Since Juventus lost to Inter on Jan. 17, they’d won six of seven in all competitions, with the lone outlier a goalless draw that, given the fact it confirmed the team’s spot in the Coppa Italia final, felt like another victory.
Rolls like that never last forever, but the circumstances under which this latest run of form ended were pretty painful.
Napoli was coming into the game in terrible form. Over the same time frame, they had won two, drawn one, and lost four, including a 2-0 loss to Juve in the Supercoppa Italiana. Things were getting bad enough that rumors were flying every which way that coach Gennaro Gattuso was on his very last chance headed into Saturday’s match. And he was going into the game with a serious selection crunch in his defense, with his two top center backs out due to injury and COVID-19. To make matters even worse, starting goalkeeper David Ospina had to pull out after suffering a groin injury in pregame warmups.
Against this shorthanded side, Juventus couldn’t get it done. Despite outshooting the home side 24-8, they couldn’t break through Napoli’s makeshift defensive lineup. Alex Meret was rarely made to work, and when he was, his job was often made easier by the strikers. Juve’s. defense, which had only allowed one goal in their last seven games, did their jobs, allowing only two shots on target themselves. Unfortunately, one of them was a dodgy penalty kick awarded at the half-hour mark, and that was enough to see Napoli to an important (for them) 1-0 victory and Juve miss out on what turned out to be an opportunity to gain ground on leaders AC Milan, who lost 2-0 to Spezia later in the day.
Andrea Pirlo had some selection questions of his own in midfield, as both Arthur and Aaron Ramsey left home with injuries. With only three regular first-team midfielders in the matchday squad, the coach put out a formation that was very much a straight 4-4-2 as opposed to the 3-5-2/4-4-2 hybrid that he’s preferred over the last few months. Wojciech Szczesny started in goal, with the protection of Juan Cuadrado, Matthijs de Ligt, Giorgio Chiellini, and Danilo. Federico Bernardeschi, Adrien Rabiot, Rodrigo Bentancur, and Federico Chiesa formed the midfield, while Alvaro Morata and Cristiano Ronaldo formed the strike pair up top.
Gattuso’s selection headache in the back saw him start Meret at the base of his 4-2-3-1. Giovanni Di Lorenzo, Nikola Maksimovic, Amir Rrhamani, and Mario Rui started in defense. Tiemoue Bakayoko and Piotr Zielinski played the double pivot in midfield. Lorenzo Insigne was surprisingly moved from his usual spot on the left wing to the trequartista slot in the bank of three supporting attackers, with Matteo Politano and Hirving Lozano bracketing him. Victor Osimhen, making his first Serie A start since November after suffering through a combination of shoulder injuries and COVID, made the start up top.
The early phases of the game played out in a fairly repeating pattern. Napoli pressed high, creating a few nervy moments at the back as Juve tried to pass out of it, but when Juve was able to break, they quickly went Route 1, bypassing the midfield and getting into forward areas. Juve got their first shot in the sixth minute when Rabiot headed a corner wide, and seconds later Ronaldo put the first effort on frame when he skittered a weak shot on the ground easily into Meret’s hands. Just before the 15-minute mark Ronaldo left a ball for Bernardeschi to blaze over, and a minute later Insigne sent a shot over after de Ligt’s sliding block of a Lozano cross inadvertently teed him up for the shot.
The game turned in the 28th minute, when Insigne sent a free kick into the penalty area. It was easily caught by Szczesny, but Rrahmani ended up on the ground, screaming rather theatrically. Replays showed that Chiellini had made contact with the center back’s face as he put his arms out to guide his own jump, and referee Daniele Doveri was called to the VAR screen shortly after the incident. He took one look at the footage before coming back and calling a penalty, booking Chiellini in the process. It was, frankly, pretty absurd. If you’re going to start calling penalties over that kind of contact, players may as well stop trying to defend balls in the air at all.
Insigne stepped up to the spot for the penalty. The Napoli captain had missed his previous three non-shootout penalty attempts against Juventus, including a clean miss in the Supercoppa last month, but this time he scored, putting his shot into the roof of the net to the right with Szczesny going the other way. It was Napoli’s first shot on target, but they were up 1-0.
Juve had a quiet end to the half, save for a strong counterattack six minutes before the break that was wasted by Morata, who decided to try to cut inside rather than feed a well-positioned Chiesa and ended up getting dispossessed. As the half closed, Juve had kept Napoli from posing much of a threat to Szczesny’s goal, but for all their possession and countering they hadn’t been able to trouble Meret too much either.
They came out of the tunnel minus one of their most consistent threats of the season when Cuadrado was withdrawn with a muscle issue, replaced by Alex Sandro. That moved Danilo to the right, and it became apparent that Pirlo had done some more tinkering in the locker room as well, switching Chiesa and Bernardeschi to opposite sides. Morata put a header wide within a minute of the restart, then Ronaldo missed wide after an initial effort was blocked. Two minutes later the Portuguese found himself on the end of a corner in the six-yard box and somehow managed to hook the ball straight into Meret’s chest when a foot on either side would have tied the score.
Meret was busy again in the 55th minute, when Bernardeschi put a free kick across the top of the box to find Chiesa, who took a touch and then fired a strong shot that flew through a crowd. The keeper was nearly unsighted but managed to get his gloves up and parried it away.
Morata got back into things just after the hour, making a great run that would have met a Danilo cross for a goal had Rrahmani not made an excellent defensive header. He then had the ball in the net a minute later, but Chiellini’s assist had come from an offside position, nullifying the score.
Weston McKennie was put on for Berardeschi immediately after the no-goal, but his first few touches were rough ones, leading to some giveaways. Sandro drilled what was most definitely a shot attempt wide, although it could’ve been redirected in by Ronaldo had he been a little closer.
The end phases of the game saw Juve throwing as much as they could forward, but the end results were either near misses (Chiesa in the 85th minute), excellent goalkeeping (after Morata took a pass from Chiesa and made an excellent turn only to see Meret kick it away), or poor finishing (Ronaldo putting a header right at Meret in the last minute of regular time). Doveri added six minutes of stoppage time, but Juve could only manage some significant misses, and when the referee’s whistle sounded for the last time Napoli players poured out onto the field to celebrate with their embattled manager.
WOJCHIECH SZCZESNY - 6.5. Kept the defense well organized and made the interventions he needed to make when the ball came into the box, although he made a few passes that put hearts into mouths and he was lucky they didn’t get punished.
JUAN CUADRADO - 5.5. Put a few good balls in but wasn’t as influential as he has been this season. It’s worth wondering just how long he was playing hurt.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 6.5. Led the team with two clearances and kept Osimhen in check, limiting him to only 18 touches.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 7. I’m not dinging him for the penalty, which I think was incredibly soft. He had a massive day otherwise, making four tackles, four interceptions, and blocking a pair of shots. The fact that he attempted 108 passes, however, tells you something about what was happening in midfield.
DANILO - 6.5. Made three tackles and two interceptions, and was a threat going forward in the second half, making one key pass and putting in a couple of crosses that caused some scrambling in the Napoli defense.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 5. The fact that he was credited with three key passes was a little bit of a surprise to me given how ineffective he looked. His better moments came from dead balls, and he doesn’t look confident at all.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 6. Tied with Chiellini for the team lead in tackles and he completed 93 percent of his passes, but he didn’t really produce anything incisive with it. It wasn’t a bad game, but the midfield wasn’t particularly creative.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 5.5. Like Rabiot, he wasn’t bad, but there wasn’t much in the way of creativity despite completing 92.3 percent of his passing. Juve’s most dangerous moments came up the flank or when a counterattack bypassed the midfield entirely.
FEDERICO CHIESA - 6. Made four key passes and came very close to scoring twice. He was a little bit more effective when he was moved over to the right. Completed five of 10 crosses.
ALVARO MORATA - 6. Made four key passes and came really close to a late equalizer with a great shot on the turn, but also made a hash of a really good counterattack at the end of the first half.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 5.5. Poor finishing from him. He hit the target with four of his nine shots — which were more than Napoli had combined — but none of them seriously tested Meret, and he also got caught offside four times.
ALEX SANDRO - 6. Looked lively up the left side when he was introducedm, providing one key pass and a making a few more dangerous moments.
WESTON McKENNIE - 5. Gave the ball away a lot and never managed to really get himself into the rhythm of the game and be the disruptive force he usually is.
DEJAN KULUSEVSKI - 5.5. Racked up two dribbles and a key pass, but also looked a little out of control with the ball, giving it away a few times as he tried to force the ball upfield.
Pirlo made some questionable decisions in this game, first and foremost the inclusion of Bernardeschi in the starting XI and the decision to play him on the right at the start, potentially sapping Chiesa of some of his effectiveness. McKennie starting on the bench for the second straight game was also a bit puzzling considering how important his presence has been this year. The team has always been better with three midfielders rather than two, but with injuries limiting his options, the explanation on McKennie is probably two-fold: wanting to maintain some later-game flexibility by having someone on the bench to go to, and acknowledging that the American has been playing a huge workload lately and might be in need of rest, especially with the Champions League on the way.
Still, Pirlo’s calls from the start on Saturday were perhaps a little too cute against a team like Napoli, who can always make things uncomfortable for you. His options are certainly a little more limited right now — can you imagine the difference Paulo Dybala would’ve made had he been healthy? — but he didn’t manage to get this setup right, and is going to have to work on getting things better while Arthur recovers from his injury and get a little more creativity into the side.
Fortunately for Juve, Milan was upset by Spezia in the late game. Should Inter drop points in a big game against Lazio on Sunday, the damage from this loss could be minimal, and with the Derby della Madonnina being played next week one of the two is guaranteed to come away with fewer than three. This is still very much anyone’s season, but Juve’s next three games against Crotone, Verona, and Spezia — the former two of whom took a draw against Juventus earlier this year — are must wins in order to take advantage of any slip-ups in the San Siro.
All that, of course, is secondary to Wednesday, when Juve will renew their participation in the UEFA Champions League, as they travel to Porto for the first leg of the round of 16.