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Defense becomes offense as Juve rebound to beat Parma

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Juve stumbled out of the gates but came from behind to pick up a workmanlike win against Parma to ensure their top four status for another week.

Juventus v Parma Calcio - Serie A Photo by Stefano Guidi/Getty Images

It was a little worrying there for a while. Juventus came out relatively flat against Parma — who in 19th place are almost assured of relegation at this point — and fell behind halfway through the first half after the wall disintegrated yet again on a free kick. With Juve’s two best forwards misfiring up front, it started looking a little too much like the team was heading for another Benevento or Crotone situation.

Given the team’s precarious position in the table alongside the fallout from the club’s leading role in the extravagant failure of the European Super League over the last 72 hours, it was the last thing anyone following the club needed.

With the attack faltering, the defense decided it was time to go on the attack. Alex Sandro rolled back the years to his early days in a Juventus jersey, rapping in a goal on either side of the half to score his first career brace, then Matthijs de Ligt capped off a stellar individual day by heading home a corner kick. That was enough to put Juve in a position where they simply had to see the game out against one of the league’s worst teams, and they left the Allianz with a 3-1 victory, confirming their top-four status for at least one more round, with their two closest competitors facing difficult games on Thursday.

Andrea Pirlo was missing his top performer from recent weeks in Federico Chiesa, who had pulled up with an injury in Sunday’s loss to Atalanta. Overall, he made five changes from that game in Bergamo, sending his group out in a 4-4-2. Gianluigi Buffon gave Wojciech Szczesny a rest in goal. Leonardo Bonucci made his first start since recovering from his bout with COVID-19, joining de Ligt in the center-back pairing, with Danilo and Sandro book-ending them. Juan Cuadrado, Arthur, Rodrigo Bentancur, and Weston McKennie formed the midfield line, with Paulo Dybala and Cristiano Ronaldo starting together up top for the first time since Dybala was injured in January.

Roberto D’Aversa returned to Parma a little less than a month after the Crusaders had fallen to Juve 4-0 in December. He sent out a 4-3-3, making a couple of changes, including in goal, where Simone Colombi took over for Luigi Sepe, making his first league start of the season. Vincent Laurini, Mattia Bani, Yordan Osorio, and Giuseppe Pezzella made up the back four, while the midfield consisted of Alberto Grassi, Jasmin Kurtic, and Gaston Brugman. Graziano Pelle faced off against Juve for the first time in years, starting in between Dennis Man and Gervinho in the attacking trident.

Juve got in the first jabs in the opening 10 minutes. Colombi had to reach up to tip away a Cuadrado cross that might’ve found a way to sneak its way under the bar, then got low to defend a good low ball from Sandro with finishers lurking behind him. The 29-year-old had only played in two Coppa Italia games all season to this point and was clearly rusty, parrying a Ronaldo shot around the post when it was probably going wide. The initial delivery of the ensuing corner was headed out, but Cuadrado recovered the ball and sent it back to Dybala, who used a nifty move to slip past his defender and charge inside, putting the ball along the ground to Ronaldo, who tried to finish by simply opening himself up and redirecting the ball toward the goal. But he didn’t get enough power, and Colombi was able to get down and denied the Portuguese.

Parma got their first strike in in the 11th minute, when Pelle headed a corner wide, although it’s worth wondering whether a goal would’ve stood after the former Italy international pulled De Ligt to the ground as the delivery came in. The next 10 minutes or so was mainly a midfield skirmish, with neither team showing the quality to be able to carve out much in the way of chances. Juve would often make a good defensive interception only to give the ball back to Parma with their next touch.

The breakthrough came out of almost nowhere in the 25th minute. After McKennie was called for a questionable foul — he clearly took the ball off of Gervinho before contacting him, but referee Piero Giacomelli not only blew his whistle but booked him, too — Brugman stepped up to take the free kick. He struck it beautifully, and it swung into the goal without Buffon so much as moving. He was probably too busy wondering why Cristiano Ronaldo hadn’t jumped with the rest of the wall. Had he done so, the ball likely would’ve hit him and gone over. Instead, the superstar wussed out in the wall for the second time in two months, standing there covering his face while the other three men in the wall went up.

Gaston Brugman of Parma Calcio scores a goal from a free... Photo by Nicolò Campo/LightRocket via Getty Images

Juve tried to make a response, and Dybala just missed the top corner just three minutes after the goal, but after that the only real opportunities came from set plays. Dybala had a free kick deflected over by a properly-functioning wall in the 36th minute and Bonucci flashed a header wide in the aftermath of the corner, but the majority of the rest of the half consisted of sterile possession riddled with simple passing errors. A familiar sinking feeling was starting to descend on the game, and it was starting to look like de ja vu all over again with Juve and an inferior opponent.

And then the lifeline came. Dybala again did some nice work to get himself into a position to cross. The ball was a good one, but Ronaldo mistimed one of those levitating leaps of his, and it fell to Cuadrado at the back post, whose shot was blocked by Pezzella. The Colombian delivered the ensuing corner, and De Ligt headed it down to Sandro, who took a touch and then crushed a half-volley from 14 yards. Colombi was likely unsighted by his defense, but even if he had seen it he probably wouldn’t have been able to do much more.

Going into the half even was a huge boost, and an equally large blow to the visitors, who, after spending the first half well-organized, they lost cohesion almost immediately after play restarted. Cuadrado once again was the impetus, sending in a cross with his first touch from a Ronaldo pass. Dybala had made a really good run into the middle of the box and actually went for a header, but the cross was just too tall for him. But it was just as well, because Sandro had walked past the completely ineffectual attentions of Man, and when the ball bounced through he whacked home a header from four yards out.

Juve went looking for an equalizer, and Dybala was sent in with a great one-two by Cuadrado in the 52nd minute, but the Parma defense got it away from him just before he could shoot. D’Aversa made a double change just after the hour, and it nearly paid immediate dividends after Arthur made a horrific mistake in his own half and Parma ended up with a corner. Pezzella was left completely unmarked by the defense, and his header back across the grain was going to leave Buffon completely stranded, only for Arthur, who had been playing the line on the near post, redeemed his error by stooping down to head the ball away, and de Ligt eventually thundered it clear.

Four minutes later, the game was sealed by de Ligt, who fired in a great delivery from Cuadrado after Parma’s marking once again broke down and gave him a free header. In fact, the marking was so bad that had the delivery been a few inches lower, it was likely that Sandro would’ve gotten his hat trick at the near post.

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

Cuadrado very nearly made it four minutes later, forcing a save out of Colombi from close range. Pirlo made a triple change with 16 minutes left and Dejan Kulusevski nearly picked up an assist when he slipped Dybala into the box, but Colombi made himself big and got a foot to his angled, right-footed drive. Yann Karamoh managed to get a decent header with his first touch of the game with nine minutes to go, but Buffon tipped it over and Bani skied a header over on the corner. Another sequence in stoppage time saw Laurini earn a corner and Andreas Cornelius head the final kick of the game well over, leaving Juve with a win that, overall, was pretty straightforward.

LE PAGELLE

GIANLUIGI BUFFON - 6.5. A pretty straightforward day for the keeper, seeing only two shots on target from open play. The defense was relatively well organized, although the marking did break down on corners once or twice.

DANILO - 5.5. Not his best day of the year. His passing was the reason why. Defensively he was actually quite good, facing up an attacker and stonewalling him on two separate occasions and being credited with four tackles overall. But a lot of good defensive moments were obviated by the fact that he was giving the ball away far too much.

MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 8.5. Dude was immense. He made a whopping eight clearances on defense, won eight aerials, picked up the assist on the equalizer, and clipped an excellent header in for his goal. An all around excellent game.

LEONARDO BONUCCI - 6. Completed six of eight long balls and 90.4 percent of his passes overall while defending well against the likes of Pelle and Cornelius.

ALEX SANDRO - 8.5. Scored the first brace of his professional career, added in a pair of key passes, and was strong defensively as well. The first goal in particularly gorgeous, a powerful half-volley that Colombi had no chance at. One of his best games in years.

Alex Sandro of Juventus FC scores a goal from a header... Photo by Nicolò Campo/LightRocket via Getty Images

JUAN CUADRADO - 8. Two gorgeous assists and served as the main catalyst for the attack with three key passes overall. Having him further forward is always a good thing for the team.

RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 6. Unspectacular but steady in midfield, recording a key pass and completing 91.8 overall, keeping things ticking when Juve picked up their pace in the second half.

ARTHUR - 5.5. Made a couple of really glaring passing mistakes, including the one that led to his biggest positive moment when he headed Pezzella’s shot off the line.

WESTON McKENNIE - 5. A little uncontrolled on the day. He did pick up a key pass in it all, but I’d prefer to see him more central, where he can use his talents to better effect, then stranded out wide.

PAULO DYBALA - 6.5. Made a pair of key passes and a game-high five dribbles. Constantly got himself into good situations and was unlucky not to come away with a goal in the second half when Colombi made a good save. He also showed a lot more stamina—there wasn’t nearly the drop-off in his game in the second half that there was on Sunday.

CRISTIANO RONALDO - 5. Struggled to get his footing up front, mistiming his jumps on good crosses and generally getting his shots blocked at the source. The one he did manage to get on target was one that you’d generally see him bury, and he seemed to get a little petulant as the game went on and he didn’t find the net. But the reason this grade is this low is because of his effort — or lack thereof — in the wall on Brugman’s free kick, which was simply indefensible.

SUBS

DEJAN KULUSEVSKI - 6. Nearly had an assist when he sent Dybala into the box, only to see his teammate denied by the keeper.

ADRIEN RABIOT - 6. Recovered the ball well in midfield after coming on for Arthur. Pressed the ball, recorded two tackles in 18 minutes, and recovered a couple of loose ball.

AARON RAMSEY - 5.5. Steady after coming on but nothing special.

ALVARO MORATA - NR. On to close things late and give Dybala a load off.

FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - NR. On to see things out in the last few minutes.

MANAGER ANALYSIS

The team started out a little flat today, but Pirlo got a few things righted in the second half, when the team’s passing picked up the pace and started creating some better chances. Using the straight 4-4-2 again today could be a sign of the coach trying to simplify things, or it could be a concession to not quite having the personnel he wants to be able to deploy one of his hybrid variants. Chiesa in particular is crucial at the wing-back spots in those hybirds, so his absence could well have influenced how Pirlo approached things.

In his post-match press conference Pirlo was explicitly asked about Ronaldo’s performance in the wall over their last two months, and he said there may be a re-evaluation of whether or not Ronaldo will remain in the wall on free kicks. Personally, I’d enjoy it if he was eliminated from all things related to free kicks on both ends, and it was encouraging to see Dybala take the only direct free kick Juve had today (he was denied by the wall on the jump but it was hit well and arrowing for the far corner). If Pirlo uses his better kick taker consistently, there might be just that little bit more danger in Juve on set plays.

LOOKING AHEAD

Juve’s win puts them in third place, pending the outcome of tomorrow’s action. Atalanta plays at Roma on Thursday. If La Dea lose that game, Juve will be back into third place by a point, while a draw would see the two teams level on points, with Juve in fourth on the head-to-head tiebreaker. Napoli, meanwhile, host Lazio. Any points dropped there would certainly strengthen Juve’s position in the top four. Juve would be five points ahead with a Lazio win and four with a draw.

The next two games are critical to get six points. First comes a trip to Fiorentina on Sunday, then to the Dacia Arena to face Udinese a week later. The next three games after that are a gauntlet of Milan, Sassuolo, and Inter, so getting as many points as possible heading into that brutal stretch is vital if Juve want to keep their pursuers off their backs.