After a weekend that gave Juventus their first shot in the arm — and the fans their first dose of good feels — in quite a long time, there was hope that their midweek matchup against rock-bottom Hellas Verona would perhaps take the next step and see them finally thrash a side near the bottom of the table.
Of course, that wasn’t in the cards.
Whether it was a hangover after the extreme expenditure of emotional capital in Sunday’s Derby, the result of coaching decisions, or a simple regression to the mean, Juventus once again seriously struggled against a bottom-dwelling side on Thursday night.
There was, however, one major difference between this match and previous tilts against teams like Salernitana and Monza: Juventus still won.
Despite playing an awful game, Juve still managed to pull in three points thanks to an Ugly Goal (TM) midway through the second half, then rode their luck through a pair of penalty appeals (one more legit than the other) in order to gut out a 1-0 win and bring home three ugly points that, coupled with other results in the midweek fixtures, propelled them all the way back into the top four, with an opportunity to climb as high as second by the World Cup break if other results go their way on Sunday.
Massimiliano Allegri still had a massive injury situation to deal with. Federico Chiesa was left home after feeling soreness in his knee after his first two games back — routine issues for a recovery like this — and he was joined on the list by Paul Pogba, Dusan Vlahovic, Weston McKennie, Samuel Iling-Junior, Mattia De Sciglio, and Kaio Jorge, although he recovered Moise Kean and Leandro Paredes from the treatment room. He stuck with the back three that has fueled Juve’s good run of recent results — they were chasing their first five-game winning streak in the league since just before the COVID-19 lockdown in Italy — with a slight alteration. Mattia Perin gave Wojciech Szcezney a break in goal, starting in front of a 3-5-2 setup. Danilo, Leonardo Bonucci, and Bremer made up the back three, with Juan Cuadrado and Filip Kostic surrounding the midfield of Nicolo Fagioli, Manuel Locatelli, and Adrien Rabiot. Kean started up front alongside Arkadiusz Milik.
Verona were coming into this game in dire straits. They came into the game on an eight-game losing streak — their worst run ever as a top-flight team. Coach Salvatore Bocchetti was missing the suspended Giangiacomo Magnani, while onetime Juventus savior Marco Davide Faraoni was on the injured list alongside Ivan Ilikc, Ajdin Hrustic, Diego Coppola and Roberto Piccoli. He sent out a 3-4-2-1 in front of goalkeeper Lorenzo Montipo. Federico Ceccherini, Pawel Dawidowicz, and Isak Hien played in defense. Filippo Terracciano and Josh Doig bookended the midfield pivot of Martin Hongla and Sulemana, while Kevin Lasagna and Yayah Kallon supported Milan Djuric up front.
For the first couple of minutes, it looked like the Bianconeri were going to take the momentum from Sunday’s big win and run with it, but they quickly bogged down and Verona started playing with the urgency of a team that knew that relegation could be a foregone conclusion by Valentine’s Day if they didn’t pick things up. Juve’s passing was absolutely brutal. They either mishit simple balls or, out of sync with each other, made what would have been an incisive pass only to see their target curtail their run or break in the other direction.
That sloppy play allowed Verona to take a firm hold of the game’s opening phases. Only three minutes in Sulemana tried his luck from beyond the box after he latched on to a defensive header from a corner, flashing it wide just wide. Three minutes later, Bonucci was already in referee Marco Di Bello’s book after a lazy tackle brought down a running Lasagna. In the 16th minute, Kallon sent Lasagna into the box. The striker’s shot was right at Perin, thought it forced him to stretch to catch it. The ball kept coming back, and a minute later Danilo had to make an important tackle in the middle of the box to deny Djuric.
It took about 20 minutes for Juve to finally get their sea legs. In the 22nd minute they finally had their first shot after Milik took down a long pass from Bonucci and got a shooting window passed Hien, only to see his effort go right at Montipo. Juve started to consolidate possession, but it was largely sterile and Juve were often trapped passing laterally in the Verona half without creating much in the way of opportunity. Their best chance came in the 37th minute when Cuadrado and Fagioli combined to shuttle the ball into the middle for Locatelli, who hit an excellent 25-yard curler that Montipo had to scuttle across to parry behind. The ensuing corner was knocked down to Bremer, who applied a defender’s finish and skied it from six yards.
Sulemana managed to get in behind the defense just before halftime, but somehow contrived to push his shot wide, though his embarrassment was somewhat spared by the offside flag flashing up. The teams went into the half goalless, with the sense that it would be a case of whoever made the first mistake arriving on the short end of the game.
In the first phases of the second half, it looked like that team would be Juve. When a dodgy handball call from Di Bello on Cuadrado along the touchline gave Verona the chance to send the ball into the box, the delivery found Dawidowicz at the far post, but the Verona skipper could only reach out a leg and tip the ball wide — although had he scored there would’ve been questions about him dragging Cuadrado with him by his shirt. Four minutes later, the defender had another opportunity when a cross fell to him in the box, but like Bremer in the first half he produced a defender’s finish and ballooned it from close range.
Those misses would prove costly. In the 58th minute Juve fired a warning shot when Rabiot broke down the right channel and centered the ball, only for Kean to just miss making contact with it. Two minutes later Milik sent Rabiot down the middle of the field, and the Frenchman pressed the ball forward to Kean, who surged between two defenders and let fly from 17 yards out. Dawidowicz got a slight touch to the shot, straightening it out and forcing Montipo to come back to it. He got a hand to the ball but couldn’t keep it from looping into the net, giving Juve the lead as Kean danced in front of the Verona fans he once played for on loan.
Changes were made by each team in the aftermath of the goal, Juve looking to add fresh legs to the engine room with Paredes and Fabio Miretti, while Verona countered with with Miguel Veloso and Darko Lazovic to add more attacking punch. Juve started to drop back a little too far, threatening to pull an Allegri special with a one-goal lead. Such situations have bitten the team in the ass on multiple occasions the last two years, and it came very close to doing so twice as the game ended its latter stages.
The first heart-stopper came with 15 minutes to go, when a corner was headed out to Veloso, who fired in a shot. The ball deflected off Dawidowicz, then directly into the outstretched arm of Danilo, who had been stretching to try to interdict the initial shot. The deflection came from point blank range, but referees over the last few seasons have very often given a penalty when a player’s arm is quite so far away from his body on calls like this. Frankly, had I been the referee, I would likely have done so myself.
But Di Bello made no move to do so. The Verona players were beside themselves, and they almost immediately put the ball out of play on their own to try to prompt a VAR review. But VAR official Marco Guida rather quickly confirmed the call on the field without even bringing Di Bello to the monitor, infuriating the home side even more. The frustration immediately started to boil over, and Veloso was booked after shoving Miretti away from the ball after a foul to gather the ball for the free kick.
They must have felt vindicated in the 83rd minute when Di Bello immediately pointed to the spot when Bonucci and Simone Verdi clashed with a pair of high boots. At first glance it looked like the kind of silly mistake that Bonucci has been so prone to as his career has entered its decline phase the last year or so. But Bonucci was adamant that he’d won the ball, and in the VAR room, Guida agreed. He buzzed down for a review, and there was indeed an angle that clearly showed him win the ball, with Verdi actually kicking him an instant later. Di Bello came back and pointed for the foul in the other direction. VAR had let Bonucci off the hook, although it’s still worth pointing out how utterly stupid it is to lift a boot that high in your own box.
Juve made a couple of runs at a clinching goal late on, with Angel Di Maria’s drive across the face of goal not quite a shot and not quite a cross. But with the VAR review contributing to five minutes of stoppage time at the end of the match, there was one last twist to the tale. A long ball from Koray Gunter found Thomas Henry, who sent a through ball in to Lasagna, who got around Alex Sandro in the back. Lasagna was clean through, but Sandro, sensing what was about to happen, shoved him over from behind before he could get into the penalty area. Di Bello immediately — and properly — pulled out a red card for denial of a clear goal-scoring opportunity.
But Sandro’s sacrifice for the team paid off. Verdi airmailed the ensuing free kick, and one last attempt also went begging at the substitute’s boots when he hit a shot well wide from the right channel. When Di Bello’s final whistle finally blew, Juventus was a top four team, with the chance for more at the weekend.
MATTIA PERIN - 6. He didn’t have much to do at all. Hellas took 15 shots but only found the target twice, and didn’t test him at all in the second half despite taking 11 of their shots in the second period. Kept the defense ahead of him organized to minimize any true danger.
DANILO - 6.5. Another typically strong day in the back, registering two interceptions and four clearances, although he was a very lucky boy to not have given away a penalty in that handball shout. You have to control your arms in that situation.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 6. I cannot stress how lucky he is that he got the ball before Verdi did. It was insanely dangerous to put a boot up that high in your own box. But, he did indeed get it, and also made four clearances on the evening.
BREMER - 7. A team-high five clearances and a strong day throughout for the big center-back, who is showing a lot more of the guy that won Serie A defender of the year last season than he was before his injury.
JUAN CUADRADO - 6.5. Worked like crazy against an in-form Doig on his side of the field. He got caught on the wrong side of a couple of long passes, but eventually racked up five tackles, a game high he shared with Dawidowicz. He added two interceptions and three clearances on the day, and added in a key pass on the other end. Interestingly, he seemed to be trying a different approach while attacking, attempting fewer full take-ons and trying smaller moves that are less reliant on pace to open space for himself. We’ll see if it works.
NICOLO FAGIOLI - 6. Notched a key pass and did well defensively, racking up three tackles and showing real energy in midfield whether in possession or defense.
MANUEL LOCATELLI - 6. Almost scored in the first half with a really fantastic curling shot that Montipo got to. He also connected on six of eight long passes. He’s continuing to show signs of coming out of his long funk.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 7. Assisted on the goal and added two more key passes, plus three clearances and a pair of tackles on defense. Strong form continues, and it’s going to make for some interesting decisions in midfield when Paul Pogba does in fact return.
FILIP KOSTIC - 5. Night and day from his near-dominant performance on Sunday. He rarely got himself into position to deliver a cross all night, and when he did they were far from the pinpoint accuracy he achieved in the Derby. He did make three tackles on the defensive end though.
MOISE KEAN - 6. This is becoming a trend for Kean. He’ll flub seemingly everything over the course of a game, then at the one critical sequence suddenly do everything right and score. That was the case here, when he was barely in the game at all and had just missed a really good opportunity to score only to make a good run through the middle and benefit from a deflection off Dawidowicz.
ARKADIUSZ MILIK - 6. He only took one shot in this game, but he ran his ass off with and without the ball. It was a work rate that evoked Mario Mandzukic, and it was his entry pass that kicked off the move that led to the goal. He’s earning his keep here.
LEANDRO PAREDES - 6. Didn’t misplace a pass and created a shot to boot, adding in an interception on defense.
FABIO MIRETTI - 5. I wonder if his early-season workload is fatiguing him, because some of his decisions and passes looked like those a heavy-legged kid would make. He only attempted nine passes but completed only four of them — albeit one for a key pass. The World Cup break could be key for him.
ANGEL DI MARIA - 5.5. Made two shots and a key pass but wasn’t able to be a creative force given the nature of the game.
ALEX SANDRO - NR. It’s not often that one praises a player for getting sent off, but this is the exception. Sandro took one for the team here, knowing he had no chance to catch Lasagna and knowing he had to prevent a one-on-one. He’ll get an early start on World Cup prep.
The biggest adjustment to this game from recent ones for Max Allegri was the reintroduction of Kean, giving Milik a true strike partner instead of playing Miretti out of position as a trequartista behind the striker. Milik doesn’t quite have the chemistry with Kean that he’s shown with Vlahovic when they play up top together, but it’s a good move simply by keeping players in their proper positions. Kean didn’t have the best game overall, but found the breakthrough at the right time. If Allegri can figure out a way to get the team more crisp in possession, they could start really putting pressure on opponents in attack in the future.
The big question about this 3-5-2 is what to do with it when some injured players return full-time. When Pogba finally comes back there will be a lot of options for limited space in midfield, although if there’s a long Europa League run in the offing there will be lots of need for rotation. More worrying is what to do with Federico Chiesa. There are no positions in a 3-5-2 that are ideal to him. Playing as a wing-back would put a lot of stress on his knee at a time when the team probably doesn’t want to do that. We saw last year that playing as a seconda punta robs him of a lot of the dynamism that he thrives on in his proper positions out wide. This formation has been credited with a lot of Juve’s recent run of form, but it may have to go to give returning players a chance to play at their best.
Only one game remains before the World Cup break, on Sunday at home against Lazio. A win would see Juve leapfrog their opponents and take third place. If AC Milan lose to Fiorentina earlier in the day, it’s conceivable that Juve could finish the calendar year in second.