After the debacle that was their midweek elimination from the Champions League, the last thing Juventus needed coming into their Sunday afternoon matchup with Salernitana was a locker room controversy. With the Champions League rug once again pulled out from under the team early, Juve had only to consolidate their position in the top four and make a last attempt at silverware in the Coppa Italia to end the season — and it was best to do that with as few distractions as possible.
Fortunately, the training ground row, which stemmed from several players asking on behalf of the team for more time to rest in training, didn’t end up affecting the team’s play on the field Sunday afternoon. It was just as well, because in order to do what they needed to do, they would have to win as many games as possible to keep the chasing pack of Roma and Atalanta at bay. So when a team like Salernitana came to town — the absolute worst team in the league — Juve was going to have to take care of business without faffing around and dropping points the way they did last season against the likes of Benevento.
It was a bit more of a grind than one would have liked, but business was indeed taken care of.
With respect to the side from Salerno, the margin of victory in this game should’ve been far larger than the 2-0 scoreline that ended the game. Had Juve been a little more clinical, things would’ve been academic by halftime. But despite those misses, Juve were up early thanks to Paulo Dybala, who returned to the lineup and immediately began to do how Paulo Dybala do. That and a towering Dusan Vlahovic header were enough to put Salernitana away, despite a serious dip in energy in the second half that saw the relegation battlers unable to take advantage of a couple of promising chances of their own.
After Saturday’s results, Juve have pulled within just one point of Inter in third, though the Nerazzurri have a game in hand. With a head-to-head against their heated rivals coming just the other side of the break, things could get very interesting in the top four over the last eight games of the season.
The selection crisis continued for Massimiliano Allegri, who learned the day after the Villarreal game that Manuel Locatelli would be unavailable due to a positive COVID-19 test. He joined Denis Zakaria, Leonardo Bonucci, and Alex Sandro, who were all injured, along with season-long sitters Federico Chiesa, Weston McKennie, and Kaio Jorge. Allegri consequently decided to turn to a 4-4-2 shape, with Wojciech Szczesny behind the defensive front of Mattia De Sciglio, Matthijs de Ligt, Giorgio Chiellini, and Luca Pellegrini. Danilo was pressed into service as an emergency midfielder, forming a double pivot with Arthur, while Juan Cuadrado and Adrien Rabiot operated wide in service of Dybala and Vlahovic.
Salernitana coach Davide Nicola is the third man to occupy that office this season, taking over for the sacked Stefano Colantuono, who had overseen the team during Juve’s 2-0 win in October. Nicola may be a specialist in spectacular survivals (see: Crotone, 2017), but Salernitana’s position is likely beyond anyone’s help. Still, he went out looking to play, with a 4-2-3-1 formation. Luigi Sepe started in goal, protected by Pasquale Mazzocchi, Federico Fazio, Norbert Gyomber, and Matteo Ruggieri. Lassana Coulibaly and Ivan Radovanovic formed the midfield, with Nadir Zortea, Federico Bonazzoli, and Diego Perotti forming up behind Milan Djuric.
Juventus while some people were likely still settling in from their pre-game concession runs. Cuadrado was the trigger, squaring a ball from the right wing to Vlahovic in the channel. He quickly spotted Dybala bursting into space in front of him and fed his strike partner, who took a gorgeous touch to take Gyomber out of the play before shifting back inside and firing a bullet shot to Sepe’s near post that beat the keeper and pinged into the net off the base of the post.
Dybala looked on fire in the early going and really should have had his second goal in the 13th minute when Cuadrado found him completely alone with a gorgeous diagonal ball, but the Argentine tried to chip the keeper as opposed to firing past him, and flipped it over the bar. Eight minutes later he had the opportunity to turn provider when Pellegrini found him with another gorgeous long pass. He didn’t have a shooting lane as he closed in on goal, but he had Vlahovic charging up the field to his left, and he squared it to him, but the big Serbian mishandled his first touch and gave Sepe the advantage of a narrow angle, allowing him to smother the shot.
Two minutes later, Dybala again turned it goalwards after Pellegrini made a strong cut inside and tried to find Vlahovic. The ball pinged around the box, but Dybala made an acrobatic move to bring the ball down and shoot, only to see Sepe get a hand to the effort. The Argentine was everywhere, making hustle plays on defense as well as both taking and creating chances.
Sepe had managed a few saves in that sequence, but there was absolutely nothing he could do in the 29th minute to prevent Juve from doubling their lead when De Sciglio faced up Ruggieri and floated in a perfect cross, while Vlahovic rose up and slammed a header into the net on the bounce.
Salernitana didn’t take their first unblocked shot until the 39th minute, when Bonazzoli bent the ball around the post. A good half then ended on a dour note when Pellegrini was booked for simulation after running on to a good through ball from Arthur and going down under the challenge of Gyomber. Referee Giovanni Ayroldi immediately called it a dive and booked him, even though replays show that there was indeed contact between the two, if perhaps not enough for a penalty. The booking put Pellegrini over the suspension threshold, so he’ll be out for the key Derby d’Italia after the break.
Whether through lack of focus or simply severe fatigue after nearly two months now of playing on a skeleton crew, Juve’s level of play dropped off sharply in the second half.
A third goal would have put things firmly to bed, but it took nearly 15 minutes for Juve to finally record a shot in the second period, while Salernitana slowly grew into the game, eventually forcing Szczesny into a couple of very good saves, the first in the 67th minute when substitute Simone Verdi was given far too much time to load up from distance, forcing Woj to parry on the dive, the second in the 74th when Djuric cushioned a header into the path of Bonazzoli, whose volley forced another flying save. In between the two Vlahovic got on a good through ball by Danilo, but again perhaps gave himself too tight an angle to shoot from, allowing Sepe to come up with a kick save of his own.
But in the end Salernitana never managed to come up with a keen enough edge to give Juve a true cut, and while they managed to threaten to force a grandstand finish, such a thing was ultimately never in the cards, and as Ayroldi blew his whistle for the final time Juve headed into the international break with a big opportunity in front of them.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 7. Had very little to do in the first half but was called into action a few times in the second and made some excellent saves.
MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - 6.5. Popped out a gorgeous cross for the assist on Vlahovic’s goal, one of two key passes he had on the day (only one other player had more than one). Defended well along his flank as well.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 6.5. His usual imperious self in the center of defense, even though he didn’t really rack up the counting stats. He kept things well controlled and didn’t let Djuric get free to do much of anything.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 6. A solid return to the lineup for the captain, whose halftime substitution was obviously planned after Allegri’s assertion that he didn’t have 90 minutes in his legs yet.
LUCA PELLEGRINI - 7. Looked really good going up the wing on the overlap, and his use of his positioning when defending continues to impress. He absolutely didn’t deserve the yellow card he got for simulation, as there was clear contact between him and Gyomber, even if that contact wasn’t necessarily a foul.
JUAN CUADRADO - 6.5. Led the team with four key passes and was a constant problem in the first half on the wing. Lost a bit of influence when he was moved out of position in the second half. We’ll get to that.
DANILO - 7. Once again pressed into an emergency midfield role, Danilo once again did surprisingly well. He contributed a key pass on a good through ball to Vlahovic in the second half, and was a rock defensively, racking up four tackles, three interceptions, two clearances and three blocked shots. His attitude post-game — when asked about what position he plays, he responded “I am never out of position, because Juventus is my position.” That’s the kind of attitude a player wearing this shirt should have — even if they ought to be kept where they’re best suited to their skills.
ARTHUR - 5.5. He completed 93.3 percent of his passes, but despite a single key pass it remains to be said that he doesn’t move the ball forward nearly as much as a man with his responsibilities on the field ought to.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 5.5. Statistically he didn’t misplace many passes, but the ones he did misplace were some doozies, and some of the passes he did complete were accurate enough to find a teammate but inaccurate enough to prevent that teammate from exploiting his position.
PAULO DYBALA - 7. As lively as we’ve seen him this year, although he really should’ve had at least two goals in this game after that early miss. Here’s hoping that he can stay healthy enough to consistently hit this level for the rest of the season (and maybe well after)
DUSAN VLAHOVIC - 6.5. His assist and his goal were both well-taken, but as the game wore on Vlahovic found it more and more difficult to shake Gyomber as the game went on. Still he got the results he needed.
DANIELE RUGANI - 6. Had an awkward moment just after he came on but tightened up after that.
ALVARO MORATA - 5. Wasn’t any kind of threat in the second half, although in his defense no one was.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHCI - 5. Only attempted five passes in the 20 minutes he was on the field. Still finding his footing after a long absence.
MOISE KEAN - NR. On to see the game out for the last few minutes of stoppage time.
FABIO MIRETTI - NR. On to bleed some clock and finish out the match, but given everything he should’ve had more time to run.
There wasn’t a whole lot to critique here given the injury situation. With Locatelli unavailable thanks to his positive COVID test and Zakaria not set to return until after the internationals, his potential moves in midfield were severely limited, and with Chiellini and Dybala both not close to being able to finish out a game, Allegri had to keep enough tactical flexibility to sub them out without majorly disrupting things.
This is why the 4-4-2 was almost a necessity, although there are some justifiable questions about again putting Rabiot out on the wing, but with questions as to Bernardeschi’s long-term stamina it was again a forced move.
What wasn’t a forced move was something that appeared via his subs, particularly the one that put Bernardeschi on. When the Italy international was introduced, he played on the right side while Cuadrado slid inside to play as a midfielder. This is an arrangement Allegri has used once before, in 2015-16 in the team’s classing 2-1 comeback win over Manchester City. But it is certainly not an optimal situation to have two players whose best positions are winger and full-back to be deputizing in midfield.
And unlike a lot of the moves forced on Allegri for Sunday’s game, this one had a simple solution: Let Fabio Miretti go. The 18-year-old Miretti might be the most highly regarded midfielder to come through the youth sector since Claudio Marchisio. He just scored a great goal to knock Liverpool out of the UEFA Youth League and send the Primavera to the semifinals of that competition for the very first time. Instead of playing two players extremely out of position for 20 minutes, Miretti should have played more than his stoppage-time cameo. It’s emblematic of Allegri’s backward attitude toward young players—it takes an enormous amount of talent and energy to get any playing time if you’re not an out and out phenomenon already — which is going to have to change if Juve want to dig their way out of the hole they’ve made for themselves.
The final international break of the season commences on Monday. When the players reconvene in two weeks, they’ll be staring down a home game to Inter in the Derby d’Italia. Should they win that, they’ll pass Inter for third place — although Inter do have a game in hand and would regain the spot if they needed it to be.