You knew it almost immediately. As Arkadiusz Milik’s foot crashed into Alberto Cerri’s shin, you knew it could be bad. The initial yellow card produced only a momentary salve, as did the erroneous television graphic that gave false hope that the VAR check was over.
But Livio Martinelli headed to the pitchside monitor, and quickly ascertained that Milik’s clumsy and rash challenge rose to the level of dangerous play, showing him the first red card that Juventus have seen all year.
That quickly, a game that, given Juventus’ form — and the fact that Empoli had been one of the worst teams in the league this season — was expected to be a relatively straightforward match on the road to next week’s massive head-to-head clash with Inter turned into a major speed bump.
Even then, for a while it looked like Juve would gut the game out. An ugly goal out of the scrum on a corner gave them the lead only five minutes after the break, and they were giving up little in the way of chance on the other end. But playing down a man for more than 70 minutes will eventually tell, and Empoli eventually equalized pretty much out of thin air, and for the rest of the match Juve failed to get much going in the way of a response. The 1-1 draw was a major setback for Juve, who with a win could have taken a four-point lead into the San Siro but now opens things up for the leaders to take advantage of their games in hand to get some distance at the top.
Massimiliano Allegri was still missing Federico Chiesa and Adrien Rabiot, along with Mattia De Sciglio, Moise Kean, and the midfield suspensions. He made two changes to the team that swept away Lecce a week ago. Wojciech Szczesny was at the base of the 3-5-2 formation. Danilo, who was only one yellow card away from a ban, so he was given the night off. The choice of his replacement, though, was questionable, with Alex Sandro joining Federico Gatti and Bremer in the back. Andrea Cambiaso and Filip Kostic manned the wings as usual, surrounding the midfield of Weston McKennie, Manuel Locatelli, and Fabio Miretti. Milik started up top along with Dusan Vlahovic.
Nineteenth-placed Empoli made a change in the manager’s office just last week, bringing in Serie A’s resident escape artist Davide Nicola and promptly scoring a massive 3-0 win over Monza. Nicola’s attempt for more points also came in a 3-5-2. Elia Caprile was in goal, screened by Ardian Ismajli, Sebastiano Luperto, and Sebastian Walukiewicz. Emmanuel Gyasi and Liberato Cacace were the wing-backs, with Alberto Grassi, Youssef Malah, and Szymon Zurkowski in midfield. Former Juve academy product Cerri was joined by Nicolò Cambiaghi in the strike pair.
The game’s opening stages leaned toward the hosts, and they made Caprile work a little bit in the first quarter of an hour. In the sixth minute Vlahovic, clearly brimming with confidence after his consecutive braces, stepped up to a very long free kick and let fly on goal. It may well have been bending wide, but it was close enough that Caprile could take no chances and parried it around the post. Six minutes after that Cambiaso brought down an excellent switch from Locatelli, cut inside, and let fly at the near post, producing an unconvincing parry from the keeper.
But then the game turned on its head. Milik took an awful touch on a simple pass from Bremer and then went LeRoy Jenkins trying to recover it and hit Cerri hard in the shin with his studs out. Martinelli originally gave a yellow, and after a long moment VAR Daniele Doveri called the referee to the screen. It didn’t take long for him to upgrade the sanction to a red, leaving Juve a man short for 73 minutes.
It took Empoli a little time to get themselves into the swing of having the extra man, but in the 26th minute Szczesny had to fly to parry a good shot from Cambiaghi from the top of the box. Empoli kept the lion’s share of possession for the rest of the half, but neither side did much of anything until the very end of stoppage time, when Miretti jumped a slack pass by Gyasi and charged into the box, only to fly the golden opportunity for a lead over the bar.
But the lead did come, and it came from an entirely predictable source.
Five minutes into the second half McKennie and Cambiaso each did some hard work on the right side to earn a corner. Miretti sent the ball in and it glanced off the head of Gatti, off the back of Ismajli, and fell perfectly in front of Vlahovic, who neatly hooked a volley into the net from 5 yards.
If there was ever a time to pull back and let the opponent come at you with a 1-0 lead, it was this one, and Juve did just that. They occasionally popped forward with a quick spurt of possession, but they didn’t produce anything that looked remotely likely to provide an insurance goal. Empoli weren’t exactly looking sharp for an equalizer, either, as the league’s worst offense acted like it, producing only three shots in the first 18 minutes after Juve pulled ahead.
But Empoli isn’t completely devoid of talent, and shortly after the goal Nicola had sent on Tommaso Baldanzi. The highly regarded 20-year-old attacking midfielder has been the subject of interest from numerous teams — including a few connections with Juve last year — and he showed why in the 70th minute when he took a simple pass from Luperto and, aided by a late close-out by Locatelli, struck a turf-burner with his weaker foot just above the penalty arc. The ball moved through a sea of legs, which clearly concealed the ball from Szczesny until it was far too late for him to do anything other than watch it sneak just inside the far post to level the match.
Neither team made much doing for the last 20 minutes. The closest Juve came to regaining the lead was another corner kick scrum, this time involving the rather hilarious spectacle of Alex Sandro attempting a bicycle kick (spoiler alert: it was not successful). Empoli came closer with eight minutes left, when Cambiaghi went for the near post and forced a parry out of Szczesny. The game’s final meaningful act was another humorous sequence in the last minute of stoppage time, when Nicola sped free kick specialist Razvan Marin onto the field for the sole purpose of taking a direct free kick, only for the Romanian to hammer the shot into the crowd. Martinelli brought the game to a close shortly after, and Juve were left to rue a result that could have serious adverse effects on them in the title race.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 6.5. Did well keeping the defense organized while down a man and made a couple of very good stops that could have otherwise turned the match down a very dark path. He holds no blame on the goal, as there were so many players between himself and Baldanzi that it was likely impossible for him to see the ball until it was far too late.
FEDERICO GATTI - 6. His three tackles were second on the team but the most amongst the back three, and he was constantly pushing forward to try to aid the attack when Juve had the ball, even when down a man.
BREMER - 6.5. There was a reason the most impactful moment of the game for Alberto Cerri came near the midfield stripe as opposed to anywhere close to the penalty area. He finished second on the team with four clearances and a blocked shot.
ALEX SANDRO - 6.5. I’m going to be honest, I expected the worst when I saw Sandro’s name on the team sheet. He surprised me, though, turning in what was probably the most gaudy stat line out of the back three, with a tackle, two interceptions, and a team-high five clearances, several of which were quite important.
ANDREA CAMBIASO - 6. One of the most creative outlets on the team in a game where that was in short supply. He helped gain the corner that led to Vlahovic’s goal, and was a constant threat whenever he got the ball around the box.
WESTON McKENNIE - 6. Led the team with four tackles and had a couple of dangerous moments near the Empoli penalty area. Even more impressive is that he finished the game despite likely being nowhere near 100 percent after taking a heavy challenge only five minutes in that left him in clear discomfort for quite some time.
MANUEL LOCATELLI - 5.5. Had a pair of tackles, two key passes, and two blocked shots—but it was the shot he didn’t block that dings his rating. He was the closest player to Baldanzi on the equalizer and had already passed the man he was marking off to Gatti. He simply didn’t get back far enough to make it more difficult for Baldanzi to shoot.
FABIO MIRETTI - 5. Another maddening game for the young midfielder, who did a lot of things right in this game only to get the final product badly wrong. His huge miss on what was a step or so up from a sitter before the half was the biggest example. I think a loan will finally connect Miretti’s brain to his talent, but that won’t come until the summer because right now there’s a severe shortage of ambulatory, non-suspended midfielders on Juve’s books.
FILIP KOSTIC - 5. Again, Kostic did next to nothing and was more of a problem than a positive. He caused the end of a few promising moves, including a counterattack with about 15 minutes left that saw him try to unsuccessfully return the ball to Vlahovic when he should have just fired on goal. There still isn’t a compelling reason to start him over Samuel Iling-Junior at this point.
ARKADIUSZ MILIK - NR. I don’t give starters number grades if they don’t last more than 30 minutes, which spares the big Poland international one of the lower grades I’d’ve given since I started writing these recaps. Such an awful touch on that pass combined with a reckless, plain stupid challenge that very much deserved the red card. Even Milik himself barely argued after Martinelli changed the call, knowing the mistake he made. His immediate apology to the fans on Instagram is something that makes you respect him as a man — but boy did he fail as a player Saturday night.
DUSAN VLAHOVIC - 7. Dude worked his ass off despite getting little service before the red card and even less after it. He charged and pressed defenders constantly, all while cutting a forlorn figure up top. His goal, though, was a thing of beauty. Despite being so close to the goal, making that kind of turn for the volley is not something everyone can do, and he caught the ball sweetly.
TIMOTHY WEAH - 6. Didn’t make much impact on the offensive end, but made a picture-perfect tackle in the box to prevent Cancillieri from taking a shot after he’d been put clean through.
KENAN YILDIZ - NR. Immediately brought danger to the pitch and was dribbling like mad looking for openings for himself and his teammates.
SAMUEL ILING-JUNIOR - NR. Had a key pass and ran hard, but couldn’t really cause any danger outside of set piece delivery.
I’m going to do something not a lot of people have seen me do here lately, so sit down and make sure you don’t have a drink in your mouth that is liable to be spit onto your computer. I’m going to defend Max Allegri.
OK, now that I’ve gone and thrown up, here we go.
Allegri has taken quite a bit of flak for starting Arek Milik instead of Kenan Yildiz. Given the Turkish teenager’s success over the last month and the lack of fixture congestion without European football to deal with this year, one would think that Yildiz should’ve been a no-brainer.
Hindsight being 20/20, the decision ended up costing Juve quite a lot, but I actually think it was sound going in. Yes, Juve are only playing one game a week, but you also have to remember that Yildiz is still a teenager. His body is still developing, and even with only one game a week the wear he experiences is different than it’s going to be five years from now. Giving him a rest after a month where he was leaned on quite a bit wasn’t a bad idea, especially in a home game against a bad Empoli team with the Inter game on the horizon. Frankly, I was far more concerned about the inclusion of Sandro over Daniele Rugani in the back than I was with Milik starting up front. There was no way of anticipating his epic brain fart.
That said—and now I’m back in more familiar territory for me—I think Allegri seriously erred with his in-game management. Yes, there were limited cards to play, and even fewer down to 10 men, but Yildiz and Iling-Junior should have been on the field immediately once Baldanzi scored the equalizer.
But Allegri waited for almost eight minutes before finally pulling the trigger on the change. It’s difficult to believe that the two weren’t ready to go in by that point in the game — we’d seen shots of Yildiz warming up late in the first half — and there was no reason not to put them on the field immediately to give them more time to work. It’s obviously impossible to conclude that the delay was fatal, but putting them on quicker would have given Juve that much better a chance at reclaiming the lead.
The big head-to-head showdown with Inter has finally arrived. The second Derby d’Italia of the season kicks off next Sunday night. After that, Juve welcome Udinese to the Allianz for a Monday tilt to end Round 24.