Another big game, another dispiriting loss for Juventus. It was indeed an unfair result, as Inter did very little to come away with the victory, and one could write a pamphlet on the referee’s decisions. Still, the Bianconeri again have to face the fact that they struggled mightily in a crucible this season. As it happened versus Villarreal, all the recent and past trends go out of the window when the temperature rises.
The stumbles do not have a common denominator, neither tactical nor in personnel, nor the opponents’ style, which makes fixing things more difficult. The defense tends to be sloppy no matter its composition, as it will always eventually make one crucial mistake. Still, conceding once should not be the end of the word. The strikers failed to live up to the task despite having plenty of chances. The issues may be more mental than anything, and experience is the only remedy. Still, there are limited opportunities to confront this kind of pressure, and so growing is challenging.
The worst legacy of the last two disappointing campaigns is Juventus and the Stadium losing their lusters and fear factor. Opponents have no trouble waltzing in and playing their game now, while they used to go into the match-up a little intimidated and with their spirits partly broken. It will take another Scudetto for those elements to resurface. There will be just a couple more big matches before the end of the season, in Coppa Italia, so hopefully the squad and the coaching staff can find some short-term solutions.
For once, Massimiliano Allegri gets away scot-free following a defeat because the scheme and the game plan were on point. This one was more on the players. 4-2-3-1 has always generally produced good-looking football, and keeping the balance is not a big issue because Alvaro Morata and Juan Cuadrado track back a lot. The regret is not using it more often. It is only viable when all the attackers, and especially Paulo Dybala, are healthy, which has been a rarity. In hindsight, it could have been the main tactic if the manager trusted Dejan Kulusevski as a no.10 and Moise Kean more in the first half of the campaign, and perhaps they would have fared better too. Obviously, the sad shadow looming is that it will not be the solution in the future with the Argentinian star on his way out, and the creative void will be massive.
There has been a changing of the guard behind the Bianconeri in the standings, as Atalanta have basically waved the white flag to go after Europa League, and Roma are surging. Five points is still an okay cushion, and the Giallorossi have a more challenging schedule, and they always seem to be somewhat walking on eggshells. They are indeed a threat, but Juventus are still in firm control of the Champions League race.
The injury luck that had turned for the better during the break quickly reversed, as Manuel Locatelli will sit out multiple matches with a knee sprain. It is never good to lose a linchpin, but it could have happened at worse times. Denis Zakaria was strong in his return, and the tactic featuring one fewer midfielder could stick around for a while. Adrien Rabiot makes a lot more sense as a pivot, where he does not have to play-make or improbably try to get past opponents on the flank, and actually does what he is best at, which is using his physique to manhandle opponents, recover balls, and quickly slip it to players nearby that have better ideas about what to do with it.
No Alvaro Morata in this one due to a suspension, but the scheme could be confirmed with Federico Bernardeschi or Moise Kean filling in on the left flank. Otherwise, Arthur would bolster the midfield. This second option is the favorite at the moment, and it could easily be a 3-5-2. Leonardo Bonucci has a decent shot to return to the XI after a minute, while Luca Pellegrini could be picked over Alex Sandro.
Juventus (4-4-2): Szczesny; Danilo, De Ligt, Chiellini, Pellegrini; Cuadrado, Zakaria, Arthur, Rabiot; Dybala, Vlahovic.
Absences: Morata, De Sciglio (suspensions), Locatelli (MCL sprain), Chiesa (ACL tear), McKennie (foot fracture), Kaio Jorge (patellar tendon tear)
Cagliari had a nearly incredible run, considering their previous woes, in January and February, and clawed out of the bottom three. However, they have then lost four games in a row, and so they are about to fall back into it. Lazio burst their bubble, then they fought with Spezia and Milan but were knocked down. The negativity culminated last week, as Udinese, not exactly the most explosive side, trounced them.
Perhaps they got complacent too early, or their previous streak was just a product of circumstances rather than a real turnaround. It was not generated by a coaching change or tactical tweaks, as they have been using the same scheme and men since Walter Mazzarri took over in September.
Depending on whoever starts in the attack and the midfield, it is either a standard 3-5-2 or a 3-4-2-1, with a midfielder, either Razvan Marin or Daniele Baselli, in a slightly more offensive role to support Joao Pedro and Leonardo Pavoletti or Gaston Pereiro. Balde Keita has seen very little playing time following the African Cup of Nations. The Uruguayan attacker carried them for a while, finally showing the stuff that had made him a hot prospect at PSV, but he has been quiet over the last month, so they have gone back to the more physical center-forward.
Joao Pedro sputtered for a few weeks, but he returned to the stat sheet with a gem versus Udinese. He tends to be streaky, and he is about half of their offense with his passes, frenetic movement, and tenacity even when he is not hitting the back of the net. He peels back more with Pavoletti, while he is the main center-forward when Pereiro or Keita are partnering him. In any case, he moves around a lot and can finish in a variety of ways, on top of being a great leader.
They have the experience and probably enough quality to avoid relegation but, it is not a major surprise to see them being in so much trouble since there are not many highlights across the roster. Matteo Lovato has been a great January addition, and they would probably be bottom of the league if they did onboard him and Edoardo Goldaniga, as they dramatically improved their defensive phase. Giorgio Altare has been a big revelation since he was in Serie C last season, and he fits well in a three-man line because he is giant but also decently mobile. It looks like Goldaniga suffered a late injury, so either Andrea Carboni or Sebastian Walukiewicz will make the XI in this one.
Raoul Bellanova has been their best performer, and his sprints on the flank are one of their main sources of chances. Pavoletti is a beast in the air, and their other attackers are not too shabby either, so it makes sense for them to rely heavily on crosses. However, they tend to be lopsided because they are not as proficient on the other wing. Charalampos Lykogiannis was pretty good in previous years, but he has not been a regular in this one. Dalbert and Gabriele Zappa do not pack the same punch as Bellanova, and so they can become predictable after a while.
Marin is de facto the only distributor, but while he excels on set pieces, his gravitas is not superb on open play. They will be without Alberto Grassi, and it is a significant loss even though he is an ordinary contributor. Mazzarri recently stated that he does not like to field two technical midfielders together, which goes a long way to describe his style, so they might deploy Dalbert as box-to-box, as they have already done in the past. The trump card would be Marko Rog, who is arguably their best player in the role, but he just returned after 18 months on the shelf due to two consecutive ACL tears. It is tough to ask him to do too much right away.
Their philosophy is typical of their position, as they try to muck it up and defend with grit and diligence and make the most of their rare opportunities to attack. While they improved after the past window, they have not exactly shined in the first part of the equation, as they last kept a clean sheet in November. Their frontline has rarely been prolific enough to overcome that. Rather than the opponents, the main problem for Juventus will be to deal with their own demons, as the aftermath of a major defeat can be problematic and have lingering side effects.
Cagliari (3-5-2): Cragno; Altare, Lovato, Carboni; Bellanova, Marin, Deiola, Dalbert, Lykogiannis; Pavoletti, Joao Pedro.
Absences: Grassi (suspension), Goldaniga (ankle sprain), Strootman (knee surgery), Nandez (knee sprain).