Ever since Juventus moved past Atalanta and into fourth place a few weeks ago, there has been a “but.”
Being one of the teams that saw a game postponed by the COVID-19 outbreak that engulfed part of the league at the turn of the year, Atalanta had a game in hand over Juve, as well as the head-to-head tiebreaker, which meant that any lead the Bianconeri had over them needed to be taken with a grain of salt.
But after Atalanta’s surprise loss against Roma on Saturday, Juve had a chance to change that. Victory against Spezia on Sunday would give Juve a six-point lead in the race for fourth, giving them the bumper room they needed to be sure they’d be in the final Champions League spot regardless of the result of that rescheduled game or not.
Of course, this being Juventus, it wasn’t all that straightforward, especially given the team’s current injury problems. The Old Lady was still facing the game with nine men out due to injury, with Sunday seeing the return of a pair of players (Federico Bernardeschci and Daniele Rugani) only to see their names replaced on the list by two fresh knocks (Leonardo Bonucci, Mattia De Sciglio). That meant it was once again a battle of holding on for dear life, doing as much as they could to defend and taking a goal when they could get it.
That goal duly came midway through the first half thanks to a Spezia mistake. Juve could — and should — have had more in the first half, but they failed to take advantage of an abjectly poor performance by the visitors. Spezia improved markedly after halftime, and Juve were forced to defend for all they were worth to ensure their 1-0 result would remain intact until the final whistle. When that whistle did sound, though, they were truly alone in fourth place with 10 games to go in the season.
Massimilano Allegri’s options were, of course, severely limited by his injury situation. With Rugani back, however, he was able to shift from the 3-5-2 he deployed midweek to a 4-3-3 setup. Wojciech Szczesny took over in goal after getting his traditional day off for the Coppa Italia, with Danilo, Rugani, Matthijs de Ligt, and Luca Pellegrini screening him. He deployed all of his healthy midfielders, Manuel Locatelli, Arthur, and Adrien Rabiot. Juan Cuadrado played as a straight winger for the first time in weeks, joining Dusan Vlahovic and Alvaro Morata in the attacking line.
Spezia coach Thiago Motta countered with a 4-2-3-1. Ivan Provedel took his usual place in the Spezia goal, behind the line of Salvador Ferrer, Martin Erlic, Dimitrios Nikolaou, and Arkadiusz Reca. Giulio Maggiore and Simone Bastoni formed the midfield pivot, Daniele Verde, Kevin Agudelo, and Emmanuel Gyasi grouped behind striker Rey Manaj.
Spezia came out of the starting gates shockingly naive. They made repeated mistakes passing and didn’t press the ball at all. The result was a first half that Juve thoroughly controlled, but fell short of out-and-out dominating. They were slow on the ball and failed to up their own intensity in response to Spezia’s insipid play, resulting in an odd dynamic that saw Juve possess the ball without really working the Spezia defense all that much.
Morata snapped off the game’s first shot in the seventh minute after a free kick was flicked on to the back post, but his shot was right at Provedel for an easy catch. It took more than 10 minutes for either team to register another, when Cuadrado jinked inside from the right with a move so good it knocked poor Gyasi on his rear end, then pulled the ball back across the box to a charging Arthur, who cracked it at the goal first-time only for the shot to be blocked.
But Spezia’s weird half came to its low point in the 21st minute. The culprit was Provedel, whose awful attempt at passing out of the back was jumped by Rugani, who hit a first-time pass that split open Spezia’s lines. Vlahovic took the ball, turned, and put the ball through to Locatelli, whose first touch teed the ball up for a wide-open Morata, who swept the ball past the keeper for his first goal of the calendar year.
Spezia did little to respond to going down, and at this point Juve really should’ve turned the screw and put Provedel under siege with an eye to killing off the game by the half. But they only managed one shot the rest of the half, albeit a good one when Cuadrado and Arthur exchanged passes to tee up the Colombian from just behind the penalty spot. He really should have scored, but didn’t get quite the power on his shot and Provedel managed to parry the ball away.
It was a missed opportunity, because Motta clearly gave his team a talking to in the locker room. The visitors were a different squad after they came back out, with the most noticeable change being a vigorous press that had been absent throughout the opening period. Juve immediately had trouble getting out of their own half, and Spezia really should have had an equalizer within six minutes of the restart when Ferrer found a completely unmarked Gyasi seven yards out, but the Ghanaian’s header into the ground lacked power and was right at Szczesny, who was probably stunned to be given the opportunity to make a relatively easy save.
Juve were reduced to trying to find a killer goal on the break, but their counterattacks simply didn’t have the right oomph to them. One of the most promising, just after the hour, but it was wasted when Arthur spurned two passing options to carry the ball deeper into Spezia territory, only to finally release a pass that was looking for a run Vlahovic wasn’t making. Juve had multiple shots blocked with 15 minutes left in the match, but Spezia didn’t create much danger until the 80th minute, when Agudelo burst down the left side and took a shot from a tight angle at the top of the six-yard box that Szczesny came out and made himself big to parry away the tight-angle shot.
Cuadrado had a chance to put things away late, but ballooned his attempted from distance, and in the first minute of stoppage time he very nearly found Morata at the back post with a wicked cross that Morata didn’t seem ready to recover. With that, it was simply a matter of time before the final whistle, and Juve could celebrate being in the top four in their own right for the first time in months.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 7. Up to the task whenever a shooter wandered into his area of influence. Compltely ruled his area.
DANILO - 7. A rock on the flank, racking up three tackles, two interceptions, and three clerances while overlapping well on the attack and picking up a key pass to boot.
MATTHINS DE LIGT - 7. A game-high four clearances to go along with a pair of tackles. Consistently the team leader in defense.
DANIELE RUGANI - 7. Didn’t rack up a whole ton of counting stats, but his positioning was always spot-on, and his interception and pass started the move that led to the goal.
LUCA PELLEGRINI - 6.5. Three tackles on defense and a key pass going forward, plus his attitude continues to impress. Playing against this dude must make you want to break things.
MANUEL LOCATELLI - 7. Easily the best he’s been in months. Playing much farther forward than usual, Locatelli pulled the strings in the attacking third the entire first half, notching a pretty assist for Moratra and constantly putting teammates into positions where their final balls would cause danger. He also had three tackles on defense. This is the kind of performance the team will need from him going forward.
ARTHUR - 6. Completed 90.9 percent of his passes, but made some really questionable decisions and simple mistakes as well. Still, his presence unlocking Locatelli was most welcome.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 5.5. His counting stats were huge — four tackles, three clearances, and a tie for the team lead with two key passes — but the eye test showed a player in and out of focus throughout the game, often overriding a good action with a bad one minutes later. Got called for a couple of fouls late, although at least one was simply the product of referee Francesco Fourneau calling any contact at all a foul.
JUAN CUADRADO - 6. A pair of key passes and a good defensive day with three tackles and two interceptions, but really ought to have scored in the 33rd minute. His versatility was huge for the team at a time like this, allowing Allegri to withdrawn a booked Pellegrini.
DUSAN VLAHOVIC - 5. Only touched the ball 30 times and didn’t register a shot. He was part of the move that resulted in Morata’s goal, but he needs more service.
ALVARO MORATA - 7. Took five shots, finding the target with a pair of them, including an excellent first-time sweep to finish off the move that gave Juve their only goal of the game
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 5. Managed to get himself booked within four minutes of coming on, meaning he’ll be suspended against Sampdoria over the weekend. Rust was evident, but it’s good having him available again.
MOISE KEAN - NR. On to help close the last few minutes of the game out.
There’s just not much to analyze in a game like this. Allegri used what he had at hand and held on for dear life. If there’s one thing to gripe about, it’s that he never managed to get his players to turn the screw and sweep Spezia away in the first half — something that they were 100% capable of doing given how terrible Spezia were for the entire first half. The fact that they simply didn’t make that push shows you just how conservative Allegri’s tendencies have become.
Hopefully, some reinforcements are on the horizon, because these players look exhausted and are on the verge of dropping from the fatigue.
Juve actually get a full week off this week before traveling to Genoa to face Sampdoria on Saturday. Then the biggest game of the year to date arrives when Villarreal come to the J Stadium with passage to the Champions League quarterfinal on the line.