Let’s get this part out of the way now: the timing of the news of the renewed point penalty that came down just before Juventus’ game against Empoli on Monday, dropping the Bianconeri from second to seventh in the table, was, to employ some understatement, inconvenient.
It is not, however, a valid excuse for the egg that Juve laid at the Stadio Carlo Castellani.
These are professional footballers. If they cannot put distractions like that aside and play a game, they’re not doing their jobs. If their manager had not prepared them for such an eventuality — one that they knew was coming on the day — in advance, he did not do his job. If no one, players or support staff, had managed to take stock of the situation, realize that they still controlled their own destiny when it came to making the top four, and use that as motivation to go out and do their jobs, I don’t know what to say about the mentality of the locker room.
It almost looked like Juventus was going to shake off the news and take the game to Empoli the way they did in October when they blitzed the Azzurri 4-0. In the first 15 minutes they hit the bar and had a goal disallowed for a (legitimate) foul call in the box.
But it all that came crashing down in no time at all. A foolishly conceded penalty started the boulder rolling downhill. That saw Empoli score two goals in three minutes, and the collapse was on. A horrific defensive mistake early in the second half gifted the home side a third, and it took until the 85th minute for the team to finally break through with a goal of their own, a goal that only proved to be a consolation, and a momentary one at that after Empoli put an exclamation point on things with a fourth in stoppage time to cap a 4-1 win.
Massimiliano Allegri was missing some important players as he devised his plan for the day. Danilo and Juan Cuadrado were both serving yellow card suspensions. Matias Soule was away at the U20 World Cup, while Nicolo Fagioli was out for the year after fracturing his collarbone on Thursday against Sevilla and Paul Pogba was Paul Pogba. Kaio Jorge and Mattia De Sciglio rounded out the injury list. Allegri sent the team out in a 3-5-2. Wojciech Szczesny started in goal. Alex Sandro served as Danilo’s replacement in the back three, joining Federico Gatti and Bremer. Tommaso Barbieri stepped in for Cuadrado opposite Filip Kostic in the wing-back spots, surrounding the midfield of Fabio Miretti, Manuel Locatelli, and Adrien Rabiot. Arkadiusz Milik and Dusan Vlahovic joined each other up front.
Paolo Zanetti’s team had secured their place in the top flight in their last game against Sampdoria. They were missing multiple players themselves, including Juve loanee Koni De Winter, Razvan Marin, Sebastian Walukiewicz, and Tommaso Baldanzi, the latter of whom was also at the U20 World Cup. Zanetti set his charges up in a 4-2-3-1, with Guglielmo Vicario at its base. Tyronne Ebuehi, Ardian Ismajli, Sebastiano Luperto, and Fabiano Parisi screened the keeper, while Filippo Bandinelli and Alberto Grassi formed the double pivot in midfield. Jean-Daniel Akpa Akpro, Jacopo Fazzini, and Nicoló Cambiaghi supported Francesco Caputo in attack.
Juve broke from the starting gate well, and in the seventh minute created an excellent chance when Gatti recovered a free kick, drove back into the box, and hit a low cross that found Vlahovic unmarked eight yards out. It’s the kind of chance Vlahovic would score with his eyes closed when he’s in form, but in his current state he scuffed the shot badly. Milik nearly got around to redirect it, but missed it and Vicario wrapped it up.
Kostic forced a save our of Vicario three minutes later, then a corner by Miretti was met by the head of Milik and thumped off the crossbar. The rebound popped into the air before dropping right at the goal line, causing a scramble that ended with Gatti putting the ball into the net, but referee Giovanni Ayroldi quickly blew his whistle to disallow the goal after Bremer had gotten tangled up with Vicario and prevented him from jumping for the ball.
That proved to be Juve’s high water mark for the night.
The collapse started when Szczesny punched a free kick delivery away only as far as Cambiaghi, who was bearing down on the ball before encountering a badly mistimed tackle by Milik. Ayroldi pointed to the spot immediately, to no protest whatsoever from Milik. Caputo stepped the spot and struck a vicious penalty that Szczesny had absolutely no chance to stop.
It was a setback that, if one extrapolated from the first phases of the game, that one would think Juve might have been able to recover from. But another blow was on the way. After a bad pass by Bremer forced Gatti to concede a corner, the team proceeded to have a collective brain fart defending the set piece. They allowed the ball to be flicked on at the near post and then crossed back in from the far. The latter ball bounced off the chest of Akpa Akpro, forcing a one-handed save from Szczesny, but only as far as Luperto, who slammed the ball into the roof of the net to double the lead.
Juve had the chance to pull one of those goals back almost immediately, but Bremer scooped the ball over from point blank range after Milik headed an excellent cross by Locatelli into his path. Some time later, Rabiot decided to cut out the middleman and hit the ball himself from distance — and a sweet hit it was, a rocket of a shot that flew over the crossbar by a foot or two. Had it found the target, it would’ve been one of the goals of the season.
As halftime approached, Vlahovic had a pair of opportunities to close the gap, the first on a bicycle kick that he didn’t get good contact with, the second just into stoppage time when he ran onto a good ball by Kostic, only to be met just outside the box by a perfectly executed slide tackle from Vicario.
Allegri immediately moved to change things up coming out of the locker rooms, sending on Federico Chiesa and Leandro Paredes for Barbieri and Miretti. An early goal would be critical to get the win they needed to keep control of their destiny, and Vlahovic had a glorious chance in the first minute of the half when the ball was put through to him in the left channel, but he tried to take it on the half-volley and completely missed, sending the ball into orbit.
Two minutes later, Empoli had the game well in hand thanks to a colossal mistake by Sandro, allowing Akpa Akpro to jump him for the ball. Sandro did his usual “oh-my-god-I-was-fouled” routine that he does when he does something stupid, and he managed to fool Bremer, who stopped to join in the request for a foul before finally giving chase on the Ivorian winger. Whether or not he had done so was likely moot, because he was the only person back and was facing a two-on-one situation with Caputo ready for a square in the middle. Akpa Akpro did get the ball across, and the veteran deftly chipped an onrushing Szczesny to secure his brace and all but slam the door on the match.
Moise Kean and Angel Di Maria were put on at the hour mark — perhaps a bit late — but everything seemed against them as the game went on, including luck, exemplified when a corner kick bounced off of Gatti’s knee and flew inches over the bar.
For most of the rest of the game, Juve searched vainly for some glimmer of hope to get back into the game. None came until it was far too late. With five minutes left, a cross by Rabiot ran all the way to Chiesa on the right side, and the winger slotted the ball through Vicario’s feet and into the goal. It was his first league goal since Jan. 6, 2022 — the game before he suffered his knee injury at Roma.
It was unlikely that Juventus would actually manage to get all the way back, but any possible hope was snuffed out by substitute Roberto Piccoli halfway through stoppage time. It was another awful-looking mistake that led to the goal, when Kean tried to get the ball upfield only to hit the ball directly off of Nicolas Haas. Haas didn’t pass the ball to Piccoli as much as it rebounded to him. Gatti badly misjudged where he expected Piccoli to go, and he rolled the ball past a wrong-footed Szczesny to put a capper on what for Empoli was a historic night and for Juve was the nadir of two seasons of terrible football.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 6. You can’t point to anything he did wrong. In fact he made a couple of really nice saves. But like he said midweek, if he’s making that many saves, something is wrong.
FEDERICO GATTI - 6. One of the few guys who was really solid and gave his all all game long. He had a pair of key passes as well, at least one of which really deserved to have been made into an assist. It was a slow start, but Gatti has found his stride and is a major piece of the back line for the future.
BREMER - 5. Missed a sitter that could’ve put the game back on in the first half, and made himself a step slow on Akpro’s run trying to protest for a foul on Sandro. An uncharacteristically bad game, likely contributed to by tired legs after playing all 120 minutes on Thursday.
ALEX SANDRO - 3. His giveaway on the goal was farcical, as was his lame attempt to act like he was fouled. Even after that things got so bad that Allegri decided to pull him for another defender with his last sub rather than throw on another attacker to try for a miracle.
TOMMASO BARBIERI - 4. Forced into service with Cuadrado suspended, Barbieri did not have a second outing as good as the first. He committed four fouls before being removed at the half and only completed 53.9 percent of his passes.
FABIO MIRETTI - 5. Supplied the pass that Milik whacked off the bar, but was inaccurate when it counted and lost the ball a few too many times. I still think he’s going to be really good, but it’s clear that Fagioli has overtaken him.
MANUEL LOCATELLI - 6. Played hard in defense and made one or two creative passes, but was mostly trying in vain to link the midfield and the attack.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 6. Two key passes, two tackles, and a couple of shots, including that long-range bomb in the first half that just scraped over the bar. Another player whose mentality was right the whole game.
FILIP KOSTIC - 5. Attempted 12 crosses on the day, which is a number far higher than my own guess until the end stages of the match. For much of the game, though, he was relatively quiet. He’s been very much boom or bust for a while now.
ARKADIUSZ MILIK - 5.5. Struck the bar early on but did little else.
DUSAN VLAHOVIC - 4. Missed a couple of chances that really need to be put on target, including a straight sitter in the first half. His confidence is absolutely shot right now and it totally shows.
FEDERICO CHIESA - 6.5. Unfortunate his first league goal since coming back comes in circumstances that pointless. Overall a really effective day, making three key passes and four tackles on defense.
LEANDRO PAREDES - 5. Kinda there in midfield but didn’t do much at all besides get booked.
ANGEL DI MARIA - 5. Was he on the field? Other than one shot he put on target he was relatively anonymous.
MOISE KEAN - 5.5. This was gonna be higher before his monumentally bad pass at the end of the game. Didn’t get a shot in but played with a lot of energy and determination.
DANIELE RUGANI - 6. A relatively competent day in the back in place of Sandro.
Max Allegri spent a lot of time in his post-match press conference railing over the timing of the announcement of the new point deduction, but like I said at the top of this recap, I’m not buying it. Everyone knew this decision was coming Monday and had for a while. This was not some kind of blindsiding event. Everyone knew that it was a lead-pipe lock that another deduction would happen.
How, then, did he not have his players prepared mentally for such an eventuality? Acting like this was some kind of bolt from the blue rings hollow and speaks to a failure on his part to keep his team mentally prepared for this to happen. The deduction still left Juve in control of their own destiny, but somehow failed to use that fact to keep his charges motivated.
That combines with a major mistake in the starting XI, starting Sandro instead of Rugani. The latter has been solid in his time this season, while Sandro has made mistake after mistake over the course of the season. True to form, Sandro immolated early in the second half, to the point where Allegri saw fit to replace him with Rugani rather than roll an extra attacker out there while down three goals. Combine that with the general lack of ideas this team continues to show while behind, and this game was a serious negative for Allegri.
For some context about how bad things have been, Allegri’s 16 losses in all competitions are the most in 13 years and only three away from the all-time record for defeats in a season. That’s simply unacceptable, and if he manages to survive this, it means the people making the decisions aren’t actually serious about making the team better.
A home game against AC Milan and a trip to Udinese are all that are left for Juve. Sunday’s game against Milan is still important in the top-four race, as it could pull the team within two points of the Rossoneri. Juve would then need some major help over the next two weeks in order to to it, but it’s still mathematically possible.