 6. Made three key passes and shared the team lead in tackles with Bonucci, but his decision making left a lot to be desired, going it himself when he had good options to pass to.
WESTON McKENNIE - 8. Played excellent football all day long, and was often the farthest man up the field. Made three key passes and his header for the second goal was textbook and he could’ve easily had a second.
ARTHUR - 7.5. It was an excuse-me goal, but he’ll still relish his first goal in a Juve shirt. He finished the game with three key passes AND tied for the team lead in dribbles. One of his first games where there aren’t any “buts” about his play.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 6.5. It looked like he wouldn’t last more than a few minutes, but he came back from the knock he took early to see lead the midfield with a 96.4 percent completion rate, make two key passes, and pick up three interceptions on the defensive end. This was his best game in a long time and hopefully becomes something to build on.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 5. He got into the right positions, but his end product was horrific. He made the second end of Skorupski’s double save easier than it needed to be and simply didn’t get things right once the ball came to him in any scenario.
DEJAN KULUSEVSKI - 5.5. Worked hard in the press but didn’t quite get things right when he was in possession. He’s still a work in progress but if he can be refined, he’ll be unstoppable.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 6.5. Was denied twice by some good Skorupski saves but got an assist off of Arthur’s goal and was accurate with three of his four crosses, including the one that McKennie nearly picked up his second on.
ALVARO MORATA - 6. Put his only shot on target and worked to exploit the space Bologna left as they pressed for the equalizer.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - NR. Wonderful seeing him back after his COVID-19 test came back negative Saturday afternoon. Must be great chasing the game and seeing him come on.
ADRIEN RABIOT - NR. Forced a save out of Skorupksi and played well in midfield to close things out.
AARON RAMSEY - NR. Closing out games in midfield requires not losing the ball, which Ramsey did a couple of times. Did notch a tackle though.
MERIH DEMIRAL - NR. A stoppage-time time killer.
Juve ceded Bologna possession a lot more in this game than they have in previous games, but I’m pretty sure that was by design. Bologna’s attackers are very good counterattackers, and it looked like Pirlo dropped things back a little bit in order to cover the lack of pace in Bonucci and Chiellini. With the exception of that 15-minute period in the beginning of the second half, Juve never looked out of control of things, with Chiellini dominating the air and Szczesny intervening when needed. Outside of those 15 minutes, Bologna didn’t put a shot on target, and a second clean sheet in a row was a welcome change.
In the attacking phase, there were, as I mentioned before, times when McKennie was the farthest player forward, acting as the reference point that neither Ronaldo nor Kulusevski really provides when the two are playing together up top. His aerial prowess helps in that regard — he won more duels than anyone on the field — but it’s a very different look than most that you see. For his part, McKennie was incredibly effective, and continues to be one of Juve’s best players overall, but it’s going to be interesting to see if that continues when Morata isn’t in the lineup to serve as a more traditional No. 9.
It’s the end of the andata, and Juve are in a strange position for this time of year — fourth. They’re seven points behind leaders AC Milan — albeit with a game in hand — and only one point behind Roma in third. It’ll take a lot of doing — but it is doable.
But before the ritorna can begin, it’s back to the Coppa Italia and a quarterfinal date with SPAL on Wednesday. It will be their first competitive match against a Serie B team since they played Avellino in the round of 16 in the 2013-14 season.
After that, league play resumes with a trip to Genoa to play Sampdoria, then a big home game against a drama-plagued Roma squad.