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Juve start year on a down note with draw against depleted Napoli

In a game that Juve really had to win in order to rev their chances of the top four into gear, they failed to gain any ground on a stricken Napoli side.

Juventus v SSC Napoli - Serie A Photo by Sportinfoto/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

This is one they should have had.

Juventus came into their first game of the second half of the season regaining their two best attacking players and bringing a relatively full squad to the party. Their opponents, Napoli, were a complete mess. They were missing five players due to COVID-19, two due to the Africa Cup of Nations, and one due to injury, and had one player, Victor Osimhen, who incredibly met all three of those criteria. They were a shell of the team that came from behind to beat Juve in the third game of the season. They were ripe for the picking, and a win would’ve cut the gap between the two teams to a mere two points.

But, this being the 2021-22 version of Juventus, the team of course went out and somehow contrived to make Napoli look like the better team for much of the game. They fluffed several early chances to take the lead, allowed their visitors to take the lead relatively against the run of play, then failed to take the initiative once they equalized early in the second half. They didn’t exactly come out flaccid, but for all their energy and industry, there was a complete lack of final product that prevented them from taking advantage of a stricken Napoli side that only had two first team players on their bench.

The end result Thursday night, a 1-1 draw, was can’t be regarded as anything other than a major failure. It’s a huge blow to Juve’s top four hopes, as it keeps them five points away from Napoli. While they did move a point closer to Atalanta, La Dea — who didn’t play against Torino on Thursday because their game was one of four forced to be abandoned by the rulings of local health authorities — will either receive a forfeit victory or, more likely, end up having to play a rescheduled fixture on appeal and simply beat the Granata to earn the points the old fashioned way. Thursday was one of Juve’s best opportunities to really stamp themselves into the race for the top four, and they blew it.

Massimiliano Allegri was missing a few players of his own, but not nearly as many as Napoli. Giorgio Chiellini and Carlo Pinsoglio were still dealing with their respective bouts with COVID, while Leonardo Bonucci was injured and Luca Pellegrini out with a non-COVID illness. Allegri chose to bring Paulo Dybala along slowly and broke out a 4-3-3 setup. Wojciech Szczesny started in goal behind the back four of Juan Cuadrado, Matthijs de Ligt, Daniele Rugani, and Alex Sandro. Weston McKennie, Manuel Locatelli, and Adrien Rabiot started in midfield, while Alvaro Morata put aside the rumors of his early departure to Barcelona to start in the striker position, flanked, at long last, by the true WINGS OF FEDE, Federico Bernardeschi and Federico Chiesa.

Napoli manager Luciano Spalletti wasn’t even on the bench, as he too had come up positive for COVID-19 in the run-up to the game, so his top assistant, Marco Domenichini, headed up the touchline. Apart from all the team’s absences, three players — Amir Rrahmani, Piotr Zielinski, and Stanislav Lobotka — had been told by ASLs in two cities that they should be quarantined, but by some sort of technicality that frankly I don’t understand were allowed to be in the starting lineup, opposing Juve’s 4-3-3 with Spalletti’s traditional 4-2-3-1. David Ospina started in goal, with Giovanni Di Lorenzo, Rrahmani, Juan Jesus, and Faouzi Ghoulam, who was starting his first game all year, arrayed in front of him. Diego Demme joined Lobotka in the double pivot midfield, while Matteo Politano, Zielinski, and Lorenzo Insigne — who was playing in perhaps his final game against Juventus before his move to Toronto FC — were deployed in support of false nine Dries Mertens.

Juventus definitively should have had the lead within five minutes, when a Bernardeschi corner was swung in perfectly and found a completely unmarked McKennie rising for it, but the Texas boy somehow managed to push the ball wide. Eight minutes later, Chiesa was the first man to find the target, firing a low shot that Ospina dealt with relatively straightforwardly.

Juve very much had the upper hand over the game’s opening phase, but they weren’t exactly putting Ospina under siege. The final ball that could turn decent buildup into true scoring threats simply wasn’t coming. They came close again on 17 minutes when Chiesa darted into the left channel, but Di Lorenzo was able to cover just enough to keep him from cutting back and forced him to shoot with his left foot, arrowing it wide of the target.

Just six minutes later, Napoli suddenly jumped ahead with their first real opportunity of the game. It came when Insigne clipped a ball into the right channel for Politano, who pulled two defenders with him while Mertens dropped into a pocket of space behind him. Politano laid the ball back for the Belgian, who made Sandro look silly before slipping his shot between the full-back’s legs. De Ligt actually looked primed for a goal-line clearance, but Szczesny got a bare fingertip to the ball, redirecting it just past him and into the net to open the scoring.

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

Juve tried to muster up a quick response. Chiesa had a shot blocked by Rrahmani just three minutes after the kickoff, and a few minutes after that Cuadrado let fly after getting a long pass from de Ligt, but it pulled wide well before it got to the target. There were also a few maddeningly close calls that were thwarted simply by good defending, like a last-ditch Di Lorenzo challenge that prevented Chiesa from feeding Morata with an excellent through ball.

Napoli had one chance to double their lead in the 38th minute, when Zielinski took a square ball from Insigne and fired from a standstill at the top of the box, but Szczesny tipped the ball over the bar. McKennie had another chance when a blocked shot fell to him three minutes from the break, but his own follow-up, which was headed for the goal, was deflected by Juan Jesus. Napoli put one last scare into Juve just before the half when Mertens stood over a free kick at the top of the penalty arc and just missed the top corner.

Allegri didn’t make any changes to the lineup at halftime, but did make one tactical tweak and had Bernardeschi and Chiesa swap sides. That put Chiesa opposite Ghoulam, who until Thursday had only played 15 minutes over the entire season. Chiesa was involved early in the second half, forcing Ghoulam to block a shot and then putting Morata into a fantastic position only to see the Spaniard badly skew his shot.

But within 10 minutes the freight train that was Chiesa finally rolled over Napoli. The move started in Juve’s own half with Cuadrado, who sent a beautifully-weighted ball down the right side for McKennie. The midfielder’s cross was headed out, but right to Chiesa, whose shot skimmed off the shin of Loboktka as it went between his legs, providing the margin to beat Ospina and tie the score at 1-1.

Juventus v SSC Napoli - Serie A Photo by Stefano Guidi/Getty Images

One would think Juve would sense blood and press on for a winner after tying the score. But instead, apart a quick flurry right after play restarted, Napoli started dictating play, forcing a save out of Szczesny on the hour mark. Chiesa managed to scare Napoli again when he controlled a loose ball on the counter and hammered a half-volley at goal, unfortunately right at the keeper, but Napoli swiftly regained control and forced another save through Mertens.

But it was becoming clear that both teams were starting to lose some steam, and it was here that Max Allegri decided to finally press his greatest advantage in the contest — his available depth. Dybala stepped on to the field and immediately intercepted a pass and took a long-range pot shot that Ospina had to claw away from his bottom corner.

But despite having Dybala on the field, the rest of the team continued to flail as they tried to fashion chances in the Napoli box. Passes were mishit, bad decisions were made, balls were run into a crowd. and defenders easily sent the ball back the other way.

Juve’s best chance to win the game came with seven minutes left when Dybala was sent down the field on the counter. He broke all the way downfield and had Cuadrado and Moise Kean to his right ready to tap in his cross — but Demme got the slightest of touches onto it and redirected it away from the runners. Cuadrado kept the ball in and gained a free kick before Napoli started screaming for a penalty on the other end on a 50/50 ball between de Ligt and Di Lorenzo.

Napoli knew they had a big point on their hands as the game ticked toward stoppage time, and they wasted as much time as possible. Dybala managed to find de Ligt on a corner but he only managed to head it right at Ospina. Cuadrado delivered a gorgeous cross in the final minute of added time, only to see Kean loop a header just over the bar. Napoli’s time wasting saw another minute added on to the minimum, and at the very end of that Juan Jesus committed a needless foul that gave Dybala a chance to put the ball on frame from a free kick. But referee Simone Sozza placed the ball about five yards behind where the foul actually occurred, and then refused to allow Juventus to take a corner kick when Dybala’s shot ticked off the top of the wall and over the goal.

Angry Juve players ringed the official as Napoli celebrated getting out of the Allianz Stadium with a result for just the second time in its history.

LE PAGELLE

WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 7. Kept a makeshift defense pretty well organized and made a couple of smart saves, especially in the second half. It’s a little unfortunate that his touch on Mertens’ goal redirected it just past de Ligt’s attempt to clear it off the line, but a keeper can’t simply expect someone to be in that position behind him, he has to make an attempt at a save.

JUAN CUADRADO - 6. Had a big day defensively stats-wise, with three tackles and three interceptions. He also had a key pass and two shots, but didn’t have quite the attacking influence we’ve gotten used to seeing from him.

MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 7. Blocked three shots and also made a pair of key passes. Had to lead the defense in the absence of the two senatori and did it very well.

Juventus v SSC Napoli - Serie A Photo by MB Media/Getty Images

DANIELE RUGANI - 6. Everyone expects doom whenever Rugani shows up in the starting lineup, but he was more than competent on Thursday. He had a game-high five clearances and did a pretty good job tracking runs into the box. He was involved in Mertens’ goal but wasn’t the biggest problem.

ALEX SANDRO - 5. His counting stats look great — three tackles, two interceptions, three clearances, and a pair of blocks — but he was directly to blame for Mertens’ goal, getting himself turned around completely and the nutmegged as he tried to recover. He actually completed 100 percent of his passes, but only attempted 35 of them and only one of them was a cross (that went straight at Ospina). Eventually Allegri saw fit to replace him with Mattia De Sciglio. Luca Pellegrini is clearly the best left-back on this team right now.

WESTON McKENNIE - 5. Missed an absolute sitter five minutes in that could have transformed things. Didn’t making the kind of supporting runs into the box the team needed on a consistent basis, especially when Morata drifted out wide. A disappointing return from Christmas break.

MANUEL LOCATELLI - 6.5. Made a couple of Pirlo-esque long passes early on, and made a team-high four interceptions defensively. He was a little bit more like the player we saw at the beginning of the season until Juve lost the plot after they equalized and he was forced to defend.

ADRIEN RABIOT - 4. He’s verging on the type of form we saw just before lockdown hit — so dire as to be actively detrimental. He did nothing in buildup, nothing defensively ... just nothing.

FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 6. Started the game out quickly and finished the game with two key passes and three tackles on defense, as well as a team-leading three dribbles. Might not have been the right player to take off when Allegri started making changes.

ALVARO MORATA - 5. Did a lot of dirty work but only took one shot—a horrible, horrible shot. He was in a patch of good form going into Christmas but the break—and possibly the uncertainty surrounding his situation—seems to have sapped that from him.

FEDERICO CHIESA - 8. Fantastic return from injury. He took the team on his back from an attacking standpoint, far and away leading the team with eight shots, three of them on target. His goal was well taken, and he added a pair of key passes before coming off with five minutes left.

SUBS

PAULO DYBALA - 6. Worried Ospina almost immediately, but could perhaps have been utilized differently to give himself greater effect.

RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 4. Only touched the ball 12 times in 25 minutes, and simply wasn’t a factor as Juve tried to get themselves ahead.

MOISE KEAN - 5.5. Got into good positions and had a couple of good moments of holdup play, but lacked the final touch.

MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - 5.5. Didn’t really do much to get himself upfield, but was solid on defense.

DEJAN KULUSEVSKI - NR. Thrown on late to try to run at tired defenders, but only touched the ball four times.

Juventus v Napoli - Serie A Photo by Riccardo De Luca/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

MANAGER ANALYSIS

There were a couple of perplexing decisions coming from Max Allegri in this game. Putting Paulo Dybala on when he did was a good move — he probably could/should have come on earlier, but that’s likely to do with him being on a pitch count as he works back from injury — but the way he was utilized was a mistake. Replacing Bernardeschi, unless he looked to the bench for a sub himself, was an inadvisable move, as he’d been playing quite well. Rabiot, meanwhile, was about as bad as he’s ever been, but instead of shaking things up tactically and removing the Frenchman for Dybala and moving to a 4-2-3-1, Allegri simply decided to remove Berna with Dybala free-roaming behind the striker instead of replacing Rabiot and changing formation.

With the depth he had in comparison to his opponent, Allegri really should’ve used it more to his advantage, as Napoli only had two first team players they could turn to off the bench (they only made two subs).

Allegri can only do so much when the players are on the field, but his decision-making in how and when to use his depth was perplexing and didn’t take full advantage of the massive edge in depth he had going in.

LOOKING AHEAD

Juve travel to the Stadio Olympico for the return against Roma, who Juve beat 1-0 during the andata. After that is the midweek Supercoppa Italiana, and a date with Inter. A home date with Udinese rounds out the schedule.