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Ugly comeback against Cagliari keeps Juve in the driver’s seat for top four

A Sardinian slog saw Juve play an ugly game whose major takeaway was three points.

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

It’s the ugly ones that give you the most agita. The ones that you know Juventus are going to need either a moment of individual brilliance, a mistake from the opponent, or something just plain freaky in order to get past their opponent with a win.

Saturday’s game against Cagliari was one such slog, made even more complicated by the fact that the home team managed to take a lead very much against the run of play after 10 minutes. Thereafter, Juve’s pattern of play was very much par for the course the last several weeks: they controlled possession, but created very little in the way of truly dangerous chances. The feeling only got worse when Juve had an equalizer chalked off thanks to the correct interpretation of an absolutely ridiculous rule.

Fortunately, as the game went on Juve managed to find a little of option one and a little of option three. A gorgeous assist from Juan Cuadrado finally brought the team level on the stroke of halftime, and after a lot of sterile possession, a wonky bounce put them in the lead, one they hung on to for dear life for the final 15 minutes of the match, giving Juve three much-needed points and keeping their lead over Roma at a minimum of five, depending on the results of the Giallorossi’s game against Salernitana on Sunday.

Massimiliano Allegri was again hampered by a dangerously short bench, with three fresh absences. Manuel Locatelli will be out for at least the next month with a knee sprain, while Alvaro Morata was suspended for yellow card accumulation and Mattia De Sciglio for, apparently, hurting Massimiliano Irrati’s feelings after dressing down the errant official after his performance last week. That left him with only five first-team outfield players on his bench, only two of whom weren’t defenders. As such, a 4-4-2 was pretty much a necessity. Wojciech Szczesny anchored the formation, with Danilo, Matthijs de Ligt, Giorgio Chiellini, and Luca Pellegrini screening him in defense. Cuadrado joined Denis Zakaria, Arthur, and Adrien Rabiot in midfield, while Paulo Dybala and Dusan Vlahovic tipped the spear in attack.

Walter Mazzarri’s career has moved sharply away from the days when he was taking Napoli to the place they currently occupy in football. Unfortunately for him, he’s never had anyone even close to the Three Tenors since then, and he’s trying to keep Cagliari, who were 17th going into the game, in the top flight after taking over for Leonardo Semplici in September. He deployed his typical 3-5-2 formation, including two regulars who were returning from COVID protocols. Alessio Cragno starting in goal behind a back three of Giorgio Altare, Matteo Lovato, and Andrea Carboni. Raoul Bellanova and Charalampos Lykogiannis started in the wing-back spots, bracketing the midfield of Dalbert, Alessandro Deiola, and Razvan Marin. Joao Pedro and Leonardo Pavoletti served as the strike pair.

It took Juve a few minutes to get out of their own half, but when they did, they kept it in the other end. But early on, they were having issues trying to fashion any genuine chances. As they tried to figure that out, they got sucker-punched by Cagliari’s first attack of the night. It started when Marin, one of the two COVID returnees, caught Dybala from behind in midfield, winning the ball cleanly from the unsuspecting Argentine and bombing upfield. Joao Pedro was on his left, and the striker deftly drifted inside as the midfielder advanced, taking advantage of the fact that Arthur, who was the closest man to him, had his eyes firmly on the ball and not on the man he was supposed to be marking. That allowed him to find just enough space to settle Marin’s pass and stroke it past Szczesny to open the scoring and put Juve into chase mode.

FBL-ITA-SERIEA-CAGLIARI-JUVENTUS Photo by ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP via Getty Images

Juve responded to going down in the same manner they’d been playing before — which, unfortunately, meant doing very little with a lot of the ball. They didn’t take their first shot until the 16th minute and didn’t record their first shot on target until three minutes later, when Danilo rolled the ball into the six-yard box and Zakaria slid in for it, but he couldn’t redirect to a place where Cragno wasn’t covering. A minute later, Dybala got to one of his favorite spots above the right channel and tried to pull out one of his trademark curlers, but flew it over the top corner.

It was two minutes after that that Juve thought they had drawn even. Dybala had put a cross/shot into the box that Cragno dove to parry, but his punch only landed at the feet of Pellegrini. The left-back fired from the upper left corner of the box, grazing Rabiot on the way and wrong-footing Cragno on its way into the net. But the celebrations were short-lived, as referee Daniele Chiffi received instructions from VAR official Paolo Valeri to chalk the goal off for handball, as the ball had in fact grazed the Frenchman’s arm rather than his back. The call was, by the letter of the law, a correct one, because IFAB currently holds than any goal that contact with an arm, whether it be intentional or, in the case of Rabiot — who had his arms clamped firmly to his sides — completely incidental, is to be disallowed. It’s an asinine take on the rule, but the call was made, and Juve had to continue their hunt for an equalizer.

As halftime approached, a few glimmers of hope emerged. Dybala flashed a free kick a whisper wide, and it looked as though Cagliari had made that mistake in the 42nd minute when Vlahovic intercepted a back pass by Pavoletti and sent Rabiot into the box, but the Frenchman flew his shot over the top near corner.

But it was the moment of brilliance that shone through and got the Old Lady back on level terms just before the break. It came from, of all things, a short corner, that bane of every fan’s existence given the fact that they never actually work. Except this one did, with Cuadrado, who had earned the free kick by forcing Cragno to parry a vicious shot from distance around the post, taking the ball back from Pellegrini, dipping past the first man to challenge him, then floating a beautiful cross to the back post that de Ligt headed back across the grain, giving Cragno, who had been scrambling to his post, with no chance to recover.

FBL-ITA-SERIEA-CAGLIARI-JUVENTUS Photo by ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP via Getty Images

The teams went into halftime with Cagliari’s only shot the entire half being their goal, while Juve continued to flounder offensively, lacking dynamism and not demonstrating the ability to create real chances. But within the first three minutes of the second period they nearly took the lead twice, the first when Dybala played a defensive header back into the penalty area that Chiellini turned in, only for the goal to be called back — very correctly this time — for offside. Dybala then latched onto an excellent long ball by Chiellini, but put his shot from the right channel over.

From that point on the game bogged down into a far-too-typical pattern, with Juve moving the ball around the field trying to break Cagliari down, but moving the ball far too slowly and with too little inventiveness to actually do much. The game’s next shot didn’t come until the 68th minute, when Vlahovic, who had hitherto been completely anonymous, lashed the ball into the side netting. Three minutes later Cuadrado flashed a loose ball just past the far post, and it was starting to look depressingly like Juventus was about to drop points against a bottom-of-the-table team that the chalk said they should be beating handily.

And then came the just plain freaky. With 15 minutes left, Dybala tried to feed Vlahovic into the right channel. It was a good through ball, but Altare got to it first and made the tackle—only for the ball to ricochet off the Serbian’s leg and into the net, skimming the top of Cragno’s arm on the way.

With a lead now in hand, Allegri reverted to type almost immediately, ceding the home team the ball and defending the lead for dear life, sending on Leonardo Bonucci toward the end of the game to create a back five to really hold on. There were some nervy moments and non-quite-clearances in those last moments, but Cagliari only managed to get three shots away after the goal was scored, one of which was blocked but none of this required intervention on the part of Szczesny. As the whistle finally blew, Juve had escaped with one—but they’d escaped, and that was the important part;.

LE PAGELLE

WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 6.5. Had very little to do except face down Joao Pedro’s goal. There weren’t even a bunch of crosses to nab in this one, and I toyed for a second with not even giving him a number, but he did well toward the end to keep the defense together and not allow Cagliari any ways back into the match.

DANILO - 6.5. A solid day defensively, racking up a tackle, two interceptions, and three clearances, as well as a key pass in the first half. His typical steady work.

MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 7.5. Imperious at the back with five clearances, and his header for the equalizer was a thing of beauty. The case for making him captain once Chiellini is done is growing by the day.

GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 7. Made a couple of clearances Saturday but was often found farther up the field joining the buildup to attempt to get a goal in the second half. It almost paid off early, when his gorgeous long ball was wasted. He clearly knew the stakes and was trying to inspire further up the field.

LUCA PELLEGRINI - 6. Led the team with three tackles and played well defensively, but even though he was one of only three Juve players to complete a cross he didn’t contribute as much offensively as he could have, only attempting 26 passes all night and only completing 80.8 percent of those. Still, his defense earns him the passing grade.

JUAN CUADRADO - 7. That cross for de Ligt was a thing of beauty, and his team-leading three key passes represented an oasis of creativity in a landscape barren of it. Unless the return of Morata next week inspires Allegri to switch up his tactics again, he’s going to be one of the most important players on the field in the absence of Locatelli.

DENIS ZAKARIA - 5.5. Everything about Zakaria was almost in this game. Almost got the right touch on that pass from Danilo to lift the ball past the keeper. Almost able to get a move going from midfield. He’s working hard, that’s no question, but in the absence of certain midfielders he’s being asked to do things that aren’t necessarily in his wheelhouse.

ARTHUR - 4.5. The Cagliari goal falls largely on his shoulders, as his ball-watching allowed Joao Pedro to get himself into that little pocket of space that was all he needed to score. He led the team in pass completions at 89.2 percent, but in a game like this he needs to have more than one key pass next to his name. Too often a good direct route to the goal was presented to him only for him to pass it up and shift the ball away.

ADRIEN RABIOT - 5.5. Very disappointing end product, which is a shame because he did do some good things in this match. Two tackles and a clearance point to his defensive work rate, but between a bad miss from good position and a couple of less-than-convincing passes, this performance lies somewhere in the middle of Juve being the guy everyone wants to leave and the player his talent says he can be.

PAULO DYBALA - 5.5. He was frustrated by the end of the night, because he was working his tail off and the end product just wasn’t coming together. Even the shot he got on target was shinned, leaving one to wonder how things might’ve gone down if he’d caught it true. He got caught sleeping to trigger Cagliari’s goal, but fortunately that doesn’t seem to be a sign of apathy after his extension talks broke down. He’s continued to play as hard as he can.

DUSAN VLAHOVIC - 6. The goal turns this into a passing grade, but he was completely invisible for much of this match. He ended up with five shots, tying Dybala for the team lead, but against a team like this I would expect more in a game like this, to say nothing of his errant passing leaving Juve . Even the goal itself was a highly fortunate bounce.

Cagliari Calcio v Juventus - Serie A Photo by Emanuele Perrone/Getty Images

SUBS

FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 4.5. Provided no spark off the bench, although his defensive work rate at the end of the game was good to see.

MOISE KEAN - NR. On for nine minutes at the end and was a grab bag. He made a couple of good plays to see the game out (going the corner flag, retaining possession) but also gave it away a few times.

LEONARDO BONUCCI - NR. Made his return from injury to provide stability and keep the team going.

MANAGER ANALYSIS

There was precious little for Max Allegri to do to set up his team, but his in-game management again makes me question some things. You can make the same argument Sergio and I had in the aftermath of the Villarreal game, but the fact of the matter was nothing was working and a change was needed, even if that change was a lateral move at best, but Allgeri only took on Pellegrini.

Then there’s the matter of Juve’s response to going a goal up in the 75th minute. Instead of staying with the ball and continuing to move forward, perhaps catching Cagliari as they try to press to expand their options in front of goal, they immediately — and I mean immediately, ceded possession to a team that they had enjoyed a 60% advantage on earlier in the half. Given how much Juve had been able to boss possession, it’s clear that Juve could have held control and not let Cagliari create the mildly nervy moments that they did endure he change was pretty clear and could only have come from the sideline. It’s one of many things that need to improve if Juve are going to keep the chasing pack at bay in the top four.

LOOKING AHEAD

Juve host Bologna next Saturday, then welcome Fiorentina for the second leg of the Coppa Italia semifinal. Juve won the first leg 1-0.