They were dead.
With 20 minutes left in Sunday night’s match against Roma at the Stadio Olimpico, Juventus were down 3-1 and looking lifeless. They’d given up an early goal thanks to some horrific marking on a corner kick, then tied the game only to watch their best player and budding superstar fall to an injury that could well end his season. When the second half began with a pair of Roma body blows, it looked like Juve were about to be overtaken by their opponents in the standings and gift them the head-to-head tiebreaker to boot.
Then something unexpected happened. Juventus turned into, well, Juventus. That is, the Juventus we’ve come to know the last 10 years. The ones that commentators on so many different TV networks would always warn their viewers to never count out, the ones who never said die, the ones who would pull results out of thin air when you never thought it possible.
And it wasn’t just a result that they pulled. Within seven minutes, the Old Lady went from 3-1 down to 4-3 up. The unlikely comeback came from equally unlikely sources, triggered first by the striker everyone wants to leave this January, continued by the winger everyone thinks is a waste of money, and finished by a fullback who coming into the game had only ever scored once in his entire professional career.
And then, after all that, it looked like it would all come crashing down when a naive attempt at a block saw VAR award a penalty. But Wojciech Szczesny came up huge — again — against his former team and stopped Lorenzo Pellegrini from the spot, and Juve were able to hold fast for the rest of the game to take home an enormous 4-3 win that could serve as a springboard for the team to salvage the second half of the season.
Juventus came into the game with an array of absences. Front and center among them was manager Massimiliano Allegri, who was suspended for a game for, as far as we can tell, hurting the referee’s feelings after Thursday’s draw against Napoli. Leonardo Bonucci, Danilo, and Alex Sandro were all out injured. Top assistant Marco Landucci was given charge of the touchline, sending out a lineup that looked to be a hybrid, going 4-4-2 in defense and morphing into a 4-2-3-1 in attack. Szczesny stood in goal behind the defensive line of Juan Cuadrado, Matthijs de Ligt, Daniele Rugani, and Mattia De Sciglio. Manuel Locatelli and Rodrigo Bentancur worked the midfield, with Weston McKennie, Paulo Dybala, and Federico Chiesa forming up behind Moise Kean at the striker position.
Jose Mourinho was down two of his top defenders after Rick Karsdorp and Gianluca Mancini were sent off on Thursday against AC Milan. His formation was as complex as the one Allegri sent his deputy to shepherd, working as some hybrid of 3-5-2 and 4-2-3-1. Rui Patricio manned the sticks. Chris Smalling and Roger Ibanez were joined deep by Bryan Cristante, who often pushed back up into the midfield in order to help orchestrate. Ainsely Maitland-Niles started in place of Karsdorp mere days after arriving on loan from Arsenal, with Matias Vina on the other side. Jordan Veretout, Henrikh Mkhytaryan, and Pellegrini roamed the midfield, while Tammy Abraham and 18-year-old starlet Felix Afena-Gyan took up roles forward.
Dybala took the game’s first shot when he tried to surprise Rui Patricio from the right side in the opening minutes, but from that point on the game’s first 15 minutes were owned by the home side. The Giallorossi completely dominated the game, sealing Juve into their half of the field and gaining a succession of corner kicks. The marking on those corners repeatedly broke down, and after a warning shot in the sixth minute that saw Szczesny scramble across to save an Abraham header after Smalling put it back across, things went completely sideways in the 11th minute when Abraham was left completely alone and glanced in from four yards out.
Roma’s onslaught continued after the goal, with Juve unable to muster up any kind of response. Pellergini shouted for a penalty on de Ligt in the 14th minute, but he had blocked the ball with his foot before it ricocheted onto his hand in a play that would turn out to be an unfortunate piece of foreshadowing. Szczesny then had to smother a 20-yard shot from Cristante after yet another giveaway, and it was becoming a question as to whether or not Juve would ever get going.
When the did, it came completely out of the blue. Chiesa faced up Maitland-Niles and cut inside, spotting Dybala completely unmarked above the box and slotting a pass between two Roma players to find him. The Argentine took one touch and fired a trademark curler from 19 yards that bent past Rui Patricio’s gloves and into the net to tie the score.
Roma wasn’t quite as dominant in the aftermath of the equalizer, but the next 10 minutes were dominated (from the Juve point of view) by the frightening and potentially season-altering sequence of events surrounding Chiesa. A nice interplay between the winger and Dybala had set him up for a shot, but a fantastic sliding challenge by Smalling interrupted the attempt. The Englishman caught Chiesa heavily on the follow-through, and after being down for some time for treatment he came back in, only to have his leg buckle under him a few minutes after he got back onto the pitch. He could barely walk off the field and ended up being carted out of the stadium with his knee in a heavy brace. Juventus have termed the injury a sprained knee, but there will be more concrete news after tests on Monday.
The rest of the half swung back and forth, and Juve missed a huge opportunity two minutes before halftime after Vina gave the ball away in his own defensive third, but McKennie decided to try to leave the ball off for Dejan Kulusevski rather than take the shot himself and the pass was intercepted. Roma similarly had a shot to go into the locker room at half when yet another corner saw Smalling hit a bullet header that was arrowing toward the bottom corner, only to be redirected skyward by an overeager Abraham.
It looked like the game, and perhaps the season, was over within the first seven minutes of the restart. Just three minutes in Roma ran the ball down the field far too easily before Mkhitaryan took a shot from just above the penalty arc that took a crazy deflection off De Sciglio and looped over the head of a wrong-footed Szczesny. Five minutes later, after Dybala whacked both an initial free kick and a follow-up into the wall, Afena-Gyan zipped the ball back the other way and was chased down by De Ligt, who looked to gain the ball but might have handled it while he was on the ground, drawing a whistle and a card from referee Davide Massa. Pellegrini lined up the ensuing free kick and buried it into the upper 90, giving Szczesny absolutely no chance.
At that point it looked like the team was completely buried. As it stood, Roma would overhaul them in the standings and pass them on goal difference in the head-to-head tiebreaker. Juve’s chances at a top four finish were looking bleaker and bleaker by the minute.
It’s hard to tell whether the decision to go to the bench was Landucci’s, or whether someone with a phone was relaying instructions from Allegri in the stands (cause come on, we know that has to be happening all over the place in the sport). Whoever pulled the trigger in the 63rd minute, it started a process that turned the game on its head. Alvaro Morata came in for Kean, while Arthur entered for Bentancur.
The move changed the structure of the midfield, pushing Locatelli further forward while Arthur orchestrated more from the back. In the 70th minute, the move got Juve back into the game. Dybala sent Morata down the right side down the field. The Spaniard put on a burst of speed past Vina and then cut back, putting the Uruguay international on his rear end and giving him the room to cross the ball in to Locatelli, who was completely unmarked at the at the top of the six-yard box.
The goal clearly hit Roma right in the psyche, because two minutes later the ball was back in their net again. Locatelli was the one who started the move this time, lofting a ball into the right channel from the top of the box for Cuadrado, who headed it across to Morata in the opposite channel. The Spaniard chested the ball down at the top of the six and turned it goalward. Smalling blocked the shot at full stretch, but only as far as Kulusevski, who was following the play and bounced it into the roof of the net. Initially the goal was disallowed for an offside call on Morata, but a VAR review showed that while the striker was beyond the last defender, he was behind the ball, and Massa eventually pointed to the center spot, and the game was tied again.
It didn’t take long to be untied again — and the man who untied it was perhaps the least likely man to do so in the entire league. McKennie, working along the left side, tried to flip a ball in for De Sciglio to get to the byline. Smalling intervened, but his glancing header only redirected it to a point where the full-back was headed toward the goal itself. He chested it down and cracked the ball past Patricio at the near post. It was only his second goal in his 10-year-long professional career, and Juve had its first lead of the game.
It was an insane turnaround of three goals in eight minutes, but there was one more twist to the tale. It looked like an innocuous moment, with de Ligt making a block when Abraham tried to make an acrobatic turn on a cross from Maitland-Niles. No one had noticed that the ball had struck de Ligt’s outstretched elbow until Aleandro Di Paolo rang in from the VAR room to call Massa to the monitor. From there it was an easy call to point to the spot and show de Ligt a second yellow card. Roma’s usual penalty taker, Veretout, had been withdrawn minutes before, leaving the responsibility to Pellegrini. The midfielder took a Jorginho-style hesitation in his run up and Szczesny broke a little early, but the Giallorossi captain’s effort was incredibly tame, and Szczesny was able to reach out and save for the second time in as many games against his old team, with Pellegrini slipping as he tried to pot the rebound and only managing to skew it wide.
Giorgio Chiellini, fresh off his bout with COVID-19, had come on just before the penalty to bolster the back line, and he almost immediately did how Chiellini do — namely, he got his head busted open after he collided with Pellegrini, who for his part was hurt enough that he needed to come off. Chiellini was patched up — heck, he probably patched himself up, he knows the drill by now — and went about his business, bursting back to his own penalty area after returning to the field to gain and clear a loose ball.
Juventus actually looked the better side for the last five minutes plus stoppage time. They kept possession fairly well, but Roma came close twice, once when Carles Peres’s shot was deflected wide, and once deep into stoppage time when Abraham burst into the channel, only to be met by a charging Szczesny who dove in bravely and punched the ball off his foot. Soon after, Massa blew his whistle on one of the craziest games of the season, and Juve celebrated a huge victory at a crucial time.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 9. The penalty save was incredible, as was his game-saving tackle late on. It was man-of-the-match stuff from Szczesny, who can’t be faulted for the goals the team gave up. He kept Juventus ahead in the crucial late moments of the game.
JUAN CUADRADO - 6. Was kept pinned back by Afena-Gyan for most of the game, as it seemed part of Roma’s game plan to attack Cuadrado with the teenager’s pace. But once he was withdrawn he had more freedom to get forward and was a key in the equalizer. He kept Afena-Gyan’s runs mostly bottled up, and let the team with three tackles.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 4.5. Weren’t we done with the handball phase? That was a really naive move from a guy who has become Juve’s most reliable man in the back. It was overall not the greatest game, as he struggled to impose himself in the back. He’ll be a big miss in the next match.
DANIELE RUGANI - 6. Tied for the team lead with three clearances and was generally solid in the back. A lot of people are laying blame for Roma’s first goal on him because he was the closest man to Abraham when the cross got to him, but it looks pretty clear from the replays that Rugani’s assignment was Smalling, and that he was trying to recover after the rest of the team missed the striker.
MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - 7. A fantastic strike to win the game from a guy who simply doesn’t score like that. It was the best part of a good game that saw him work solidly against Maitland-Niles on that flank and generally provide good defensive solidity.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 4. A whole lot of nothing coming from Bentancur, who lost the ball far too easily far too often. His 92.9 percent pass completion would be more impressive if he’d attempted more than 28 of them. He’s simply crashed after the highs he had under Maurizio Sarri, and not even Allegri, who put him on what we thought was a path to greatness, has been able to work him back into shape.
MANUEL LOCATELLI - 7. His influence on the game was far greater once Arthur came on and pushed him further forward. It was his ball for Cuadrado that started the move for the equalizer, and obviously his run for the goal was impressive.
WESTON McKENNIE - 6. Played out of position on the wing, McKennie looked a little tentative and at times could’ve been a little more selfish, but he also led the team in interceptions and made a key pass as well. Still, the midfield is where he belongs.
PAULO DYBALA - 6.5. Was the only positive influence on the game for the vast majority of it. His goal was superbly taken, and he made a pair of key passes to boot before being sacrificed for Chiellini after de Ligt was sent off.
FEDERICO CHIESA - 6. His assist was excellent, and if his injury is truly as serious as it looks it will be a huge blow to this team.
MOISE KEAN - 5. Made a decent effort at it, but he had absolutely nothing to work with. Juve weren’t able to start seriously menacing the Roma goal until after he was withdrawn.
DEJAN KULUSEVSKI - 6. The goal pushes him up to a passing grade, but he was also really rough when he had the ball at his feet. He’s going to have to iron things out in his game, because if Chiesa misses a lot of time he’s going to become a key.
ALVARO MORATA - 7. Morata’s introduction was a key in this game. His assist for Locatelli was pitch-perfect, and he was in perfect position on the equalizer to put in the shot that Kulusevski eventually turned home. He was even involved in the winner, passing the ball to McKennie before he set up De Sciglio. After a decidedly meh game on Thursday, Morata showed everyone just what he can do when he’s on.
ARTHUR - 6. Wasn’t particularly special in his time on the field, but his presence from a tactical perspective was what unlocked Juve and allowed them to start pushing the comeback.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - NR. It’s almost a comforting sight when Chielo ends up with blood coming out of his head. If feels like a harbinger of victory. He was excellent for the seven minutes plus stoppages he was on, pulling together Juve as they defended with 10 men.
Whoever truly made the decisions on Juve’s substitutions, they were inspired. The original setup was slightly awkward in pushing McKennie forward into a wing position, where he clearly wasn’t as comfortable. They doubled down on it once Chiesa came off, and I frankly think my move would have been to either take him off or move him back to the midfield and keep Kean on the field on the left wing with Morata in the center. Obviously, this is why I am not the manager of a major soccer team.
Now, it can and probably should be said that the initial setup was far too tentative and defensive, and an evaluation needs to be run on why that ended up being the case. But the moves that were made in-game took the team over the top and inspired the comeback and, with it, one of the the biggest results of the season.
Juve’s jam-packed January continues on Wednesday with the Supercoppa Italiana against Inter. After that, the Bianconeri will welcome Udinese to the Allianz, then face off with Sampdoria in their first Coppa Italia match.