When Juventus and Sampdoria met on the first day of the 2020-21 season in September, the game took an unexpected path. In Andrea Pirlo’s first game as a coach at any level, his team came out like gangbusters, completely dominating the first half and taking an early lead. Things evened out in the second half, with Samp making a push to equalize before a late push against tired legs saw Juve put the game away.
As the second half of the season got underway on Saturday, the venue moved from the Allianz Stadium to the Stadio Luigi Ferraris, but the script was pretty much exactly the same.
Under a driving rain, Juve came out of the box looking about the best they have all year, completely dominating proceedings and taking a deserved lead halfway through the period, though they could have put the game away early had they been more clinical with their chances. The second half was more sedate, with Juve’s pace slacking and Samp making some adjustments, but for the most part Wojciech Szczesny was kept clean in goal, and Juve finally put things to bed with a stoppage-time goal, starting the ritorna in style with a 2-0 victory.
Pirlo’s options were limited at the forward positions, with Paulo Dybala still injured and Dejan Kulusevski suspended due to yellow card accumulation, but he had plenty of firepower in the rest of the park to deploy his usual hybrid 3-5-2/4-4-2. Szczesny was protected by Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini, and Danilo, with Juan Cuadrado and Federico Chiesa serving as the wing-backs. Rodrigo Bentancur, Arthur, and Weston McKennie played in the midfield, with Cristiano Ronaldo and Alvaro Morata the only options in the strike pair.
Claudio Ranieri put out a 4-1-3-2 setup in an effort to reverse his awful record against his old club. His starting XI had four players with Juventus connections, starting with goalkeeper Emil Audero, an old academy product. He played behind Bartosz Bereszynski, Maya Yoshida, Omar Colley, and Tomasso Augello. Albin Ekdal sat at the base of the midfield, with Morten Thorsby, Adrien Silva, and Antonio Candreva sitting behind Keita Balde and Fabio Quagliarella in the attack.
It was clear early on that Juve had a pace and directness to them. Twice in the first five minutes they bypassed the midfield and hit long balls straight into the channel. Neither one came off, but they set the tone for the football they’d play in the 45 minutes that followed. Ironically, it was Sampdoria that actually registered the first shot of the game when Silva skied one in the fifth minute, but the momentum was soon firmly in the hands of the Bianconeri.
Samp’s defense dealt well with the early forays, but it was soon clear that they were very much under siege. The home side paid special attention to Ronaldo, with Ekdal often dropping in to help mark him. But there was nothing that could stop the opening goal in the 20th minute. It started with some good pressure by Cuadrado, who tackled the ball off of Keita. Bentancur then hit a strong entry pass to Morata, who played a one-two with Ronaldo to release himself into the right channel. Through all of this Chiesa had made a good run to the far post, getting between Bereszynski and Yoshida, and he was there when Morata laid the ball across the box to smash it home.
The rest of the half was a story in missed opportunities, as Juve continued to pour forward in search of a second. Ronaldo was the focal point of a lot of those missed opportunities, particularly a trio of chances late in the half. The first came in the 39th minute, when he finally got some space and unleashed a shot that was fingertipped over the bar by Audero. Then he was put through by an excellent pass from Chiesa. He was 1-on-1 with Audero, but the former Juve academy product played it perfectly, coming out immediately to prevent an early shot and then holding his ground to force Ronaldo wide, who eventually hit it well high and wide. Two minutes later, he was again sent 1-on-1, this time from a pas by Bentancur, but as he was loading up to shoot Yoshida made an amazing sliding tackle that nipped the ball away from him at the very last moment. It was a desperation challenge that had to be inch-perfect or it was a penalty and maybe a red card, but the Japan international made it perfect indeed.
There was a scary moment at the end of the half when McKennie went down in the Samp box holding the back of his leg. It had initially looked like a non-contact injury, but replay caused everyone to sigh in relief when it became clear that Colley had accidentally stepped on him.
The rain intensified over halftime, and in the opening phases Juve continued to keep Audero extremely busy. The keeper came out again to intercept a good through ball by Ronaldo for his strike partner. Samp, though, showed their first real sign of life in the 54th minute when Bentancur lost the ball in midfield and Augello, wearing a massive bandage over his head after a head-to-head collision with Cuadrado, found Quagliarella at the corner of the six-yard box. The striker took a fantastic first touch to tee himself up for a half-volley. It was well-struck, but Chiellini came flying out of nowhere to block the shot. It was a vintage moment for Chiellini, and it snuffed out perhaps the most promising attack the home team had on the night.
Morata had the ball in the back of the net in the 56th minute but was well offside, and Quagliarella had another shot at goal, albeit from an acute angle that Szczesny had no difficulty parrying away. Juve didn’t have the same incisiveness going forward as they had in the first half, and Ranieri had made some adjustments to allow his side to get forward a little more. But even as they pressed forward for an equalizer, Szczesny’s job was generally limited to organizing as opposed to actually stopping shots. Chiellini was heading pretty much any ball that came into the box right back out again, and as the clock ticked on the game started getting scrappier and scrappier, with challenges getting more and more of an edge. But on the balance Juve was seeing the game out well as opposed to hanging by a thread.
It became academic in the first minute of stoppage time when Samp finally overcommitted men forward, leaving an opening for a counter. Ronaldo found Cuadrado running with no one between him and the goal. Colley got back to help, in moving to close down Cuadrado he had to leave Aaron Ramsey free, and the Colombian nutmegged him with a pass to the substitute, leaving him with the simplest finish of his life to finish the game off.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 7. Only had to make one save, but he was strong in his box when clearances were needed and organized the defense well.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 7. A good day at the office for Bonucci, who seems to be gaining some form after a terrible first half of the season. He made four interceptions and two tackles, and completed six of his 11 long balls.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 8. His block against Quagliarella may well have prevented the equalizer, and he was a tower of power in the box, getting rid of pretty much anything that tried to get into the box, making a game-high six clearances.
DANILO - 7. Made three tackles and two clearances, along with a couple of marauding runs forward, especially in the first half. He’s taken that “bomb forward out of the back three” role from Chiellini for the most part.
JUAN CUADRADO - 7.5. Selfless on the assist for the second goal — his 11th of the year in all competitions — while bottling up any wide play on his flank, racking up one tackle, two interceptions, and two clearances.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 7. One of his better games all year. He completed 91.5 percent of his passes and racked up four tackles, two clearances, and an interception. It was his entry pass that started the move for the opener. I don’t ding him for his yellow card, as the call was a little iffy, even though it does mean he’ll be suspended against Roma.
ARTHUR - 7. Completed 96.4 percent of his passes, and is starting to move the ball faster and with more forward threat. He’s beginning to settle in a bit.
WESTON McKENNIE - 8. Dude was everywhere. He made five tackles, four interceptions, and three clearances, most of which were in the first half. He was also credited with two key passes, and his energy and forward runs made the other midfielders better.
FEDERICO CHIESA - 7.5. Made three key passes and took an excellent finish for the first goal. He’s gaining confidence by the day, and is now even playing like this when he’s deployed on the left as opposed to the right.
ALVARO MORATA - 7. A great cross for the assist on Chiesa’s goal, and he did so much of the dirty work, holding the ball up, making two clearances defensively, and completing 97 percent of his passes. He does need to stay on the right side of the flag, though — he was caught offside three times.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 6.5. Didn’t have much luck finishing, but made vital passes in the buildup to both goals. The scoring will come again, but it’s good to see him making those kinds of passes.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 6. Made a pair of clearances as he helped keep things tight as time ticked down.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - NR. Made three interceptions in only 13 minutes of work, and was one of only two people to produce an accurate cross.
ALEX SANDRO - NR. Made a couple of rash decisions, giving away a needless free kick just after he came on and making a weird clearance attempt that went toward his own goal and was fortunately met by Chiellini.
AARON RAMSEY - NR. An easy finish for the clinching goal in stoppage time.
That first half is what Pirlo’s football is all about. The high press creating short fields, the defense barely needing to make plays on the ball, and the passes going into danger areas with speed and power. It was one of the best 45 minute periods Juve has turned in all year long. With better finishing, the game would’ve been put away long before it was.
The team fell away in intensity in the second half, and preventing that is Pirlo’s next big hurdle before this team is really complete. But even with that drop-off, Juve’s goal was only truly threatened once, and all of Ranieri’s machinations couldn’t breach the defense. Pirlo is gradually discovering the right balance on this team, and it’s starting to look really good. This next stretch of games will be a huge test to see if that balance is solid or easily upset.
The next few weeks might be the most imposing stretch of schedule Juve have faced in years. It starts on Tuesday with the first leg of the Coppa Italia semifinal against Inter. Then Roma visits the Allianz, followed by the return against Inter, then a visit to Napoli, and then the first leg of the Champions League round of 16 against Porto. If there was ever a time for Pirlo to make his bones, it’s now.