It’s come like this way too many times this season. Juventus play anywhere from decently to pretty darn well, and then a single moment of stupid costs them an important result.
In Bergamo on Sunday, it happened again.
With Cristiano Ronaldo out with an injury and little to no way to change things in the attack, Andrea Pirlo’s team still played well enough that a draw would’ve been a fair result in their match with Atalanta. They held La Dea’s high-powered attack in relative check. For 85 minutes, they didn’t have a shot on target. Then, in quick succession, they had a pair of them, both off the foot of Ruslan Malinovskyi. The first, a thunderous long-distance free kick, was beaten away from the upper corner by Wojciech Szczesny. The second, coming in the aftermath of the ensuing corner, took a crazy deflection into the net, giving the hosts a 1-0 victory that vaulted them over Juve into third and left the Bianconeri hanging on to a top four space by a thread, just two points ahead of Napoli, who drew 1-1 with Inter later in the day.
Pirlo had revealed that Ronaldo would miss the game in his pre-match press conference on Saturday. Additionally, he was missing Federico Bernardeschi to COVID-19, while Danilo was only fit enough for the bench after revealing a toe injury. Low on depth, he reverted to the straight 4-4-2 that he used against Napoli 10 days ago. Szczesny was screened by the quartet of Juan Cuadrado, Matthijs de Ligt, Giorgio Chiellini, and Alex Sandro. Weston McKennie, Rodrigo Bentancur, Adrien Rabiot, and Federico Chiesa took up station in the midfield, while Paulo Dybala made his first start since Jan. 10 alongside Alvaro Morata.
Gian Piero Gasperini countered with his usual 3-4-1-2 setup. Pierluigi Gollini was the representative from Atalanta’s goalkeeper-by-committee to take the field on the day. Juve loanee Cristian Romero was suspended for yellow card accumulation, leaving Rafael Toloi, Jose Luis Palomino, and Berat Djimsiti to form the back three. Wing-backs Joakim Maehle and Robin Gosens bookended the midfield three of Marten De Roon and Remo Freuler. Matteo Pessina was back from COVID-19 protocols to start in the hole behind the formidable strike pair of Duvan Zapata and Luis Muriel.
Both teams came out of the gates hot, pressing hard and looking for openings. Atalanta wanted an early penalty in the fourth minute when Muriel went over under pressure from Cuadrado, but the striker clearly knew where his countryman was and went over at the slightest contact. Juve attacked hard in the early goings and forged a couple of half-chances, forcing the Atalanta defense into a trio of blocks.
The first truly clear chance of the game fell to the hosts in the 24th minute when Chiellini couldn’t quite prevent a give-and-go between Muriel and Pessina, sending the Italian into the channel. He had tons of space but hesitated, allowing se Ligt to step up and challenge, deflecting the ball wide of the post.
Juve generated their own opportunity 10 minutes later. The industry of Chiesa set it up, taking advantage of a hesitation from Maehle after he gathered an over hit cross by Cuadrado. The pressure tapped the ball into the path of Morata, who himself took a little too long to try to clear himself a shooting lane. He still managed to put the ball in the direction of the goal, but Djimsiti ran back and hooked it away. They created another great move with just a minute to go before halftime, with Rabiot dropping a nice ball in to Cuadrado, who dropped the ball off to tee up Chiesa, but Maehle stretched to again get in a block.
The second half saw Juve fade from their performance in the first period. Both teams came out a little cagey, but the Bianconeri suffered a hammer blow just before the hour mark, when Chiesa pulled up chasing a long ball. He was clearly grabbing his hamstring, and was replaced by Danilo, with Cuadrado pushing up into midfield. Just a few minutes later Muriel nearly opened the scoring, curling a shot inches wide of the right top corner that would’ve dropped in had he been a yard or two further out. Five minutes later, Dybala had a similar miss at the other end, not quite getting the right bend on a free kick before it flew past the post — although it might’ve been about as close as any direct free kick has come for Juve this season.
But the Argentine was clearly running out of gas, and Pirlo had to replace him with Dejan Kulusevski in the 68th minute. Gasperini went to his (much deeper) bench at the same moment, sending in Josip Ilicic. The Slovenian immediately made his presence felt, forcing Chiellini into a full-stretch block before regaining the ball and swinging in an excellent cross that Zapata beat Danilo to only to head just wide when he really should’ve scored.
Juve finally put a shot on frame with less than 15 minutes to go when Kulusevski placed a nice pass for Morata on the left side of the box, and the Spaniard opened up his body and forced Gollini to parry behind at the near post.
Atalanta had more of the initiative as the game entered its final phases, while Juve, while visibly tiring, were defending well and keeping the home team relatively at bay. Their best chances were a couple of set plays, but Cuadrado’s deliveries were uncharacteristically poor.
The team was only a couple of minutes away from getting a critical point when Chiellini barged over Mario Pasalic, leading to Malinovskyi, who had entered the game in the 72nd minute, blasting his free kick and forcing Szczesny into his first save of the day, a flying parry that was one of the Poland international’s best of the season. Atalanta took the ensuing corner short, and Arthur — who had been sent on for McKennie and had generally been a shambles up to that point — sagged a good five yards off of Malinovskyi, who fired another of his trademark long drives. It’s questionable whether or not Szczesny would’ve been able to get to the ball if it stayed on its original course, but the ball took a massive deflection off Sandro’s arm and bounced in at the other end of the goal.
A depleted and dispirited Juve couldn’t muster any response in the three minutes and stoppage time that remained, and the game ended with Juve looking for a hand from, of all teams, Inter to keep them in the top four.
Of course, making the top four or not might not mean much of anything now, but that’s a discussion for another time.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 7. That flying save looked like it was going to preserve the point, but he was incredibly unlucky on Malinovskyi’s goal. Held the defense together well and made an exceptional stop when called upon.
JUAN CUADRADO - 5.5. Made three key passes, but his free kick deliveries were uncharacteristically terrible, which was a big part of why Juve didn’t put Gollini under much pressure.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 7.5. A strong day from the Dutchman, making three blocked shots and adding a pair of tackles and interceptions. He also led the team with three shots, which tells you how weak the attack had been. Also had a key pass.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 6.5. Solid in the back partnering with de Ligt, making four interceptions and four clearances in addition to a full-stretch block and a pair of tackles.
ALEX SANDRO - 5.5. That deflection put a sour note on what was otherwise a good day, making three tackles and four clearances, albeit without much in the way of anything going forward.
WESTON McKENNIE - 6. Moved well on the right side, made three tackles, and was generally a pest on the press. He’d still be better a little further inside though.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 6. Played well in defense and completed 91.1 percent of his passes, but wasn’t as creative as he turned out last week when he had five key passes.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 5.5. His defensive stats weren’t big on paper but he pressed well in midfield, but he didn’t do much to help the team going forward, completing less than 90 percent of his passes and failing to make much of any counters.
FEDERICO CHIESA - 6.5. Made three tackles and made problems with his pace and pressing. Hopefully he isn’t out for too long.
ALVARO MORATA - 5. A little rough with his control on the day, although he did put the only shot on target in the game. That open goal chance that Djimsiti cleared really needed to be converted.
PAULO DYBALA - 5.5. Rust was far more clear on him now than it was for his two sub appearances, and his play declined sharply in the second half. But he did make three key passes and put in a good free kick. Unfortunately the team doesn’t have the luxury of time, so he needs to get better in a hurry.
DANILO - 5.5. Made three tackles in a little more than 30 minutes. Got beaten on a header by Zapata, but he really shouldn’t ever be marking him to begin with.
DEJAN KULUSEVSKI - 6. Tough to make much of an impact with the way the game was going when he was on the field, but he made the most of what he could do, setting up Morata for a shot on goal and added in two tackles as well.
ARTHUR - NR. Since I started writing these recaps, it’s been my rule not to give a rating to players who enter the game after the 75th minute unless the game goes to extra time. I am holding to this rule, but had I chosen to ignore it this number would be through the floor. He gave the ball away practically every time he touched the ball, and letting a guy like Malinovskyi have that much space is like handing an assailant your own baseball bat. A completely terrible shift.
This was another one of those games where there simply wasn’t much Pirlo could do to change things as the second half wore on. Without Ronaldo, his ability to reinforce the forward line was down to Kulusevski out of position again, which isn’t the greatest but still had to be done. The fact that he never used Aaron Ramsey despite the potential for some kind of a shot in the arm up going forward shows a lot of what the coach and the team thinks of the Welshman at this point.
It’s a microcosm of why it’s been so difficult to judge Pirlo this season. His opponent had an absurdly deep well of players to reach into to augment his side — Mario Pasalic, Ilicic, Malinovsky — while Pirlo had hardly any options to make any real adjustments. In the end, he still came within a deflection of getting a point out of this game and kept Atalanta from finding the target until there were four minutes left on the clock, which isn’t nothing. It’s just that he doesn’t have the roster to make a game-changing move in games like this.
Trying to figure out what’s next for Juventus is a little difficult now, considering the potential fallout from the announcement of the breakaway Super League. What federations and leagues might do in this situation isn’t quite clear, although it’s worth noting Juve was hedging in their statement about joining the venture, saying there was no guarantee that it will get off the ground.
Assuming that the schedule goes on as planned, Juve’s next slate of games will be critical in their chase for the top four. They’re must-wins, starting with Wednesday’s scheduled tilt with an almost certainly relegated Parma side, then a trip to Fiorentina on Sunday where the team will hope to avenge their embarrassing defeat at the end of December. After that, Udinese is on the agenda.
Of course, it’s anyone’s guess as to what happens to Juve and the rest of the Super League breakaways in the next few days as the fallout from the announcement continues.