Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:
Juventus came out of the gates like gangbusters. They made their opponents look very much like the relegation-battling provinciale they are, created numerous quick chances, and benefitted from their dominance with an early goal.
Then, 1-0 lead in hand, they stopped doing all the things that had been woking so well and started to drop deeper and deeper into their own half. The minnows started gaining more and more possession, and with it more and more confidence. Juve’s attempts at extending their lead on the counter did little to trouble the goalkeeper, all the while the danger from their opponents grew, leading to several gilt-edged chances before they finally equalized out of nowhere, leaving Juve scrambling to restart their engines to find a winner late.
That script has played out time after time after time this past season, including in the first game against Sunday’s opponents, Venezia. It was the same man who equalized in Venice in December, Mattia Aramu, who managed to peg Juve back again. Fortunately, the script ran slightly differently this time. Despite a serious inability to put shots on target, they benefited from poor defending on a set piece just five minutes after Aramu struck, allowing Leonardo Bonucci, who had scored the opener on a similar play, to celebrate his 35th birthday with a brace and a winner, giving Juve a 2-1 victory that they only just about deserved. The victory put them on the very cusp of mathematically clinching their place in the top four, and when Roma could only manage a goalless draw against Bologna in the prime time game their place in next year’s Champions League was secured sul divano with three games left to go.
The injuries continued to mount for Massimiliano Allegri. News midweek that Mattia De Sciglio was the latest to join the M*A*S*H* unit ended up having a major effect on lineup construction, as Danilo, who had been playing as a stand-in midfielder for the last few weeks, was now the only man capable of playing right-back. Arthur had returned to the matchday squad but was only fit for the bench, leaving a void in midfield and forcing Allegri to do something that he typically avoids like the plague: giving a youth team product an opportunity in the starting XI.
The result was a 4-4-2, with Wojciech Szczesny at its base. Danilo started along with Matthijs de Ligt, Bonucci, and Luca Pellegrini. Federico Bernardeschi and Adrien Rabiot played as the wide midfielders, while Denis Zakaria was joined by the highly-regarded 18-year-old academy product Fabio Miretti, who was making his first first-team start. Alvaro Morata and Dusan Vlahovic rounded out the lineup up top.
Venezia, meanwhile, were in dire straits. They had come in on the back of eight straight losses, a terrible stretch that dropped them into dead last in the table, six points adrift of safety. It also cost coach Paolo Zanetti his job, leaving the team in the care of primavera manager Andrea Soncin, who was managing his first game in Serie A. He deployed a 3-4-2-1 formation, anchored by goalkeeper Niki Maenpaa. Mattia Caldara, Pietro Ceccaroni, and Ethan Ampadu made up the back three. Ales Mateju and Ridgeciano Haps played as the wing-backs, with Antonio Vacca and Domen Crnigoj manning the middle of the park. Michael Cuisance joined Aramu behind Thomas Henry in attack.
Juve started the game out like they knew a win would bring them ever-so-close to locking up the top four. Within the first four minutes they produced two good chances that needed finishing, one that Zakaria blasted over after running onto a defensive header in the box, the second coming off a giveaway by Caldara that Pellegrini intercepted with his chest before lashing a powerful shot off the crossbar. Two minutes later Bernardeschi had a serious penalty shout when he was taken down in the box by Caldara, but referee Alessandro Prontera waved the play away, and a VAR review only went as far as VAR Paolo Mazzoleni, who didn’t even call his colleague to the screen.
But the pressure kept coming, and a minute later Juve potted the opener off an excellent set piece, with young Miretti delivering a perfect free kick to the back post that de Ligt headed back across for Bonucci, who had pulled up his run to lose his marker before heading into the empty portion of the goal from six yards.
It was the perfect start, and had they kept up that kind of play Juve would likely have been two or three goals to the good by the break and made the second half rather academic. But instead they did what has happened so often under the auspices of Allegri and immediately began to drop back further and further to defend their slim lead.
The first warning signs began to show in the 16th minute, when Henry took down a long ball and teed it up for Aramu, who fired right at Szczesny. Miretti did come close to putting a stylish exclamation point on his debut in the 18th minute when Vlahovic laid it back after being denied the ability to turn, but his shot was blocked behind by Caldara. Henry then came dangerously close to an equalizer when he lost his marker and got up for a free header, narrowly putting his shot wide of the far post.
Juve failed to test Maenpaa for the rest of the first half, the closest they came being two blocked shots and a pair of misses from Morata, who rolled a tight-angle shot across the goal that Vlahovic slid in to try to redirect but only managed to hit the side netting. The half ended with Venezia claiming the slight majority of possession and gaining in confidence, while Juve were proving rather toothless from open play and leaving the door open for their opponents.
The insurance goal nearly came early on in the second half, when Morata had a cross/shot parried back into danger by Mapenaa, but an onrushing Moretti was beaten to the rebound and de Ligt lofted a long-range effort that was easily held by the Finnish keeper. That would be the last time Juventus tested the keeper for more than half an hour, while pressure began to build again in the Juve side of the field. Szczesny was forced into his first pressure save in the 68th minute when Aramu hit a free kick across the wall that he had to parry around the post. Aramu continued to be the danger man, somehow missing a gilt-edged chance in the right channel before finally hitting home, when Henry hit a ball over the top that substitute Dor Peretz chested into Aramu’s path for him to lash home an excellent shot from 25 yards, his first goal since the strike that equalized against Juve in December.
Typically, Juve has lacked the firepower to restart their engines in a situation like this, and given their inability to create true threats from open play that probably would have held true for the rest of this match as well. Fortunately, Venezia’s set-piece defense hadn’t improved, and five minutes after they tied the game that proved their downfall. Miretti was again the man with the initial delivery. This time it was Danilo who rose up to head the ball. Mapenaa got himself caught in no man’s land and only got the tiniest touch to it, and the ball squeezed between himself and Cecceroni, allowing Bonucci, who had ghosted in front of Ampadu after making a near post run, to stick out a leg and bundle it in off his shin.
Allegri quickly shifted his tactics to better hold the lead for the last 10 minutes, sending on Giorgio Chiellini to alter the formation into a 3-5-2. The rest of the game was highly uneventful, save a stoppage-time free kick for Venezia that floated over everyone to be smothered at the feet of a somewhat surprised Szczesny. The final whistle blew not long after, and Juve had managed to escape with the points despite another lackluster performance, awaiting the day’s later results.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 7. Wasn’t given all that much to do and was pretty good when he was called upon, especially that Aramu free kick. Nothing he could’ve really done on the goal, which was simply too well-struck.
DANILO - 7. A high-level day on both sides of the ball. He was in the thick of things for the winning goal, tied for the team lead in key passes (2). and put up some solid defensive numbers, including two tackles, an interception, and two clearances.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 7. Assisted the opening goal with an excellent header back across the grain, and was solid as ever in the back. He even reared back and had a go from distance, although the shot was dealt with rather easily.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 8. Got himself into excellent positions on both set pieces for his goals, recording his second brace of the season. Also led the team in both clearances and interceptions and even through in a key pass. An all-around excellent day for the birthday boy.
LUCA PELLEGRINI - 6. Solid defending down his flank and is showing a propensity for coming this close from range, cracking one against the bar early on. A yellow card just before halftime likely saw his day shortened.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 5. Didn’t manage to show much in the way of dynamism of creativity coming wide from the right, which was one of the reasons the strike pair didn’t get much service.
DENIS ZAKARIA - 5. Was rather lucky when his studs-up challenge on Ampadu in the first half didn’t illicit a further look from VAR — it was a pretty nasty tackle that in this day and age has seen straight reds. Furthermore, the dynamism he’s often brought in moving the midfield forward was somewhat lacking today, and he was wasteful in front of goal when he did have chances. Definitely an off day.
FABIO MIRETTI - 7.5. Took both of the set pieces that led to the goals, and they were really good deliveries, especially the first one. He hardly looked out of place, jumping in to press and recover the ball and always trying to move it forward. Had a couple of shots blocked as well as making a pair of key passes. This performance deserves another start.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 7. The late-season bump in form has been interesting to say the least, as Rabiot was again really good today, leading the team with three tackles and four dribbles and providing a pair of key passes as well.
DUSAN VLAHOVIC - 5. While it’s not fair to say he was a total failure because the service he got was incredibly lackluster, he was also late finding shooting lanes with the ball at his feet and went down far too easily on a few occasions.
ALVARO MORATA - 5. Had a key passes up front but his link with Vlahovic, which has been pretty good, was simply not there Sunday afternoon.
PAULO DYBALA - 5. Only one shot (that missed badly) and he wasn’t able to really be creative up front, although he was initially shoved into the right side of an attacking trident, which is What Not to Do with him.
ALEX SANDRO - 5.5. Defended his flank adequately, although his early yellow card was probably unnecessary.
MOISE KEAN - 5. Didn’t get much in the way of service and failed to register a shot, although he did run hard.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - NR. Made a couple of important defensive interventions in the last 10 minutes that prevented potential chances from being realized, making two tackles in only 12 minutes of work as Juve sealed off a Venezia team that badly wanted another equalizer.
ARTHUR - NR. On to give the team some experience and to give Miretti a breather late on.
There will be a day when Juventus actually tries to consolidate a lead and add to it as opposed to turtle-shelling the minute they score a goal. But it was not this day.
Seriously, I literally wrote “please don’t do this” into my notes for this game as early as the 15th minute. Juve came out of the gates with real fire and made Venezia look as bad as the table makes them out to be, but as soon as they scored were reigned in, and instead of pushing on and potting two or even three in the half, they were reigned in to defend, at home, against the bottom team in the league. And it backfired. Again. Fortunately Juve were able to get their goal quickly to turn the game back around, because with what they showed before this it was questionable whether or not they’d be able to create a goal from open play.
But (mark the date and time on this one, folks) I’m actually going to give him a positive today, and that’s Miretti. Yes, it took the almost-total depletion of the team in order to get him to finally give the kid a start as opposed to shoehorning non-midfielders into his formation, but Miretti proved he’s highly touted for a reason with a performance well beyond his years. With the top four secured, here’s hoping he’ll get more chances to impress before the season is out.
With Roma’s draw sealing Juve’s place in the top four, Juve’s last three games are essentially dead rubbers.
(Yes, they can technically pass Napoli for third place, but besides some prestige brownie points and slightly higher prize money from the league it won’t mean much).
That means the only game that really means anything for the rest of the year is the Coppa Italia final against Inter on Wednesday, May 11. Before that, Juve will head for the Marassi to face Genoa, in a game that Allegri could rest some guys to keep them fresher before the final. Yes, injuries are piled high enough to the ceiling, and If ever there was a time to unload the youth sector and rest a bunch of your top talent, it’s now.
At least things aren’t going to go down to the wire like last year.