Sunday’s game between Juventus and Empoli was one of those games that shouldn’t have been as close as it was.
The Bianconeri had multiple chances to augment the lead that they had earned in the 24th minute. They even had a penalty right before the half, but failed to convert the spot kick into a goal. While this Empoli was nothing like the side that shellacked Juve in their last meeting at the Stadio Carlo Castellani this past spring — indeed, over the first three weeks they look like they may be one of the worst teams in the league — one couldn’t help but get the feeling that the longer Juventus let them hang around the more likely it was that Juve would make that one slip-up that has seen them drop points time and time again over the last two or three seasons.
Fortunately, that moment never came. The Azzurri never managed a shot on target the entire game, and Juve finally got the game-sealing goal they were looking for after a lung-busting solo counterattack by Federico Chiesa with eight minutes to go.
Still, before and after that moment Juventus could have done their goal difference some serious benefit had they been more clinical. Instead the missed penalty, two disallowed goals, and two shots off the woodwork kept the score down to 2-0 — which was still a far cry from the 4-1 debacle we endured on the last trip to Tuscany.
Massimiliano Allegri was still missing Mattia De Sciglio and Wojciech Szczesny for the match, while Dean Huijsen was left out of the squad after playing in the Next Gen’s season-opening match against Pescara on Saturday. The 3-5-2 remained in place, albeit with some changes from last Sunday’s underwhelming effort over Bologna. Mattia Perin remained in goal, while Federico Gatti was given his first start of the season in defense, joining Bremer and Danilo. Both wing-backs were different, as Weston McKennie and Filip Kostic each made their first starts — and for Kostic his first appearance — of the year. Fabio Miretti, Manuel Locatelli, and Adrien Rabiot started in midfield, while Chiesa and Dusan Vlahovic paired together up top.
Empoli coach Paolo Zanetti was missing Daniele Maldini and Elia Caprile to injury. The latter forced Etrit Berisha into a start in goal only days after arriving at Empoli at the end of the transfer window. He played behind a 4-3-3 setup. Bartosz Bereszynski, Sebastiano Luperto, Sebastian Walukiewicz, and Giuseppe Pezzella were arrayed in front of the Albanian. Youssef Maleh, Jacopo Fazzini, and Razvan Marin made up the midfield, while Tommaso Baldanzi and Nicolò Cambiaghi flanked 36-year-old striker Francesco Caputo in the attacking trident.
Juve’s brand new press maintained its presence in the early going, with Empoli’s defense needing to be quick to a couple of good balls into the box in the early going. In the seventh minute Vlahovic hit a snap-shot on a loose ball that went right at Berisha, who was lucky there was no one close to him to score after he spilled the relatively simple save. Three minutes later Danilo headed the ball into the net after Juve recycled a corner, but the Brazilian had clearly fouled Berisha and the goal was quickly disallowed.
Vlahovic had another opportunity in the 17th minute in the aftermath of another corner. Miretti sent the ball back in after a Berisha punch, but the big Serb couldn’t get his header on target.
Juve was clearly the aggressor in the game’s early phases, and it felt as though a goal for the visitors was only a matter of time. In the 24th minute the pressure finally paid. The goal came off yet another corner. This time the delivery pinballed around in the box, with all three central defenders taking stabs at it before it squirted back to Danilo, who stepped forward and stroked it home to open the scoring. Danilo, wearing No. 6 on the anniversary of Gaetano Scirea’s death, later dedicated the goal to the late Juve legend and presented his son, who is on the coaching staff, with his game shirt.
Just like against Udinese, Juve continued to push for a second goal instead of turtling up. Chiesa should’ve had a shot in the middle of the box but mishandled a pass from Vlahovic. He still managed to push it outside to McKennie, whose shot from the channel was blocked at the last second by the trailing foot of Pezzella. Vlahovic tried his luck from distance a minute later and had Berisha worried enough to dive, but the drive rolled wide.
After applying sustained pressure, Juve thought they had found their way to a second goal when Gatti bombed forward and went down in the channel under a challenge from Maleh. The contact was light, but it was (just) enough for VAR official Antonio Di Martino to confirm Giovanni Ayroldi’s original call. But fate wasn’t on Vlahovic’s side this time. His shot was low and slightly to his left, and Berisha went the same way. He actually dove past the ball, but met it with a kick save before smothering it to prevent Vlahovic from pouncing on the rebound.
It was a huge moment for Empoli, but they couldn’t follow it up with any sort of threat, and the team’s went into the half at 1-0 to Juve. The Old Lady came roaring out of the gate in the second period as Chiesa burst into the box one-on-one with Berisha, but the keeper came out and won the ball off him.
Empoli were trying to take advantage of the fact that Juve was letting them stay in the game, but simply couldn’t muster anything offensively — not new for the only team thus far to have failed to score a goal. The best chance they had in the early phase of the period was when Bremer decided to try to execute a nonchalant attempt at a scorpion kick clearance. The Brazilian center-back was lucky not to be wiping egg off his face after Fazzini’s position forced him into acrobatic attempt at a bicycle kick which dropped wide.
Just before the hour mark Chiesa really should have made it two when he nutmegged Walukiewicz and put himself clean through on Berisha, but his shot didn’t bend in time and wrapped itself around the far post. Allegri continued to push for the second goal and introduced Paul Pogba at the hour mark, but Empoli were starting to get themselves into the game and just after he arrived Caputo turned a cross from Bereszynski just wide of the near post, a shot that it turns out would be the closest Empoli came to putting the ball on target all night.
Juve again thought they had their second in the 66th minute, after Chiesa drifted to the left side of the box and floated the ball to Vlahovic, who chested the ball back for Pogba. The Frenchman hit a gorgeous volley that cannoned past Berisha, but before he could do much celebrating the flag went up, and Vlahovic was called offside in the buildup, a call that turned out to be made correct by virtue of about half of Vlahovic’s leg hanging over the offside line.
Some mistakes were starting to creep into Juve’s game as the second half edged onwards. Perin had a hideous giveaway near his own box in the 67th minute but was bailed out by Maleh handling the ball as he took on the defense at the top of the box. Three minutes later Vlahovic was put into a great spot by Chesa but a last-second lunge by Walukiewicz denied him the goal.
The missed opportunities were starting to magnify by the second, and Empoli, despite failing to test Perin at all, were at the very least starting to push to keep Juve hemmed in and search for their equalizer. But it was that aggression that ultimately made them pay.
With eight minutes left, Danilo stepped in front of a pass and whacked it out to Chiesa. Chiesa played it to Arkadiusz Milik, then continued his run after spotting a seam in the defense. Milik made a fantastic left-footed pass to return the ball to Chiesa, who was clear behind the defense but well within his own half of the field when the ball was played, making the offside rule moot. Chiesa charged downfield and was met by a charging Berisha, who tried to tackle the ball away from him. Chiesa was nearly knocked down but stayed on his feet and continued to run, eventually slotting the ball into an empty net as defenders and keeper desperately tried to get back in time. Chiesa’s reaction to the clinching goal was to simply lie face-down in the grass, exhausted from the effort.
It was very nearly more than that in stoppage time. Just as the clock ticked over Milik headed a Timothy Weah cross off the crossbar. Empoli had their closest call a few minutes later when he hit a pretty awesome chest-and-volley, but the ball landed on the roof of the net just beyond the bar. Moise Kean nearly got in on the party when he gathered a whack upfield by Danilo and fired a low shot that skimmed the grass before bouncing off the base of the post.
The rest of stoppage time came and went, but not before Pogba pulled up with some sort of problem with his thigh, marring what was an otherwise successful night — albeit one that was way more fraught than it really should have been.
MATTIA PERIN - 6. Didn’t have a save to make, although his distribution nearly caused a horror show midway through the second half.
FEDERICO GATTI - 6.5. Four clearances and a blocked shot made for a good stat line. He was his characteristically aggressive self, which sometimes puts him in awkward spots, but still didn’t put him anywhere close to mistakes that have become routine for Alex Sandro. He needs to start from here on out.
BREMER - 6.5. Led the team with five clearances and added two tackles to the mix as well as an interception. Kept Caputo out of the game for long stretches. This number would’ve been a bit higher, but that ridiculous scorpion kick clearance he tried early in the second half takes his grade down a bit. That was a dumb move to try in your own box when you’re up by one.
DANILO - 8. He did a little bit of everything Sunday night. He made a tackle, two interceptions, and three clearances on defense, scored the opening goal out of the scrum on the corner, and had two key passes. Simply everywhere today and led by example for much of the game.
WESTON McKENNIE - 6. Had three tackles, two interceptions, and a clearance out of the wing-back spot, along with a key pass. He manned the position as best he could — but there lies the rub. He is not a wing-back, and should only be used in that position sparingly.
FABIO MIRETTI - 5.5. A long night of getting into great positions only to make bad decisions or not control the ball well enough. If that last little bit would just click for him, it would be immense.
MANUEL LOCATELLI - 6. Bounced back from a really awful game against Bologna with a solid one here, making a solid four clearances and completing 87.5 percent of his passes.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 6. Was subject to some bad decision-making going forward but also registered a pair of key passes along with three tackles and three interceptions.
FILIP KOSTIC - 6. A good job down his wing in his first match as Juve’s No. 11, making a pair of key passes and as many tackles. Still, his game is a little more predictable than the rest of the guys who can play this position, and he had a couple of crosses blocked away simply because they were waiting for him.
FEDERICO CHIESA - 6.5. That goal will likely be on my top 15 least at the end of the year. Beyond that, he led the team in dribbles and had a pair of key passes. Looking more and more like the olde Fede by the day.
DUSAN VLAHOVIC - 5.5. Did a lot of dirty work and probably deserved to have a goal for it. But that penalty just pulls things down in a serious way despite some solid numbers throughout.
PAUL POGBA - 6. Somewhat harshly had a goal taken away — when oh when will the offside rule be addressed? — and was quite active in his role, also providing a key pass. But then ... he hurt himself ... rignt at the end of the game. We’ll have to wait for the next day or two in order to see just how bad it is.
ARKADIUSZ MILIK - 6. You have to really look at the film to realize just how excellent that pass was for the assist on Chiesa’s goal. Unlucky not to have that goal in stoppages.
ANDREA CAMBIASO - 6. Made four tackles in only half an hour’s worth of work, easily leading the team.
MOISE KEAN - NR. Nearly picked up his first goal of the year but the upright denied him.
TIMOTHY WEAH - NR. Nearly had an assist on Milik’s header. Probably should’ve been on earlier.
Continued credit must be given to Allegri for sticking to Juve’s press game — at least early in matches — despite the setback against Bologna last week. It was especially pleasing to see the team push for a second goal in the first half in order to double their lead. Juve’s problems today (not putting the game in particular) came more from a lack of on-field execution as opposed to Allegri’s attitude.
His lineup changes mostly worked well. Gatti in particular made the defense look far more solid than Sandro did last year, while Kostic brought something different on the left wing.
That said, Max isn’t completely devoid of criticism here. His substitutions left a few things to be desired, particularly the way he handled the wing backs. Empoli had been leaving space open on the right, but McKennie, as hard as he played, simply didn’t have the skills to fully exploit that space, whereas a guy like Weah certainly could have. Yet Kostic was the one removed after the cooling break in the 70th minute, while Weah only ended up having seven minutes plus stoppages when he finally was introduced. Allegri’s feel for in-game subs simply isn’t there right now. Hopefully that changes as the season wears on.
It’s time for the first international break of the season. Juve will come out of said break with their first big test of the year, a home game against Lazio, on Saturday, Sept. 16.