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Self-inflicted wounds kill Juve again in Benevento loss

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With an opportunity to gain ground in their comeback attempt, Juventus came out completely flat and fell to Pippo Inzaghi’s charges on their home ground.

Juventus v Benevento Calcio - Serie A Photo by Jonathan Moscrop/Getty Images

In the 10 years that the Allianz Stadium has been operating, the list of teams that have won there is relatively short. The teams on it tend to be ones you’d expect: Inter, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid. Even Fiorentina and Roma, who have added their names to it in the last seven months or so, are two of the Seven Sisters and teams you’d generally have expected to claim a victory there now and again.

Benevento is one of the teams you’d never expect to see on that list. This is only their second year in Serie A, and their form coming into this game didn’t exactly inspire. After a strong start to the season, the Streghe hadn’t won a game in 11 rounds, dating back to Jan. 6, and had begun sliding back into the relegation race. With Inter’s game against Sassuolo postponed because of COVID-19 restrictions, a home game against one of the league’s worst defenses looked like an excellent way to close the gap on the leaders and put pressure on them as the run-in approached.

Instead, Juventus completely bottled it.

Benevento aren’t a straightforward team to play against despite their struggles, but the way Juve came out to play, they would’ve struggled to score playing in Serie C. There was precious little creativity on display, they misplaced the simplest of passes, and, as they had all season, they made a completely boneheaded mistake in a critical moment to gift their opponents a goal. Even what amounted to their sustained assault for an equalizer lacked an edge. It was an entirely limp performance, one fully deserving of the 1-0 defeat that came at the final whistle.

Andrea Pirlo was missing one of his most influential players in Juan Cuadrado, who was suspended due to yellow card accumulation, but regained Rodrigo Bentancur after his bout with COVID-19. With Alex Sandro out with a muscle injury, his usual hybrid was forced into a straighter 4-4-2 setup. Wojciech Szczesny anchored the defense, with Danilo, Matthijs de Ligt, Leonardo Bonucci, and Federico Bernardeschi in front of him. Dejan Kulusevski, Arthur, Adrien Rabiot, and Federico Chiesa formed the midfield bank, with Alvaro Morata and Cristiano Ronaldo up top.

Pirlo’s old teammate Filippo Inzaghi countered that with a 3-5-2 setup. Lorenzo Montipo started in goal, screened by the back three of Federico Barba, Alessandro Tuia, and Luca Caldirola. Riccardo Improta and Daam Foulon bookended the midfield of Perparim Hetemaj, Nicolas Viola, and Artur Ionita. Gianluca Lapadula joined with Adolfo Gaich to spearhead the attack.

Juve very nearly made one of those crippling mistakes within three minutes when de Ligt tried to shepherd a long pass all the way to Szczesny, only to slip with Lapadula breathing down his neck. Fortunately the keeper was close enough to intervene, and sent the ball back upfield, where Ronaldo played a one-two with Kulusevski on the right side and drove into the box and skipped around Viola. He was at a pretty tight angle and fired for the far post. It rolled just wide, and might’ve been better off as a cross for Morata, who was unmarked at the back of the defense.

It looked like a quick start, but things didn’t turn out anything like the way they did a week ago against Cagliari. Withdrawing into a defensive shell has never been Inzaghi’s m/o, and his team came to play. They pressed hard, and Juve made their lives easier by mishitting passes and making simple mistakes. Benevento turned a few of those mistakes into dangerous-looking counters, but Juve managed to blunt them enough to regain possession, or at least force low-percentage long shots. Juve, on the other hand, weren’t able to come up with much of anything in the Benevento half. Their own best attacks came when they countered Benevento’s moves, and had a golden opportunity to take the lead in the 22nd minute when a Ronaldo cross was headed away from Morata and right to the feet of Danilo, who took too long to get a shot away and was charged down.

Juventus v Benevento Calcio - Serie A Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images

Juve finally found the target just over 10 minutes later when Morata was put through the middle of the field, but his shot was parried away by Montipo. Two minutes later, a strange moment came off a corner kick, which was taken short and crossed into the box. It bounced into space and hit Foulon in an awkward spot. It nearly bounced into his own goal, but after a moment referee Rosario Abisso blew his whistle and pointed to the spot. Replays clearly showed that Foulon had gotten his arm out of the way and had contacted the ball with his chest, and Abisso was called to the VAR monitor, ultimately (and correctly) awarding another corner kick. That corner was met by the head of de Ligt. Montipo’s parry was awkward and put right into the path of Morata, but the Spaniard blazed the ball over from point blank range.

It looked like Juventus was starting to finally find their footing, and Ronaldo had a goal called back for a clear offside with seven minutes to go in the period, but Benevento still posed a strong threat, and Lapadula very nearly turned Bonucci in the box on a counter, but the veteran stayed strong and held him long enough for Arthur to track back and help out. The half came to a close after Ronaldo whacked a long-range effort that Montipo parried on the dive.

In previous games this season, a slow start was often followed by a picked-up second half, but while dominating possession, the Bianconeri showed few signs that they would manage to break the visitors down. On the rare occasion they did create a clear chance, they wasted it. Kulusevski pulled well wide in the 58th minute after he got free in the right channel, and Ronaldo’s long-range snap shot went wide eight minutes later, but for the most part it just felt like waves crashing into a mountain — the rocks weren’t going anywhere.

As the home side tried in vain to get through, Benevento’s defense, disaster struck. After a rare foray forward, Juve had gained a throw-in after a rare foray foward from the visitors, but after Bernardeschi tossed the ball to Arthur, the Brazilian did that thing that you’re coached against doing from the age of six and put a long lateral pass across his own penalty area. Gaich intercepted it long before it reached its intended target, quickly twisted away from Danilo, then used the defenders to unsight Szczesny before stroking it past him against the grain of his momentum.

In a year in which Juventus has repeatedly shot themselves in the foot, this mistake was one of the most egregious, and came at the worst possible time.

Adolfo Gaich (L) of Benevento Calcio celebrates with... Photo by Nicolò Campo/LightRocket via Getty Images

Two minutes later, Chiesa thought he had created a chance to equalize when he went over at the edge of the box after making contact with Foulon, but the winger made too much of a meal out of it and it looked like he was fishing for it. The team was furious, but it was probably the right call.

Juve spent the last 15 minutes trying to put siege to Montipo’s goal. Bernardeschi was found at the back post but sliced wide, then Montipo put together a couple of saves against Ronaldo over the final 10, the last of which, right at the end of normal time, again fell to Danilo in the six-yard box, but like Morata he blazed the follow-up over. Benevento saw out four minutes of stoppage time, but it felt like Juve could’ve played four more hours without breaking their opponents down, and as the visitors celebrated what could well be their most famous win, Juventus was left wondering what went wrong.

LE PAGELLE

WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 6. Could do nothing about the goal and made a couple of good interventions coming out of his goal to nip long balls in the bud.

DANILO - 5.5. It was a down game for everyone, including one of the team’s best performers. He had two really excellent chances in the box that he should’ve done more with, especially the one at the very end.

MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 5.5. A really bad game by his standards, His passing gave the ball away multiple times with what looked like simple passes, and his slip at the beginning of the game nearly made him the goat of this one as opposed to Arthur.

LEONARDO BONUCCI - 6. Ironically had one of his better individual games when the rest of the team was immolating. Stood strong in the box on several occasions to keep Lapadula from doing any damage.

FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 5. Somehow tied for the team lead with three key passes, but his overall play was lacking and he gave it away repeatedly, with three dispossessions and four unsuccessful touches to his credit. Even his set piece delivery, which has tended to be pretty good this year, was off the mark.

DEJAN KULUSEVSKI - 5.5. Also made three key passes, but his confidence levels are just at all-time lows. He takes several touches too many before he does anything, which really makes the difference between a chance taken and a chance wasted.

ARTHUR - 4. His mistake on the goal was absurd, and his contributions further upfield did little and less to make up for it. He looked like the October/November version of himself, completely refraining passing the ball upfield.

ADRIEN RABIOT - 5. Made two tackles and two interceptions, but was generally anonymous in this game — to the point where I had to go back and insert him into this section after initially forgetting to include him.

FEDERICO CHIESA - 5.5. Made two key passes and chipped in two tackles on the other end. Still, he failed to take the game by the scruff of the neck the way he has in the last few weeks.

ALVARO MORATA - 4.5. Missed a couple of really good chances and doesn’t look like he’s 100 percent confident right now. He only completed 61.1 percent of his passes.

CRISTIANO RONALDO - 5.5. Bested by Montipo on a couple of occasions, he was the only guy putting shots on target with consistency. But he was also beaten in possession by his defender, and he wasn’t anywhere close to the killer self he was a week ago.

FBL-ITA-SERIEA-JUVENTUS-BENEVENTO Photo by MARCO BERTORELLO/AFP via Getty Images

SUBS

RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 5.5. Made four tackles in 18 minutes of work, but couldn’t raise the quailty of the midfield passing to carve out any chances.

WESTON McKENNIE - 5. Made a pair of dribbles but didn’t get himself into the game once he came back on. Here’s hoping the international break helps him get that hip right.

MANAGER ANALYSIS

Andrea Pirlo hasn’t always been responsible when the team has been struck by negative results, but this time he has to bear some responsibility. While he didn’t have too much to work with off the bench, he should’ve changed the midfield earlier than he did to try to inject some sort of energy into a unit that was doing very little. He had little else at hand to try to change the game thanks to injuries and suspensions, although it wouldn’t have been out of order to send in one of the Under-23 players to try and inject something different. That’s especially true of Nicolo Fagioli, who has shown some of the passing qualities that Juve were sorely lacking in this game and certainly couldn’t have done worse than Arthur and Rabiot. He needs to start getting more aggressive using players like this as the team heads into the run-in.

But with all that said, the primary responsibility for the way this season has gone remains with the front office, who have simply not put together a roster that fits together as a team that can work together. Trying to rectify that in the summer will go a long way toward getting things back on track next year.

LOOKING AHEAD

The European members of the team will scatter for the international break this week, while the South Americans will get to kick up their heels after their World Cup qualifiers were cancelled due to COVID-19 concerns. Juve’s next game will come April 3, when they travel across town to face Torino in the return leg of the Derby della Mole. Then comes the critical home showdown with Napoli, who sit only two points behind them for the Champions League places.