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Ugly draw against Verona puts Juve’s title defense on the brink

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A shorthanded Juve side saw the chance to put pressure on the Milan teams fizzle out late.

FBL-ITA-SERIEA-VERONA-JUVENTUS Photo by ISABELLA BONOTTO/AFP via Getty Images

Juventus’ Saturday night tilt with Hellas Verona was never going to be easy. No game against Ivan Juric’s side is — he’s turned the Mastini into a pill of a team to play against, one that presses hard and attacks well, and is probably one reliable goalscorer away from being a legitimate threat for the European places. They forced Juve into a home draw in their first meeting, and going into this game had held a lead in each of their games against the Old Lady under Juric’s stewardship.

It would have been difficult even if Juventus was at full strength — something that they were most certainly not as they arrived at the Stadio Marc’Antonio Bentegodi. Injuries, illness, and suspension had absolutely destroyed the depth that coach Andrea Pirlo can so often rely on to overwhelm an opponent. Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci, Juan Cuadrado, Arthur, and Paulo Dybala were all injured, Alvaro Morata was still recovering from a viral infection, and Danilo was suspended due to yellow card accumulation. All that hurting meant that Pirlo had to dip heavily into the Under-23 team to fill out his bench. Indeed, he had only one senior team outfield player available to him off the bench, leaving his choices for the starting XI limited and ability to change the game in progress severely hampered.

It was all a recipe for a game low on aesthetics and high on frustration, and that’s entirely what we got. Juve looked disjointed and unable to create much in the way of quality chances, and after taking an abrupt lead early in the second half they were unable to put the game away. Verona hadn’t been making much in the way of true threat, but the 1-0 lead was a precarious one at best — one that evaporated when Antonin Barak headed a cross home 12 minutes from time. Juve never looked like they would have the wherewithal to retake the lead, and the game ended 1-1, putting a serious dent in the team’s chances to defend their title streak — that is, unless Inter and AC Milan end up doing what they’ve done at similar points in the season and oblige them by dropping points themselves.

As mentioned, Pirlo’s options coming into the game were practically nothing. He reportedly gave serious thought to giving Radu Dragusin his first career Serie A start, but instead decided to go with experience in a straight 3-4-2-1 that eschewed much of the hybridization he favored. Wojciech Szczesny took over the starting position after resting on Monday, with Alex Sandro dropping into the back three along with Merih Demiral and Mattthijs de Ligt. Federico Chiesa and Federico Bernardeschi enveloped the double pivot midfield of Rodrigo Bentancur and Adrien Rabiot. Dejan Kulusevski and Aaron Ramsey played behind Cristiano Ronaldo at the top of the formation.

Juric’s men had a positive COVID-19 test in the matchday party within hours of starting the game, but the rest of the team tested negative so the game was allowed to go ahead. Juric deployed a 3-4-2-1 of his own. Marco Silvestri started in goal, with Koray Gunter, Giangiacomo Magnani, and Matteo Lovato screening him in defense. Marco Faraoni and Federico Dimarco set up on the wings around Stefano Sturaro and Ivan Ilic. with Antonin Barak and Mattia Zaccagni supporting the efforts of striker Kevin Lasagna.

Action started early when Silvestri made a terrible clearance out of his own box two minutes in. He kicked it right at Rabiot, who played Ramsey into the channel with ease, but the keeper atoned and tipped the Welshman’s shot wide. Verona responded five minute later when Faraoni got his head to a cross and flicked it toward goal, and Szczesny made an incredible reaction save, palming the ball off the upright and back into play.

Silvestri was next tested just shy of the 15 minute mark when Chiesa danced into the box and created his own shot in the channel, forcing the Verona keeper into a low parry. A minute later, Kulusevski did well to evade the defenders on the right side to pull back into the path of Rabiot, but he shinned it well wide.

Hellas Verona FC v Juventus - Serie A Photo by MB Media/Getty Images

The game was failing to develop any sort of rhythm. It was, frankly, a bit of a mess, and it wasn’t helped by referee Fabio Maresca seeing things that weren’t there. He booked Ramsey for a perfectly legal challenge, and then de Ligt when he too seemed to legally gain the ball over the top of Lasagna. The stop-start game and generally lackluster play in the buildup created few other chances in the first half, save for a long-distance free kick from Ronaldo in stoppage tijme that deflected off the wall and nearly fell for Kulusevski but he couldn’t control it and it trickled over for a goal kick before Maresca blew for the break.

Juric sent out Miguel Veloso at halftime for a shot of experience and a bit more attacking impetus, but it was the visitors came out of the locker room like gangbusters, and four minutes into the half they had the breakthrough on an unusually crisp set of play that saw Ramsey send Chiesa ahead into the left channel. Chiesa sold looking for a shot before laying it across to Ronaldo, who had inexplicably been gifted a clean run into the box by Lovato. The superstar’s shot wasn’t the greatest and Silvestri probably should’ve stopped it, but he wasn’t positioned quite right and it wriggled past his leg to open the scoring.

Juve got lucky that they didn’t present an immediate chance to equalize when Chiesa made significant contact with Zaccagni in the box that was very possibly a penalty, but Maresca waved play on and VAR didn’t intervene. Juve could’ve taken advantage of that letoff just before the hour when Kulusevski got into the box and laid it off for Ramsey, but the midfielder’s finish was lacking, hitting it straight into the face of Lovato instead of putting it on frame. It was a poor finish on what turned out to be the best chance the team had to double their lead.

Verona was trying to apply pressure, but the Juve defense was generally handling what they had to offer. Part of that had to do with the fact that Verona’s execution on the attack was pretty poor. Lasagna was being left completely isolated against the teeth of the back line, requiring the absolutely perfect ball to allow for the striker to do anything.

With about 15 minutes left they finally addressed this problem, and eventually things got more dangerous. Sandro managed to head a decent cross away from Barak in the 77th minute, but less than a minute later he was the goat on the equalizer. It started with a bad attempt to pass out from the back, keeping Verona on the front foot. Veloso evaded the challenge of Bentancur to slip the ball to fellow sub Darko Lazovic via Zaccagni. Demiral could’ve closed the crosser better, but Sandro completely lost Barak behind him, and the Czech international rose over him and headed back across the grain, leaving Szczesny absolutely no chance to do anything about it.

Hellas Verona FC v Juventus - Serie A Photo by Jonathan Moscrop/Getty Images

Juve never looked like they could bounce back and retake the lead. Verona were first to every ball. The Bianconeri looked exhausted by comparison, and Pirlo decided not to take the risk with the kids on the bench to inject any energy into the team until late, when he sent on Alessandro Di Pardo as a Hail Mary to do something on the right wing. In the meantime, the home side was generating chances, with Barak confidently controlling before flashing wide and Lazovic having a fierce drive at the near post fingertipped onto the bar by Szczesny for his second excellent save of the night. Juve had one last chance to steal back the points when Ronaldo drove toward the box from midfield and was taken down just outside the penalty area by Pawel Dawidowicz, but the forward lined up for the free kick himself and — stop me if you’ve heard this one before — slammed the ball into the wall about waist high.

Two more minutes of stoppage time later, the last whistle sounded, and Juve had thrown away two points they absolutely had to have.

LE PAGELLE

WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 8. He had no chance on the goal, but made two incredible reaction saves, one in each half. Without them we’d be talking about an embarrassing loss.

MERIH DEMIRAL - 5.5. Only completed 76.4 percent of his passes, which isn’t good enough when your manager wants you to play out of the back, and even less so when that becomes one of your only options because of the personnel available to you. An errant ball of his led to the equalizer.

MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 6. Blocked a pair of shots and tied for the team lead with three clearances. Effectively shackled Lasagna for most of the match.

ALEX SANDRO - 5.5. Ruined what was a pretty good day as a makeshift center-back when he completely lost Barak on the equalizer. You absolutely have to keep your focus in that situation, especially when you’re carrying the armband as one of the few highly experienced players on the field.

FEDERICO CHIESA - 6. Lively on the right side, forcing a save in the first half and playing things beautifully on the goal, suckering his man into playing him for the shot while he waited for Ronaldo’s run. He added three tackles and two interceptions defensively as well, but was very lucky not to give away a penalty early in the second half.

RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 5.5. On paper, his defensive stats are in the outsized range of his best performances from last season: six tackles, three interceptions, three clearances, and a blocked shot. Problem is more than a few of those stats got recorded as he scrambled to rectify his own mistakes in possession. That takes a lot of the shine off. He had two key passes and the biggest pass completion percentage of anyone not in the back three—although the fact that that number is 82.9 percent is an indictment on the whole team.

ADRIEN RABIOT - 5.5. No one on the field won more aerials than he did (5), but he made a hash out of a couple of decent opportunities and his passing was really lacking.

FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 5. Defensively adequate but really lacking the effective push forward in attack, and his set piece deliveries, which for the most part have been quite good this season, weren’t particularly great.

AARON RAMSEY - 5. Dude needs to at least get that shot in the second half past his defender. His finishing needs to be better in that spot. Other than that, it’s his usual hot-and-cold game, evening out any great touches with really bad ones.

DEJAN KULUSEVSKI - 6. Active all game long, he pressed hard and constantly probed the Verona back line for openings. He had a pair of key passes and really should’ve had an assist (coughRamseycough).

CRISTIANO RONALDO - 6. His goal was well-taken, but he wasn’t particularly menacing otherwise, reduced to potshots from long range and often dropping too deep to get the ball to his feet when he needed to be as close to the goal as possible without Morata in the lineup. Oh, and he needs to stop with the free kicks. I’d let Woj come up and try one before I would watch this again.

SUBS

WESTON McKENNIE - 5. Didn’t find much purchase at all after coming on for Ramsey. He’s looking more and more physically spent.

ALESSANDRO DI PARDO - NR. A late throw of the dice by Pirlo, he recorded a key pass in his five minutes.

MANAGER ANALYSIS

It’s so hard to critique a manager when his choices are so limited. He only had one outfield player from the senior team on his bench, and his choices for his starting XI were practically made for him given the state of the roster right now.

If there’s one criticism to be made, it’s that he maybe should’ve trusted the U-23s a little more. In particular, I’m talking about Dragusin, who was in contention to start in the back line for much of the week but was eventually passed over in favor of moving Sandro into the back three. The Romanian teenager has shown a lot of promise in his Coppa Italia outings, and using him would’ve allowed for a little bit more late-game flexibility. Sandro did play well apart from his one crucial mistake, but it’s worth wondering whether, if Dragusin was in the game, it might’ve been de Ligt going up for that ball with Barak instead of Sandro, which might’ve had a very different outcome. All in all the team was looking in desperate need of some fresh legs and energy, and a guy like Nicolo Fagioli could’ve helped a good deal in the midfield in that regard. I’m aware of the need to keep an eye on their appearance counts, as there is a cutoff at which point they aren’t allowed to play for the B team anymore, but with the team so clearly tired after not being able to properly rest in months, it’s time to start letting these kids show what they have. Antonio Cassano told Corriere dello Sport this weekend that Italy’s biggest problem is that they don’t trust their young players, and perhaps no game exemplified that (for the worst) than this one.

LOOKING AHEAD

Juve have three straight home games coming at them, starting with a tilt against Spezia on Tuesday. Then Juve take on Lazio on Saturday, and finish the run with the second leg of the Champions League tilt against Porto.