If you’d given the play-by-play of Sunday’s game between Juventus and Hellas Verona to a Hollywood producer, they would likely have rejected it as a done-to-death trope.
But there they were, Dusan Vlahovic and Denis Zakaria, starting their first games in Juventus shirts after a whirlwind week that saw Juventus come out of nowhere to bring the two of them to Turin, scoring a goal apiece in Juve’s 2-0 win over the Mastiffs.
For Vlahovic, it felt like the exact right script, given the expectations that came with his price tag and expected role. But what made the day all the more improbable was the goal from Zakaria, who had only scored 15 times in his eight-year career. Both were gorgeously struck finishes to excellent team moves, and they were more than enough on a day that saw Hellas only put one shot on target despite having control of possession far more than the Old Lady perhaps should have let them.
Overall, it was a good performance in a game that had suddenly been made exponentially more important around lunchtime in Italy when Cagliari stunned Atalanta with a 2-1 win, giving Juve another opportunity to break into the top four. After spurning such a chance in dismal fashion against AC Milan before the international break, they made sure to cash in this time, setting up a crunch six-pointer on Sunday in Bergamo.
What formation Massimiliano Allegri would likely come up with now that Vlahovic was in the fold was one of the main conversation pieces in the week since the 22-year-old striker arrived from Fiorentina. The mystery still hasn’t quite been cleared up. Different outlets have offered different opinions of how the team lined up on Sunday, with the broadcast putting up a 4-3-3, while others opined it was a 4-3-1-2. I’m personally in agreement with the arrangement put up by WhoScored, who labeled it a as a 4-3-1-2 or 4-3-2-1 depending on what time of the game it was. Wojciech Szczesny started in goal, with Danilo, Matthijs de Ligt, Giorgio Chiellini, and Mattia De Sciglio forming up in front of him. With Manuel Locatelli suspended due to yellow card accumulation and Weston McKennie only just back after a busy international break, Zakaria joined Arthur and Adrien Rabiot in the midfield. Alvaro Morata and Paulo Dybala both started along side Vlahovic, playing slightly behind and wide of him.
Igor Tudor had already put Juve to the sword in the andata with a 2-1 victory, but he was missing the man who triggered that victory, Giovanni Simeone, due to a yellow card suspension. Simeone’s strike partner, Gianluca Caprari, was also missing with an injury, as was Marco Davide Faraone and Juve loanee Gianluca Frabotta. Tudor was forced to improvise up front, eventually deploying his usual 3-4-2-1 formation. Lorenzo Montipo set up in goal behind the back three of Koray Gunter, Federico Ceccherini, and Nicolo Casale. Fabio Depaoli and Darko Lazovic were the wing-backs, bracketing Miguel Veloso and Ivan Ilic in midfield. Antonin Barak and Adrien Tameze dropped into the hole behind Kevin Lasagna.
The opening exchanges saw some tough midfield play, with the visitors slowly easing their way into more control of possession. But the very presence of Vlahovic made Juve feel dangerous, and within seven minutes the Serbia international had his first shot, taking a feed on the counter from Rabiot and firing a missile from just outside the left channel that Montipo had to fly to parry.
Verona continued to control the run of play, and Juve were lucky when Arthur tracked back to make a tackle on the left flank only to give the ball right back, but Danilo came in with a strong header to clear. But Juve bucked the run of play a few minutes later, going Route 1 up the field from the back. Casale, who had had an impressive day in holding Vlahovic scoreless when Verona had last played Fiorentina, this time made a huge mistake with his attempt to clear the long ball, nodding it straight into the path of Dybala, who hit a gorgeous lofted pass with his first touch that found Vlahovic in stride and catching Montipo halfway out of his goal and with no other option than to try and charge Vlahovic down. The new signing marked his debut with considerable aplomb, flicking the ball over the onrushing keeper with the outside of his boot to bounce in at the far post. The Allianz, back to 50 percent capacity after the international break, went into a frenzy, and Vlahovic borrowed Dybala’s trademark mask celebration as he powerslid toward the corner in triumph.
Exciting as the perfectly scripted goal had been, the elation slowly gave way to a familiar feeling of foreboding as Juve began to again cede possession to their opponent and set up a block in front of their own goal. They managed to keep Hellas under relative control, there was a threatening undercurrent knowing how capable Verona was and how slim the lead was. A mishit switch by Dybala gifted Barak a run toward the box but the Czech midfielder tried to supply Tameze when he perhaps could have gone himself, and Danilo was there to interrupt the move. Just before the half-hour Lazovic was set up perfectly for a shot when Szczesny punched a corner toward him, but his shot flew just over the top corner.
Juve weren’t completely toothless during this period, zipping the ball downfield to Vlahovic a few times on the counter. Twice the Serb went down in the box. The first time he went down far too easily, but it looked like he’d been caught the second time, and there was even a discussion over the radio between referee Luca Massimi and VAR official Daniele Doveri at the next stoppage of play, but no review was at hand. A few minutes later he was a hair’s breadth away from doubling his tally when he chested a ball down to Dybala, then continued his run when Dybala sent Morata down the left side, meeting the Spaniard’s cross with his right foot and barely flashing wide of the post. Hellas’ best chance of the half came with two minutes to go when a pass squirted into his path, but he rushed his shot and shanked it.
But for the most part, Hellas were on the front foot with possession, a condition that only increased in the second half, when Juve’s passing seriously broke down, allowing the visitors to hem them into their own half for extended stretches. Szczesny made a kick save early on when Lasagna tried to stuff the ball in from an almost flat angle, but for the most part Juve was defending in a block as they struggled to get the ball out. They were doing so successfully, as Verona were still unable to really trouble Szczesny in goal, but that one goal was looking more and more precarious each time Juve failed to play their way out of their half.
But heart rates dropped considerably when Zakaria finished the script.
The move started with Morata, who collected a pass in midfield, gave some ground as he shook off the attentions of Ceccherini, turned back inside, and bombed upfield. Vlahovic made a run forward on the left, pulling Gunter with him and rendering any offside trap useless. The rest of the Verona defenders gravitated toward Morata with the ball, completely losing track of Zakaria, who charged into a vast swath of open grass to receive Morata’s through ball, which put him one-on-one with the keeper. The Swiss took one touch and then fired home, placing the ball perfectly past Montipo as he tried to close the angle and make himself big.
The second goal was a huge sigh of relief, and the dip in Verona’s morale was considerable. Within two minutes of the goal the ball squirted out to Dybala at the right-hand corner of the six yard box, but his strong shot was parried behind. Five minutes after that Rabiot made one of those lung-busting runs through the midfield that reminds everyone that he’s actually really talented, bombing half the field and firing from outside the box only to be denied by another excellent save by Montipo.
The final 20 minutes was mostly a playing out of the string, as Allegri finally started making substitutions for rest and minor knocks, while Tudor tried to come up with something that would create a grandstand finish. He almost got it in the 88th minute, but Lazovic again rushed a good chance when he lashed at a rolled square ball from Daniel Bessa and shanked his shot wide. Juve then tried to drive the nail home, and Montipo had to be quick again on a shot from Weston McKennie, before watching Moise Kean flash the ball wide of his far post in stoppages. After four minutes of stoppage time, a wrap was called on the first episode of the Vlahovic and Zakaria Show, which was greeted by rave reviews.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 7. Had hardly any saves to make but was strong in his box and at one point in the 55th minute came blasting out of his box to clean up after an overhit back pass that had disaster written all over it. Strong organization showed as Verona was on the front foot for much of the game but only had Lasagna’s tight angle shot on target early in the second half to show for it.
DANILO - 8. In his first start back from injury in Serie A, he reminded us all how good he’s been the last two years. He tied for the team lead with four interceptions and was tied for second on the team with four tackles. He was constantly there to head the ball away when tested in the air on the back post and didn’t let anyone on the Verona left get past him. And did we mention the two key passes? A banner day.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 7. Silently solid, registering a pair of tackles and five clearances. Physically smothered Lasagna, who couldn’t use his trademark pace with Verona so often on the front foot in possession.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 7. Equalled de Ligt in clearances and also blocked a pair of shots before being withdrawn with 15 minutes to go. He’d just taken a blow to the head, so perhaps it was cautionary in that regard. We’ll have to hope.
MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - 6.5. Solid as ever defensively, and would you believe me if I told you he led the team in dribbles? (It doesn’t matter if you would or not, because he had three and no one else on the team had more than one). I’d still like to see Luca Pellegrini getting the majority of the playing time at left-back because I think he can be the future, but the way De Sciglio is playing right now it’s hard to bench him.
DENIS ZAKARIA - 8. Did exactly what Juve signed him for. Verona’s midfielders must have thought there were four of him the way he was buzzing around the midfield recovering the ball. He finished the game with two tackles and four interceptions, doing all the dirty work that allowed the rest of the midfield to focus on what they do best. And, of course, his goal was world class. It’s going to be really fun to watch him paired up with Manuel Locatelli.
ARTHUR - 7. Perhaps his most complete performance as a Juventus player. Completed 89.4 percent of his passes (one key pass), and had three tackles, three clearances, and three interceptions. He also drew four fouls, most of which came as he was trying to break the Verona press. He still did make one or two head-scratching mistakes though, but luckily Verona didn’t make him pay.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 6.5.. A monster in defense today, leading the team with five tackles and tacking on two interceptions. Unfortunately he only completed 80.5 percent of his passes, which drags him down just a peg. Nearly had a goal were it not for a good Montipo save.
PAULO DYBALA - 7.5. Took it to heart when Max Allegri said that everyone needed to do some running with Vlahovic in the fold. He was sticking his nose in defensively more than we’ve ever seen him, and he finished the day tied for second on the team with four tackles, a number that for any forward not named Mario Mandzukic is patently absurd. His assist for Vlahovic’s opener was delicious, and, like Rabiot, he was denied a place on the scoresheet by a really good save. This free-flowing role seems good for him, especially with Vlahovic to play off.
ALVARO MORATA - 8. Thrived when freed from the responsibility of being The Man. Made a pair of key passes, including the assist for Zakaria’s goal that came at the end of a great solo run. To again invoke the name of the Mandzubeast, he could be the next striker-turned-wide-man story in Allegri’s book.
DUSAN VLAHOVIC - 8. Was constantly available to hold up play, although that got a little looser as the game went on, perhaps due to fatigue. His goal was superbly taken, and he came close to two more. There were tiny niggles to his game — he went down a little too easily in the box and tried a few fancy bits of footwork when he probably could’ve hauled off and fired, but that’s splitting hairs. He was a huge injection of energy.
JUAN CUADRADO - 6. Put in a key pass and very nearly connected with a sliding Vlahovic on another cross. If he’s unleashed to provide his usual contribution down the right, he and Dusan could get to know each other very well.
DANIELE RUGANI - 6.5. Blocked a pair of shots in his 16 minutes of work in relief of Chiellini. There was no drop-off in defense when he came on.
WESTON McKENNIE - NR. Passing was a little slipshod, but he very nearly scored late and added in a tackle and a clearance.
MOISE KEAN - NR. Missed a late exclamation point goal by a whisker. It’ll be interesting to see if he plays a little freer now that he no longer has the spotlight of being “guy Juve bought right after selling Cristiano Ronaldo.”
Mad Max dipped into his bag of tricks, and like the 2016-17 season when he put all his best attackers onto the pitch at the same time, he did the same today. When Juve was attacking, it worked. Morata was excellent on the left side, Dybala floated everywhere influencing play, and Vlahovic held play up relatively well and was a gravity well for defenders, proving useful in that role in Juve’s second goal.
The problem was Juve wasn’t really attacking enough. Verona had more possession and actually outshot Juve 13-11. The difference was that Juve put eight of their 11 on target, while Verona only managed one. It looked pretty clear in the game’s early and middle phases, that even with his added firepower Allegri was content — in a home game with so much on the line after Atalanta lost — to soak up pressure and counter. They were able to hold their lead until Zakaria’s insurance policy, but doing the same against a team like Atalanta this week, even if Duvan Zapata isn’t ready to go, could be suicide. Even this Verona team had its moments where better finishing would have changed things, especially while down its top strikers.
Allegri needs to start getting aggressive again. Go for the jugular more and seek out the second goal rather than setting up a low block and hoping for it off the counter. Vlahovic give the team a ton more firepower, but if Allegri is going to continue playing stolid football like this he won’t take full advantage of it. It’s impossible to control a game for 90 full minutes, yes, but a team like Verona, as good as they can be, shouldn’t have the ball as much as they did against this new roster. Allegri has to find the courage to go for a few more goals. We’ve seen him do it before. If he’s going to take this team the places they want to go, he has to again.
Juve’s next match comes on Thursday, when Sassuolo comes to Turin for the Coppa Italia quarterfinal. But that game almost pales in comparison to the momentus event coming after.
Sunday’s game against Atalanta is a true six-pointer. Juve are now two points ahead of La Dea thanks to the latter’s shocking 2-1 loss at home Cagliari today. Atalanta do have a game in hand, which is what makes this game even bigger for Juve. If they win, not only can they shift the tiebreaker, which Atalanta currently holds thanks to their win in the first game, but they make that game in hand a lot less relevant, as it would prevent Atalanta from passing them just by winning that game.
Gian Piero Gapserini’s men are also vulnerable right now. They’re now 1-3-1 (W-D-L) in their last five games, and they’ll be minus starting goalkeeper Juan Musso, who is suspended after getting sent off, and (most likely) Duvan Zapata, who came off the bench in a return from injury today only to come limping off 13 minutes later. Juve are energized and their opponent will be vulnerable. It’s the ultimate opportunity, and it’s time to take it.