As Juventus’ game against Empoli on Friday night wore on, a single phrase kept on popping into my head: “It’s been a while.”
It’s been a while since Moise Kean scored a goal.
It’s been a while since Weston McKennie scored a goal in Serie A.
It’s been a while since Adrien Rabiot scored a goal in Serie A.
It’s been a while since Juventus beat a team 4-0.
In fact, the last time Juventus beat a team 4-0 was Jan. 27, 2021, in the Coppa Italia quarterfinal against SPAL. Of course, SPAL was in Serie B at the time, You have to go back another five weeks, to Dec. 19, 2020, to find when Juve pulled that scoreline against top-flight opposition. None of the three goal scorers from that game — Dejan Kulusevski, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Alvaro Morata — are still on the team.
The three goal scorers in this game were mired in long scoring droughts. Kean hadn’t scored a goal since his game-winner against Sassuolo in April. McKennie hadn’t scored in the league since January. Rabiot hadn’t scored in Serie A since the last day of the 2020-21 season.
All the ingredients in this Unlikely Stew came together to serve up a big win when it was perhaps most desperately needed. It saw good games out of not just the goal scorers, but several players that Juve need to be protagonists at this point of the season. It’s far too early to declare this a turning point of any kind. Too often over the last few years Juve have showed us games like this only to squander any kind of momentum. That win over Parma two years ago? It was followed by a 3-0 flop against Fiorentina. But if Juve can finally crest the wave and go on a run when they really, really need it, this may be the game that they can point to as the starting point.
Massimiliano Allegri had a team with a full week’s worth of rest thanks to the midweek Coppa Italia action on the peninsula. He was still missing long-term absentees Federico Chiesa, Paul Pogba, and Kaio Jorge, as well as Angel Di Maria, Mattia De Sciglio and, new to the injured list, Gleison Bremer. Allegri selected a 3-5-2 setup. Wojciech Szczesny was in goal, screened by Daniele Rugani, Leonardo Bonucci, and Danilo. Juan Cuadrado and Filip Kostic manned the wingback spots, while McKennie and Rabiot flanked Manuel Locatelli in midfield. Kean partnered up top with Dusan Vlahovic.
Empoli manager Paolo Zanetti had gone unbeaten in four road games headed into the day. His squad was mostly there, but Lorenzo Tonelli, Alberto Grassi, Ardian Ismajli, and Jean-Daniel Akpa Akpro weren’t ready for the match. Zanetti went with a 4-3-1-2 formation. Guglielmo Vicari stood in goal. Petar Stojanovic and Fabiano Parisi manned the fullback positions, flanking Sebastiano Luperto and Juve loanee Koni De Winter in the middle. Filippo Bandinelli, Razvan Marin, and Nicolas Haas made up the midfield. Another Juve connection, the forever wantaway Marko Pjaca, was deployed in the hole behind strike pair Mattia Destro and Martin Satriano.
Empoli looked to take control of possession in the early going, but Juve looked ready to throw haymakers on the run. Danilo hit a long diagonal ball along the ground that was just a toenail too far for McKennie to corral. Kean was then gifted a chance by Pjaca, whose attempt at a back pass to Marin was ridiculously strong to present the ball to the Italy international. He charged through three defenders to get into a spot where he could shoot the ball but fired it over the top corner.
But Kean looked lively from the get-go, and he finally took his chance in the eighth minute, when Kostic fired in an early cross that found him in the left channel after splitting a pair of defenders with an excellent run. De Winter waved at the ball on its way by, and Kean, who bottled a similar chance in the Derby della Mole, stuck out a leg for a simple redirection past a stranded Vicario.
Kean continued to be lively. Just minutes after scoring he chased after a long ball over the top, with De Winter holding him off just long enough for Vicario to rush out and claim the ball, although if the keeper had been a second slower Kean might have gotten there. He then hit a roundhouse volley on a cross from the right that De Winter blocked.
Of course, Juve’s fast starts have often been followed by a white-knuckled rearguard action over the last season-plus, and for much of the rest of the second half that’s what looked like we were in for. Empoli slowly seized the initiative when it came to possession and pressing Juve hard in their own half. Fortunately, Juve were soaking up the pressure relatively well, and they were still managing to threaten on the counter. Locatelli had a pair of shots blocked after Vicario punched a cross to him, then Kean really should’ve had a second goal when he got himself open for a free header only to push McKennie’s cross past the far post.
Juve had been burned enough to know that leaving Empoli a foothold in the game was playing with fire, and soon enough they got a little singed. A terrible giveaway in his own third by Cuadrado led to Destro getting a shot from point-blank range, but Szczesny stood firm and parried the ball away. A minute later, the Empoli striker redirected a long-range effort from Parisi, pushing the ball just wide.
Those threats sounded some alarm bells, and Juve should’ve doubled their lead in the 36th minute when McKennie took a through ball from Cuadrado and fired at the near post, forcing Vicario to get big and parry it. Bandinelli forced a block at the other end, with Hass putting the rebound over the bar. In the last minute of normal time Bonucci stretched for a ball and looked to have turned his ankle. The Azzurri continued playing and earned themselves a corner, which, after the initial delivery was recycled, saw Pjaca heading the ball into the side netting to end a wide open first half.
Empoli came out of the interval knowing that they had an opportunity to catch Juve out, and they kept on turning the screws, but Parisi wasted an excellent position by blasting over and a shot by Haas squeezed through a crowd only to find the mitts of Szczesny.
With the ghosts of leads past looming over their shoulders and Empoli trying to knock on the door, the Bianconeri finally said that enough was enough. In the 55th minute Kean earned a corner kick, and Cuadrado’s delivery was placed perfectly for McKennie, who rose over Stojanovic to slam a header just under the bar to double the lead.
They had finally created some breathing room, but things immediately started getting chippy. Bandinelli started jawing at Vlahovic when he appealed for a penalty moments after the goal, then Rabiot and Satriano had words with each other at the other end. Other players had to rush in to separate them, and both players were booked.
As tempers flared, something that hasn’t often happened in Allegri’s second tenure: Juve started turning the screw with the lead. Kean thought he had his second goal in the 64th minute after heading in a fantastic cross from Kostic, but he had just failed to check his run and was called offside, falling victim to another one of those inches calls that really ought to be eliminated from the rule. They started winning every 50/50 ball and put relatively constant pressure on the Empoli goal. Things were put beyond any shadow of a doubt with eight minutes left, when Juve grabbed themselves another corner and Cuadrado dropped it far post for Rabiot. The Frenchman’s header was clawed out by Vicario, but referee Michael Fabbri blew his whistle and pointed at his watch — the Goal Decision System had informed him that the ball had crossed the line, and the game was truly in the bag.
Juve should’ve had a fourth just two minutes later when Cuadrado found Arkadiusz Milik for a free header, but he directed it wide.
Three goals to the good, Allegri gave a debut to 19-year-old Samuel Iling-Junior, and the youngster immediately impressed, charging down the field and putting a nice ball across for Locatelli, whose layoff for Miretti was somehow saved at close range by Vicario. The Empoli keeper made another save in stoppage time, as Milik’s thunderous header hit him more than he moved to it.
There was nothing he could do two minutes later when Danilo made a foray forward off a feed from Locatelli, and rolled a perfect ball past Vicario and into the path of Rabiot for an easy tap-in for the team’s fourth and his second.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 7. Kept the defense organized and was equal to all shots that headed his way. A very good performance.
DANIELE RUGANI - 6. Made four clearances on a day where he was eminently competent, not putting a foot wrong.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 5.5. Not often a defender is sub-six when the team records a clean sheet, but his passing — so often his calling card — was shoddy and produced some dangerous risks.
DANILO - 7.5. Excellent defensively, leading the team with six clearances and always popping up when there was serious danger. His assist at the end of the game was a thing of beauty.
JUAN CUADRADO - 6.5. Had two assists and five key passes overall, but he very much danced on the line between continuing Juan’s Washed Watch and wondering if he’s starting to figure something out. He also racked up five tackles defensively, easily a team high.
WESTON McKENNIE - 7. Racked up a pair of key passes and put the ball on target twice, including his excellent bullet header. He still needs to be a little slicker in the buildup, but he was mostly at his best against Empoli.
MANUEL LOCATELLI - 6.5. Low-key had his best game in a long time. He wasn’t often the one making the final pass, but he was the one who made the pass before that one. Also had a great day defensively with four interceptions and a pair of tackles. Got forward a little more after Leandro Paredes was introduced and caused a little more trouble.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 7.5. Who cares if it’s garbage time? Two goals will do wonders for a player already high in the confidence department. Also carried the ball on long-distance runs a few times.
FILIP KOSTIC - 7.5. Made five key passes and completed six of his 12 crosses. Unlike his first few games, the crosses are starting to look more measured as opposed to just hoofing the ball into the box. This kind of service into the box is going to be a major boon.
MOISE KEAN - 7.5. He could easily have had a hat trick in this match if not for a couple of missed sitters and a great save by Vicario. He was lively from the get-go and looked like the kid we all thought was the future for the first time in a long while.
DUSAN VLAHOVIC - 5. Ironic that Juve’s biggest win of the year comes on a quiet day for Vlahovic. He only took a single shot and wasn’t much in the buildup either.
ARKADIUSZ MILIK - 6. Completed 92.6 percent of his passes after coming on and genuinely should have scored late on, but it was a good shift off the bench nonetheless. Will he get the start against Benfica on Tuesday?
LEANDRO PAREDES - 6. Completed all of his passes and made the midfield move a little bit.
ALEX SANDRO - NR. On to see the game out in the back three and did well enough. Certainly nothing offensive.
FABIO MIRETTI - NR. If he’d scored that goal the walls would’ve caved in. He did very well playing the ball in midfield and, as usual, always looked to get on the attack.
SAMUEL ILING-JUNIOR - NR. Showed some real promise for a teenage debutant, running down the left side with gusto and putting in at least one really dangerous ball.
***BONUS LOANEE RATINGS***
KONI DE WINTER - 5.5. Led Empoli in clearances and blocks, but was a step behind a couple of passes, including Kean’s opener. He’s got a lot of growing up to do, but he also showed his promise and what he could potentially turn into.
MARKO PJACA - 5.5. Had three key passes and forced a save out of Szczesny, but failed to create anything that looked like a truly dangerous threat.
The last few minutes of this game, when Juventus was really turning the screw hard and adding on to their lead, came when Allegri, through his subs, had put together a midfield full of ball players. Juve scored two goals with the trio of Locatelli, Paredes, and Miretti on the field. Empoli were under the most pressure, with that trio facing them down in midfield, and it’s a window into seeing what could happen if Allegri decides to loosen the reins a little and go with a ball-playing midfield. Just a thought, Max.
Ovearll, hard to argue with anything he did today. The idea of playing Kean from the start was a puzzler int he moment, leading me to think that either Milik is still carrying a knock, Kean is doing things in training that weren’t carrying over into games, or Allegri is just plain pig-headed. Option 2 seems like it might’ve been the one. He even gave Iling his debut once the game.was at hand, and it’ll be interesting to see what his place willb e moving forward.
If Juve want to advance in the Champions League, they’ll have to win on Tuesday against Benfica. If it’s possible to have a better prep for that gam than Juve did, Benfica just may have done it, beating Porto 1-0 on Friday in the twice-yearly Portuguese grudge match of a national Derby. This will be a tall order,
After that, Juve head south for a trip to Lecce, then come back home to welcome PSG for the final Champions League game of the year.