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Juve start slow, but pull away from Crotone to go third

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The first half an hour was rough, but the home team settled in and delivered a much-needed victory.

Juventus v FC Crotone - Serie A Photo by Daniele Badolato - Juventus FC/Juventus FC via Getty Images

After the week Juventus have had, a victory on Monday against rock-bottom Crotone was an absolute necessity. It wasn’t a given, either — despite their league-worst defense, this Crotone team had forced a 1-1 draw in Calabria earlier in the season, the first in a string of really bad dropped points that Juve are still recovering from at this stage of the season.

For the first half an hour, one would have been forgiven for beginning to fear that the Squali had a similar result in them. Juve were lacking in attacking ideas and Crotone had had far more of the ball than one would have expected, albeit without making much of a goal-scoring threat.

But soon the team began to settle in. Chances began emerging, and then, late in the first half, Cristiano Ronaldo did what Cristiano Ronaldo do — namely, head the ball really, really well. He nearly hit a hat trick within the span of 10 minutes, firing in two excellent headers before missing just wide on an attempt with his feet. With the game broken, Juve took control and never let the visitors have much chance at all of getting back into things, with Weston McKennie’s violent, record-setting goal midway through the second half making the final score 3-0 and vaulting Juve over Roma and back into third place in Serie A.

Andrea Pirlo’s team was severely depleted by injuries, suspensions, and illnesses. There had been hope to get Paulo Dybala back at least for the bench for this match, but his knee still hadn’t healed sufficiently and so he was again left off the matchday squad. He was joined on the sidelines by Juan Cuadrado, Giorgio Chiellni, Leonardo Bonucci and Arthur. Adrien Rabiot was suspended for yellow card accumulation, and to top it all off, Alvaro Morata was still only fit for the bench as he battled a (non-COVID-19) virus. That left limited options for his favored 3-5-2/4-4-2 hybrid. Gianluigi Buffon was given the starting gloves to spell Wojciech Szczesny, with Danilo, Merih Demiral, and Matthijs de Ligt in front of him. Federico Chiesa and Alex Sandro were stationed at the wingback spots, with McKennie, Rodrigo Bentancur, and Aaron Ramsey manning the middle of the park. Dejan Kulusevski joined Ronaldo at the tip of the spear.

Crotone coach Giovanni Stroppa countered with a non-morphing 3-5-2, anchored by club icon Alex Cordaz in goal. Lisandro Magallan, Sebastiano Luperto, and Vladimir Golemic screened the veteran, with Pedro Pereira and Arkadiusz Reca in the wing-back positions. Salvatore Molina, Milos Vulic, and Junior Messias made up the midfield, with Adam Ounas and Samuel Di Carmine leading the line.

It was Crotone that looked like they were getting the better of the game’s early exchanges. In the sixth minute, some ineffective defense from Ramsey left Messias room to cross and Danilo slipped and fell, allowing Reca a free shot at the goal, but he mishit his volley wide, wasting an excellent opportunity. Five minutes later, Juve had their first opportunity, with Ramsey collecting the carom from a blocked Ronaldo shot and getting it out to Kulusevski, whose own volley attempt didn’t bend and went well beyond the far post.

Juventus v Crotone - Italian Serie A Photo by Mattia Ozbot/Soccrates/Getty Images

Ramsey’s day had not started well, and he badly mishandled a pair of chances, first overhitting a cross he had all day to aim and then getting the ball stuck in his feet when he was fed into the left channel by a marauding Danilo, nudging it harmlessly wide. Two minutes after that, he made a terrible attempt at laying the ball back and had to run back and take out Ounas to stop the counterattack, picking up a yellow card for his trouble. Then he flashed another chance wide on a low cross from Sandro, although there were options coming up behind him that had better chances to shoot.

Ronaldo was taken down in the penalty arc in the 25th minute, and his direct free kicks reached something of a new low when he slammed it not into an opponent in the wall, but a teammate, triggering a strong counterattack that Buffon neatly snuffed out by snaring Ounas’ low cross.

The final touch just wasn’t coming for Juve, and four minutes after his free kick Ronaldo missed a sitter when he tapped a low cross from Chiesa wide. Cordaz had gotten a slight hand to the delivery, but it was a shot that Ronaldo should have put into an open goal from inside the six-yard box.

But the Crotone defense was starting to bend, and it took a further blow when Luperto was taken out by his own man trying to double team Kulusevski and stayed down while Chiesa counterattacked, eventually earning a corner out of a blocked Ramsey shot. The defender was tended to for a while and went down again three minutes later, prompting Stroppa to summon former Juventus prospect Luca Marrone from the bench. But Luperto waved off the sub and tried to struggle on. Allowing him to do so may have ended up a source of regret for Stroppa.

That’s because when Juve did finally break the deadlock in the 38th minute, Luperto was one of the main reasons why. Ronaldo made an excellent run in behind the hobbled center-back, who had no chance of recovering, leaving the superstar completely free to head home an excellent ball over the top by Sandro from the top of the six-yard box. It was an inch-perfect run that came so close to being offside that play was stopped for almost three minutes while VAR checked their lines, but after a few nervy moments the goal stood.

Up to this point Crotone had been giving Juve a good run. But their games had been following a general pattern for most of the year: play pretty good football for long stretches, only for the walls to cave in once they allowed an opening goal. They quickly lived up to said pattern, and just into the four minutes of stoppage time Juve had doubled the lead.

Ronaldo started the move by taking a long-range pot shot that Cordaz had to dive to parry away. The rebound bounced away to the left and Ramsey charged after it, beating Pereira to the ball and hitting a cross first time toward Ronaldo, who had immediately started making the run once the save had been made. The cross dropped neatly over Golemic and into the path of Ronaldo, who soared through the air and hit a thunderous header into the ground and past a helpless Cordaz. He nearly had his hat trick two minutes later when Ramsey hit him with a through ball in the right channel. He was completely alone and the goal was practically empty from his angle, but he just mishit it and put it short of the near post.

Juventus v FC Crotone - Serie A Photo by Giorgio Perottino - Juventus FC/Juventus FC via Getty Images

Halftime couldn’t come fast enough for Stroppa, who regrouped and finally inserted Marrone for Luperto at the interval. His team made a five-minute push at the beginning of the half, but couldn’t carve out any real chances, and soon Juve was back on the front foot, controlling the game and pushing for the third goal that would have put the game fully out of reach. That goal perhaps should have come in the 63rd minute, when Magallan really should have been called for a foul when he shoved Ronaldo to unbalance him as he was trying to shoot from the left channel. The defender had made absolutely no attempt to play the ball, but referee Valerio Marini called for play to continue and there was no VAR review.

Buffon was called into action for the first time in the 65th minute, getting down to hold a long-distance effort from Messias. Within seconds Ronaldo continued in search of his second Serie A hat trick, but was denied by a kick save from Cordaz. Then Sandro had a shot deflected wide after being found in all kinds of space in the box. Chiesa sent the ensuing corner to the far post, and De Ligt headed it back across. The Dutchman screamed for a penalty as it looked to hit Pereira in the arms, but Marini played the advantage and McKennie chested the ball down before blasting a ferocious shot past Cordaz that probably would’ve gotten in even if you’d planked over the goalmouth with plywood. It was McKennie’s fourth Serie A goal of the season, passing Michael Bradley for the distinction of highest-scoring American in league history.

With the game well in hand, Pirlo decided it was time to give out some rest. Nicolo Fagioli was given his Serie A debut and 20 minutes to run. Cordaz had to make one more save on Ramsey before he came off, but the rest of the game played out without any chance of an improbable comeback, with Crotone limited for the most part to long-range pot shots as Juve closed things out.

LE PAGELLE

GIANLUIGI BUFFON - 7. Marshaled the defense well and made a couple of very good stops on crosses from Ounas.

DANILO - 7. Posted team highs in interceptions and clearances while also making a couple of marauding runs forward that caused some danger in the form of two key passes. Got a pretty soft yellow card that will rule him out against Verona on Saturday.

MERIH DEMIRAL - 7. Completed 98 percent of his passes and didn’t let Di Carmine do much of anything. A physical force.

MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 7. I agree with Danny in that I have zero idea how he was only credited with one tackle. He was everywhere in there, not letting the Crotone strikers get anywhere close to Buffon. A big reason why the visitors only found the target three times.

FEDERICO CHIESA - 7.5. Made life hell for Reca on the Juventus right, racking up four key passes and three dribbles, generally running all over the place. Having him on the right does take a little bit of the sting out of not having Cuadrado available.

WESTON McKENNIE - 7. Excellently taken goal to obviate the need for a VAR review on Pereira’s potential handball. His defended very well, racking up two tackles, two interceptions, and two clearances, and was excellent in his own box on free kicks. And he’s doing all this with a bum hip. His pass completion was above 90 percent in this one, which is a little unusual for him but definitely welcome.

Juventus v FC Crotone - Serie A Photo by Chris Ricco/Getty Images

RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 6. Completed 91.5 percent of his passes and was more than competent in the defensive phase, making a pair of tackles and two interceptions. It wasn’t anything spectacular, but it was definitely a bounce-back game after his horrific performance in midweek.

AARON RAMSEY - 5.5. This was a hard one to gauge, but in the end I kept on going back to the same thing I’ve been saying about Ramsey this entire season. For every good thing he does, he cancels it out with a screwup. His assist was well taken and he made a team-high five key passes — although truth be told that was news to me when I read it. He also had a couple of really bad passages of play defensively and couldn’t get out of his own way for the first half-hour of the game. The WhoScored algorithm loved him, naming him Man of the Match, but I couldn’t give him anything more than a middling grade because of all the mistakes sprinkled in with the better stuff.

ALEX SANDRO - 7. Hit a really great ball from a difficult position for his assist on Ronaldo’s first goal, and won a game-high three aerial duels. He finished with three key passes in a very good shift.

DEJAN KULUSEVSKI - 6. Another improvement from the Porto game. He wasn’t perfect, but he moved well and was powerful on the counter, attacking the defenders and creating places for teammates to get into. He’s still very much a work in progress, especially in a strike pair, but his talent is still so obvious.

CRISTIANO RONALDO - 7.5. Struggled a bit early but took both of his goals extremely well, even if he was a little unlucky on several occasions not to come away with his hat trick. He’s just so damn good with his head.

SUBS

NICOLA FAGIOLI - 6. It was great seeing him get a run again, and he again showed that it might not be the craziest idea to give him some more minutes. He showed some shiftiness keeping control of the ball and a nice range of passes. I’ve been talking a lot about the need for a regista, and if Fagioli lives up to the promise he’s showing right now, he could be a much-needed internal product success story.

ALVARO MORATA - NR. Had a chance to score with his first touch and tried hard on the break to get Juve a fourth.

FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - NR. Somehow tied for the team lead in dribbles in only 14 minutes of game time and had a key pass.

GIANLUCA FRABOTTA - NR. On to see out the game, he was a little too gung-ho and got himself booked in fairly short order.

ALESSANDRO DI PARDO - NR. In to see the game out and give Chiesa a few minutes off his feet.

MANAGER ANALYSIS

It’s really hard to evaluate a manager when there’s so little for him to actually use. His starting XI was essentially dictated by his players’ availability, and there was precious little to turn to on the bench if the game had somehow gone south. Pirlo put out the best lineup he could, and on this day it generally worked. The defense was drilled well and kept Crotone well away from the goal, while the attacking players were able to make some chances before Ronald got the opener.

It was, however, great to see Fagioli on the field, and I’m going say it right now — I’m advocating him getting more playing time, perhaps even from the start. He’s a talented kid, and Juve can’t let him go the way of Moise Kean without getting a solid spell of playing time under his belt.

LOOKING AHEAD

Juve took advantage of Roma’s draw against Benevento this weekend and jumped them into third place. They’re only four points behind Milan for second and eight behind leaders Inter. Never has a game in hand meant so much.

Juve will have the luxury of a full five days between games before they play Hellas Verona — another team Juve inexplicably dropped points against early on in the year, Then comes a trio of home games against Spezia, Lazio, and the return leg against Porto.