A whole lot of things were circling the toilet bowl as the clock ticked down at the Dacia Arena on Sunday. Juventus’ prospects for making the top four, and potentially Andrea Pirlo’s job, were caught in the vortex as Juve players passed the ball between themselves without ever really threatening.
Perhaps they were demoralized after Inter were mathematically confirmed as champions earlier in the day, officially ending Juve’s nine-year run as holders of the scudetto. Maybe they simply didn’t learn the lessons from the terrible first half in Florence last week. It’s certainly a byproduct of bad squad building, as the team continues to flounder against teams that park the bus and defend. Whatever the cause, the first 82 minutes of the match against Udinese was one of the worst games they’ve played since Gigi Delneri was in the manager’s office. It wasn’t even a case of Udinese stepping up and playing the game of their season. They took an early lead when they caught Juve napping — again — on a free kick, but didn’t exactly take advantage of Juve’s poor play to try and extend their lead. Indeed, they didn’t have a shot on target after the goal, but benefitted from Juve’s nothingness to sit on a lead that looked in little danger even as the game entered the end phase.
And then things turned around out of absolutely nowhere.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s penchant for cranking free kicks into the wall actually paid benefits for once, inducing a handball that led to the equalizing penalty. Then, with a minute of normal time remaining, Ronaldo met a deep cross at the far post and benefitted from a monumental gaffe from Udinese’s stand-in keeper to give Juve a shocking 2-1 victory that they in no way deserved but will certainly gladly take after top-four rivals Napoli and Atalanta blew leads and dropped points earlier in the day.
Andrea Pirlo was once again facing reports that stated he would be fired if he didn’t win the game. He had hoped to have Federico Chiesa available for this match, but when the squads came out on Saturday the wide man remained out nursing his hamstring injury. Alvaro Morata was likewise unable to go from the start, but was an option on the bench. Wojciech Szczesny took his usual place in goal behind a 4-4-2 formation. Danilo made his first start in two games, joining Matthijs de Ligt, Leonardo Bonucci, and Alex Sandro. With Chiesa out, Pirlo gave Federico Bernardeschi a rare start on the left side of the second bank of four, joining Juan Cuadrado, Weston McKennie, and Rodrigo Bentancur in midfield. Paulo Dybala joined Ronaldo at the tip of the spear.
Udinese manager Luca Gotti had some significant squad problems of his own. Standout goalkeeper Juan Musso was suspended, and forwards Ilija Nesterovski and Gerard Deulofeu were out injured. That led Gotti to shift to a 3-5-1-1 formation, and to give the starting gloves to Simone Scuffet, the former wunderkind whose development stalled out over a series of loans, and was making his first Serie A start since October of 2018. Rodrigo Becao, Kevin Bonifazi, and Bram Nuytinck formed the back three. Nahuel Molina and Jens Stryger Larsen were the wing-backs, sandwiching the midfield trio of Rodrigo De Paul, Walace, and Tolgay Arslan. Former Juve midfielder Roberto Pereyra was deployed in the hole behind Stefano Okaka at the No. 9 position.
The teams sparred with each other in the early going, with Bentancur firing the first shot of the contest in the sixth minute after getting into a good position only to get caught in two minds and end up lofting it over the upper corner. Udinese were the first to find the target when Stryger Larsen drove into the attacking third and had the ball ricochet to Pereyra, who fed the Dane into position to shoot, driving the ball right at Szczesny.
But in the 10th minute Juve completely fell asleep and gifted the hosts the lead. McKennie had pulled De Paul down from behind, and as the entire Juventus team milled around expecting Udinese to get themselves together for a set piece, De Paul put the ball down and quickly rapped the ball to Molina, who had the entire right side of the field all to himself. No one got back in time, and Molina was clear to unleash powerful shot across the goal from five yards. Szczesny got a hand to it, but the power on the ball was too much and went right through him and into the net.
To say Juve’s response was anemic might been the understatement of the season. They generated absolutely nothing in the 15 minutes following the breakthrough, as their opponents immediately became a 5-3-2 and dared them to attack. But their ball movement was ponderous, off-ball movement almost non-existent, and they often found themselves repeatedly sucked into the funnel Udinese was forming into the middle of the park. Even though there was practically an entire game to go, there was an early, sinking feeling that Juve might not be able to answer.
They almost did come up with an equalizer on a corner in the 27th minute, but McKennie missed a sitter, slicing through the middle of the defense to meet Cuadrado’s delivery with a diving header that he pushed the other side of the post. Juve finally got their first shot on target in the 34th minute when Bentancur fed Dybala, whose right-footed shot took a deflection that made Scuffet’s parry and gather a little more complicated, but he still controlled it. Scuffet’s rust showed three minutes later when he punched a free kick straight at de Ligt. The Dutchman first attempted to fire it on goal, then gathered the block, drifted right, and put in a cross that Ronaldo flicked over. Given the way was game was going, it classified as a big missed opportunity.
The teams headed into the half with Juve needing to produce a turnaround similar to the one they effected in Florence — only none game. Juve continued to play lethargic football with absolutely no bite or urgency. Udinese was gifted a few opportunities but didn’t make the most of them, often not even managing to shoot, with the exception of seven minutes after the restart when Okaka set up Arslan with some strong holdup play, only for the German to fire wide.
Pirlo threw on Dejan Kulusevski just before the hour and Morata seven minutes later, hoping for some kind of spark up top. The Swede was certainly more effective than the anonymous Bernardeschi and he brought a little bit more drive on the left side and allowing Sandro to make one or two runs up the field. Udinese didn’t make much of anything themselves, with Stryger Larsen bursting through the field and trying to shape a ball into the top corner but just not getting the bend. The game for both sides was summed up when Ronaldo hit a terrible pass that, had it been executed properly, could’ve given Cuadrado a dangerous pass down the right side but instead forced the Colombian to bust a lung chasing it before it went out near the corner flag.
But things turned on a dime starting in the 82nd minute. Cuadrado and Stryger Larsen tangled about 30 yards from the goal, and the former got the call even though it wasn’t quite clear who should’ve gotten the whistle. Ronaldo set himself up and slammed a ball that had the typical trajectory headed toward the wall, but De Paul, the last man on the right, stuck his elbow out and contacted the ball, making for an easy penalty call for referee Daniele Chiffi. Ronaldo fired low to his left, with Scuffet diving that way practically after the ball was past him.
Ronaldo grabbed the ball and ran it to the center circle, while both managers made their final changes, Pirlo sending on Adrien Rabiot and Serie A debutant Felix Correa, while Gotti sent on center-back Samir for a hobbled Bonifazi. Juve pushed for a winner, and with a minute left on the clock they got it when Rabiot shook off a challenge from Fernando Forestieri and launched a 30-yard cross toward the far post. Ronaldo beat the attentions of the newly-entered Samir and headed it into the ground at the near post. He did well to get it on target, but it was the kind of shot that you would expect most keepers to save. Certainly, had he been in the lineup, you would have bet on Juan Musso to stop it. But the rusty Scuffet let himself get nutmegged, gifting Ronaldo, Pirlo, and Juve a priceless goal that, after six minutes of stoppage time, held up and propelled Juve into a three-way tie on points for second place.
WOJCHIECH SZCZESNY - 6. Tough to get a hand on the goal and not keep it out, but Molina’s shot had tons of power and the defense never should’ve let things get to that point in the first place. That was a horror show. Other than that, Woj was good, controlling the penalty area and comfortably stopping the only other shot that was put on target.
DANILO - 6. Put in a game-high five tackles on the right flank along with two interceptions and two clearances, although he didn’t often overlap with Cuadrado up the field to help the winger threaten.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 6. Made a tackle and three clearances, and was active when he went up for set pieces, logging a key pass and having a shot blocked. Also blocked a shot himself.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 6. Made three interceptions and generally kept Okaka from getting sniffing a shooting position.
ALEX SANDRO - 7. Active going forward trying to get things started and led the team in dribbles, but he also turned in a great defensive shift, making three tackles and four interceptions down the flank.
JUAN CUADRADO - 6. I was surprised to see Cuadrado had racked up four key passes, but he worked hard with almost nothing around him in order to try to get attacks going.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 5.5. Had a big day defensively with three tackles and four interceptions, but couldn’t make anything happen with his passing and continues to be a sore spot in a unit that desperately needs creativity.
WESTON McKENNIE - 4.5. Missed a glorious chance to equalize and didn’t make much in possession, losing the ball half a dozen times. Didn’t offset with a big defensive night, either.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 4. Absolutely nothing in what might be his last start in a Juventus jersey. He made two tackles defensively, but refused to take on his man going forward and didn’t create anything.
PAULO DYBALA - 5. Did his best trying to create something but just didn’t have it. Was physically overpowered on multiple occasions and just couldn’t threaten the goal besides that one deflected shot.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 6.5. This was going to be a one and a half to two points lower until the 83rd minute. Ronaldo was totally anonymous for the vast majority of the game, but he popped up when he was needed and stuffed the ball into the net twice.
DEJAN KULUSEVSKI - 5.5. Added a little more energy to the right side but couldn’t come up with much end product.
ALVARO MORATA - 5. Pretty anonymous and had more tackles than shots.
ADRIEN RABIOT - NR. Great long ball to Ronaldo for the winner.
FELIX CORREA - NR. Interesting move to bring a little bit of energy into the final phases, although he didn’t make too much impact up front.
Pirlo definitely made a mistake in putting Bernardeschi into the starting XI. It was perhaps an attempt to leave Kulusevski on the bench as a change of pace, but Bernardeschi looked absolutely lost and contributed nothing to the attack. The rest of the lineup was relatively sound, this game was simply a question of the players failing to show up. I’d’ve also not waited so long to change things — this team needed a kick in the pants, and waiting until the hour mark was about ten minutes too long.
It’s truly remarkable to see just how badly this team was reliant on Federico Chiesa in attack. His energy, technique, and willingness to take a player on under any circumstances really were what was driving them in possession, and without him it’s depressing to see just how badly the attack falls away. With a clutch of big games coming up in the run-in, Juve can’t have him back soon enough.
Sunday’s win, coupled with Atalanta and Napoli drawing earlier in the day, pulls Juve into a three-way tie with Atalanta and AC Milan on 69 points. It’s highly unlikely to stay that way, as Milan still have to play head-to-head against both of the other sides, but if it were to happen, the tiebreaker would essentially create a miniature three-team league, with the teams classified based on the results between the three.
Speaking of, Milan plays Juve next Sunday, the first in a three-game stretch that could define the season. A midweek game against Sassuolo comes between that and a trip from new champions Inter, after which Juve head back to the Mapei Stadium for the Coppa Italia final against Atalanta before finishing the season with a road game against Bologna.