After four games without a win, Juventus were in desperate need of a victory to keep their place in the top four secure. Under most circumstances, a game against Lecce at home would be considered easy points in a situation like this.
The 2022-23 season, with its losses to Monza, Maccabi Haifa, and Sassuolo, has definitely not been most circumstances.
Lecce may have been in 16th place coming in, but they’ve never backed down from a challenge, and with only four points between them and the drop zone, points were at an absolute premium for the Salentini.
Both teams badly needed a result on Wednesday. Both teams went after that result, and the game turned into one of the more entertaining Juventus contests of the season. Juventus wasted a bunch of really good chances throughout the match and got hit with the bad luck stick twice with a toenail offside call and a thumping header off the post. They also ran some risks at the back, and gave away a penalty on a head-scratching handball call.
But they did just enough. A much-needed goal by Dusan Vlahovic late in the first half provided the margin of a 2-1 score that gave Juve a much-needed victory and extending their lead over fifth place to five points.
Massimiliano Allegri had every player in the roster with the exception of Kaio Jorge at his disposal on the bench, although Adrien Rabiot was left off the squad to give him a complete rest. He rotated some of the squad, but still put out a relatively strong XI. Wojciech Szczesny started in goal behind a 3-5-2/3-5-1-1 setup. Bremer, Leonardo Bonucci, and Danilo made up the back three. Mattia De Scigilo and Filip Kostic played in the wing-back spots, sandwiching the midfield of Nicolo Fagioli, Leandro Paredes, and Fabio Miretti. Angel Di Maria started up front alongside Vlahovic.
Lecce coach Marco Baroni was missing attacking lynchpin Gabriel Strefezza due to suspension, as well as Marin Pongracic and Kastriot Dermaku due to injury. He sent out his charges in a 4-3-3 formation. Wladimiro Falcone was between the sticks. Federico Baschirotto slid out to an unfamiliar right-back position, joining Samuel Umtiti, Simone Romagnoli, and Giuseppe Pezzella in the back. Morten Hjulmand, Youssef Maleh, and Joan Gonzalez made up the midfield, while Remi Oudin, Assan Ceesay, and Lamek Banda formed the attacking trident.
Juve nearly endured a horror start when Oudin whipped a ball into the six-yard box and Ceesay stole in behind Bremer to slide in and tap the ball home with only two minutes on the clock. Fortunately for the Bianconeri, the striker was flagged offside, a call confirmed by VAR after a check that seemed unnecessarily long.
Juve immediately pushed the game toward the Lecce goal. At first, the problem was with ball control, as both forward players repeatedly failed to bring entry passes under their control. But, in the eighth minute, Bonucci found Kostic with a long ball, and the wing-back tried to flick it first-time toward the far post. The audacious attempt was good enough that Falcone found it necessary to track it, but it eventually floated wide.
The match sprang to life in the 15th minute, after Fagioli was brought down in range for a direct free kick. It lent itself to a right-footed shot, and Paredes lined it up. Taking advantage of a poorly constructed and positioned wall, he swung it around the wall and skipped it into the net behind the post. It was a precious positive in a completely awful season for the Argentine, and it gave Juventus four direct free kick goals this year, the most in Europe’s top five leagues.
What happened next was one of the most pleasant surprises of the season: Juventus kept on playing for a second goal. Within two minutes Miretti was set up by an excellent low cross by De Sciglio, but Gonzalez made a fantastic sliding tackle to put the ball behind. It was the first in a litany of chances that brought Miretti desperately close to his first senior team goal.
In the 25th minute, the teenager actually had the ball in the net, volleying in a beautiful scooped pass from Fagioli at the end of a good passing move. But as the teams headed for the center line a VAR review popped up. Eventually, Miretti was ruled offside by the front third of his foot — more evidence that the offside rule desperately needs to be updated.
In the middle of one of the team’s best halves the team has played all year came a dark spot right on the half-hour. De Sciglio was battling for the ball on the right flank against Banda when he took a wrong step. His knee wrenched. On one reverse angle you could actually see it pop. The defender was stretchered off, and after the game the team confirmed what most people probably suspected the moment the injury happened: De Sciglio had torn his ACL. He was replaced by Juan Cuadrado.
A few minutes later, Juve gifted Lecce a way back into the game when Danilo went up to try to head a ball in the box, but his arm flew up as he came down and struck the ball. It was an easy call for referee Francesco Forneau. Ceesay stepped up in the absence of Strefezza. He took a ridiculously long run-up, but in the end put his foot through the ball, slamming it home past Szczesny, who guessed right but could ultimately do nothing against a well-executed shot.
The teams weren’t level for long. It was only three minutes later that Kostic sent a cross to the top of the box, where his countryman was waiting. Vlahovic checked his run, stepped back to the ball, twisted his body, and hit a sweet half-volley bouncing into the far post. It was his first goal at the club level since March 16, and his first in Serie A since Feb. 7.
A third goal could — and perhaps should — have come just minutes later when Danilo got up in a crowd on a corner and headed the ball just wide. Miretti misjudged a lob in stoppage time and flipped it over, while on the other end Cessay headed his own corner over when he got free at the back post.
The frenetic pace of the game continued when play resumed for the second half. Four minutes into the period Miretti’s game of almosts continued when he missed a sitter, pushing wide after Bremer headed a cross back against the grain.
Lecce’s first real chance of the game in open play came in the 53rd minute when Baschirotto fired on goal from long range. That forced a diving save out of Szczesny, then the other full-back pulled an important block out of Bremer.
The teams again exchanged chances off corners midway through the half, via the exact same players. First Ceesay went up flat-footed and hit his over, while on the other end Danilo charged through the crowd for a free header, hitting the post so hard enough to bruise it.
There was a period of about 10 minutes midway through the half that Lecce took control of the ball and pushed Juve well back to their own goal, but those 10 minutes coincided with the time Bonucci was off the field getting treatment for a gash over his eye suffered during a clash with Banda on a corner. When he came back, he was not only cosplaying as Giorgio Chiellini, he played like him too, rolling back the years with an inch-perfect sliding tackle in the box that denied Ceesay an opportunity to shoot from close range.
Both keepers were called into play late. Szczesny somehow had the reflexes to deny a completely free header by Ceesay, then hold the follow-up header by Baschirotto. Falcone, on the other hand, got down to parry a strong shot from Kostic around the post.
As the game wound to a close, there was certainly the feeling that Lecce could pop off for the equalizer, but unlike other games, it also felt just as likely that Juve would spring forward and seal the game off with a third goal. Ultimately, neither one came to pass, the closest attempt being a 1-on-1 save by Falcone against Vlahovic, who had been put through the channel by Paul Pogba.
When Forneau blew his whistle, Juve finally had three points, and as the day wore on saw multiple results go in a direction that only helped them in the standings
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 7. That insane reaction save with 11 minutes left saved the result, and he did everything else he needed to do to near perfection. Even came close to stopping the penalty.
BREMER - 6.5. Started a little wonky, letting Ceesay behind him far too easily on the early disallowed goal, but grew into the game and made some important interventions. Ended up tied for the team lead in clearances (5), interceptions (3), and tackles (2). Also contributed up front, not so much as a shooter as a setup man from corners and free kicks.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 7. Far and away the best game he’s had all year. Racked up three interceptions, four clearances, and a key pass off a long pass to boot. Rolled back the years big time with that important tackle on Ceesay after he got the Chiellini-style head wrap after he got busted open.
DANILO - 5.5. Came really close to scoring (I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a dent in the post) and his counting stats were excellent, tying for the team lead in tackles and clearances. But flailing his arm like that was an elementary mistake, the kind of thing he simply hasn’t done the last few years. It makes me wonder if his workload—he’s played far and away more minutes than anyone else on the team this year—is catching up to him and that he’s just tired.
MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - 6. Defended very well down the right flank for the 30 minutes he was on the field. Seeing him that was was rought. Here’s hoping that he’s back sooner rather thsn later.
NICOLO FAGIOLI - 7. Looked more confident and productive than he has in several weeks. He had some really good chemistry with Miretti and finished with a key pass to him as well as a pair of tackles in midfield. A good bounce-back after a poor few weeks.
LEANDRO PAREDES - 7.5. As happy as I am for him, this game makes you wonder where this is before. Hs goal was money, he led the team with three key passes, and he had three interceptions and four clearances on defense. It’s everything Juve thought they were getting when they got him on loan. The one downer is hitting the yellow card threshold.
FABIO MIRETTI - 6.5. He was everywhere in the final third and was desperately unlucky not to score, particularly on that offside call. His best game in a while, if not ever,.
FILIP KOSTIC - 6. Defended well on his flank and was a danger with his crossing, including delivering the winner (which he somehow didn’t get an official assist for). Also forced a save out of Falcone and, had some decision making been better from a teammate, he might well have scored the finisher.
ANGEL DI MARIA - 6. Provided a dangerous presence that was most evident in between the lines, where he made a couple of really good buildup passes that led to shots being taken later on.
DUSAN VLAHOVIC - 7. That goal had to feel good. Also got better with his holdup play as the game went on, bringing teammates into the attack and drawing fouls.
JUAN CUADRADO - 6. Came on cold in the first half and played ... OK. Put in two key passes and registered two dribbles, but still fails to get by his man on a regular basis — although today he was able to fight through them in some cases.
PAUL POGBA - 6.5. This ... this was good. Pogba looked dynamic in his passing and his dribbling, splitting the defense open with a pass to Vlahovic late, and defending well as well. First time he’s looked anything like his old self.
FEDERICO CHIESA - 5.5. Couldn’t get in the flow of things, and was supremely selfish on a late run when he could have set up Kostic.
FEDERICO GATTI - NR. Crammed a tackle, two clearances, and a blocked shot into four minutes plus stoppage time.
MANUEL LOCATELLI - NR. On mainly to protect Paredes from a second yellow, he saw the game out from midfield.
Allegri went with his 3-5-2 on Wednesday, as he has since November, despite finally having a completely full roster at his disposal. If there was ever a chance to test out a 4-3-3 from the get-go, it was here.
But, at the end of the day, that’s a quibble and a half, because Juve played REALLY well for a lot of the game. Had they been a little more clinical/a little luckier, they’d have won this game going away. About a third of the way through the first half they really started to purr and move the ball a lot faster. They only really turtled up for the extended period in which Bonucci was getting patched up and they were playing shorthanded.
What was the difference? The midfield is probably the place to look. Allegri played a trio of ball-players in the engine room today, and it showed. The passing was crisper and more creative than it has been in almost any other game this year. It’s ironic that I’m saying this on the day that one of the team’s best performers on the year, Rabiot, was rested, but of all the things Rabiot does well, he’s not the kind of passer Miretti and Fagioli are. With three guys in the midfield that can move the ball the way they can, this team actually started attacking with a purpose. Add in what Paul Pogba started doing when he came off the bench, which finally started looking like the kind of guy we all thought we would be getting in midfield this summer, and the team started looking downright scary.
Obviously, Rabiot isn’t going to be dropped anytime soon, but this may be a look at the team’s future in midfield, because playing this kind of midfield made the team look better than any point this season.
Juve enter the most critical two weeks of their season starting now. First, on Sunday, they travel to Bergamo to face Atalanta, who are in hot pursuit of a return to the Champions League for themselves. Indeed, Sunday will be one of the most consequential matchdays we’ve ever seen, because all of the top eight teams will be playing each other, which could lead to some significant shakeups — or solidifications — at the top of the table.
After that, Juve host Sevilla for the first leg of the Europa League semifinal, then stay in Turin to play Cremonese before going to Spain for the second leg.