Over the last few years, the most infuriating thing about Juventus has been their capacity to play down to their competition. It’s been a trend for multiple seasons under multiple managers, and it’s one of the biggest reasons Juventus find themselves in the predicament they’re in right now as less than 10 games remain in the 2020-21 season.
But when you play down to lesser opposition, the inverse is often true — a tendency to raise their game in big games against higher quality opposition.
That’s happened a couple times this season. Games against Barcelona, AC Milan, and the return against Lazio were games when Juventus showed up in a big way against teams that were closer to their level. They needed a similar step up on Wednesday as they faced down the long-delayed game against Napoli that was supposed to have been played in October before a whole lot of COVID-19 drama happened. After dropping points against Benevento and Torino in their last two games, Juve had allowed the Partenopei back into the danger zone as Juve battles to stay in the Champions League places. As action began, the two teams were in a flat-footed tie for fourth place, and given their form it didn’t seem like an exaggeration to say that if Juve lost this game they could have dug themselves a hole they couldn’t get out of.
But something clicked.
Juve came out looking better than they had in weeks, playing quicker and more decisively, and they took a deserved 1-0 lead into the half after Federico Chiesa took Elseid Hysaj’s lunch money and then provided the assist for Cristiano Ronaldo. The game was wide open and both sides had calls for a penalty kick before halftime, by which point it was clear 1-0 wasn’t going to be enough to win. Napoli made a push in the second half, but a returning Paulo Dybala did how Paulo Dybala do, curling an 18-yard effort for a huge insurance goal. A late penalty made that goal even more important and set up an interesting four minutes of stoppage time, but Juve held together for a 2-1 victory that vaulted them all the way to third, three points over Napoli and one ahead of Atalanta in fourth.
Andrea Pirlo made several changes to his lineup after the lackluster weekend draw in the Derby della Mole. He was missing Leonardo Bonucci and Federico Bernardeschi after the post-international COVID-19 outbreak continued to make its way through Italy, but Merih Demiral was back, although he began the day on the bench. Pirlo abandoned his usual hybrid setup for a straight 4-4-2. Gianluigi Buffon gave Wojciech Szczesny a rest in goal, behind the defensive line of Danilo, Matthijs de Ligt, Giorgio Chiellini, and Alex Sandro. Juan Cuadrado was moved to a more advanced role in the midfield, along with Rodrigo Bentancur, Adrien Rabiot, and Chiesa. Alvaro Morata joined Ronaldo in the strike pair.
Pirlo’s old friend Gennaro Gattuso countered with a 4-2-3-1 formation, albeit a slightly unconventional one. Alex Meret got the start in place of David Ospina, who was out with a broken finger. He was screened by Giovanni Di Lorenzo, Kalidou Koulibali, Amir Rrahmani, and Hysaj. Diego Demme and Fabian Ruiz made up the double pivot, stationed behind the bank of three of Hirving Lozano, Piotr Zielinski, and Lorenzo Insigne. Dries Mertens added a wrinkle, starting as a false nine at the top of the formation.
Juve had the opportunity to start the game with a bang — and indeed probably should have done so with less than two minutes elapsed when Cuadrado and Danilo played an excellent combination on the right and the latter sent in an excellent cross. Ronaldo had ghosted behind Di Lorenzo and was completely free for the header, but nearly failed to make contact altogether, skimming wide when almost any solid contact would’ve meant a goal. Napoli missed a sitter of their own only seconds later when Lozano surged up the field and dropped the ball back to an unmarked Zielinski, who ballooned his shot over the crossbar.
The game had energy and the ball zipped up and down the field, but Napoli were unable to really get themselves into a shooting positions. Juve were getting themselves into better spots, forcing three blocks in the first 10 minutes. Napoli were still dangerous, and a couple of good defensive efforts by the Bianconeri broke up a few crosses with attackers waiting behind them to tap in.
But there was no interdicting the opening goal in the 13th minute. Ronaldo was the one who put it away, but the goal was all Chiesa. Having temporarily swapped sides with Cuadrado, he took a pass from Danilo on the right and was faced down by Insigne and Hysaj. He made both of them look silly, but the Albanian in particular got turned inside out by the Italy international. The Napoli defense once again managed to lose Ronaldo in the middle of the box, and this time he made no mistake and side-footed the low cross past Meret to put Juve in front.
The ball continued to zip up and down the field, and Ruiz for a quick response in the 16th minute but blasted over. There weren’t a ton of clear-cut scoring chances until the 34th minute, when Danilo stepped out of defense but hesitated putting the ball in to Morata and ended up overshooting him. Chiesa was on the back end to try to pull the ball back, and in the process was absolutely scythed at the end line by Lozano. For whatever reason, VAR didn’t so much as peep about the play, which had Chiesa down for a good minute and deserved at least a yellow for Lozano and perhaps more for dangerous play. Four minutes later, Cuadrado perhaps should have scored when he cut inside and then up the right channel but hit his shot right at Meret, who did well to hold the ball with a crowd in front of him.
Insigne nearly tied the game with five minutes left in the half with an excellent shot that came pretty much from a standstill, but it dipped just too late. Then Napoli thought they had a penalty just before stoppages when Zielinski received a touch in the shin from Sandro, but referee Maurizio Mariani didn’t give it and again the VAR booth declined to intervene, leaving Napoli furious as they headed into the locker room.
Napoli came out of the break with a renewed sense of purpose and put their first shot on target just three minutes into the second half when Di Lorenzo was left completely alone on the right, but he was denied by a strong parry by Buffon, who pushed it nearly 25 yards out before it was ripped over by Demme. Cuadrado then drove upfield on the counterattack but fired wide at the near post when the had options to his left.
Gattuso seemed to take that miss as a warning, and he immediately sent on Matteo Politano and Victor Osimen to augment the attack. This produced some immediate results, with Osimen getting in two shots in his first two minutes on the field, one off target and the other well-blocked by Sandro. Insigne then forced a save with another shot from the left side.
Napoli held the initiative after the substitution, but for the most part Juve’s defense was holding together and remaining organized. But a counter to Gattuso’s changes was needed, and with 22 minutes remaining Pirlo finally pulled the trigger on his first batch of subs, sending on Weston McKennie and, for his first game action in just short of three months, Dybala.
Ruiz had a long hit beaten away by a diving Buffon in the 71st minute. Coming out of that chance Juve finally got themselves into the Napoli half for a little bit. Ronaldo’s efforts to keep hold of an airmailed cross by Sandro paid dividends. Bentancur took Ronaldo’s pass and fed Dybala in the righ channel just outside the box. Out popped a vintage Dybala strike, curling it around Koulibaly and and past a despairing Meret.
With the extra margin, Napoli were thrown into desperation mode, while Juve was able to defend settle into their defensive shape and force Napoli to hit the ball around without much in the way of end product. They were thrown a lifeline in the last minute when Mariani whistled Chiellini for a soft penalty — there was definitely contact between Chiellini and Osimen, but the Nigerian striker very much bought it with a fall — and Insigne converted the resulting spot-kick. The four minutes of stoppage time had a few nervy moments on each end. Dybala forced Rrahmani into a block from almost the same spot he’d scored from, and Osimen thought he’d equalized on the turn with a minute left but was denied by a lunging block by de Ligt. That block sealed the victory, and Juve headed into the run-in with a position to protect, rather than one to chase.
GIANLUIGI BUFFON - 8. Made some solid saves and was in command of his box the entire night. On top of all of it, he organized the defense perfectly, especially in the second half. His voice could be heard booming around the Allianz all night long.
DANILO - 7.5. Low-key one of the best games of the day. He made three interceptions and disrupted a bunch of Napoli attacks, and when he stepped out of defense he created problems, picking up two key passes.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 6.5. That block on Osimen could be a decisive moment in this run-in. It capped a pretty good day for him that included a 94 percent pass completion rate.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 6.5. Immense in the middle of the defense, making eight clearances. He made life difficult of Osimen after he came on and completely erased Mertens as a false nine. I’m not dinging him too hard for the penalty, I thought it was pretty soft.
ALEX SANDRO - 7. Had a hell of a day defensively. He racked up four tackles, five interceptions, and four clearances. Didn’t have the same kind of day going forward, but he made some important interventions that prevented Napoli from scoring.
JUAN CUADRADO - 6. Freed from defensive responsibilities, he had a mixed day going forward. He probably should’ve scored in the first half, and made a mistake in the second when he went himself instead of picking up some help. Still, he had two key passes and dovetailed well with Danilo on the right.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 6. Completed 92.3 percent of his passes and filed two key passes, including his assist to Dybala. Nothing flashy, but effective in the middle.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 6.5. The main ball-winner in midfield today, racking up four tackles and adding three clearances. Completed 93.2 percent of his passes but didn’t make much noise happen with them.
FEDERICO CHIESA - 8. The definition of energy and determination. The move he made on Insigne and Hysaj was simply unfair, and he could’ve scored on a counter in the first half but blazed it over. He led the team in dribbles and tackles (five apiece) and continues to cement himself as one of the team’s most important players.
ALVARO MORATA - 5.5. Made two key passes, but his decision making seems a little off right now. There were times when he probably should’ve been a little more selfish, and others when his shots didn’t come quick enough. He’s just that little bit off right now.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 6.5. Took his goal very well, but it should’ve been his second — that was a real sitter he missed in the opening minutes. However, his off-ball and defensive play were quite good, and he even blocked a shot at one point.
PAULO DYBALA - 7. That was vintage stuff from him. Usually when he comes back after a layoff he’ll take a little time to get going again, but he clicked right in and made the difference the team needed him to.
WESTON McKENNIE - 6. Made two tackles in 22 minutes of work and generally defended well as Napoli tried to get back into the game.
ARTHUR - NR. Made a couple of nifty moves to keep possession late and bleed clock.
Pirlo made a few decisions Wednesday that differed from his usual process this season. Ditching the hybridization of his formation was the biggest, while playing Danilo as an out-and-out full-back and advancing Juan Cuadrado forward was another.
Both moves paid off in this case. Cuadrado and Danilo worked well with each other on the right, while the formation itself stayed strong against the Napoli attack, not allowing a shot on target in the first half and keeping Buffon relatively clean throughout, only having to make three saves. He tried to focus on getting the ball wide and overlapping the full-backs while in possession, which paid dividends against a Napoli defense that was having a terrible time tracking runners in the box. Juve could’ve had a few more goals in this game if their finishing had been better, because the combo of Koulibaly and Rrahmani was leaving spaces for players to run into and create danger from balls in wide.
His subs had an excellent impact on the game. Dybala’s was obvious, but McKennie was excellent defensively and Arthur made a few moves to keep possession for Juve in the dying minutes. Having those three available made a big difference, and you have to hope they can start doing so for more than 20 minutes at a go.
Having finally played their game in hand, Juve are currently third, a point ahead of Atalanta and a point behind AC Milan in second. Napoli, the closest team outside the top four, is now three points back of Juve.
With just nine games left on the docket, Juve will need to get maximum points as much as possible to protect their lead. Their next game comes on Sunday against Genoa, where they will have to guard against a mental letdown after such an important win. Then comes the first of three daunting tasks in this run-in — a trip to Bergamo to face Atalanta.