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Juventus scrap and claw to win over Sassuolo to bring the top four into focus

A butt-ugly win at the Mapei Stadium has put given Juventus the opportunity to wrap up their place in the top four in short order.

US Sassuolo v Juventus - Serie A Photo by Emmanuele Ciancaglini/Getty Images

It was a weekend that saw seemingly everything go right for Juventus.

After their hiccup against Bologna last week gave a small ray of hope to the pack chasing them for the last spot in the top four, each and every member of that pack proceeded to fall flat on their faces in Round 34. On Saturday, Roma was flattened 3-1 by Inter. Then the Sunday lunchtime kickoff saw Salernitana shock Fiorentina 2-1, then Lazio lost to AC Milan by the same score when the Rossoneri scored a winner deep in stoppage time.

All this set up Juve for a huge game on Monday night. If they managed to win match away to Sassuolo, they would widen the gap between themselves and fifth-placed Roma to eight points with only four games left to play in the season. With a favorable schedule for the run-in, it would put Juve in the driver’s seat to potentially seal their spot in next year’s Champions League with before the season-ending mini-gauntlet of Lazio and Fiorentina.

And win they did, albeit in breathtakingly ugly fashion. Much like the Coppa Italia semifinal against Fiorentina in midweek, Massimiliano Allegri — who was missing even more players to injury and illness on Monday — set the team up to defend and counter. Unlike Wednesday’s game, the “counter” part of that gave Juve some serious problems, and they were lucky to go into halftime on level terms after summer target Giacomo Raspadori opened the scoring only to be cancelled out by Paulo Dybala just before the break. Both teams had close calls in a second half, until Juventus took the lead thanks to one of their unlikeliest players. It was Moise Kean who scored the winner, chesting down a flicked-on long ball, holding off and then turning his marker, then firing an angled drive through the goalkeeper’s legs to give Juventus the points and put them within touching distance of clinching their spot in top four.

In addition to the usual absentees, Allegri had to do without perhaps the team’s two biggest players as he headed into this game. Juan Cuadrado missed out with a muscle injury suffered in training, while an illness left Matthijs De Ligt only fit for the bench. Allegri decided to again array the team in a 4-4-2. Wojciech Szczesny sat at its base, with Mattia De Sciglio, Leonardo Bonucci, Daniele Rugani, and Alex Sandro arrayed in front of him. Federico Bernaredschi, Denis Zakaria, Danilo, and Adrien Rabiot made up the midfield strake, supporting the strike duo of Alvaro Morata and Dybala.

Sassuolo manager Alessio Dionisi has seen his name connected to bigger jobs this week as he looked for his second victory over Juve this season. He deployed his usual 4-2-3-1 setup, with Andrea Consigli in goal. Mert Muldur, Vlad Chiriches, Kaan Ayhan, and Giorgios Kyriakopoulos made up the defense. Maxime Lopez and Davide Frattesi formed the double pivot in midfield, while Domenico Berardi, Raspadori, and Hamad Junior Traore set up in attack behind Gianluca Scamacca.

Juve came out of the gates strong and quickly had a couple of set piece opportunities, but the first genuinely dangerous shot came from Sassuolo in the 10th minute when Raspadori shimmied his way into a little bit of room and unleashed an excellent shot that only just missed high.

That was the start of a turn in the game, and Sassuolo began to control proceedings. Danilo and Zakaria both blocked shots within seconds of each other in the 14th minute, then three minutes later Frattesi fizzed a header just over off a corner.

Juve, meanwhile, were having trouble getting their counter into gear. They weren’t necessarily getting pinned back in their own end, but when they did get the ball downfield they were often missing the final pass, and in some cases the pass or two before that. They finally carved out a chance or two, first in the 27th minute when De Sciglio sent in a low cross that Dybala ran onto and hit first time, only to see Frattesi get in between himself and the goal. A minute or two later he thought he saw Consigli off his line and tried to chip the , but the keeper recovered and easily caught the ball.

Sassuolo came very close on a counter of their own in the 33rd minute when Scamacca was worked into the right channel. He slammed the ball on frame only to be denied by an excellent save by Szczesny. But Sassuolo had been looking likely to score for almost 20 minutes and they finally made their pressure pay after a nice team move in the 39th minute. The finisher came when Kyriakopoulos cut inside and fed the ball into the channel, where Berardi slipped a delicious back-heel flick to Raspadori, who slammed the ball in past Szczesny at the near post from just outside the corner of the six-yard box.

It looked like a body blow just before halftime, but the Old Lady had a sting in her tail and on the stroke of halftime they hit back with an equalizer that was set up by the industrious work of Morata, who stole the ball from Kyriakopoulos after a physical tussle along the sideline. The Spaniard passed to Zakaria in the box, who tapped the ball to a quickly advancing Dybala. who slammed the ball into the roof of the net to tie the score. Sassuolo were furious that Morata hadn’t been called for a foul as he stole the ball, and Lopez protested so vociferously that referee Fabior Maresca had to bring out his first card of the night, but a VAR check was brief and the goal quickly confirmed.

US Sassuolo v Juventus - Serie A Photo by Emmanuele Ciancaglini/Getty Images

The hosts were perhaps still stewing over the call as play restarted, and they nearly allowed Juve to turn the game on its head entirely in the half’s only added minute, but Morata’s header off a De Sciglio cross whistled just over.

The second half packed some serious fireworks. Muldur pulled a shot a foot or two wide within the first 60 seconds, and three minutes after the restart Morata must have thought he’d given Juve the lead when he rose to meet a corner and flicked it toward goal, but Consigli threw out a hand and somehow deflected it not only away from goal but also any onrushing rebounders.

Allegri made some changes earlier than usual, sending Giorgio Chiellini and Dusan Vlahovic on only nine minutes from the restart, but ultimately the two of them did little as Sassuolo started moving the ball around in the Juve half off the field. But the Juve defense was firm, and rarely allowed anything more than a half-chance to the Neroverdi. That pressure paid in the 66th minute when Kyriakopoulos was given the space to line up and fire for the far post. It took a year or so off the life of every Juventino when the Greece international’s shot just flashed outside of the post, with Szczesny seemingly having it read and letting it go.

Kean was introduced immediately after that close call, and six minutes later he went up for a cross that ended up bouncing off Chiriches and forcing Consigli into a save. Sassuolo remained the ascendent team and looked far closer to scoring than Juve, but then two minutes from time it was Kean, who had completely failed in his holdup play up until that point, who received the header from Sandro and made the night a whole hell of a lot nicer than it otherwise would’ve been. Juve kept the lead through the precious little time that remained, blocking a pair of shots in stoppages but not allowing Sassuolo anything genuinely threatening before the final whistle blew.

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

LE PAGELLE

WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 6. Made some really good saves in the first half but also committed the cardinal sin of keeping and got beat near post by Raspadori. Yeah, it was a hard shot, but he really does need to stop that one. But it was the only deficiency of the night.

MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - 6. Was beaten for pace a few times by Traore but also tied for the team lead in clearances with four and was the only Juve player with more than one key pass on the night.

LEONARDO BONUCCI - 6. Made three clearances and connected on five of eight long balls, including the one Sandro knocked down for Kean’s winner.

DANIELE RUGANI - 5.5. Struggled to find purchase in his first start in weeks, and he was pulled early in the second half as Sassuolo started to pile on pressure.

ALEX SANDRO - 6. Notches the assist for the winner with a good cushioned header, along with a pair of clearances and a tackle.

FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 5. Made a couple of dribbles but was otherwise unable to make up for the creativity of Juan Cuadrado. His grade’s also dragged down by having to play as a midfielder for his last 20 minutes.

DENIS ZAKARIA - 6. Led the team with four interceptions and set up Dybala perfectly for the equalizer. His penchant for the dirty work served the team well as Sassuolo poured forward.

DANILO - 6. Finished with an incredible four blocked shots as well as a pair of tackles, and was generally solid in midfield as Sassuolo pushed forward in waves.

ADRIEN RABIOT - 6. Not as good as a few previous outings, but still serviceable enough, racking up two tackles, two clearances, and a good move late to test Consigli.

PAULO DYBALA - 6. Struggled to get into the game with Sassuolo on the front foot, but his goal was a beauty, and he had another good shot blocked. Kinda surprising he was pulled as early as he was.

ALVARO MORATA - 6. Really stuck in on the dirty work, posting two tackles, including the big one that led to Dybala’s goal, and came very close on a couple of headers, including one where he did absolutely everything right only to be denied by Consigli

SUBS

GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 6. Made four clearances in only 36 minutes and brought a solidity to the back line that was starting to wobble a bit.

DUSAN VLAHOVIC - 5.5. Threw himself into the fray with abandon but his control wasn’t the best on the day and he wasn’t able to get a shot off.

MOISE KEAN - 6. The goal puts his score up quite a bit, because before that he was trending toward sub-5 territory. But a winning goal makes up for a lot of issues.

FABIO MIRETTI - NR. Why he wasn’t on earlier is a mystery.

MANAGER ANALYSIS

Max had limited options in this game, especially when it came to the setup of his starting XI, but there were some in-game head-scratchers as well.

The first thing that stuck out to me was removing Dybala only nine minutes onto the second half, depriving the team of its only real healthy creative outlet. It committed the team to hoofing the ball upfield and hoping one of their counters came off — which eventually it did — but it was a strange call given the team’s dearth of shot creators.

The second — and this just drives me around the bend — was having to watch Federico Bernardeschi playing as a midfielder for 20 minutes when Fabio Miretti was sitting there on the bench. Sure, the kid is young and raw, but the Bernardeschi-as-mezz’ala thing has been done to death. Allegri should’ve known that it didn’t work years ago when he first tried it while he was busy ruining Berna’s career by trying him at every position imaginable except his natural won. A natural midfielder, however untested, is far preferential to a guy completely out of position and having repeatedly shown he doesn’t belong there. The lengths Allegri will go to keep from playing a young player are truly insane, and with the youth sector starting to produce some more intriguing prospects, not allowing them the chance to play would potentially stunt some really good home grown talent.

But the biggest issue I have with Allegri came, as it often does, from the press conference after the game when the words “I was trying to bring home a draw” came out of the man’s mouth.

C’mon, man.

Sure, the team is injury-riddled and slogging its way to the finish line. But after the weekend went entirely Juve’s way, to straight-up say his main objective was to draw as opposed to being committed to exploit the opportunity that was presented to you and take as firm a grip as you can possibly take on the top four is rage-inducing, to say nothing of very much not a Juventus mentality. When we wonder why we’ve only scored 52 times this year, Juventus, it’s attitudes like this that come into play. As players heal up and the team goes into next season, this attitude of half-measures needs to go away, or else this team won’t take any steps forward and a coaching change is going to have to become necessary.

LOOKING AHEAD

Juve are now eight points ahead of fifth-placed Roma with four games to play. A combination of six points in those next four games will clinch them a Champions League place. Fortunately, the next two games are coming against relegation strugglers Salernitana and Genoa, which presents Juve the opportunity to wrap up their spot before the tricky duo of Lazio and Fiorentina end the season.