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Juve’s skeleton crew scrapes out away win at Empoli

A badly depleted Juventus side fought hard and was given a late scare before pulling out three points at the Stadio Castellani.

Empoli FC v FC Juventus - Serie A Photo by Giuseppe Maffia/NurPhoto via Getty Images

To call the Juventus team that paid a visit to the Stadio Carlo Castellani on Saturday depleted is an understatement on the level of saying a Boeing 747 is pretty big.

The Bianconeri travelled to Tuscany missing a whopping eight players due to injury. That included:

  • Federico Chiesa and Kaio Jorge, who are both out with season-ending knee injuries.
  • Weston McKennie, who is out at least two months after breaking his foot midweek.
  • And a laundry list of muscle injuries that included Federico Bernardeschi, Alex Sandro, Daniele Rugani, Giorgio Chiellini, and Paulo Dybala.

Additionally, Leonardo Bonucci is clearly less than 100 percent and gutting out every minute he plays. Dusan Vlahovic has played every game since he arrived at Juve at the end of January, as has Matthijs de Ligt. To get a sense of how little depth the team has left, only one of the players in the starting XI against Empoli hadn’t seen minutes against Villarreal in the Champions League on Tuesday. Things didn’t get any better in-game, as Juve watched yet another player limp off with a muscle injury just over half an hour in.

This was the kind of game where you simply throw out who’s healthy and start to pray. Of course, it helps when you’re playing a team that hasn’t won a league game in nine rounds and has the second-worst defense in the entire league. It’s also good to have an emerging alien in the form of Vlahovic, who scored two really pretty goals in what was otherwise a fairly ugly, if entertaining, match. The Serbia international’s strikes gave Juve a two-goal cushion after they opened the scoring only to give up a soft equalizer, but Empoli took advantage of tired legs and tired minds to pull back and came uncomfortably close to pulling even again before Juve managed to regain a modicum of control and see out a 3-2 victory that ended a string of three straight draws and saw them draw that little bit closer to the pack at the top of the table.

With limited options, Massimiliano Allegri could do little more than throw out a 4-4-2 and hope for his superior players to see him through. Wojciech Szczesny made his 200th Serie A appearance in goal, behind the back line of Danilo, de Ligt, Bonucci, and Luca Pellegrini. Denis Zakaria and Arthur made up the midfield, bookended by Juan Cuadrado and Adrien Rabiot. Vlahovic partnered with Moise Kean to give Alvaro Morata a rest.

Empoli manager Aurelio Andreazzoli, who had managed to pull of one of the upsets of the year at the Allianz Stadium in Round 2 this year, countered with a full-strength 4-3-1-2 setup. Gugliemo Vicario was between the sticks, screened by Petar Stojanovic, Ardian Ismajli, Sebastiano Luperto, and Liberato Cacace. Filippo Bandinelli, Szymon Zurkowski, and Kristjan Asllani made up the midfield, with Nedim Bajrami in the hole behind the Italian strike pair of Federico Di Francesco and Andrea Pinamonti.

Juve came out of the blocks hot, looking to strike early from their vulnerable position. Danilo tracked a fourth-minute corner well but could only head over the bar. Three minutes later Zakaria made a good tackle in midfield and then followed the run of Vlahovic, who put his fellow winter arrival through. The Swiss tried to place his shot under the charging keeper from 12 yards, but Vicario just got a touch to it with, frankly, his armpit, deflecting the ball just wide of the post.

The two sides started trading attacks that couldn’t quite find the final balls, but Empoli began to grow into the match in the middle stages of the half, and in the 21st minute presented their first real danger when Bonucci had to block a shot from Zurkowski. Just after the half-hour Empoli caused a problem in the scrum of a corner when Luperto flicked on from the near side, but no one could get the final touch to it and Szczesny eventually claimed — although it wouldn’t be the only time such a corner would give Juve problems.

Empoli looked like they were getting firmly on the front foot when an excellently worked play gave Juve the lead. Pellegrini initiated the move, putting Rabiot through down the left edge of the box. The Frenchman swung in a gorgeous cross that was met by Kean at the top of the 6-yard box for a soaring header that bounced into the bottom corner. It was a perfectly taken strike by a man who really, really needed a goal.

Empoli FC v Juventus - Serie A Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images

But the good vibes were short-lived. Five minutes after the goal Zakaria limped off with what looked like an injury to the groin or thigh, lengthening the injury list even further. As the team was still adjusting to the new setup with substitute Manuel Locatelli on, they gave up what might be one of the softest goals in the history of the sport. Another Empoli corner was flicked on from the near post, but when that flick died in the middle of the box, no one in a Juventus shirt reacted even a little bit, eventually allowing Zurkowski to poke the ball toward goal not once, but twice, the final one flying in to tie the score.

It was a deflating moment that could have fully taken the wind out of Juve’s sails, but their new signing turned the flow of the game back their way in the second minute of first-half stoppage time with a gorgeous goal. Full credit goes to Arthur for making a good interception off Asllani in midfield and pushing the ball to Cuadrado, who made the entry pass to Vlahovic. The striker made a beautiful feint to draw Vicario out of his goal and onto the ground before stroking the ball into the net.

The early stages of the second half was a pitched midfield battle that saw a lot of action but few real chances. But in the 66th minute Juve doubled their lead, coming flying out of the back on the counter. Alvaro Morata, just come on as a sub, provided the final ball for Vlahovic, who made an outrageous first touch to control before easily lifting the ball over Vicario.

That really should have been it, up two goals midway through the second half. But if there’s one thing we know about this Juventus team, it’s that they never make things easy, and in the 76th minute they left substitute Andrea La Mantia wide open on the back side, and when Fabiano Parisi’s ball bounced through the Juventus penalty area he made no mistake in sweeping the ball in at his near post first time to set up a grandstand finish.

In the initial minutes after the goal it looked like Empoli were going to turn the screw and pin Juve back in search of an equalizer, and with 10 minutes left La Mantia almost got gifted a brace when and attempted clearance from Bonucci bounced off his midriff and flash wide. But Juve managed to keep themselves from entering a siege state, and Empoli didn’t seriously threaten again before the final whistle blew and Juve had claimed a massive victory.

LE PAGELLE

WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 7. Quick off his line for the occasional claim, but there was nothing he could to prevent either goal from scoring, being so thoroughly let down by his defense both times.

DANILO - 6. Uncharacteristically slack, especially with his passes, especially a few in the early stages of the second half. But he was his usual self on defense today, registering three tackles, three clearances, and two interceptions.

MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 6. Eventually he’s gonna need a rest, but he continued to be his good old self today, not letting anything get remotely close to scoring if it was in his orbit.

Empoli FC v Juventus - Serie A Photo by Daniele Badolato - Juventus FC/Juventus FC via Getty Images

LEONARDO BONUCCI - 7. Led the team with seven clearances and blocked two shots. That he’s not 100 percent is painfully obvious, but with Chiellini and Rugani out he’s gutting it out for the good of the team.

LUCA PELLEGRINI - 7. The team’s co-leader in tackles with four, along with a clearance and two key passes on the attacking end. How he keeps on having games like this only to by looked over for a struggling Alex Sandro is beyond me.

JUAN CUADRADO - 7.5. Made a whopping five key passes, adding in four clearances on the defensive side. Roamed free all over the field to use his creativity to unlock his teammates however he could.

ARTHUR - 6.5. Competed 94.6 percent of his passes and is finally starting to get the ball FORWARD. His interception was key to Juve’s second goal.

DENIS ZAKARIA - 6. Was playing well in the Weston McKennie role. He nearly scored early and was getting forward well to combine with the strikers. His injury is a massive blow given the situation that’s already unfolding at the J Medical.

ADRIEN RABIOT - 7. Who’d’ve thunk it? After another big mistake in midweek, Rabiot had an excellent day. His assist for Kean’s goal was gorgeous, and overall he finished the day with two key passes, four tackles, and three clearances. Where was this forever?

MOISE KEAN - 7. An excellent header to open the scoring, and something he desperately ended after a scuffling season. He looked freer with Vlahovic as the focal point, allowing him to run with the ball and attack the back line a little more.

DUSAN VLAHOVIC - 8. Two absolutely beautiful goals, as well as a key pass and a team-high three dribbles. As advertised so far.

SUBS

MANUEL LOCATELLI - 6. Put in an industrious shift defensively with two tackles and two clearances, but only completed 84.2 percent of his passes. Perhaps it’s just exhaustion from a busy year, but his levle of play has dropped off a bit.

ALVARO MORATA - 6. Smart assist and was a constant danger when he was afforded the ability to charge into space.

MANAGER ANALYSIS

There simply isn’t much to say about Allegri when it comes to this game. He threw out the healthy guys he had and hoped it would work, and for the most part it did. There’s literally nothing he could have done differently.

One thing does need to be addressed though: At what point do we have to look at this coaching staff when it comes to all these injuries?

While freak in-game traumas like Chiesa and McKennie’s injuries are clearly not the fault of the coaching, but this spate of muscle injuries is a little bit insane. It isn’t just now, either. Chiesa missed two months with a muscle injury before he blew out his knee, and Danilo has only recently returned from a similar spell on the sidelines.

Muscle injuries like this are an unfortunate fact of life under most Allegri teams. His first tenure at Juve was fraught with them as well, as was his time at AC Milan — imagine what Stephan El Shaarawy’s career might have been if he hadn’t gotten hurt so much under Allegri. They are so prevalent that it’s not a bad idea to start looking at Allegri’s methods to see if there’s something that’s overworking these players. There’s way too much going on here to just call it bad luck.

LOOKING AHEAD

Vlahovic goes back to Fiorentina a little earlier than he anticipated on Wednesday, when Juve head to Florence to play for Fiorentina in the first leg of the Coppa Italia semifinal. After that, Spezia comes to the Allianz for Serie A action on Sunday.