Well, that escalated quickly.
Most of Sunday’s game between Juventus and Napoli was marked by the former defending deep and the latter trying hard to get through said defense. It was a predictable set of circumstances given the way things have gone this season, and one that, until the game’s very latter stages, looked destined to be a goalless draw.
Then, the stops came out.
Juve had a marvelous counterattack goal disallowed on a VAR call that was ticky-tack, but technically correct by the rule of law. Tasting the ability to steal one from the league leaders, Juve revved into gear, and the two teams started matching each other attack for attack. Another (correctly) disallowed goal just into stoppage time had Juventus — and their top attacker — ruing their bad luck, only to be hit with a bolt two minutes later when Nicolo Fagioli completely lost track of Giacomo Raspadori, who volleyed Giovanni Di Lorenzo’s cross through Wojciech Szczesny from 7 yards out to give Napoli only their second-ever win at the Allianz Stadium, and condemned Juventus to a third consecutive defeat for the first time since Luigi Delneri’s ill-fated season in charge in 2010-11.
The loss dropped Juve’s margin over fifth-place AC Milan to just three points as the league’s final phase approached, and as interesting as that run-in is going to be, with some questions about how to secure their newly-restored place in the top four.
With the second leg of the Coppa Italia semifinal looming just three days away, Massimiliano Allegri did some rotating to his starting lineup. Szczesny started in goal behind a 3-5-1-1 formation. Bremer was only fit for the bench, and Daniele Rugani was surprisingly picked as his replacement, joining Federico Gatti and Danilo in the defensive line. Juan Cuadrado and Filip Kostic took their usual spots on the wings, with the midfield trio of Adrien Rabiot, Manuel Locatelli, and Fabio Miretti between them. Matias Soulé was another surprise starter, roaming in the hole behind Arkadiusz Milik.
Napoli manager Luciano Spalletti was missing three major pieces in Giovanni Simeone, Matteo Poliatno, and Mario Rui, but still had a typically strong squad to plug into his usual 4-3-3. Alex Meret stood behind the back four of Di Lorenzo, Juan Jesus, Kim Min-Jae, and and Mathías Olivera. Andre-Frank Anguissa and Stanislav Lobotka joined Tanguy Ndombele in midfield, while Hirving Lozano, Victor Osimhen, and Khvicha Kvaratskhelia formed attacking trident.
For the first 10 minutes of the game it looked like Juve were going to try to stand toe to toe with the Partenopei. They pressed well, particularly Miretti and Soulé. When Napoli got forward, it was usually through Kvaratskhelia, who was often too much for Cuadrado to handle on his own. It seemed, however, that Soulé had been tasked with assisting in keeping the Georgian phenom at bay, and was often in the vicinity when he was trying to get downfield.
Despite his defensive struggles, Cuadrado did contribute to the first real chance of the match when he took down a beautiful long ball from Locatelli, then turned back the years by cutting inside of Olivera and unleashing a shot with his left foot. The ball was right at Meret, but still forced him into a two-handed parry, and the rebound had to be cut out by Di Lorenzo before it got to Milik, who was lurking just in front of the penalty spot. The ball was recycled and Locatelli picked out a good cross toward Milik that had to be headed behind at the last moment by Kim.
Five minutes later came another opportunity, this time from the left side when Kostic ran on to a good through ball by Rabiot and put in an even better cross that floated to Milik. Unfortunately, Olivera floated back just enough to prevent the header from being free and clear. Robbed of power and direction, the striker could only bounce it into the hands of the keeper at the far post.
That ended up being the last time Juventus put the ball on goal for quite some time.
It wasn’t necessarily for lack of opportunity, though. Rabiot fizzed a cross through the six yard box in the 27th minute but no one was there for it, and two minutes later Kostic broke two-on-two, but his pass badly missed Milik in the middle of the field.
Napoli, meanwhile, was gradually gaining control of the possession battle, but weren’t creating much of anything to threaten the Juve goal. Part of that was tactical, as Allegri constantly sent help against Kvaratskhelia and also had Miretti man-mark Lobotka, largely preventing him from being the metronomic presence he has been for much of the season. Napoli didn’t manage to put a shot on target the entirety of the first period, coming closest on a tightly-angled free kick that Kvaratskhelia tried to curl around, but that was headed away by Danilo. Apart from that, the most talked-about moment of the half from the Napoli perspective was just after the half hour, when Gatti somehow managed to get away scot-free with whacking Kvaratskhelia upside the head, an offense that by rights deserved a red card. Referee Michael Fabbri was blocked off from the blow on the field, but VAR official Gianluca Aureliano also missed the rather blatant instance of violent conduct.
The visitors finally started hitting their stride in the second half. They hit the target for the first time five minutes after the half began through Kvaratskhelia, then Di Lorenzo got on the end of a cross after a short corner, but both efforts were relatively easy for Szczesny to handle. The big Pole wasn’t exactly under siege, but neither were his teammates effectively breaking out of the cordon Napoli were erecting. One of the few times they did it nearly resulted in a goal when Kostic put in a good cross that was begging for a tap-in by Soulé, but Kim came across with a huge block to keep it from him.
Angel Di Maria and Federico Chiesa came on at the hour mark, and almost immediately Di Maria came this close to splitting the Napoli defense apart, but Di Lorenzo made another another excellent defensive stop to keep the ball from Milik. But as the two settled in, the team looked less and less like being able to take advantage of their talents. Napoli remained firmly entrenched in their half of the field, and Spalletti’s first change, sending on midfielder Pitor Zielinski on in the 68th minute, changed the nature of Napoli’s encampment in Juve territory. Things started to get a little more incisive, and in the 70th minute Gatti just managed to block a shot for Osimhen that ultimately bounced off the outside of the post. On the ensuing corner, Osimhen out-jumped two markers, but could only put his header right at Szczesny, who caught the attempt. Di Lorenzo then curled a beautiful pass around a crowd of defenders for Osimhen to get to, but he fired the ball over.
Juve, meanwhile hadn’t attempted a shot since Milik’s header early on. That finally changed in the 80th minute — a gap of 65 minutes of game time — after a corner kick, when Gatti headed it back across and Rugani tried to fire a standing bicycle kick toward goal, though he was only able to launch it over. The press of Fagioli, who had come on as a sub for Soulé, immediately produced another shot for Milik, but he pushed it well wide.
Two minutes later, Juve thought they had a smash-and-grab lead. It all started with Locatelli, who launched a long ball over the top for Di Maria. The Argentine had done precious little since coming on, but at this moment he was superb, taking the ball down, charging into the box, cutting in, and firing a powerful low shot that was deflected into the net. The place went nuts, but so too did Napoli players, who surrounded Fabbri demanding a foul be called on Milik in the buildup just before Locatelli’s pass. Being a goal, it was placed under review, and eventually Fabbri went to the VAR monitor, ruling that Milik had fouled Lobotka just before winning the ball. It was a deeply ticky-tack call detectable only by slowing the replay down, but it was technically correct.
But now that Juve had tasted the goal, they thought they could get one and steal the game. They matched Napoli’s play and the game started to open up in a major way. Juve again thought victory was in their grasp moments into stoppage time. Dusan Vlahovic, who had come on just before stoppage time began, stroked home with his first touch after Chiesa pulled back from the byline — or, rather, from over the byline, as Fabbri quickly, and correctly, signaled for a goal kick.
The missed opportunities finally came back to hit Juve when Di Lorenzo’s cross found Raspadori. Fagioli had lost the striker, but it’s worth noting that he would’ve had the help of Cuadrado had the Colombian not been arguing for a penalty on the other end after he tried to buy contact with Anguissa. Juve tried to recover, but the only attempt they really had was a last-minute free kick that Di Maria tried to surprise Meret with but floated wide instead. Soon after Fabbri blew the whistle and brought a whirlwind of a match to a close.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 6. Made some good saves and didn’t let any rebounds out. Raspadori’s shot was a powerful one but it also nutmegged him, which I was less than thrilled by.
FEDERICO GATTI - 6. He ended up being a very lucky boy to stay on the pitch, but defended well despite that outburst and finished the day with six clearances and a blocked shot.
DANIELE RUGANI - 6. Held firm in defense against Osimhen, which I don’t think anyone was expecting coming in. Ended up with a team-high seven clearances, and also had a critical block on Osimhen in the second half.
DANILO - 6.5. Made seven tackles and blocked two shots, keeping Lozano and then Elif Elmas relatively quite throughout the evening.
JUAN CUADRADO - 5.5. It’s more and more painfully obvious that he’s cooked every time he comes out. While he did produce one of the more dangerous moments of the day for Juve, he also continually failed to beat his man and was on the ground after trying to buy a penalty instead of hustling back to assist defensively.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 5.5. Made three tackles and another three clearances, but failed to make an impact on the attacking/buildup phases of the game.
MANUEL LOCATELLI - 6. Would’ve had the assist on Di Maria’s goal, which was one example of several fantastic balls he’d launch over the top. Solid defensively, and did all of this with a yellow card for most of the game.
FABIO MIRETTI - 6. Did really well on defense, man marking Lobotka and keeping him from orchestrating the Napoli attack from deep. Also made two tackles.
FILIP KOSTIC - 5.5. Made a couple of balls early that were really promising, but faded late and barely completed half his passes.
MATIAS SOULÉ - 6. Was not intimidated by the moment, and did a really great job dropping back to help on Kvaratskhelia. He finished the day with three tackles and two dribbles, and a goal was possible if a Kostic cross had gotten past Raspadori.
ARKADIUSZ MILIK - 5. Starved of service in the extreme, he unfortunately ended up with more clearances (3) than shots (2).
ANGEL DI MARIA - 5. Thought he had the winner before play was brought back, but in reality that was the only two positive moves forward that he was a part of.
FEDERICO CHIESA - 5. Never found purchase in the game, attempting only five passes and simply not creating the kind of danger he needed to.
NICOLO FAGIOLI - 5. Two straight games in which directly contributed to the goal, although in fairness to him he was probably in the right position had Cuadrado not been complaining about a call on the other end.
DUSAN VLAHOVIC - NR. A little odd that Allegri put him on so late, but he very nearly validated it with a goal straight away.
There were a couple of very good tactical wrinkles that Allegri threw into this game that we didn’t see in Naples. He rolled a ton of defensive help toward Kvaratskhelia, who had absolutely killed Juve in the first game. Using Miretti to man-mark Lobotka also did a good job limiting Napoli’s attack.
Unfortunately, when Miretti came off at the hour mark it wasn’t readily apparent who was replacing him on Lobotka duty, giving the midfielder more freedom and ultimately contributing to Napoli’s burst from the 60th to the 80th minute.
Then there’s just the problem that all of those tactical wrinkles were defensive, and Juve’s complete inability to attack continued to kill them. To not take a shot for over an hour is an awful stat no matter who you’re playing, and it almost looked like Juve’s attack fared worse after putting on Di Maria and Chiesa than it did before. Everything on the attacking end is a patched-up shambles, which is a huge disservice to the attacking talent at Allegri’s disposal. If he can’t get this team to score some goals, it’s going to be a long, long run-in.
Next on the docket is a trip to San Siro to face Inter in the second leg of the Coppa Italia semifinal. The Nerazzurri have suddenly found a stride in the last week, advancing to the Champions League semifinals and hammering Empoli this week. After the 1-1 draw in the first leg, a win is required to get to the final.
After that, Juve take a trip to face a surprising Bologna team that will not be a pushover by any stretch of the imagination.