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Manu’s Grab Bag: Back with a bang

We talk optimism, circumstances saving you from yourself and the latest bandwagon to be on.

SS Lazio v Juventus - Serie A Photo by Silvia Lore/Getty Images

As it’s becoming customary, Juventus was coming off an international break in which they lost a number of players to injuries and faced off against a team from Italy’s capital to get their domestic season back underway.

However, the only thing that was similar between Juve’s win over Roma coming out of the October international break and the one that transpired with a 2-0 scoreline over Lazio on Saturday was the three points earned because this was a vastly different performance.

Good Juventus showed up, and despite finding both of the goals via two penalty kicks, the team was vastly superior to Lazio and restarted their Italian performance in fine fashion.

Let’s cook.

MVP: Leo Bonucci

Sometimes the job of awarding the MVP points is quite easy, and this is one of those times. The old veteran — sporting the captain’s armband to boot — showed out with a vintage performance that resembled the peak Bonucci days of a few years ago.

Sure, the fact that Ciro Immobile, Lazio’s star striker, was out injured had a lot to do with how toothless the Biancocelesti attack looked all game long, but it also had a lot to do with the work of the Juventus backline as both Bonucci and Matthijs de Ligt did not put a foot wrong in 90 minutes.

Plus, you know, scoring a brace as a center back has to always be considered a pretty damn good day at the office, regardless of how those two goals came about. Considering how many talented strikers and PK takers Juve has had over the years, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Bonucci hasn’t found himself with the opportunity to take a lot of penalty kicks, but it’s always fun to remember that he’s actually a pretty decent taker when given the chance.

(I remember a Coppa Italia semifinal — or final? — in which Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli all took and made PKs in a shootout. If I remember correctly, Juve ended up losing that game, but it was so damn impressive to have all your defenders be able to take those shots when it mattered.)

Runner Up: Matthijs de Ligt - A banner defensive performance deserves recognition for both central defenders. de Ligt and Bonucci has always been a much more feeble defensive duo than their reputations might suggest, but this is easily one of their best joint performances. Lazio really had no dangerous chances to speak of all game long, Immobile or not, that’s pretty good.

Grab Bag MVP Season Leader: Manuel Locatelli (8 Points)

Getting saved from yourself

I understand not wanting to admit you’re wrong. Or staying the course despite the results and all the evidence available showing you that it’s a bad idea. Pride is a hell of a thing, and you can convince yourself you are seeing things that are just not there.

What I’m saying is that I empathize with Max Allegri and his ill-fated attempt at turning Adrien Rabiot into a winger. The idea sort of makes sense in an Allegri sort of way, I see what he’s trying to do, but I think it's also fair to say that whatever he’s trying to accomplish is not working.

And sometimes you need something — or someone — to save you from yourself when you're stubbornly trying to push forward. Like a loving trainer that throws the towel in a one-sided boxing match. The proverbial savior this time for Allegri was Danilo, who unfortunately got hurt early on in Saturday’s game and forced Allegri to sub in Dejan Kulusevski, put Juan Cuadrado in the fullback spot and play a 4-5-1 formation that at times looked like a 4-3-3

Putting Rabiot back in his usual midfield spot, with Chiesa and Kulusevski on the wings, solidified their defensive shape, made Juventus much more dangerous on the counter and was the deciding move in getting the win.

Like I said, Rabiot as a makeshift winger wasn’t a meritless idea, but him having the best game in a while while deployed in his natural position and the team looking overall significantly better should be the final proof to let the experiment finally die.

(Related, though not entirely so, but Cuadrado as a full-time fullback is an enticing idea that could solve a lot of Juve’s depth imbalance and the way he looked on Saturday gave a lot of people hope that it can work long term. I don’t necessarily oppose the idea, but if he switched to the position full time I guarantee at the very least three back breaking defensive lapses that would cost Juve goals in a whole season. With at the very least one of those coming in a big European matchup, guaranteed.)

Winner: Federico Chiesa

There is no player that is more exciting to watch right now when they have the ball at their feet and they are streaking down the field. Chiesa’s combination of speed, physicality and pure skill is unbelievably exciting to watch in a game like this one.

He really should have had a goal or an assist for his troubles as he was the team’s main — and sometimes only — reliable escape valve in the counter. Despite not managing any counting stats, I cannot overstate how key he was all game long.

Please, just please, keep the guy on the wings. Any wing, I’m not particularly picky at this time.

Participant: Dejan Kulusevski

Kulusevski was objectively horrible for most of the game. Every decision he made seemed to be the wrong one, he lost possession more times than I could count and he was completely devoid of confidence.

In fact, his form reminded me a lot of Federico Bernardeschi’s during the worst moments of his Juve career. Kulusevski is a guy that is trying too hard to make something good happen, but it’s in such a poor form that keeps constantly delivering the opposite result.

And then, out of nowhere, the guy delivers an absolutely perfect cross-field long pass to Chiesa that puts him in position to eventually get fouled by Pepe Reina for Juve’s second PK of the day and what ended up being the 2-0.

The talent is undeniable. Whether he ever manages to put it all together for it to matter remains to be seen and I cannot imagine how frustrating that must be for him and for his manager.

The “Pellegrini is actually good” bus departing

LUCA PELLEGRINI IS ACTUALLY GOOD.

He was good! Legitimately good, can we please stop with the loan rumors once and for all?

Defensively, he was part of the effort that kept another clean sheet and he won his personal duel against Manuel Lazzari a whole heck of a lot more times than he lost. He also got in Lazzari’s face after he tried to get a soft foul on him a couple of times, and look, I know the honorable, mature opinion is that actions like that are kinda bush league at best and unsportsmanlike at worst.

But, between you and me, I kinda like that from defenders. I think it shows passion and confidence to talk smack when you know you’re playing well and you are beating the other guy. As long as you can back it up, I have absolutely zero problem with him showing a bit of fire.

Alex Sandro isn’t getting any younger and more rest for the Brazilian fullback is always a good thing. I really hope Pellegrini keeps getting chances, because with the few he has gotten so far, he has done a lot with them.

Parting Shot of the Week

I will still not buy into the sudden Juventus revival. This was a good game, but we have seen good games from them only to come out flat immediately after.

With that being said, against a tough opponent in a tough venue, the team stepped up to the challenge and there’s little more that you can ask from them. This was as good a result as they could have hoped and one they desperately needed to try and keep up in Serie A.

Now, with the good vibes going, they travel to London to face Chelsea in what is surely — on paper, at least — the toughest game remaining on their schedule for this calendar year. The qualification to the Champions League Round of 16 is already in the bag, but a good result in England could secure top of the group which is always a nice thing to have for the draw.

See you Tuesday.