After an international break where a good portion of the team was able to stay at Continassa and work rather than travel to their national teams, the hope was that Juventus would be able to rebound from their disheartening loss to Benevento two weeks ago and claim a much-needed victory in the Derby della Mole.
Instead, all hell broke loose in the days leading up to the contest, then Juve shot themselves in the foot repeatedly in the game itself. Leonardo Bonucci and Merih Demiral came back from their respective national teams positive for COVID-19, leaving questions as to whether other players who were with their national sides would also test positive for the virus. Then Weston McKennie, Paulo Dybala, and Arthur were suspended by the team after violating lockdown rules attending a gathering at McKennie’s home.
That left the Bianconeri badly shorthanded, with only four regular first-team players on the bench — and that includes Gianluca Frabotta, who hasn’t exactly been treated as such the last few months. Juve actually started rather brightly and took the lead before fading into a familiar pattern, making key mistakes that gifted their opponents — who entered the day only a point above the drop zone — the lead seconds into the second half. What amounted to a sustained effort at getting back into the game actually yielded little in the way of real opportunity. Eventually Juve was able to get themselves back on level terms with a VAR-assisted equalizer, but until the first meeting between the clubs were unable to take the final step and win the game. The 2-2 draw dropped them into a fourth-place tie with Napoli, just days before the rescheduled head-to-head matchup that has now become pivotal for Juve’s chances to remain in the Champions League.
With all the absentees — which also included Gianluigi Buffon, who was suspended for that only-in-Italy transgression of blaspheming on the pitch — Andrea Pirlo was left desperately short of options, and his setup eschewed his usual hybrid nature for a straight 4-4-2 appproach. There was concern that Wojciech Szczesny would test positive for COVID as well after several of his teammates on the Polish national team contracted the disease, which would’ve forced Carlo Pinsoglio into his first career start, but he passed his test before the game and took the starting gloves. Juan Cuadrado, Matthijs de Ligt, Giorgio Chiellini, and Alex Sandro screened Szczesny, with Dejan Kulusevski, Danilo, Rodrigo Bentancur, and Federico Chiesa in midfield. Alvaro Morata and Cristiano Ronaldo completed the lineup.
Torino had a different manager than the first meeting between the two clubs, with Davide Nicola replacing Marco Giampaolo. That change has led to a much more resilient Toro, one that has clawed its way out of the relegation zone for the time being but who are still very much in danger. They met their cross-town rivals in a 3-4-1-2 formation anchored by the experienced Salvatore Sirigu in goal. Alessandro Buongiorno, Armando Izzo, and Bremer made up the back three, with Mergim Vojvoda and Cristian Ansaldi serving as wingbacks. Juve loanee Rolando Mandragora started alongside former Juve midfielder Tomas Rincon in midfield, with Simone Verdi in the hole behind Antonio Sanabria and Andrea Belotti.
Juve started the game as the better side. Morata and Chiesa played a neat combination with each other to test Sirigu within two minutes, and two minutes after that Ronaldo somehow rose to cushion a deep Cuadrado cross into Chiesa’s path. They young Italy international arguably should’ve scored with Sirigu mostly out of the play, but he blazed over, then less than a minute later he forced a save from Sirigu in the left channel. The action came think and fast, and less then 60 seconds after that Torino served notice that they wouldn’t be pushovers two minutes after that, when Ansaldi beat Cuadrado rather easily and laid the ball back to Mandragora, who fired just wide.
But even as Juve started well, the mistakes were already creeping in. In the eighth minute Sandro was dispossessed along the left flank by Rincon, who laid the ball across for Belotti. The striker went with the ball along with De Ligt, and the two collided heavily in the box. The home team screamed for a penalty, but referee Michael Fabbri waved play on and VAR didn’t call down. It was probably the right call — de Ligt won the ball with his trailing leg milliseconds before the contact, which was enough for Fabbri to say the play was fair.
That scare done, Juve took what looked to be a deserved lead on 13 minutes, when Chiesa and Morata again combined on the left. Morata cushioned down Chiesa’s entry pass back into the winger’s path and he did the rest, blowing past both the defenders and his own striker, who was expecting a return. Instead he charged down the left channel and nutmegged Sirigu from five yards out.
To their credit, Torino managed to muster a response after going behind. They forced a free kick in the minutes after the goal, hitting it into the wall, then Belotti flicked a nice cross into the feet of Rincon, who was unlucky when his shot bounced off of Sandro. But the equalizer did come soon, courtesy of a rare poor passage from Szczesny, whose attempt to parry a low drive from Mandragora popped straight into the air, and Sanabria was closest to anyone and he rushed in, leaping high and heading the rebound home to tie the score.
Juve tried to pick up a second before the break, with Morata heading right at Sirigu two minutes before the interval, then Sandro whacked a low cross that fizzed past Morata begging for a touch. Ronaldo had a shot charged down, and Chiesa ended the half by hitting a ball wide off a corner with the last kick of the period. It looked like they were getting back on top of things and looked poised to come out of the locker room searching for the win and taking things to their cross-town foes.
But yet another brain cramp put paid to that hope literal seconds after the game restarted. Juve kicked off, and Kulusevski hit a mystifying back pass whose intended target will forever remain unclear. Sanabria pounced on the ball in no-man’s land and drove into the left channel. De Ligt left him far too much space, but Szczesny again made a terrific error when he was beaten near post, the ball glancing off his hands as it flew by.
Juve found themselves chasing an equalizer against a team that would likely clam up for the remainder of the half — the exact problem they’ve had all year when it comes to attacking. They did make themselves two decent chances early on in the half, starting with Chiesa’s long-range effort being deflected behind by Buongiorno when it might have beaten Sirigu, The Italy international then threw up a hand to tip a Ronaldo header over the bar after Kulusevski found room to send in an excellent cross.
But the chances dried up in the middle phase of the half, and Juve started looking increasingly frustrated. This manifested itself in a potential horror tackle attempted by Cuadrado, who left the ground to go in two-footed as he tried to defend Verdi. It was a dangerous challenge, but Verdi had seen it coming and managed to avoid most of the contact, which is probably what saved the Colombian from getting a straight red card as opposed to the yellow he received from Fabbri.
That disaster averted, Juve continued to try to work to tie the game, but their passing was too slow and horizonal, leaving Torino the ability to sit back and dare the team to break them down.
Ronaldo hit a free header over with 20 minutes left, and then Pirlo sent on two of his only reinforcements, Aaron Ramsey and Federico Bernardeschi. The latter was involved when the equalizer finally arrived. It came off a set piece, with Cuadrado’s delivery being headed out to Bernardeschi, who put it back into the mix. Chiellini tried to roundhouse it toward the goal but scuffed it — fortunately into the path of Ronaldo, who nodded it into the net. The assistant’s flag immediately went up, but a VAR check determined that the Portuguese was clearly onside, and the goal was given with 10 minutes of normal time left on the clock.
The equalizer clearly gave the team some life, and two minutes after play resumed Bentancur came tantalizingly close to getting Juve back in front, but Sirigu denied him with a fingertip save, diverting the ball just enough to knock it off the post. Ronaldo then tested the keeper again, but headed Ramsey’s cross directly at him.
After that flurry it was actually the home side who had the better chances as the game came to it’s conclusion, and Szczesny earned himself some small measure of redemption with two excellent saves, one to deny a Sanabria header and the other to palm away a free kick by subsitute Daniele Baselli. A promising counter on the ensuing corner fizzled out thanks to a badly overhit pass, and Fabbri blew for full time a few seconds later, ending the game and putting Wednesday’s game firmly in the spotlight.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 4.5. His worst game for Juventus in a long time, and perhaps period. Mistakes were made in front of him on both Torino goals, but both should have been averted with better goalkeeping on his part. The first needed to be parried out of danger, the second simply had to be stopped at the near post. His grade would’ve been even lower had it not been for those two saves in the last five minutes of play.
JUAN CUADRADO - 5.5. Made three key passes and typically served as the impetus for the attack on the right side, but he also let Ansaldi get past him too easily on multiple occasions.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 6. Waged a physical war with Belotti all game long, and held him without a shot. Recorded three tackles, three interceptions, and three clearances, but he needed to close Sanabria on that second goal and didn’t do it.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 7. Co-leader on the team with four clearances and didn’t let much of anything past him. His assist was more of a shanked attempt at a shot, but he gets credit for it regardless.
ALEX SANDRO - 5.5. Made four clearances and defended well, but didn’t make the same kind of impact going forward that Cuadrado did on the other flank, although he did help Chiesa work a few times early.
DEJAN KULUSEVSKI - 4.5. Made a single key pass — a very good cross that Ronaldo headed on target but was denied by the keeper — but otherwise was devoid of influence on the game. His confidence is clearly gone.
DANILO - 5.5. Not as successful as his last two trips into midfield. It was clear his job was to defend and let Bentancur roam forward, but he wasn’t able to make much impact if he tried to go forward, and a bad clearance on his part led to the initial shot on Sanabria’s first goal.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 6. A refreshingly typical day from him from a ball-winner’s perspective, notching three tackles and two interceptions, but he didn’t provide much in the way of inventiveness up front. Still, he would’ve been the hero if not for Sirigu’s excellent late save.
FEDERICO CHIESA - 7.5. Ran like crazy on the left and was a constant menace to Sirigu. His goal was a really pretty solo run with a great nutmeg finish, and he added a key pass and three total dribbles. Pretty much every passing game it becomes more and more clear who the building block of this team’s future is.
ALVARO MORATA - 6. Made three key passes and a neat assist to Chiesa for the opener, but wasn’t as sharp with his own finishing. He needs to get that clinical touch back as the run in gets underway in earnest.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 6.5. Good poaching on the equalizer, but I was left wanting a little more out of his finishing overall. He had a couple headers, particularly the free one in the 70th minute, that he really should’ve done more with. He did lead the team with four key passes.
AARON RAMSEY - 5.5. Got in a key pass with a nice cross to Ronaldo but other than that hat little to no impact.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 6. A little more involved on the left flank than Ramsey was in midfield, he notched a key pass, was accurate on both his crosses, and got the hockey assist on the equalizer.
ADRIEN RABIOT - NR. On late to try to burn Toro with fresh legs, but didn’t get a chance to do anything.
Given the squad situation, I fail to see exactly what Pirlo could’ve done much differently in this game, beyond maybe giving some playing time to Nicolo Fagioli to perhaps add a more creative spark to the midfield. That option, frankly, is long overdue, but my guess is concerns over his ability to play for the Under-23 next season is holding him back.
It was especially unfortunate that the bench was so thin because it was so avoidable on the part of the players who were suspended. All three of the COVID partiers could’ve made impacts on this game, although fitness issues have been limiting the effectiveness of all three of those guys to varying degrees. Still, if Dybala, for example, was indeed set to return to action today before the suspension like the reports are saying, he would’ve been the perfect move to try to inject some creativity up front and break Torino down. Alas, we’ll never know what might’ve happened there, and the suspension for all three players was 100 percent the right move. It would just be really nice to see how a game might get changed when the team has its full compliment.
Juve have two home games coming up this week. The rescheduled Napoli fixture now looms incredibly large. With Juve tied on points with the Partenopei, Wednesday’s game could very well be a deciding factor in the race for the top four. Not only are the points up for grabs, but it’s important to remember the tiebreakers. With Napoli winning 1-0 at home in January, they will have the better head to head record if Juventus fail to win, and even if they do the scoreline could end up giving Napoli an edge on head-to-head goals and/or away goals, which are the next tiebreakers. Juve have to win and either win with a clean sheet or win big.
After that game, Genoa come to town for their third clash of the year with the Bianconeri after Juve’s previous victories in Serie A and the Coppa Italia.