After Tuesday’s heartbreaking elimination from the Champions League, there had been a whole lot of talk. Talk about where the club’s future was going, talk about what players might and might not be in black and white stripes next year. Lots of talk about one player in particular.
That guy might’ve heard it.
Needing a positive result after the Porto debacle, Juventus flew to Sardinia to face a flagging Cagliari team in the thick of the relegation fight and did the opposite of what they’d done in the previous week’s games and started the game out strong. After five days of hearing about his failures, Cristiano Ronaldo did what Cristiano Ronaldo do — score goals. The superstar scored a perfect hat trick (right foot, left foot, header) in little more than half an hour, leaving the Bianconeri a comfortable lead to see out the rest of the way. While they dropped off in the second half — perhaps a lack of focus, perhaps the physical toll of playing extra time on Tuesday, perhaps a little of both. Some comical defending on the hour mark gifted Cagliari an equalizer, and the Isolani nearly made a game of it in the final minutes, but Juve were able to get themselves over the line for a 3-1 win, a result that put them within a single point of AC Milan for second place and kept them within a Hail Mary of Inter at the top of the table.
Andrea Pirlo had to make changes after the physical grind of Tuesday’s 120-minute marathon. He still stuck to his 3-5-2/4-4-2 hybrid setup, but it was very weighted toward the latter on Sunday. Wojciech Szczesny took his usual place in goal, with Juan Cuadrado, Matthijs de Ligt, Giorgio Chiellini, and Alex Sandro in front of him. Dejan Kulusevski and Federico Chiesa bracketed a midfield duo of Adrien Rabiot and Danilo, back in the midfield for a second straight game. Ronaldo joined Alvaro Morata up top.
Cagliari were in the thick of a close relegation fight, and had changed coach at the end of February, replacing Eusebio Di Francesco with Leonardo Semplici, who had turned in two wins and a draw since taking the job. He deployed a 3-5-2 anchored by the impressive Alessio Cragno in goal. He was screened by Luca Ceppitelli, Diego Godin, and Juve loanee Daniele Rugani. Gabriele Zappa and Nahitan Nandez were the wing-backs, flanking the mid of Radja Nainggolan, Alfred Duncan, and Razvan Marin. The exceptional Joao Pedro joined Giovanni Simeone in the strike pair.
The hosts very nearly shot themselves in the foot early on when Duncan put a back pass right to Ronaldo, who found his way barred and shifted it to Kulusevski, whose shot was blocked. Despite the early misstep, Cagliari started seeing more of the ball while Juventus got sloppy with their passing. At one point they linked together a long passing move, pulling the defense every which way and only getting stopped with a desperate stab away by the defense.
But mere seconds after that long sequence seemed like it was a harbinger of another really rough start, Juve nosed themselves in front. The breakthrough came on a corner kick, which was delivered beautifully by Cuadrado to the waiting run of Ronaldo, who had left anyone who had been trying to mark him completely on him grasping for air as he went and buried a free header.
Four minutes later, Ronaldo was involved in another incident, this one rather scary. In extending to try to meet a Chiesa cross from the left, Ronaldo lifted his foot rather high and ended up catching Cragno, who had bravely jumped in to try to make a play on the delivery. The Cagliari keeper took a glancing blow to the face before a much heavier collision with his head cracking into Ronaldo’s backside. Cragno was down receiving attention for close to four minutes, while the Portuguese was shown a deserved yellow card (calls in the media for him to have been shown a straight red were, in my opinion, a little hysterical given the 50/50 nature of the play).
Cragno eventually got up and continued, denying a shot from Morata that went right at him before arriving just late when the Spaniard played the ball in for Ronaldo, who had come streaking through the middle with no defenders anywhere close to him. Referee Giampaolo Calvarese blew his whistle immediately, and Ronaldo picked himself up to stand over the penalty. Ronaldo likes going down the middle and put his shot slightly to the left of that, but it almost bit him this time when Cragno guessed right and got a hand to the ball, but the ball was just above him and powerful, and it rippled the net to double Juve’s lead.
Ronaldo made it three seven minutes later. Chiesa took off on a counter after Morata headed a clearance into his path, then made a tricky pass all the way to the far corner of the box, getting it past the outstretched foot of Nainggolan and to its destination. Ronaldo cut inside from the right and fired found the slightest bit of space around Rugani, firing another powerful effort with his left foot, off the hand of a diving Cragno and in.
Cagliari didn’t do anything much to test Szczesny, whose only real business in the first half was to smother a free kick from Duncan that eluded the heads of the men in the box and headed toward the goal. But the Pole was much busier after the break. In a big hole, the home team stepped their pressing up a notch and imposed themselves on the game a lot more. Ten minutes into the half they forced Szczesny into two saves in 60 seconds, the first a relatively straightforward save on a Duncan free kick, the second a tip over the bar on a vicious long-range drive from Marin.
Cagliari continued on the front foot, and picked up a goal just after the hour mark thanks to some shambolic defending. Simeone found himself in a good amount of space in the middle of a triangle formed by Chiellini, Danilo, and Kulusevski. That quickly turned into a stupid amount of space when Federico Bernardeschi — who had come in for an injured Sandro late in the first half — let Zappa zip past him, forcing Chiellini to try to close him and leaving the striker even more open. Zappa slipped in a pullback into the right channel, and Simeone stuck out a foot to slot it past Szczesny for his first Serie A goal since October.
Now fully energized, the home team tried to push for their second, and Pedro somehow avoided getting booked when he threw himself to the ground looking for a penalty in the 65th minute. A few minutes later, Chiesa nearly put the nail in the coffin when he lunged forward to try to poke home a really nice ball from Cuadrado. Cagliari looked for the second strike that would really make it game on, but didn’t find the target again until there were less than 10 minutes left, when Ragnar Klavan tamely tapped a corner to Szczesny. The closest they came was six minute later, when substitute Gaston Pereiro flashed wide on a cross-goal shot.
The capper nearly came on the last kick of the game when Kulusevski put Ronaldo one-on-one with Cragno, but the keeper came out and parried the shot over the bar to keep the margin at 3-1.
WOJCHIECH SZCZESNY - 7. Made a couple of really nice saves in the second half and controlled his penalty area very well. Could do nothing about Simeone’s goal after some ridiculous defending.
JUAN CUADRADO - 6.5. Hit a great corner to assist for Ronaldo’s first goal, and made a pair of interceptions on the defensive end.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 7. Six clearances and three interceptions made for a solid stat line, but the bits of his game that are a little less tangible were on full display. He read Cagliari’s passing incredibly well, stepping up out of defense and nipping a move in the bud more than once.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 7. Made five clearances and numerous headed interventions on balls in the box. He dealt with more than one back-post cross and held Joao Pedro without a shot.
ALEX SANDRO - 6. Didn’t have much chance to get into the game before he was forced off with an injury just after Ronaldo’s third goal. Hopefully his problem isn’t a bad one.
DEJAN KULUSEVSKI - 6. Led the team in dribbles and made a pair of tackles in defense before being pushed up to the front two after Morata came off. With the team’s tactics gearead a little more toward the counter today he was able to play a little more to his strengths.
DANILO - 6.5. Led the team with three tackles and added in two interceptions, focusing more on defense and holding play to let Rabiot join the attack. He’s definitely effective in this midfield role, which is one of the crazier developments this season.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 6.5. Shared the team lead in tackles and completed 92.2 percent of his passes, added his strong running to the counterattack on numerous occasions.
FEDERICO CHIESA - 7. Deserved a goal Sunday, but came away with a really beautiful assist and four key passes — or as many as the entire rest of the team had. He’s in a rich vein of form right now and seems to have made the left side as much his own as the right.
ALVARO MORATA - 5. This one wasn’t one of his better days. Maybe he was tired after Tuesday’s game or maybe he’s still trying to find his footing after his viral infection, but he looked alternatively indecisive and rushed, wasting a couple of good opportunities.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 8. Absolutely clinical Sunday night. He took advantage of every opening Cagliari afforded him — and some of those openings were inexplicably huge given who Cagliari was dealing with. He’s finally broken Pele’s record, although the Czechs are probably still going to make a stink about how much they say Josef Bican had and we’ll never exactly hear the end of that particular debate.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 6. He let Zappa past him far too easily on the goal, which forced Chiellini to close him instead of mark Simeone, but overall had a good game, notching a key pass and two interceptions while completing 90 percent of his passes.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 6. Came on to finish the game in the back with Chiellini’s minutes being managed.
WESTON McKENNIE - 5.5. Had to do a lot of defensive running but didn’t quite get himself into the game moving forward.
ARTHUR - NR. Held the midfield down for the last five minutes or so of the game.
GIANLUCA FRABOTTA - NR. Made a nice shot block in the middle of a scrum late on as he was asked to nail down the defense on the flank.
Andrea Pirlo was clearly willing to let Cagliari play a little bit and hit them on the counter in this one. It’s another example of Pirlo’s willingness to tweak his core principles when he sees a weakness, as Cagliari had shown themselves to be vulnerable to that kind of play in their first three games under Semplici, especially last week against Sampdoria. It worked, too, because two of Ronaldo’s three goals came after he and Chiesa were given immense amounts of space in behind. It was also likely a concession to the team’s energy levels after going extra time on Tuesday.
With Rodrigo Bentancur still dealing with COVID-19 and McKennie and Arthur still not 100 percent fit, the experiment of Danilo as a midfielder is going surprisingly well. It would still be nice to see Nicolo Fagioli get in there from time to time to let him show what he can really do, and I was hoping/expecting to see him at some point in the second half, but Cagliari’s renewed initiative in the second half probably made Pirlo go for experience and the ability to see the game out. With Benvento next, though, it might be a decent idea to get him out there a few more times and see what he might be able to offer in the future as the plans for next season are made.
With the Napoli game now pushed back until April, Juve have an incredible luxury when it comes to this season: a full week to rest between games. They’ll face off against Benevento at home on Sunday before the international break kicks in, then kick off the season’s home stretch after the internationals with the Derby della Mole.