After Sunday’s debacle against AC Milan, the situation for Juventus couldn’t have been more stark. To get into the Champions League places, Nine points out of nine were required, and one of the three teams ahead of them — Atalanta, Milan, and Napoli — would have to drop points.
Neither of their opponents in the race for the top four stumbled in the midweek round. Napoli routed Udinese 5-1 on Tuesday, while, in games played simultaneously with Juve on Wednesday, Atalanta beat Benevento 2-0 and Milan annihilated Torino 7-0. That left Juve requiring a victory over a tricky opponent in Sassuolo to simply keep pace for the last two rounds.
Fortunately, the Bianconeri delivered in a way they haven’t in several games. While the performance at the Mapei Stadium was by no means exhilarating or dominant, and they once again conceded a relatively avoidable goal to run their streak of games without a clean sheet to 12, but they also took advantage of some good fortune, countering some pretty terrible finishing by Sassuolo with a clinical display of their own, scoring twice before the break despite taking half as many shots as the home team. A textbook counterattack in the second half canceled out what turned out to be a consolation for Sassuolo, and Juve walked off the field with 3-1 victory, with the margin of victory provided by Cristiano Ronaldo and Paulo Dybala, both of whom celebrated their 100th goals for Juventus.
Andrea Pirlo clearly changed his approach for the game, deploying a straight 4-4-2 formation. Gianluigi Buffon got the start in goal the day after his announcement that he would again be leaving the club. Arrayed ahead of him were Danilo, Matthijs de Ligt, Leonardo Bonucci, and Alex Sandro. Federico Chiesa and Dejan Kulusevski took up wide positions in midfield around Arthur and Adrien Rabiot, with Ronaldo and Dybala starting up front.
Sassuolo’s Roberto De Zerbi deployed his usual 4-2-3-1 setup. Steady veteran Andrea Consigli started in goal, with Jeremy Toljan, Marlon, Gian Marco Ferrari, and Georgios Kyriakoupolos screening him in defense. Manuel Locatelli and Pedro Obiang formed the double pivot in midfield, with Domenico Berardi, Hamed Traore, and Jeremie Boga supporting the impressive Italy Under-21 international Giacomo Raspadori up front.
Sassuolo came out of the gate quickly. Within three minutes they had carved out a chance on the counter as Berardi sent Toljan over the top. The fullback laid it off for the trailing run of Traore, but the young Ivorian popped it over the bar. Berardi cut inside for one of his trademark left-footers only three minutes later and barely missed over as well.
Juve were clearly looking to play on the counter, and in the ninth minute a cross/shot from Danilo bent away from the far post after a good overlapping run, and five minuts later de Ligt stonewalled a run from Boga and sent the ball the other way, with Dybala dancing into the box at the other end and trying to lay off for Kulusevski, but the defense beat the Swede to the ball.
Unfortunately, their attempts to get out of defense weren’t always so swift. They made several of the sloppy mistakes that have been a hallmark of this team’s attempts to play out of the back this season, culminating in a terrible mistake by Rabiot that gifted Raspadori possession inside the box. Bonucci made a desperate lunge to take the ball off the young striker but only succeeded in chopping him down, leaving Piero Giacomelli an easy penalty call. It looked like it was all going the way it’s usually gone this season, but, as he’s done so many times before over the last 20 years, Buffon stepped up. In the same building where he gave the “Sassuolo address” that kicked off the 2015-16 comeback, the old war horse stared down Berardi and parried the winger’s attempt away, keeping the game scoreless and adding yet another endnote to his long career.
The game’s pattern continued, with Juve looking to hit on the break, but their final balls weren’t finding any openings until the 23rd minute, when Sandro slipped Kulusevski into the channel, but Consigli was up for the shot and got down to parry it away.
Juve were hanging on, sometimes a little bit desperately, and Danilo needed to stretch to block a shot by Raspadori after de Ligt couldn’t quite clear a pull-back by Berardi. But they kept the net clear, and a minute after that decisive block Juve took the lead decidedly against the run of play.
It was a redemptive moment for Rabiot, who took a simple pass in midfield from Chiesa and strode forward. He held off the attention of Locatelli and drifted across the field. He made a quick fake to hold up a tracking Obiang, then let fly across goal, slipping it between Obiang and Marlon and bouncing it into the goal off the base of the post.
The surprise goal was met with more pressure from Sassuolo, and both Traore and Boga fired over from good positions. Then Locatelli teed up Obiang for a first-time curler that was destined for the bottom corner but was met by another excellent save from the patron saint of goalkeeping.
The failure to equalize would haunt the Neroverdi, and it was Ronaldo who jumped out and said “Boo.” After a breakaway run that led to a shot right at Consigli for a sighter, Ferrrari gifted Rabiot with possession on a bad clearance, and the Frenchman headed it directly into the Portuguese’s path. He turned Marlon inside out with a single touch, leaving him clear on goal. Consigli must have expected him to pull it back to the near post, because Ronaldo’s simple finish to the far side crossed him up and put him right on his backside, as Ronaldo celebrated his 100th goal as a Juventus player.
Juve went into the locker room up 2-0, but they’d been living on the edge and could easily have been behind multiple goals before Rabiot’s strike. With a lead to protect in the second half, they came out far better organized and tied things down better. They still looked to hit on the counter, and Chiesa forced an early save with a powerful effort that Consigli parried away, while Sassuolo only managed a single shot in the first 10 minutes of the second half. De Zerbi made a triple change in the 56th minute, but it was two of his starters that made it a game again just before the hour. Raspadori made an excellent first-time back-heel on Marlon’s entry ball, then received a return pass from Locatelli clean through after Rabiot failed to track him. Three Juve players tried to converge on him, but he was able to rap a side-footed lefty stab past Buffon before they got there, halving the deficit and putting the game back in the balance.
That balance very nearly tilted all the way back to Sassuolo six minutes later, when a low cross by Kyriakoupolos put a low ball across the face of goal. Berardi was waiting for it at the back post and had a tap in waiting, but Sandro was tracking him and for the second game in a row made an incredible intervention, opening his body and stabbing the ball past the post for a corner. He could have easily put it into his own net, but the excellent play kept the score where it was — and a minute later Juve had re-established their cushion.
It was a textbook counter, started with some nice holdup play by Ronaldo and sprung by Rabiot, who sent Kulusevski downfield. He spotted Dybala in a gap in the defense and found him with his first touch. Substitute Maxime Lopez tried to catch up but it was one-on-one with the keeper, and Dybala made the most of it, hitting an excellent right-footed chip over the onrushing Consigli to hit the century mark himself and restore the lead.
Both forwards came very close to a brace, in the closing minutes. Dybala made space for himself with a little jiggle and tried one of his trademark far-post curlers, but Consigli got down and made a really good save. Then Ronaldo humiliated Vlad Chiriches in the left side of the box, leaving him falling over himself while he cut the ball back to his right foot for the shot that hit flush off the far post and back out. Sassuolo could only muster a few shots well off target in the last 15 minutes, and when the final whistle came after three minutes of stoppage time, Juve still had a pulse as the season went into its final two games.
GIANLUIGI BUFFON - 8. Immense in the first half, with his huge penalty save and excellent diving stop on Obiang’s curler. Whipped the defense into shape in the second half after a really rough first half. After announcing his second departure, he came back to defend his lady one more time.
DANILO - 6. Made three tackles and three clearances at the back, defending solidly against a tricky opposite number in Boga. Didn’t end up in the attack much due to Pirlo’s tactical decision to sit back.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 7. He was all over the place, especially in the first half, when he stepped up to Boga and stopped him cold on at least two occasions. Finished the day with six clearances and three blocked shots.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 5. Made four clearances, but on a day when the counterattack was the order of the day he only attempted three long balls and didn’t complete any of them, and his clumsy challenge on Raspadori was an easy penalty call, and he gifted another opportunity to Traore late in the first half when he kicked a ball off a Sassuolo player right to him.
ALEX SANDRO - 7. Two tackles and five clearances, including that huge one in the 65th minute with Berardi lurking behind him. That takes an immense amount of skill, and the stones to even try. Had he not made that move who knows what turn the game takes.
FEDERICO CHIESA - 5.5. Looked better than he did on Sunday, but still isn’t close to the form he was in before he got hurt. Still, he was able to add some omph to the counter and had took four shots, one of which was well saved and another just didn’t bend in time. He’ll need to stay on an upward trend on Saturday.
ARTHUR - 5. Made three tackles but did little in terms of making the attack go. He completed 90.6 percent of his passes but precious few of them were going forward.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 6. What to make of this game from Rabiot? He made two huge mistakes in losing the ball for the penalty and losing Raspadori when he scored, but had his hands on all three goals, scoring the first (with an excellent shot), assisting the second (also quite nice), and getting the “hockey assist” on the third. That weighs ever so slightly to the positive, but the mistakes drag down what could’ve been a banner day.
DEJAN KULUSEVSKI - 7. One of his better days, dishing out a great assist to Dybala and finishing the day with six key passes and five tackles on defense. The counterattacking setup was perfect for him.
PAULO DYBALA - 6.5. That goal was pretty, and he would’ve had a second were it not for Consigli. Hit the target with both his shots and was lively around the penalty area, looking to create whenever he could.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 7.5. Once he made that move on Marlon you knew the ball was going into the net. Finished the day with two key passes and a team-high three dribbles, and just missed a brace when he thumped one off the post.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 6. On for a little more defensive impetus in midfield and did well, completing all of his 18 passes and making a pair of clearances.
WESTON McKENNIE - NR. On to shore the team up defensively in the last 10 minutes.
JUAN CUADRADO - NR. Looked to give Chiesa a rest and finish the game out on the right.
Andrea Pirlo’s gotten more than a few things wrong the last few games, but in this game he got his initial ideas right. Poor execution in the back put Juventus into some tough spots, but Pirlo’s tactical approach of soaking up the pressure and trying to hit Sassuolo no the counter was sound, and he chose the right players to do it, with Chiesa and Kulusevski providing pace down the wings to spring the attacks and set up Ronaldo and Dybala to finish. The more solid defense of Danilo at right-back as opposed to Juan Cuadrado was also a plus decision.
The approach started looking even better after De Zerbi made a triple change 10 minutes into the second half that included removing Jeremy Toljan and inserting Vlad Chiriches. That unbalanced the Sassuolo team, allowing Juve to attack their right flank repeatedly in the last 35 minute of the game, ultimately resulting in Kulusevski’s assist for Dybala. Overall, this was a good coaching day for Pirlo, and, despite some white-knuckled execution, it was the right plan at the right time.
Only three games remain on the schedule, and victories continue to be paramount. On Saturday a huge matchup with Inter looms. The new champions have been on quite the victory tour and would like nothing more than to end Juve’s top four hopes as gravy, but the Derby d’Italia has always produced some weird ones, and this is likely to be no exception.
After that comes another trip to the Mapei Stadium for the Coppa Italia final with Atalanta, which will double as the first time either team has played in front of fans in months. After that, the season’s final game comes as a trip to Bologna. The situation in terms of the top four remains the same: keep winning and hope one of the three teams ahead drop points.