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Dybala delivers masterclass performance to keep Juve top of Group H

Paulo Dybala appears to be hitting his stride and Juventus was in dire need of a performance like that as they top Zenit, 4-2, to stay perfect in Champions League play.

UEFA Champions League group stage: Juventus FC vs Zenit St Petersburg Photo by Sergei Bobylev\TASS via Getty Images

As Juventus turned its attention back to the Champions League for a few days, the club’s fortune and performance seemed to have a complete turnaround in the process. European competition was once again the cure for Max Allegri and his players after a tough week domestically.

Something about playing against non-Italian clubs is working for Juventus this season, and it showed on Tuesday night at the Allianz Stadium in Turin. It may have been the squad’s best offensive performance of the 2021-22 season, with Paulo Dybala leading the way again as La Joya grabbed a brace and Juventus walked away with a 4-2 victory.

Juventus returned to its star-studded lineup, trying to make up for last week’s mess. Federico Chiesa got back to the pitch after getting a break over the weekend, returning to the right wing in the midfield. He was the main support for the attacking line once again featuring Alvaro Morata and Dybala. Federico Bernardeschi got the start on the left side of midfield, which was back to its regular duo with Manuel Locatelli and Weston McKennie starting. Matthijs de Ligt also returned to the starting lineup, partnering with Leonardo Bonucci in the center of defense, along with Danilo on the right and Alex Sandro on the left. Wojciech Szczesny got the nod in goal as he searched for his fourth clean sheet of the competition.

Meanwhile, Zenit made three changes from the first meeting between the two teams, relying on more midfielders to try to track back more rather than throwing players forward in the attack. It didn’t look all that different though with the same formation and tactics being used plus the three players who were switched out of the starting lineup were all subbed in during the second half.

But Zenit didn’t appear to be set in their defensive ways like they were in Matchday 3 and they came away with the first real chance of the night. Dejan Lovren found himself completely unmarked on a corner kick, but the veteran defender somehow couldn’t guide his header on target after a decent start from the visitors.

It did not take long for the momentum to swing in Juventus’ favor as chances starting to come left and right. The first fell to Bernardeschi, who reacted well to a deflected cross. The Italian dropped Zenit keeper Stanislav Kritsyuk with a fake shot, but instead of sliding the ball across the face of goal to McKennie or Morata, Bernardeschi attempted a shot of his own only to see it go straight into Kritsyuk’s chest. The rebound went to Dybala, who attempted to lash at the ball from a tight angle but it went well high of the target.

After recording eight total shots against Hellas Verona over the weekend, Dybala was once again in the shooting mood Tuesday night. He saw another opening less than a minute later when he was on the end of a very patient buildup, eventually linking up with Morata a couple of times before unleashing a shot with his right foot from the top of the box. It bounced off the inside of the post but somehow stayed out.

He wouldn’t be kept off the scoresheet much longer though. In the 12th minutes, Juventus won consecutive corners and on the second one, de Ligt appeared to win the initial header but it was deflected away from the goal. Dybala was the first to react, running in from the top of the box and topping the ball to slam it off the turf and into the back of the net for the lead.

Juventus momentarily stayed on the front foot, creating a couple of chances as it searched to double its lead. The first was sparked once again by Dybala who dribbled through multiple defenders on the right edge of the box before cutting a bouncing pass back to Morata but the Spaniard could not get over the ball and sent his shot over the bar rather than into the open net.

Zenit responded well to the pressure, though, and eventually grabbed some decent possession to slow down the hosts’ momentum. They nearly capitalized on an error from Szczesny when his poor distribution eventually led to a chance for Andrey Mostovoy and his shot from close range cleared the two sliding defenders and the Polish keeper but it also cleared the target.

The good spell continued over the next few minutes and it was eventually rewarded with a touch of misfortune for Juventus. Vyacheslav Karavaev found just enough space on the left wing to play in a cross. Bonucci was the first to react to it and leaped to try to cut out the pass but his jump was mistimed, connecting with the ball on his way back down. The touch caused an awkward trajectory for Szczesny to deal with as it looped over the keeper and into the corner of the net to level the score.

Juventus had a much quicker response to conceding this time than it did against Hellas Verona. The team clearly thought it still deserved a lead and was fighting to regain it. The Italian star duo had the first chance to do so when Locatelli played a great ball into the box and Chiesa won a header, but it was just barely deflected by the defender, making the save much more comfortable for Kristyuk.

Morata found the back of the net in the 37th minute after an awkward deflection came off Danilo straight to Morata’s feet but there was no celebration as he knew he was offside immediately. McKennie had the final chance of the first half, collapsing on another great cross from Bernardeschi. The American rose well above everyone else in the box to win the header and put his shot on target but it was pushed aside once again by Kristyuk.

Dybala came back with the same intensity in the second half and had the first chance after the break, cutting in on his left foot and trying to curl it around the keeper but it skipped just wide of the far post. Moments later, Morata had a chance with Bernardeschi playing in a quick ball to the front post, but Morata’s flicked-on attempt sailed off target.

The moment finally came in the 56th minute when Chiesa created some space for himself, dribbling into the box from the left side. The chance seemed to be opening up for the Italian to take on a shot of his own, but he went down when the contact from the defender came, earning a penalty and giving Dybala a shot to secure a brace.

Dybala stepped up to take it but his attempt sailed wide of the post, only for the referee to immediately call Zenit’s defenders for encroachment in the box. While the penalty may have been debatable, the encroachment was not and Dybala took his second chance well, aiming for the same corner and finding it this time to retake the lead.

But even with the home team dominating the play, the lead was still just one goal and Zenit once again had a good response with an equalizer still looking possible.

Szczesny was forced into action in the 67th minute, making a remarkable save when Claudinho’s shot from outside the box deflected in the opposite direction he was moving. He needed to make a full-stretch diving save to keep Juventus in the lead. The keeper was needed again a few moments later when substitute Malcom created space for himself and he unleashed a shot at the near post, which was forced out for a corner by Szczesny.

The game opened up a bit more with chances flowing on both ends and Juventus was still looking to take advantage of the chaos on the attacking end. McKennie had the first big chance with a great solo run coming from the halfway line. The defense gave him too much space to work and he eventually ran all the way into the box but saw his shot come off the bottom of the crossbar and stayed out, denying him of this third goal in as many games.

It did not take long for Juventus to create another chance and this time they capitalized on it with Chiesa maneuvering through the final third again. He turned his defender inside out and eventually went to his left foot where he shot and finished into the bottom right corner.

The harassment of Zenit’s goal continued over the next 10 minutes. Chiesa nearly got himself a brace with a run into the right side of the box but Kristyuk just got a hand to the chipped effort, slowing the shot down enough for his defender to get back and clear the ball off the line.

The fourth finally came in the 82nd minute and much to the relief of many Juventus fans and probably coaches, it was Morata. The Spaniard’s first goal since the draw against Milan in September came off a mistake from the Zenit defense. Rabiot’s poor ball into Dybala was not dealt with and Dybala quickly reacted, chipping the ball past the remaining defense to set up Morata who beat Kristyuk to the ball and found the back of the net.

Juventus had the three points in the bag and it showed for the final few minutes. Chiesa and Morata could have found one more but both players were trying to set up the other for the goal without anyone getting a shot off.

Meanwhile, the defense had a couple of moments of completely turning off. They survived the first one as Dmitri Chistyakov saw his header from just a few yards out go wide of the goal without any pressure from a defender. Zenit would eventually find the second when the defense failed to deal with a run from Artem Dzyuba and he slid a pass into Sardar Azmoun who easily finished past Szczesny for the game’s final goal.

LE PAGELLE

WOJCIECH SZCZESNY – 6.5. He wasn’t called upon too often. Made a couple of impressive saves, made a couple of boneheaded passes. Communication seemed a bit off with defenders at times, but it’s hard to be too upset about anyone really.

DANILO – 7. Without Cuadrado playing in front of him, he actually got up the field a little more to fill the space behind the midfield. It resulted in three key passes. He was also mostly solid defensively with four clearances and a couple of key interceptions.

LEONARDO BONUCCI – 6.5. Hard to completely blame him for the own goal because it was a bit of a freak deflection, but it’s also something that would definitely happen to him. Really was decent for the most part. Sometimes Zenit looked more dangerous than they should have. His passing was still good, connecting on 63 of 67 pass attempts.

MATTHIJS DE LIGT – 6.5. Not his strongest night. Got beat to the ball more times than he should have probably. He did have four big clearances along with a pair of interceptions in the box. He didn’t technically get an assist on the first goal but it was his header that set it up.

ALEX SANDRO – 6. Another guy with a key pass but not all that threatening from the left side. With Bernardeschi in front of him, he didn’t need to do as much. Got a little lazy at times on Zenit counter attacks but no major mistakes.

FEDERICO CHIESA – 8.5. 9. He wasn’t always active, but when he was, it was pretty terrifying. Five (!!!) successful dribble attempts, one leading to a penalty and another leading to his goal. Drew four free kicks. Even helped out on defense. You know what, I’ve convinced myself to go up another half point.

MANUEL LOCATELLI – 7.5. 74 of his 78 pass attempts. That’s pretty absurd. He wasn’t necessarily threatening and he wasn’t just picking out chances left and right, but he was consistent and he’s been missing that the last couple of weeks.

WESTON MCKENNIE – 8. I’m going to have nightmares of him not finishing on that incredible run. But even without that, he was great in this one. Really hitting his stride and playing with confidence again. He had four key passes, forced a save and hit the woodwork. Crucial part of the attack at this point.

FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI – 8.5. I think we are watching a Bernadeschi rebirth at this point. And the left mid spot in this 4-4-2 is kind of made for him. He had seven key passes Tuesday night, connected on five crosses and had three shots on target. Probably deserved more than just one assist.

Juventus vs Zenit: UEFA Champions League Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

ALVARO MORATA – 6.5. Missed out on a big chance in the first half which could have put this game away earlier. Had an offside goal. Another defining moment was refusing to shoot, losing the ball and chasing it down to win it back. The full Morata experience tonight. Happy he got his goal though.

PAULO DYBALA – 9.5. A memorable performance for Dybala and probably one of his best ever in the black and white. Two goals and an assist and that’s probably shorting him a little bit. Finished with 94 percent pass accuracy — which, for an attacker, is pretty crazy. Hit the post once, three key passes, four successful dribbles. I’m still deducting because of his first penalty. You can’t just miss the target and that encroachment certainly didn’t affect him. That may be harsh, though, so let’s just end it with this … that was a great night for La Joya.

SUBS

(Everyone was pretty turned off at this point so no one can get a true rating from me.)

ARTHUR – NA. I mean he was there and he did some things. Perfect on passing in 10 minutes is pretty cool I guess.

ADRIEN RABIOT – NA. Not a left winger. I guess technically he gets a key pass since he set up Dybala to play in Morata for the final goal but it wasn’t a good one.

DANIELE RUGANI – NA. deLigtFace.jpg.

DEJAN KULUSEVSKI – NA.

Juventus v Zenit St. Petersburg: Group H - UEFA Champions League Photo by Chris Ricco/Getty Images

MANAGER ANALYSIS

It is a lot more difficult to argue against any of Allegri’s decisions when they all seemingly work so well. The 4-4-2 worked as well as it has all season, granted the wings did have actual wingers this time which is a weird solution. The squad rotation paid off a little bit more as everyone seemed fresh and most players in this particular XI were relatively in-form despite recent team results. At the very least, it was the most in-form XI Juventus had to offer and it did the trick.

What I did like about this particular 4-4-2 was the freedom to roam for basically all the attackers. It even looked like a 4-2-3-1 at times with Dybala dropping well into the midfield while Bernardeschi and Chiesa switched sides, cut in and worked back plenty. I loved it. More of that, please.

Another thing to credit Allegri is his use, or lack of use, of his substitutions. Many times when a team feels they deserve a better result than they would currently be getting, managers may try to do too much. But Allegri saw that the XI on the pitch was working well together, plus with limited bench options, he knew the best chance would be letting them work together. And they did for 80 minutes, taking a two-goal lead before any changes were made. Good on you, Max.

But, of course, you all saw this and you know it’s coming … Rabiot was back as a left midfielder in the 4-4-2 and that’s wrong. So there is my one deduction for you, Mr. Allegri.

LOOKING AHEAD

The win kept Juventus perfect in the competition and clinched a spot in the Champions League Round of 16. They sit on top of Group H with 12 points and a group-best plus-seven goal differential. A win at Stamford Bridge in three weeks would clinch first place in the group while getting just one point in both final matches would also do the trick.

Meanwhile, that other less important competition is still happening even if Juventus doesn’t seem to care about it. They will stay at home this week for Saturday’s meeting with Fiorentina before going into a two-week international break.