If there was a theme to Friday night’s match between Juventus and Napoli, it was missed opportunities.
Both teams had multiple excellent chances to score that they failed to convert, particularly in the first half. Whether due to the defense recovering at the last minute, the offside flag popping up, or out and out brain farts, none of those chances saw the ball hit the back of the net until six minutes into the second half, when Federico Gatti steered a beautiful cross from Andrea Cambiaso into the net, providing the game-winning goal for the second time in two games.
Things could maybe have been better. Things could definitely have been worse — perhaps should have been worse. At the end of the day, another 1-0 corto muso victory means that Juve are 12 points up on the defending champions (barf) for the last Champions League spot and provisionally in first place pending Saturday’s match between Inter and Udinese. The former is quickly becoming a minimum pass for the season.
Massimiliano Allegri still had his usual midfield issues without the suspended Paul Pogba and Nicolo Fagioli, while also missing Timothy Weah and Mattia De Sciglio. The standard 3-5-2 was deployed, with Wojciech Szczesny at its base. Danilo started his first game in six weeks, joining Gatti and Bremer in the back three. Cambiaso joined Filip Kostic on the wings, bracketing the midfield of Weston McKennie, Manuel Locatelli, and Adrien Rabiot. Federico Chiesa and Dusan Vlahovic made up the strike pair.
Napoli are already on their second manager of the year, having fired Rudi Garcia after only 13 league games. They replaced him with Walter Mazzarri, the man who put Napoli on the map as one of Serie A’s top sides in his first tenure with the team from 2009-2013. Known for also deploying a 3-5-2, Mazzarri took the job under the condition that he continue to use the 4-3-3 that made Napoli champions (barf) last year. His starting XI was Napoli’s A-squad with the exception of the left-back position, which was missing both Mario Rui and Mathias Olivera. Alex Meret started in goal, behind the back line of Giovanni Di Lorenzo, Juan Jesus, Amir Rrahmani, and Natan. André-Frank Zambo Anguissa, Stanislav Lobotka, and Piotr Zielinski made up the midfield. Victor Osimhen started his first game in months after recovering from injury, leading the line alongside Matteo Politano and Khvicha Kvaratskhelia.
The first half was marked by a bunch of major missed opportunities. Nine minutes in, Politano shaved the outer layer of paint off the post when he just missed a curler from inside the penalty arc. Juve’s best chance to score in the half came another nine minutes after that. Vlahovic helped Kostic send Chiesa down the left side, then followed as Chiesa drifted inside. Four defenders converged on Chiesa, and he popped the ball through them to find his No. 9 about 12 yards from goal. It’s the kind of position that you expect Vlahovic to bury every time, but his first touch caused him to bobble it just enough that it allowed Rrahmani to get into his shooting lane and close down the shot. McKennie kept after the bounce and tried a bicycle kick that caught the ball just as Meret put his hands around it, but it went way over the bar.
Ten minutes later, Kvaratskhelia was presented with an even better chance to score. A route-one pass sent Osimhen down the field, and three defenders converged on him — completely forgetting about the Georgian, who had run 60 yards or so down the middle of the pitch completely alone. Osimhen found him with a perfect pass, putting him 1-on-1 alone with Szczesny. The goalkeeper charged out. Perhaps that put an invasive thought in Kvaratskhelia’s mind, or rushed him, but instead of just slotting it home he went for a chip — and completely missed it.
It was a huge let off — and Juve would need another one before halftime when Bremer’s attempt at a headed clearance from a free kick instead bounced off Gatti and directly into the path of Di Lorenzo. The Napoli captain looked to have the goal at his mercy, only to see Szczesny’s hand snap up at the last minute and keep the ball out. Di Lorenzo was flagged offside, meaning that the superhuman effort wouldn’t count as an official save, but it was still one of the most impressive goalkeeping moments the club has seen in the last decade.
The teams went into the half scoreless, but shaken, each having had their close calls. The second half began with yet another close call, this time for Napoli, when McKennie took a long pass from Locatelli and laid it back to Vlahovic, who damn near broke the goalpost in half, only for the whole move to be called back by a flag on McKennie’s initial run.
In a contest with so many almosts, the breakthrough had to come at some point. It finally arrived two minutes later, when McKennie took a long throw near the box. Anguissa headed it back in his direction, and he shuttled the ball to Cambiaso above the right-hand corner of the box. The big targets from the long throw were still there for Cambiaso to aim at, and he unleashed a gorgeous cross that met Gatti in the left channel. Freddy Cats rose high above Rrahmani and headed it back across the grain and into the empty portion of the net. Meret never had a prayer, and both the players on the field and the fans in the stands erupted in celebration.
Predictably, Allegri sank back into his shell after the goal, daring Napoli to break his team down for the last 40 minutes of the game. Napoli carved out a few more shots than some other teams have against Allegri’s parked bus, but couldn’t get any of them on target. The visitors needed something to break for them, and in the 70th minute it almost did. Looking to play out of his box, Szczesny made a baffling mistake, kicking the ball right at Politano, who headed the ball back into the path of Osimhen, who took one touch to pass the keeper before slotting the ball into the empty net — only to see the flag go up immediately, correctly ruling him well beyond the last defender.
For the rest of the game, Napoli searched fruitlessly for an opening. Their best attempt came four minutes from time, when Giacomo Raspadori found Di Lorenzo in the channel, but the full-back hit the ball into the side netting. Napoli’s first official shot on target came two minutes later, a tame and wasteful effort by Raspadori that trickled into Szczesny’s gloves.
Apart from a near-fracas in stoppage time, the rest of the game went by uneventfully. When the final whistle came, Juve celebrated their first win against Napoli since April 2021.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 7. Got bailed out of a huge mistake by the offside flag, but aside from that one brain cramp was excellent, and that save-but-not-a-save against Di Lorenzo is proof positive of just how much quality this team has in goal.
FEDERICO GATTI - 7.5. He didn’t defend well against Osimhen when he set up Kvaratskhelia for that miss, but apart from that did his job very well, and he was ice cold when he took his goal. He’s fast turning into a cult hero for this club, and if he keeps improving the cult part might go away.
BREMER - 6. Did well against Osimhen overall and notched a game-high seven clearances, but his passing was pretty dismal, completing only 62.5 percent of his passes.
DANILO - 7. It looked like he had never missed any time. Recorded three tackles (including an absolute beaut on Osimhen in the first half that should be studied by any would-be defender) and made three clearances as well. The captain is back.
ANDREA CAMBIASO - 8. Easily the best Juventus player on the pitch Friday night, if not the best player overall. He put in several excellent crosses, including the assist for the game winner. He finished with two key passes altogether, tied for a game-high (with Di Lorenzo) with four tackles, and was second on the team with three dribbles. Tim Weah needs to be careful — he might end up being Wally Pipped.
WESTON McKENNIE - 6. Didn’t do a whole ton offensively, but was a rock on D and had a motor that would go for days. Finished with three tackles and a pair of clearances.
MANUEL LOCATELLI - 6. Showed no ill effects from the injury he suffered against Cagliari before the international break, Made a trio of tackles and was the best player on either team going on.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 6. Made a tackle and two interceptions, defending resolutely against some pretty dangerous players.
FILIP KOSTIC - 5. Made three tackles but only completed less than 60 percent of his passes and was a relative non-entity in attack.
FEDERICO CHIESA - 5.5. Didn’t have a whole lot of touches, but he made them count, tallying three key passes on only 18 in total. He also added some glorious dribbles. More attention needs to be paid to getting the ball to his feet and letting him cook.
DUSAN VLAHOVIC - 5.5. Worked hard and made a couple of nice back-heel passes that triggered some later runs. Again, the ball needs to be at his feet more. He hasn’t had the quantity of chances that will eventually lead positive. Fortunately the injury that forced him off the field was just a substantial cramp.
ARKADIUSZ MILIK - 5.5. Had a rathe thankless task coming on to a team that was already shutting up shop.
ALEX SANDRO - NR. There was a sharp intake of breath when he came on and took up his old left wing-back position, but he defended very well and helped keep the lead intact.
MOISE KEAN - NR. Made three tackles in eight minutes of play, helping to guide the match to the finish line.
DANIELE RUGANI - NR. Didn’t have a touch for the few moments he was on.
SAMUEL ILING-JUNIOR - NR. It was nice of those in charge to recognize that Iling actually existed, albeit with no time to make any kind of impact.
There was one major tactical wrinkle for Allegri in this game, and that’s that Cambiaso and McKennie, who over the last few games have freely swapped places between wing-back and midfield, generally stayed where they were for much of the game. Cambiaso was able to use his pace and shiftiness out of that position to play a couple of great crosses into the box, and he looks like he’s going to be a handful if he manages to stick in the starting XI.
Apart from that, we saw one brief period in the first half when the team pressed Napoli into a couple of turnovers higher upfield, which in turn caused Meret some problems in his own penalty area. I’m again left flummoxed as to why Allegri can’t bring himself to let that kind of press out for longer periods of time — obviously not the whole game, but enough to rack up a few goals and make the rest of the game a lot easier. If Juve pushed the throttle a little bit more early on, they’d have a much better margin of safety and not have to rely on being so perfect all the time.
Juve’s weird slate of Friday matches wraps up next week with a trip to Genoa. Then it’s a proper weekend game as Juve go to visit Mathias Soule and the rest of Frosinone, where they’ll get an up-close look at their trio of loanees.