Nicolo Fagioli spent last season on loan in Serie B with Cremonese. He flourished there, scoring three goals and notching seven assists in 33 games while helping lead the Griogiorossi to a surprise promotion.
It was a season not unlike the one Sandro Tonali had in 2018-19, and it’s likely the only reason Fagioli didn’t generate the same kind of transfer buzz as Tonali is that he was already a Juventus player.
Playing against his old side on Sunday night, Fagioli once again showed just how much that year on loan contributed to his career. He was one of the standouts in a Juventus performance that, while not exactly sparkling, finally showed some initiative against a lower-ranked side. Juve thoroughly dominated the match, but still had trouble breaking Cremonese down until the early stages of the second half, when Fagioli took a layoff and fired an absolute laser into the net to give Juve the first goal in what would eventually be a 2-0 win that pushed the Old Lady’s lead over fourth-place AC Milan to eight points and kept the momentum going for Thursday’s Europa League semifinal second leg in Seville.
Massimiliano Allegri made a couple of changes to his lineup from Thursday’s game against Sevilla, but it contained some head-scratchers. Missing from the selection options were the injured Mattia De Sciglio, Kaio Jorge, and Leonardo Bonucci, as well as Matias Soule, who is at the U-20 World Cup with Argentina. Mattia Perin started in goal behind a 3-5-1-1 formation that looked a lot different than normal. Federico Gatti, Bremer, and Danilo formed the back line in front of Perin. The wing-back position was the first oddball, with Federico Chiesa was deployed there for only the second time this year. In this case it was on the left rather than the right, which was manned as usual by Juan Cuadrado. Fagioli was joined by Leandro Paredes and Adrien Rabiot in midfield. The biggest surprise was a first start in more than a year at the club level for Paul Pogba, who played in the hole behind Dusan Vlahovic.
Cremonese started the day in 19th place, six points from safety with only four to play. They were also missing one of their top forwards in Cyriel Dessers, as well the suspended Charles Pickel. Still, Davide Ballardini did what he could to pull out a miracle, and sent his team out in a 5-4-1. Potential Juventus target Marco Carnesecchi started in goal, protected by the back line of Alex Ferrari, Luka Lochoshvili, Johan Vásquez, Vlad Chiriches, and Giacomo Quagliata. Felix Afena-Gyan, Pablo Galdames, Soualiho Meïté, and Marco Benassi made up the midfield strake behind lone striker David Okereke.
The opening phases of the game were, frankly, pretty boring. In what turned into the game’s overriding trend, Juve dominated possession but struggled deeply trying to break down an organized and stubborn Cremonese defense. The first 20 minutes saw only two shots attempted, both of which were blocked by Chiriches.
Unfortunately, the most noteworthy part of this part of the game came in the 22nd minute, when Pogba attempted to put a cross to the far post and immediately grabbed at his leg, hobbling several steps before hitting the ground. Pogba’s reaction — he was in tears as he received treatment — was that of a player who had just suffered a catastrophic injury, but in Pogba’s case it’s likely to be a muscle injury, and his reaction simply the frustration of a man whose body continues to betray him despite all his efforts to get onto the field. Pogba was replaced by Arkadiusz Milik, who pushed forward into a genuine front two alongside Vlahovic.
The rest of the half saw Juve show a little more life in attack. Milik found the target for the first time shortly after coming on, but hit the ball straight at Carnesecchi from 25 yards. A minute later, Afena-Gyan tried to open Cremonese’s account but only hit the ball weakly to Perin, who collected it more than he saved it. Carnesecchi was called into play again just after that, producing a not-quite-convincing save from a Bremer header that he was still able to eventually collect safely. For most of the half, though, Juve’s open play hinted at the possibility of breaking apart the Cremonese defense, only to fail at one of the last hurdles before the shot, whether that be a bad final pass, controlling said final pass, or being muscled off the ball just before being able to shoot.
The visitors had come up with virtually zero offensive output in the first half, and Ballardini made a double change at halftime trying to rectify that. But it did little to reverse the trend, and Juve created three shots in the first nine minutes of the half, including a long-distance strike from Rabiot in the 54th minute that forced Carnesecchi to dive for the parry.
That was just a preamble for what was to come a minute later. The move both started and ended with Fagioli, who took a defensive header from Bremer and launched a brilliant through ball for Chiesa, who chased after it and caught up just before it went over the byline. The shifty winger put Vasquez on his rear end but had another defender right in front of him, but spied Fagioli behind him and laid the ball back. The young midfielder met the pass right at the border of the penalty area and smashed a thunderbolt of a shot into the roof of the net that Carnesecchi had absolutely zero chance to stop.
Nicky Beans then showed real class by declining to celebrate against the team who had helped him so much in his development.
The rhythm of the game continued as it was, despite substitutions and tactical tweaks — mostly in Cremonese’s case for the latter. Chiriches defended like a man possessed, racking up several more of what would be an absurd seven blocked shots by the end of the day. Unfortunately his efforts were very much in vain, as his teammates simply couldn’t push the ball forward to a point where they could threaten an equalizer.
As toothless as the Grigiorossi were, a second goal is always nice to seal the deal, and as the game neared its end Juve came close to finding that goal a couple of times. Milik had a neat finish from a through ball by Angel Di Maria disallowed by an offside flag, which was confirmed through VAR with the stupidly small margin of about one-third of his foot (IFAB, get on this this summer please). Rabiot was then led perfectly into the channel by Di Maria only to whip his shot into the side netting.
The second finally came 11 minutes from time, and it came, as it has so often this year, off a corner kick. Paredes delivered a near-post ball that was flicked on by Milik. The pass found the feet of Bremer, whose initial shot was blocked by Leonardo Sernicola, only to pop straight up into the air for the big Brazilian to nod in with his head.
Even more could have been had as the final minutes ticked on. Rabiot was denied by yet another stop by Chiriches, this time clearing the ball off the line after Carnesecchi was beaten. Moise Kean came on and went hell-for-leather trying to mark his return from injury with a goal but once again ran into the Romanian defender.
Juve’s control was total, and as the final whistle blew claimed three very important points to continue consolidating their spot in the top four.
MATTIA PERIN - 6. He had almost nothing to do, but kudos to him for staying alert for the few times Cremonese did push the ball his way.
FEDERICO GATTI - 6.5. Was almost bombing forward more than he was defending. Let nothing through and even had two shots by the end of the day.
BREMER - 8. A tower of power in the middle. He made a pair of tackles as well as interceptions, and actually led the team with four shots on the offensive end, along with six aerial duels won. Great stick-to-itiveness to head his own rebound into the net to seal the game.
DANILO - 7. Led the team in clearances with three and had just as many tackles. Crept forward as Juve’s domination became total and cracked a few shots from distance without much success. His yellow card was certainly not an intentional one, but it was fortuitous in that he crosses the suspension threshold now—and not before the game against Milan.
JUAN CUADRADO - 6.5. Made three key passes and even dribbled by a guy once or twice today, which is a nice sight to see. He’s still certainly a step or a few slower than he used to be—in years past this kind of game would see him demolish the defenders coming at him—but he made some things happen today and, like Danilo, passed the suspension threshold with a booking, meaning he’ll be available for the Milan game in two weeks.
NICOLO FAGIOLI - 7.5. A fantastic game against the team that catapulted him to this point. His goal was an absolute stunner that will almost certainly make my top 15 list at the end of the year, and he also broke the lines multiple times with long passes to players on the wings. Add in two tackles defensively and you have the kind of game you want to see from a player who has fallen mildly out of favor in recent weeks.
LEANDRO PAREDES - 7.5. Racked up five key passes and completed 93.3 percent of a total of 105 passes overall. Also added in three tackles on the defensive end. Almost certainly his best in a Juve shirt.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 7.5. A busy day for him in all phases. Put two of three shots on target, and that lone one was cleared off the line. He also made a key pass and far and away led the team with five tackles. Every day makes it harder to lose him in the summer.
FEDERICO CHIESA - 6.5. Led the team with five dribbles and assisted on the opening goal for Fagioli. Was a little over-eager in the early stages of the game and tried to do to much, leading to some bad touches, but he settled down and was a very dangerous player as the game moved to its climax.
PAUL POGBA - NR. Had the seeds of a really good day developing, with a key pass and a dribble completed in the first 22 minutes before he broke down again. I hate to say this, but after thee years of this with no end in sight, is it maybe time for Pogba to retire with any dignity he has left?
DUSAN VLAHOVIC - 5.5. I wouldn’t blame him for wondering what even is his life right now. He only touched the ball 15 times in 65 minutes. That’s not good enough, period. He needs more service and he simply isn’t getting it right now.
ARKADIUSZ MILIK - 6.5. Put one of three shots on target, not counting the goal he had disallowed for the most ludicrous of offside calls. Also had a pair of key passes. A good day overall up front.
ANGEL DI MARIA - 6.5. Put together three key passes in only 25 minutes of work, helping to direct the attack as they looked for a second goal to put the game away.
SAMUEL ILING-JUNIOR - 6. Didn’t put a foot wrong, although he wasn’t quite as spectacular as we’ve been accustomed to seeing, he’ll still take his man on.
MOISE KEAN - NR. Pushed really hard for a goal of his own in his first game since April 1. Good attitude.
TOMMASO BARBIERI - NR. On to give Cuadrado a rest and protect his yellow card. Hopefully his second start next week will give people something to think about.
I have to admit I nearly blew my stack when the lineups came out. While starting Pogba was a gamble that certainly didn’t pay off, the thing that truly surprised me was playing Chiesa in the wing-back spot. Allegri’s last attempt to make that happen was in January when Juve went to Naples and got comprehensively spanked by the champions-elect. Chiesa was one of the biggest victims of that match, and most of us thought that that was the end of the Chiesa-as-wing-back experiment.
The decision didn’t backfire Sunday night, mostly because Allegri actually decided to push and control the game against a bottom-feeder instead of playing defend and counter against a team that Juventus outclasses in a way that is total. They then proceeded to so thoroughly smother Cremonese that Chiesa had little to no defensive responsibilities and could go forward as much as he liked.
It’s the first time all year we’ve seen Juve in a mode where they will do this against bad teams, and it was a welcome change. That said, against any team better than this, putting Chiesa in the wing-back spot will likely result in him getting exposed defensively the way he did against Napoli, so doing it at any point during the rest of the season is going to be stupid in the extreme.
The other worrying thing reared its head as the game was going on, and is another major issue for Allegri. The lack of opportunities for his forwards — particularly Vlahovic — is getting to be kind of incredible. In two games this week, Vlahovic touched the ball 25 times total, a ludicrous number that shows that Allegri really isn’t getting the best out of his players, and, more importantly, doesn’t really show much in the way of an inclination to alter his setup to ensure that they do. Given that the coach’s job is to maximize all of the talent at his disposal, that seems a somewhat damning indictment on the Juventus coach over the last two seasons.
The win moves Juve into sole possession of second place, eight points clear of Milan in fifth. That margin is going to be something to watch as the retrial of the plusvalenza case reaches a conclusion. The smart money is on a nine-point deduction, given the fact that that’s what the prosecutors originally asked for in the first place before the court went overboard. With three games to go, including a head-to-head, Juve could conceivably finish with a margin in the top four that is greater than any new point penalty. That head-to-head match is obviously the critical point here. This will be a complicated calculus until the final result of the case is made clear.
But before we can figure all that out, we have the Europa League semifinal to decide. The aim of the second leg is simple: win. Do that, and they go to their first European final since Cardiff. A draw will send the tie to extra time and potentially penalties. Lose, and they’re out. It’s that simple.