Stop me of you’ve heard this one before: Juventus pick up an early goal, then up and stop playing. They end up making things way, way too hard on themselves before squeezing out a result in the dying moments.
It’s a tale that we’ve watched play out in so many games over the years, it’s almost what you expect at this point. And true to form, there was Juventus, taking the lead over Sassuolo in the third minute before getting utterly dominated for almost the entire first half. Minus the early goal, it very much had the look of the game that these two teams played out at the Allianz Stadium in October, when Sassuolo generally dominated the match and pulled out a 2-1 victory with the last kick of the game.
The scoreline in this one was identical — it was just the order of the teams that scored that went in reverse. The general flow of the game was also a bit different. Unlike the first game between the two, when Juve’s comeback efforts were somewhat anemic, they genuinely put Sassuolo under siege in the second half, forcing save after save after incredible save from Sassuolo’s No. 2 keeper, 40-year-old Gianluca Pegolo.
It was going to take either a special effort or a huge stroke of luck in order to beat the keeper on a day like this, and two minutes from time Juve managed to get a little bit of both when Dusan Vlahovic made a stirring solo run along the byline before a huge deflection off a defender sent Pegolo the wrong way, giving Juve the lead for good and setting up a semifinal matchup with Fiorentina, the team that just sent Vlahovic to Juventus two weeks ago.
Massimiliano Allegri took a different tack from the one that saw Juve beat Hellas Verona over the weekend, and chose to send out a 4-2-3-1 formation. Mattia Perin took the usual Coppa start in goal, with Mattia De Sciglio, Matthijs de Ligt, Leonardo Bonucci, and Alex Sandro in front of him in defense. Denis Zakaria and Arthur formed the double pivot in midfield, with Juan Cuadrado, Paulo Dybala, and Weston McKennie lined up behind Vlahovic in the attack.
Coach Alessio Dionisi mirrored his opponent with his usual 4-2-3-1, and he pulled no punches in throwing out his best lineup, minus Pegolo, who took the gloves for the cup tie. Arrayed in front of him were Ruan, Kaan Ayhan, Gian Marco Ferrari, and Giorgios Kyriakopoulos. The midfield was made up of Abdou Harroui and October’s match-winner, Maxime Lopez. Domenico Berardi, Giacomo Raspadori, and Hamed Junior Traore set up behind Gianluca Scamacca.
Juve were on top in the blink of an eye. It came when Sandro’s cross from the left was corralled by McKennie. The Texan scuffed his shot but the deflection landed right at the feet of Dybala, whose first time shot took a quick bounce and powered in under the crossbar.
It was the team’s high water mark of the better part of an hour.
Rather than take the game by the horns and press their advantage, Juve immediately allowed Sassuolo to take control of proceedings. They made their first attempt at a response within five minutes when Berardi was able to cut inside and shoot on his lethal left foot, but de Ligt came sliding in to block it into the side netting. He had an even better crack at goal five minutes after that when Bonucci made a huge mistake and sent a back pass right to the winger, who chested the ball down and struck a powerful effort first time in the channel, but Perin made an incredible save to keep Juve ahead.
Perin had to continue to be alert, flying to his left to deny Kyriakopoulos after the full-back cut inside following a long run, then had an easier job when Traore hit a shot right at him. But the Neroverdi were completely in control, and you could see the equalizer coming from a mile away. It finally came when Traore took advantage of Bonucci giving him far too much room in the box, cutting inside off a layoff from Scamacca and wrapping a shot into the top far corner to tie the score.
Juve wouldn’t be able to get themselves out of their own half again for another 10 minutes. Finally, after being dominated for an extended period, they showed a little life with 10 minutes left in the half, but couldn’t retake the lead after McKennie hit a diving header right at Pegolo. The keeper then charged down Vlahovic after Bonucci put him behind the defense with a long ball, then did similarly to punch away a stab from Sandro after Zakaria put the ball back into the mix following a corner.
Sassuolo still looked dangerous as the second half began. Scamacca — who Juventus were seriously linked to for the summer before the Vlahovic move was finally made — had a pair of free headers miss the target in the first eight minutes. But 10 minutes into the half Dybala took down a long ball and fed the ball to a charging De Ligt, who in turn found McKennie alone in the left channel. He unleashed a curler that looked destined for the top corner until it smacked flush against the post.
From that point on, Juve started turning the momentum. Pegolo was forced into a good save in the 63rd minute with a stop on a near-post bullet by Vlahovic. Things went back and forth a little bit more before Juve truly started pinning Sassuolo back and forced Pegolo into a series of incredible saves over the last 20 minutes. He was assisted by a huge block by Ferrari in the 72nd minute, keeping substitute Alvaro Morata from putting the ball on frame, then somehow parried another McKennie header from point-blank range, sighing with relief when de Ligt put the rebound onto the post and then Bonucci somehow contrived to put that rebound over from a yard and a half out. Three minutes later, Morata was put clean through on goal but Pegolo stayed with the play and managed to throw a fist up and block the Spaniard’s chip. Then he somehow got his fingers to a backwards flick by Adrien Rabiot, whose flicked header was destined to the far bottom corner.
Juve poured forward to try to win the game without having to go to extra time, with even de Ligt moving forward to run the channels, but Pegolo was single-handedly keeping his team in position to perhaps advance. But with two minutes to go in normal time Vlahovic chased down a long pass on the left wing and, with support a ways away, took things upon himself. He powered his way past Mert Muldur, then blasted the ball in the direction of the goal from a tight angle. His shot bounced off the trailing arm of Ruan, redirecting it in the opposite direction of Pegolo’s dive and finally beating a keeper having the game of his life.
As the team saw out stoppage time, their place in the semifinals was booked, and a major bullet dodged in more ways than one.
MATTIA PERIN - 8. Made a couple of really sharp saves early on when Sassuolo were dominating. Kept the defense relatively compact
MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - 6. Made four tackles in just over half an hour of work, but had a few problems with Kyriakopoulos and Traore.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 6.5. Made a pair of clearances and was moving forward to attack in the last minutes of the game. Had one shot well saved and another bounce off the woodwork.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 5.5. There was some clear rust on Bonucci. His passing in the first half was scattered all over the place and he gave Traore way too much space in the run-up to the equalizer. But the started growing into the game in the second half, finishing with a pair of key passes dropped in behind the defense.
ALEX SANDRO - 6. Finished with a pair of key passes, always looking to overlap on the left side. Had a few problems with Berardi, but who doesn’t?
DENIS ZAKARIA - 6. Registered a pair of tackles on the defensive end and caused some danger on the occasions he was close to the box. Definitely brings a different dimension to the midfield, freeing up the rest of the unit to move forward when the team has the initiative.
ARTHUR - 6. Completed 92 percent of his passes and wasn’t as successful in the defensive phase as he was against Verona over the weekend. Things didn’t really pick up until he came off.
JUAN CUADRADO - 5.5. Completed 93 percent of his passes but was a little off in the final third, without much of his signature creativity. It’s not often that he finishes a game without a key pass, but that’s what happened today.
PAULO DYBALA - 7.5. Put the opening goal away with aplomb and was buzzing around the box trying to create, finishing with four key passes and five successful dribbles, and he also did his work tracking back, picking up a tackle and an interception.
WESTON McKENNIE - 6. Was really rough in the first half but made up for it in the second. Had two strong headers denied by Pegolo and did everything right when he hit the post on the hour. He also finished with three key passes and added three tackles on the defensive end.
DUSAN VLAHOVIC - 7. Always attacking the goal, regardless of whether or not he had a favorable angle. Had a couple of nice passing exchanges, finishing the day with three key passes and, of course, forcing the own goal to decide things.
MANUEL LOCATELLI - 7. Made three tackles in 29 minutes on the pitch, adding in a key pass and 85 percent passing. Made a big difference when he came out on the field.
ALVARO MORATA - 6. A little better than McKennie on the left side of the attack, and it’s still hard to believe Pegolo stopped him on that one-on-one. If he plays like this out on the left for the rest of the season it will be a major plus.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 6. Somehow denied by Pegolo late with a flicked header off a long throw. Also picked up a tackle on the defensive end and was generally solid for the 20 minutes he was on.
KAIO JORGE - NR. On to see out the last few minutes after the winner was scored.
At this point, I’m starting to wonder if Max Allegri simply doesn’t want to score as many goals as possible. Juve got a gift with less than three minutes on the clock, but instead of trying to capitalize on that fortune and put the game away early, Allegri was once again content to play defend and counter at home. Sassuolo deserve credit for the way they played and their courage for playing on the front foot for so much of that first half, but if the second half made anything clear it’s that this team can turn the screw if they’re unleashed to do it.
The problem with Allegri is that he doesn’t seem to care to do so unless another goal is needed. The coach needs to start capitalizing on the firepower he now has at his disposal and pushing to put games away early, as opposed to playing to simply hang on to a lead once they have it. This is one of the things that’s really holding this team back, and until Allegri decides to change his super-defensive mindset, they’re going to keep being held back. He made the right decisions in the second half to eventually get Juve into the right positions to win, but he should’ve had that going from the moment Sassuolo kicked off after Dybala’s goal.
A monster game looms on Sunday, as Juve face off against Atalanta in Bergamo in a six-pointer for the top four. La Dea will be without starting goalkeeper Juan Musso (suspended) and striker Duvan Zapata (injured), and have generally endured a rough patch of form over the last few weeks. If they strike while the iron is hot, Juve could have their own destiny in their own hands the second half of the season.