The opening half-hour of Juventus’ Tuesday tilt with Spezia had all the alarm bells ringing.
The visitors, who until this past summer had never played a top flight match, looked to be bossing the game, taking more than the lion’s share of possession and making a couple of moves that looked like serious threats. After Saturday’s bleak draw against Hellas Verona, it looked like Juve — as shorthanded as ever after Matthijs de Ligt pulled out of warmups with an injury — were in for another dire performance that might strike down their title defense once and for all.
But slowly, ever so slowly, the champions began to pull themselves back from the abyss.
They started creating some danger of their own in front of the Spezia goal over the last 10 minutes of the half, hitting the post and forcing their opponents into some rather desperate defending. They started the second half similarly on top of things, but it wasn’t until Andrea Pirlo — much maligned these past few weeks as the results have begun to falter — made a perfect double substitution that things kicked into another gear. Sixty seconds later — give or take three minutes or so for VAR to correct an on-field mistake — Federico Bernardeschi and Alvaro Morata had Juve ahead.
As Spezia committed men forward to get back into the game the space in behind opened up, and Juve tacked on two more while holding the defensive line well against any attempt at a comeback. Indeed, Spezia’s first and only shot on target the entire game was a last-gasp penalty — and a soft one at that — that didn’t even get them the consolation they were hoping for, and Wojciech Szczesny’s easy save ensured Juve walked out 3-0 winners, sitting to wait out the results.
Pirlo got Danilo back from suspension for Tuesday’s contest, but had to make a last minute change to the defense when de Ligt pulled up for fear of aggravating an injury suffered over the weekend (the team termed it precautionary and said after the game they don’t expect things to be serious). With Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci also out, Pirlo had to get creative to fill out his 3-5-2/4-4-2 hybrid setup ahead of Szczesny. Alex Sandro was dropped into the back three again, joining Danilo and Merih Demiral, while Gianluca Frabotta started in the left wing-back position, with Federico Chiesa opposite him on the right. Adrien Rabiot, Rodrigo Bentancur, and Weston McKennie made up the midfield, behind the now-standard front two of Cristiano Ronaldo and Dejan Kulusevski.
Vincenzo Italiano’s Spezia side were not to be trifled with regardless of their minnow status. They came into the game in 14th place, seven points clear of the drop zone, and they’d picked up some big results, including victories over Napoli and AC Milan in the league and an upset of Roma in the Coppa Italia Round of 16. Italiano sent out a 4-3-3 setup anchored by Ivan Provedel in goal. He was protected by Luca Vignali, Martin Erlic, Claudio Terzi, and Riccardo Marchizza. Nahuel Estevez, Giulio Maggiore, and Leo Sena contended the middle of the park, while Emmanuel Gyasi and Diego Farias bookended striker M’Bala Nzola, who was returning from a nine-game absence in all competitions following an ankle injury.
Spezia signaled their intentions to play with the champions early, taking the initiative and maintaining good possession through the game’s first exchanges. In the seventh minute they very nearly took a shock lead through a well-worked move, with Maggiore taking a long diagonal ball down on the left wing and dropping the ball back to Farias, who fed it into the left channel to Marchizza. He managed to find a pocket of space within a triangle formed by Chiesa, Demiral, and Bentancur, aiming for the near post but pulled it wide.
At first it looked like Juve would muster a response. A great move on the right by Chiesa resulted in a pair of blocked shots in quick succession, one by Kulusevski and another by Rabiot. Then Chiesa himself had the ball in the back of the net, but he was just going through the motions as he had been well offside and knew it. But after that brief interval Spezia seemed to take possession by the scruff of the neck. They were first to every ball in midfield, while Juve continued to mishit passes in the same manner they did against Verona. There was the odd good moment — like when Rabiot nearly found Kulusevski for a volley in the 22nd minute before Erlic headed the ball behind — but for the most part Spezia were in complete command for the first half-hour of the game. Despite that, they weren’t actually troubling Szczesny, whose only real action was to take the odd goal kick.
Things started to pick up for the Bianconeri shortly after the half-hour mark. Demiral’s tame header off a corner was the game’s first shot on target, but Provedel quickly began to become more concerned about things. Chiesa tried to surprise the keeper at the near post from an extremely tight angle after a short corner, but Spezia’s backstop was able to smother it. Then Terzi was called into action to head away a good cross from the right that was begging for Ronaldo to hit it on the volley. Kulusevski could have perhaps hit a shot earlier after Ronaldo led him into the right channel, but hesitated long enough for Erlic to block him. The Swede then turned provider for the half’s best chance, sliding Ronaldo into the left channel, where he found a centimeter of so of space and whipped a shot past Vignali that skipped off the turf and into the base of the post.
The second half started with more of a threat. Less than a minute in McKennie beat Provedel to a weak Vignali back pass and tipped it past him into the middle of the box, but there wasn’t a teammate close enough and Terzi scrambled it clear.
Spezia would get in a few spells of possession, during the first 15 minutes of the second period, but Juve started looking very much more dangerous. Just before the hour a cross from Kulusevski was barely nicked by Provedel, putting the ball slightly behind a lurking Ronaldo at the back post and throwing off his ability to get in a shot.
Pirlo, at this point, had seen the momentum shifting, and decided to give it a shove over the cliff. He called on Bernardeschi and Morata, the latter of whom hadn’t been available to him over the weekend as he continues to recover from a bout with cytomegalovirus. To say their impact was instant is a gross understatement. Less than 60 seconds after their introduction, Sandro sent Bernardeschi over the top with an excellent long pass, and the Italy international let it run a few yards before one-timing a cross into the path of Morata at the near post, who smashed it home with his left foot. The assistant’s flag went up immediately after the ball went in, judging Bernardeschi to have been off on the initial run, but referee Juan Luca Sacchi was held up by VAR, and after a long review in the booth he pointed to the center circle, giving the goal and taking a huge weight off Juve’s shoulders.
After surviving an initial attempt at a response from Spezia — including an excellent defensive header from Sandro, who this time stayed awake at the back post — Juve went back on the prowl to look for the second that had eluded them at the Bentegodi. After several near misses on counterattacks, the ball was again swept down the left side for Bernardeschi, this time by Rabiot. He headed for the byline, then cut in and back to find Chiesa unmarked in the middle of the box. Juve’s other ex-Fiorentina man stopped the ball dead and hit it with his left foot. Provedel was equal to the effort, but Chiesa followed his shot and, despite losing his footing, was able to stick out a leg as he hit the grass and hooked the ball in for the second goal.
Spezia now had a mountain to climb, and while they continued to move the ball around the Juve box and force a couple more blocked shots, they still failed to test Szczesny. In the meantime, Juve looked for a game-sealer on the other end. Ronaldo actually managed to put a free kick on target (!!) in the 78th minute, and he put the game on ice with a minute left in normal time when he took a through pass from Bentancur (who had mugged substitute Lucien Aguome near midfield) and coolly slotted it past Provedel for his 20th goal of the campaign — becoming the first player in the big five European leagues to reach the mark for the 12th consecutive season.
There was one more twist to the tale in the final minute of stoppage time when Demiral and Gyasi came together on a ball in the channel. Sacchi originally waved play on, but when play stopped he was buzzed by VAR and jogged to the moniter. His initial call really should have stood—Demiral was side-by-side with the attacker and did not kick him—but the ref came back to the field and awarded Spezia a penalty. But justice was soon done when Andreij Galabinov put a horrible penalty within easy reach of Szczesny as the Pole dove to his left, ending the final passage of play and putting Juve back into the winner’s circle with two crucial games upcoming.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 7. The penalty was the only shot he had to do anything with all night long, but he was still strong in his box on crosses and he’s made strides when it comes to marshaling the defense — when your back three is as patchwork as this one was it’s a testament to how well the keeper is organizing them.
DANILO - 7. Tied for the team lead with three tackles and connected on nine of 10 long balls. After his suspension over the weekend it was huge having him back in the team — and who would’ve thought we would be saying that this time last year? No, put your hand down, liar.
MERIH DEMIRAL - 7.5. Think of the mind-$#%@ this game must have been for him. In his time at Juve he had never been the guy who had to out-and-out lead the back line, and when De Ligt pulled up he had to do just that on extremely short notice. His response was to come to play. He made a tackle, two interceptions, two clearances, and blocked a game-high three shots, including a 24th-minute header behind on a shot by Farias that looked like it was going to cause Szczesny a lot of problems. No dings for the penalty, which I thought was the wrong call.
ALEX SANDRO - 7. Made five clearances to go along with two tackles and two interceptions, and while he didn’t venture upfield often, his contribution in the attack was felt with the ball that released Bernardeschi to set up the opener. Stayed focused this time as opposed to his weekend lapse against Hellas.
FEDERICO CHIESA - 8. Easily the best Juve player on the day. He was the only real outlet for the team in the first half, and kept playing hard all the way through his goal, which was a lesson in persistence. Overall, he had two key passes and contributed defensively as well with a pair of tackles and an interception.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 6. Made three tackles in midfield, and he made several good passes that won’t show up on a stat sheet that were either covered well by defenders or, in the case of Chiesa’s goal, started a move.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 6. Eliminated a lot of the boneheaded mistakes Tuesday and played well defensively, making five clearances and hanging in well physically, at one point facing up Nzola in the box and forcing him to cycle the ball back. His role in the final goal was vintage stuff, jumping his man in midfield and triggering a strong run for the assist. Shows you that that guy’s still in there somewhere.
WESTON McKENNIE - 5.5. He’s really not healthy, and it’s showing in his play. His control wasn’t right, and he was missing on simple passes. He still managed three interceptions on the defensive end, but he was clearly limping when he was subbed off and headed straight to the locker room after.
GIANLUCA FRABOTTA - 5.5. Made two tackles, but was a disaster going forward, not hitting his crosses anywhere close to their intended targets and essentially making Juve a one-sided team until he came off for Bernardeschi on the hour.
DEJAN KULUSEVSKI - 6. Couldn’t hit the target with his shooting — he did have one dangerous one blocked — but he registered three key passes and is doing as good a job as he possibly can in a situation that isn’t ideal for him. He was also active in the press, making two tackles.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 6.5. His goal was well taken but it wasn’t the best of games for him overall. He only completed 67.9 percent of his passes, and unlike Kulusevski the ones he did complete weren’t particularly dangerous — although he was unlucky hitting the post in the first half.
ALVARO MORATA - 7. Immediately provided Juve with a reference point and threat up front to go along with Ronaldo. His goal was fantastic to squeeze in at the near post, and his movement posed a danger to the Spezia defense for his entire time on the field. Pray God he’s healthy against Porto.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 7.5. That was a little glimmer of the guy we were all hoping we’d bought four years ago. For whatever reason, he was on Tuesday, with one official assist on the opener and an unofficial one on the second. Of his seven pass attempts, three were key passes and one an assist.
AARON RAMSEY - 5.5. Got in a block late but wasn’t able to do much going forward. Misfired on a couple of passes in good situations.
ALESSANDRO DI PARDO - NR. On to give some rest late.
I’ve been largely positive when it comes to Pirlo’s ability to change things in-game, and today didn’t change my opinion in that regard. Putting Morata and Bernardeschi was something of a no-brainer, given the still-limited options on the bench, but putting them on when he did showed a real sense of how the momentum of the game was moving and when to apply the pressure. His options weren’t that much more diverse than they were on Saturday at the Bentegodi, but the extra he did have — namely Morata — was an important extra indeed, and he deployed him at the right time and with the right man on the wing to provide him with service. Bernardeschi’s introduction helped take the onus off Chiesa to be the only effective playmaker on the wings and allowed him to get closer to the goal to threaten himself.
It’s a good thing that those moves did work, because beyond those moves he didn’t have much more in the way of arrows left in his quiver. Strategy is out the window given the team’s selection crunch right now — you just send the guys who are healthy out there and hope for the best, making what tweaks you can. With any luck, he’ll have more options over the next two games, which are going to offer a far stiffer test than Tuesday’s opponents.
Two huge games loom for Juve in the next week. Lazio will head into Turin on Saturday, and they’ll have the advantage of extra rest after their match against Torino, which was supposed to take place earlier Tuesday, but was abandoned after the Granata were barred from traveling to Rome by the local health officials amidst a COVID-19 outbreak. With points at an absolute premium, a depleted Juve team will have to play a perfect match.
After Lazio;s visit, Juve welcome Porto for the return leg of the Champions League Round of 16, looking to overturn the 2-1 first-leg lost they endured two weeks ago.