There is certainly a theme building for the Juventus season. It may not be the most fun or most exciting thing for fans to watch, but it is getting more difficult to argue with the results.
Juventus claimed another 1-0 victory, this time over Zenit after Dejan Kulusevski (or Kuzlevsky if you ask the CBS commentator) headed in a Mattia De Sciglio cross late in Wednesday’s trip to St. Petersburg. The goal gave Juventus all three points and kept the club on top of Group H with a perfect slate of matches over the first half of the Champions League group stage.
The victory marked the fourth consecutive 1-0 win for Juventus, the first time the club has done that since March 2014 during Antonio Conte’s tenure as manager. Prior to the start of this season, Juventus had not recorded a 1-0 win since November 2019. But for those familiar with Max Allegri and his first stint in Turin, these cagey victories is something you come to expect — and this one was setting up for it from the first whistle.
Despite playing in front of home fans, it was pretty clear Zenit was going to be content with getting at least one point to try to keep pace with the top two spots in the group. Manager Sergei Sergei Semak turned to a more conservative use of his usual 3-4-3, looking more like a 5-4-1 on Wednesday evening. Because of that, it was always going to be difficult for Juventus to find space in the attack.
Meanwhile. there was quite the debate in the hour leading up to kickoff after Allegri released his starting XI. There have been no signs of Allegri wanted to shift from the base 4-4-2 that he has used for the rest of the season, but the personnel used Wednesday made people think it could look more like a 4-3-3 or even a 4-2-3-1. Wojciech Szczesny was back in goal, but the back line was a bit different in front of him. Matthijs de Ligt and Leonardo Bonucci were in the middle, Mattia De Sciglio switched from the left to the right while Alex Sandro replaced Danilo and slotted in at left back. Three central midfielders were in the starting lineup, with Weston McKennie, Rodrigo Bentancur and Manuel Locatelli all getting the nod. Federico Bernardeschi and Federico Chiesa were also given starting jobs again, but in slightly different roles than they each played Sunday. Alvaro Morata replaced Moise Kean as the team’s lone striker.
The formation began to look a bit more clear once Juventus kicked off. Bernardeschi drifted more to the right side of the midfield with Chiesa on the left. McKennie was called upon to do plenty of pressing work for the midfield — which made it look more like a 4-2-3-1 for the first time this season. However, Bentancur also had a bit more freedom to roam forward than your average holding midfielder and McKennie was asked to do much more defensively than either of the other two attacking midfielders, making it look more like a 4-3-3 when Zenit had the ball.
No matter the formation, Juventus started on the front foot right away with possession and was on the verge of looking dangerous within the opening 10 minutes. Bernardeschi had the first of what felt like hundreds of crossing opportunities for Juventus, but he saw his free kick headed clear, a phrase that would be said repeatedly over the following 90 minutes.
The match was uneventful through much of the first half and the energy never seemed to feel like a true Champions League matchday. The game was certainly slowed down and chances were hard to come by which played right into Zenit’s game plan.
And it was the hosts that nearly capitalized on the slow play in the first 20 minutes. Moments after Artem Dzyuba got behind the defense, it was Claudinho who managed to get the first shot on target for either team. Zenit pounced on a loose pass from Bernardeschi and Claudinho saw some space from 25 yards, sending a swerving rocket at the Juventus goal. Szczesny made some quick in-air adjustments and punched the ball away to make a good save.
Juventus’ first big chance came in the 25th minute when Locatelli spotted a good run into the box by McKennie and put the ball over the top of the defense, but Zenit goalkeeper Stanislav Kritsyuk reacted quickly and just beat the American to the ball, punching it away and clearing the threat.
The rest of the first half was more of the same as Juventus kept trying to send the ball into the box but never connected on anything. They finished with 12 attempted crosses in the first 45 minutes, only one of them counted as an accurate cross and it only led to a second cross that sailed harmlessly out for a goal kick.
Just before the break, Dmitri Chistyakov got the second shot on target of the night with a soft header off a corner kick, but it was a much more comfortable save for Szczesny. The final chance came from another free kick for Juventus, although Bernardeschi’s in-swinger once again could not beat the first defender.
In the second half, McKennie continued to look threatening with runs made into the box but he couldn’t finish either of the team’s two biggest chances. He did record the visitors’ first shot on target of the night when Morata played him in with a great through ball into the box, only to have Kristyuk react quickly again and shut down the angle to easily deflect McKennie’s attempt away from goal.
Juventus’ formation appeared to shift even more into a 4-2-3-1 in the second half as Bernardeschi was given more freedom instead of being stuck on the right side and he began making more of an impact. That did not last too long, however, with Allegri making a triple change in the 59th minute, replacing Bernardeschi, Locatelli and Sandro with Kulusevski, Arthur and Juan Cuadrado.
Arthur was the first to make any impact on the game, albeit a negative one with a clumsy foul to pick up a yellow card and set up a Zenit free kick from 25 yards, one that was blocked by the wall. Seconds later, Arthur showed some of the good he has to offer with a perfectly weighted chip over the defense to set up Cuadrado but the Colombian could not direct the ball on goal. His touch nearly found Morata on the back post but it was cleared away once again by Zenit.
With Cuadrado coming in, De Sciglio was moved back over to the left side where he played so well over the weekend against Roma. He showed more with his left foot this time around, finding a crashing McKennie just in front of the penalty spot. McKennie went for placement over power with his header, but the end result was pushed just wide of the far post.
The two teams appeared to be set for a draw as Juventus continued to play in a myriad of mediocre crosses without any real threats to Zenit’s goal. The team finished with an 11 percent accuracy rate on 27 crosses.
Of course, that 11 percent had to come from somewhere and the final chance created in the game was the one Juventus made count. A long pass from Aaron Ramsey found De Sciglio — the two players we always knew would take part in an important Champions League play — again on the left side. The Zenit defender somehow let De Sciglio cut in on his right foot and the Italian played a superb cross into the box, this time getting his well-deserved assist. Kulusevski rose about everyone else and got just enough of the ball to direct it toward the back post, where it bounced off the post and crossed the line for the game-winning goal.
Zenit finally seemed to respond after going down a goal and played with some urgency for the last few minutes. Ramsey gave away a free kick in a dangerous area but no one was worried – especially Allegri who left before the set piece was even taken. Douglas Santos saw his shot deflected off the wall and out for a corner which was eventually dealt with by Juventus as the defense secured its third clean sheet in three Champions League matches.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY – 7. He wasn’t needed very often, but the first save he made was about as awkward of a shot as you can face and he dealt with it well. Pretty good distribution throughout this one as well.
MATTIA DE SCIGLIO – 8. The birthday boy is playing with some confidence and, as it turns out, that confidence makes him pretty good. He played both sides well and his passing was fantastic –— 45 of 46 with three key passes. A well-deserved assist.
LEONARDO BONUCCI – 7.5. He was all over the ball in this one when Juventus was holding its kind of meaningless possession for most of the game. Made some careless mistakes to open the door for Zenit, but for the most part was accurate with his long balls. A couple of blocked shots and clearances to go with it.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT – 7. He didn’t seem to be as active as his normal self is in the back. Actually, did not even record an official tackle or blocked shot somehow. He was solid though and another clean sheet likely isn’t happening without him.
ALEX SANDRO – 6.5. He didn’t seem as active down the left flank as normal, which may be a reason to believe it was a formation shift. He was the only one playing on the wing that didn’t seem to be aimlessly playing balls into the box. Would like to see him be more threatening, but he made no mistakes with the ball and a good night with the defense.
MANUEL LOCATELLI – 6.5. A shortened appearance for Locatelli, but surely not due to performance. He looked more comfortable than he did on Sunday even though his passing did lack some of the quality we have become accustomed to. Wasn’t able to do too much when it came to breaking the Zenit defensive line but made some decent plays going forward and helped out on a couple of the hosts’ counter attacks.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR – 7. A very good shift from Bentancur as he made an impact on both ends — 91 percent clip on 65 passes, two long balls connected and one key pass to go with a pair of very clean defensive tackles made.
WESTON MCKENNIE – 6.5. He just gets so close to getting an 8 on this page, but somehow still can’t find the final touch. McKennie was very active throughout the game, made the runs to threaten Zenit’s defense, looked better on the ball most of the time but still gave the ball away unnecessarily. Worked back well on defense, too, but again, only at times. Consistency and the finishing touch, Weston. You’re so close.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI – 6.5. A pretty invisible first half but a better second half in what appeared to be a slightly different role. Hard to overlook his set pieces in this one which were less than impressive to say the least.
ALVARO MORATA – 6.5. Morata wasn’t all that poor in this one, connecting well with midfielders and wingers in the attack. He helped back when needed and he gave Juventus a target on some of those crosses. But at the end of the day, I think you’re going to want your striker to create a little more scoring opportunities for himself in 76 minutes on the field.
FEDERICO CHIESA – 6.5. Chiesa was certainly the most threatening player for Juventus in the first half. Dribbled at defenders and created some space but seemingly made the wrong decision every time he was around the box. Shots were skied and when you thought an opportunity for a better shot arrived, he passed it up. Not a bad night by any means, but just some questionable decisions.
KUZLEVSKY KULUSEVSKI – 7.5. There’s just something about this guy with the ball at his feet where I expect something to happen every time. Passes were good, some dribbling looked threatening and then he even did work off the ball to get into the box and won the header to give Juventus three points.
JUAN CUADRADO – 6.5. I thought he could have done better with Arthur’s ball over the top but he definitely changed things when he came on. If anything else, he made things more exciting. One bad giveaway led to a Zenit chance then he immediately made a great cross which nearly picked out Morata on the back post. Full Johnny experience in just 35 minutes of play.
ARTHUR – 6. This may be a little harsh because he did make some good runs and probably even deserved an assist but I couldn’t get over his negative effect defensively. Malcom just blew by him on a counter attack and his foul 30 seconds after coming on gave up a chance to Zenit when they were struggling to create any for themselves.
MOISE KEAN – NR. I kind of forgot Kean played in this game, so that may be a bad thing but I’ll just go with the NR on this one.
AARON RAMSEY – 6. Give the man a hockey assist, a yellow card and somehow still two working legs. Pretty good 10 minutes if you ask me.
It’s still unclear exactly what formation Allegri was going with at the start of this match but it didn’t ever look like a 4-4-2 so I’m giving him credit for that. Plus, a set-in-stone formation isn’t needed when there is a good flowing system between the midfield and attacking line. Even though Zenit made it hard to break through, it did appear the tactics and system were working the way they were supposed to.
Allegri is certainly obsessed with McKennie getting into the attack and he made sure the American was the most-forward midfielder most of the time while still asking him to get back on defense. That’s the best way to get the most out of McKennie, even if the finishing touch isn’t there right now, so more points to Allegri for that.
It was a shocking development to many Juventus fans when a triple substitution was happening and not only was it for their team, but it was also with more than half an hour still on the clock. I like to think Allegri saw the attack needed something fresh and different if it was going to break down Zenit and it worked. Plus, one of those first subs scored the winning goal so even more points to Allegri.
And finally, I get to eat my own words here because, while I never would have started De Sciglio on Sunday, I understand why he went with the Italian fullback again Wednesday night, shifting him to the right side. And then he was moved to the left and still made an impact. Play the hot hand. Points to Allegri.
The early triple substitution could also be because Allegri himself is looking ahead because everyone knows what is on the docket for this weekend. Juventus is traveling to Milan on Sunday for the latest edition of the Derby d’Italia as third-place Inter awaits the seventh-place Bianconeri.
That match is just the first in a crowded week with Sassuolo coming to Turin on Wednesday and another road trip on the slate for next Saturday with Juventus taking on Hellas Verona at the Bentigodi.