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Manu’s Grab Bag: Centennial

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We talk Gigi Buffon, the hundred goal club and the final rendition of Midfield Rankings.

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

It sure is a testament to how poorly Juventus had been playing the last few games that as Wednesday’s 3-1 victory over Sassuolo was wrapping up I was legitimately excited about the game and how it unfolded.

Bear in mind that this was no vintage, overpowering Juventus performance by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, Sassuolo outplayed Juventus for at least the first half and arguably deserved more than they got. But Juve got a win by playing decent, OK, not horrible football and that has to be celebrated accordingly given what we were seeing lately.

When the bar is set so low, the most smack dab average performance looks like the German National Team circa 2014.

Let’s cook.

MVP: Gianluigi Buffon

What else can you say about the guy that hasn’t already been said? The undisputed greatest goalkeeper to ever live is still doing it in his damn 40s — unbelievable stuff.

From a psychological and tactical standpoint, it can’t be emphasized enough how important it was to not go down early on the scoresheet, and thanks to Buffon’s key PK save Juventus managed to pull off just that. I know I just threw a bunch of praise on the guy, but, here’s a hot take: I really think he should either retire or go to a lower-lever league where he can make a ton of money instead of taking the starting keeper job at a top club as its rumored he wants to do.

It’s undoubted that he still has the talent, but I think that it’s exactly because he plays fewer matches — not in spite of it — that he can still perform at this high level. In a way he’s in the perfect situation at Juventus. He can get his minutes here and there, be well-rested and in shape and still perform at an upper tier level. But we all saw what happened in that weird Paris Saint-Germain season we don’t talk about and even to an extent — as much as we hate to admit it as fans — in his last Juve season as the starting keeper. The age cracks started to show a bit and I can’t imagine the situation would be better three years removed from that moment.

He is obviously a massive competitor and if he feels good he wants to play as long as possible I understand that and I hope I’m wrong on this take, but boy, sometimes I think retiring one year too early instead of one year too late is underrated.

Runner Up: Adrien Rabiot – We’ll sell him in the summer to some Premier League team that takes any ball handling, play from behind responsibilities from the guy and just lets him loose and he will shine, I’m already pissed about it. Had himself an assist and his goal was a superb shot from a midfielder. Honestly, play the guy as an elevated version of Blaise Matuidi and he is an excellent player, what are we doing here?

Season Leader: Cristiano Ronaldo (13 Points)

Keeping it 100

One thing you knew about the moment both Cristiano Ronaldo and Paulo Dybala scored their 100th goals is that they would do it in style.

Ronaldo got there first with a sublime one touch reception from Rabiot — that made Sassuolo defender Marlon stop and look for his hips — that left him in front of goal to score as easy a shot as you’ll get.

Dybala got his in the second half with Juve clinging to a one-goal lead also in a counterattack as he chipped the keeper in stride -with his right foot! — to attain the milestone.

Whatever the future holds for both of these players in the weeks and months ahead it’s undoubted that as fans we were lucky to see them be part of our club.

Winner: Counters (and Dejan Kulusevski)

This is not the first time that I’ve said it, but it bears repeating: This team is a counterattacking team hiding in plain sight.

While it had its tricky moments, Andrea Pirlo’s setup was directed to holding the pressure from Sassuolo and then attack the space left behind and it mostly worked for the better for Juve. Really the moments where they got in trouble was when they stubbornly continued to try and build from behind, something that by now we know they are not particularly good at.

The perfect example is the young Swede Kulusevski — a guy that went from best young player in the league to “wonder if we can still flip him for some quick profit?” in a minute. Pirlo put him in a position where all he has to do is take the ball, take his guy on and run and he suddenly looked pretty darn good again.

You have Federico Chiesa, Cristiano Ronaldo and plenty of speed on the wings, coupled with good center backs and an iffy midfield that nevertheless is good at getting possession back. That’s as perfect of a combo as any to be a good counterattacking side.

I know that in Serie A you are not going to be able to sit back and wait against many teams, but it’s still shocking to me they took this long to play more of this style of football.

Midfield Ranking (Final Edition!)

  1. Adrien Rabiot – Already made my thoughts on the Frenchman clear above. I rate him more than most and he does make mistakes, but if you let him be what he is, I’m sure he can be a valuable piece of a good midfield. Our loss is Everton’s — or whoever’s — gain.
  2. Weston McKennie – My guy fell off a cliff, huh? Some of it probably had to do with his hip injury and some maybe due to the off-the-field stuff and just general malaise of the team. As everyone, he needs the summer off to reset.
  3. Arthur – Outside of those, what, four or five games early in 2021, has Arthur really been someone who looks like he belongs in a top European club? Another dude who just needs this season to be over.
  4. Rodrigo Bentancur – What can you say? His regression from last year has been immeasurable and at times he’s looked downright unplayable. I hold some hope for him given that it’s unlikely he leaves the club this summer and what we saw from him under Maurizio Sarri, but what a bummer of a season for the young Uruguayan.
  5. Aaron Ramsey – I’m sure he enjoyed his time in Italy. The underrated part of being a football pro? All the places you get to visit! I’d trade the guy for a bag of balls tomorrow. (That was mean, sorry, Aaron.) (But for real, England is lovely this time of year.)
  6. Nicolo Fagioli – Maybe he just sucks? Maybe he’s a bad football player and it was just all hype around him? Only reason I see why he can’t see the field in a midfield this bad at this point in the season.

Parting Shot of the Week

Juventus needed the win and they got it.

Unfortunately, every other team above them in the table got the win also. That’s the problem when you don’t depend on yourself only to make it to the Champions League. With a game against — sigh — champions Inter Milan on deck Saturday, a loss there coupled with wins from the other teams in the hunt for Europe would mathematically secure Juventus to Europa League football.

Mentally, I´ve already done my peace with the Europa League and I’m low-key looking forward to some Thursday Night Football as you all should.

On to shameless self-promotion!

I’ve often mentioned my hometown team Puebla FC and how they are a mostly bad to mediocre team that give fans little to root for. However, this season they managed to qualify in third overall to the Liga MX playoffs and get their second best season in the history of short tournaments.

(Mexican League doesn’t play a full calendar season of games. They have two short seasons in which the top 12 teams each season go into a seeded knockout tournament. Fifth to Twelfth play a one game knockout amongst each other and the top four get seeded into the quarterfinals. It’s dumb, but it allegedly generates more TV revenue.)

So, to celebrate the occasion the good folks at FMF State of Mind — our sister Mexican League blog — gave me the chance to tell the story of their unlikely run to the quarterfinals in a running diary that you can find here.

I think it’s pretty good — if I do say so myself — so, if you have time, it’s well worth the read.

See you Saturday.