Juventus had dug themselves a substantial hole as the 2020-21 season headed into the abbreviated Christmas break. Sitting 10 points behind leaders AC Milan (with a game in hand), Juve’s margin of error is now nil. The games they were drawing have to start turning into wins — and they have to come in rapid succession. starting with Sunday’s game against Udinese.
The way things started, one would’ve been forgiven for edging toward panic mode. A couple of egregious defensive mistakes early on nearly gifted the visitors the lead in a play that looked like a carbon copy of Fiorentina’s first goal, but a handball call on VAR gave Juve a lifeline. Slowly, ever so slowly, though, Juve started to find their footing, and went into the locker room up a goal after another typically excellent goal from Cristiano Ronaldo. Whatever was said in the locker room at halftime worked, because Juve came out swinging, doubling their lead within minutes and nearly tripling it but for a similar handball call. They eventually did extend the lead to 3-0, and while Udinese had a few close calls that would have made the game interesting again — and eventually scored a consolation close to the end — Juve used that second half to come out with a 4-1 win that maybe wasn’t as comprehensive as they would’ve liked, but was certainly deserved.
Andrea Pirlo was missing three of his best players going into his first game of 2021. Juan Cuadrado was suspended after being sent off against Fiorentina, while Adrien Rabiot had to serve the suspension that went back into effect after the Napoli appeal ruling wiped out that result. Alvaro Morata was a late exclusion from the squad after picking up a thigh injury in training. Pirlo’s hybrid 3-5-2/4-4-2 setup was anchored by Wojciech Szczesny in goal, with Danilo, Leonardo Bonucci, and Matthijs de Ligt protecting him. Federico Chiesa and Alex Sandro manned the wing-back spots, and the midfield consisted of Weston McKennie, Rodrigo Bentancur, and Aaron Ramsey. Paulo Dybala took over for Morata up top along with Ronaldo.
Udinese manager Luca Gotti took over at the Dacia Arena about a year ago for Igor Tudor, who, ironically, is now Pirlo’s assistant in Turin. He had led the team to a shock come-from-behind win over Juve during the restart over the summer but was missing a lot of players due to injury and suspension, to say nothing of the transfer departure of Seko Fofana to France. He countered Pirlo with a 3-5-2 of his own. The underrated Juan Musso manned the goal, screened by Samir, Sebastien De Maio, and Kevin Bonifazi. Jens Stryger Larsen and Marvin Zeegelaar manned the wings, bookending Wallace, Rodrigo De Paul, and former Juve player Roberto Pereyra. Kevin Lasagna and Ignacio Pussetto paired up together up front.
Juve’s start to the game was about as wobbly as a baby Bambi. Udinese tried to set the tone early when De Maio obliterated Dybala from behind, a foul that strangely brought no card from referee Piero Giacomelli. Two minutes later the Argentine had a shot blocked that flew out wide to Chiesa, who crossed back in to the six-yard box, where Ramsey committed a shocking miss, tapping the ball straight at Musso from point-blank range.
The mistakes bled into the defensive side of the ball, and 10 minutes into the game it looked like Udinese had the lead. A long pass from Bonifazi was met by De Paul near midfield, and he beat Bentancur shoulder-to-shoulder and left it off for Lasagna, who took off into the box. Bonucci elected to stay back and defend space rather than close Lasagna, but then completely overran the play and could only whiff at space with a weak back-heel attempt at a clearance. De Paul had continued his run, and simply poked the ball forward and into the net at the near post. But Udinese’s celebrations were cut short when Giacomelli was called to the VAR monitor, and judged that De Paul had handled the ball as he took down Bonifazi’s pass. The play was called back, and Juve was given a huge letoff.
The game started to settle into a rhythm, with Juve dominating possession but not producing much in the way of concrete scoring chances. Bentancur took a long distance-effort that went right at Musso, while Dybala slammed into the wall off a free kick routine from a good spot.
But it was two minutes after that that Juve managed to take the lead, and it came off a passage of ideal Pirlo football. Udinese had a throw in in their own half, but Ramsey applied quick pressure on De Paul as he received it and poked the ball away and into the path of Ronaldo, who made a beeline into the box and ripped a powerful strike past Musso and into the net.
Ramsey was very nearly the goat as quickly as he was the hero after the kickoff when he was caught in possession in his own half, triggering a quick counter that saw one shot blocked and then another after the ricochet landed with Lasagna, whose shot had no power and went right to Szczesny. The Welshman was then back in the thick of things on the other end, hitting a shot from the left channel nearly as hard as Ronaldo’s but this time getting denied by Musso. Bonucci made a vintage clearance just before the break when he lifted a boot to keep a cross from the right side from reaching Pussetto, who landed awkwardly and stayed down for several minutes. He finished the half but was replaced by Fernando Forestieri after the break.
It looked like the second half would be another slog when McKennie was picked off in the center circle to trigger a counterattack, but Juve quickly flipped the script when Chiesa pipped Stryger Larsen to a wonderful through ball by Ronaldo and beat Musso with a low shot across the goal. Three minutes later, Chiesa looked like he’d turned provider when he put Ramsey into the penalty area. Two defenders and Musso converged on the midfielder, and his initial attempt was poked into the keeper’s leg. Musso didn’t control the ball, though, and Ramsey retrieved the ball, backed up a bit, and fired into the net, celebrating what he thought was his first Serie A goal since last fall, but Giacomelli was again called to the video screen, and chalked the goal off when it was determined that his initial shot hit his arm.
Five minutes after that Udinese nearly made a game of it again when Stryger Larsen found space for a free header that had Szczesny rooted but bounced back off the bar. That was a wake-up call for Juve, and they started turning the screws on their press, rarely letting Udinese string more than a few passes together, and when they did it was deep in their own half to try to escape the press. Eventually they found the goal to put things away with 20 minutes to go. It took came out of the high press, when Bentancur jumped a pass in Udinese territory and immediately deposited it into the channel for Ronaldo, who tucked the ball just inside the post.
But even at 3-0 it wasn’t all smooth sailing. Zeegelaar hit another ball off the bar three minutes after the goal, and just before the end of normal time the Dutchman got Udinese a consolation goal when Nahuel Molina turned Gianluca Frabotta around and got a cross in. Szczesny dove to stop it but could only parry it to Zeegelaar for him to sweep in. But the Bianconeri had one more stinger to deal out in stoppage time, this time in the form of Dybala, who took advantage of a swath of space to take a through ball into the right channel and clip over Musso’s shoulder with the final kick of the game.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 6. Didn’t have a whole lot to deal with, as Udinese only hit the target three times. Deserved the clean sheet in this one.
DANILO - 8. Another excellent day for the converted center-back, with an assist and three key passes as well as a bevy of defensive numbers, racking up two tackles, three interceptions, and three clearances.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 5.5. I remain thoroughly unimpressed by his current form. His defending on De Paul’s disallowed goal was appalling, and he only completed 86.9 percent of his passes. This wasn’t a great day, and with a big stretch of games coming up he needs to step up in a big way.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 7. Shared the team lead with three tackles and completed 96.1 percent of his passes. He was given a hugely unfair yellow card, but thank goodness wasn’t on the brink of a suspension.
FEDERICO CHIESA - 6.5. Wasn’t so great in the first half but found a groove in the second. His goal was wonderful, and he made three key passes as well. He still needs to refine some things, but the effort is there.
WESTON McKENNIE- 6. Wasn’t as involved up front as he has been recently, but still did a lot when it came to ball-winning, although an yellow in the middle of the first half took away a bit of his edge and he was pulled to keep him from getting another.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 7. Like Chiesa, he followed a bad first half with an excellent second. He ended the day with four key passes, including his excellent assist after he stepped up to intercept a pass out of the back. He also made three tackles and a pair of clearances. More full games like the second half, please.
AARON RAMSEY - 5.5. A real enigma of a game. Every time he did something good, he offset it with a mistake. Case in point: the excellent pressure and assist for the opening goal was followed immediately by a bad giveaway in his own half. He needs to eliminate those from his game and be the more creative force the midfield that he was supposed to be.
ALEX SANDRO - 5.5. I was surprised to see he had registered two key passes, because his production on the offensive end tended to be crosses over everyone’s head. His defending was also a little suspect at times, allowing Stryger Larsen to get in for that header off the bar.
PAULO DYBALA - 7. It was a game he deserved a goal in. He wasn’t all over the place and you would be forgiven for being a little upset at how deep he dropped into midfield at times, but he still produced a pair of key passes and was able to keep possession for other teammates to work on a number of other occasions. The goal itself was also a clinical take (and with his right foot!!).
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 9. This was a complete game for him. His first goal was pure power, the second pinpoint in its accuracy, and his assist to Chiesa was just as skillful as either score. Here’s hoping he does the same three days from now.
ARTHUR - 5.5. Didn’t do much with the time he got after he came on for McKennie. He needs to start being more incisive if this midfield is going to truly come together.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 5.5. Filled the space on the left side but that’s about it.
DEJAN KULUSEVSKI - 5.5. Got forward a couple times but wasn’t able to impose himself. He needs to be quicker and a little more decisive.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - NR. It’s wonderful to see him on the field. Hopefully he stays together.
GIANLUCA FRABOTTA - NR. Some poor defending on his part allowed Udinese to pick up their goal.
Pirlo’s ideas have been parsed and criticized over the course of the season so far, but each of the first three goals were lifted straight out of his coaching thesis. The first came with the pressure and tackle by Ramsey, the second started after an errant pass that was forced by pressure from Bentancur, and the third saw Bentancur step in and intercept a pass deep in Udinese’s side of the field. It’s those moments that Pirlo needs to expand on. If they can continue to do that against the high-level opposition the team will be facing in the next two weeks, things could start looking up.
The team seems to be understanding how Pirlo wants his plans applied, but their application thereof has been uneven If the lapses in concentration that produced the De Paul non-goal or the two shots off the crossbar aren’t eliminated, teams like Milan are liable to punish them. Milan in particular have scored two or more goals in 17 straight games, and even without Zlatan Ibrahimovic have proven more than capable of producing offense. They will pounce on any mistakes, so Pirlo will have to have his players at peak mental focus.
The biggest domestic game of the year is on deck as Juve head to San Siro to face league leaders AC Milan. A win will drop their deficit to seven points and make a comeback look a lot more possible.
After that, Juve receive Sassuolo — who they jumped in the standings after Sunday’s results — at home before hosting Genoa in their first Coppa Italia game of the season on Wednesday the 13th. After that is a league matchup against Inter and then the Supercoppa against Napoli.
No big deal these next three weeks, right?