There is always hesitation vis-a-vis how we will fare after many of our players have been traveling long distance and adopting to different tactics with different players whilst others have been absent of any competitive action. The international break, many of us had hoped, would offer a chance for the side to recover key personnel from various niggles and poor form, yet this was not to be, for our list of those destined for the infirmary increased, leaving a tricky selection routine for Allegri when we faced Empoli.
As is often the case, the Boss surprised me with his starting XI. Whilst I was pleased to see the 3-5-2 absent of Cuadrado, I was very much disheartened to find Pereyra given the role of a central midfielder. That is Khedira’s spot, with Sturaro the natural apprentice. It requires a sturdy focus on defensive duties, getting stuck in, and supporting the attack when possible. These are not the strengths of Pereyra. Whose only run of fine form for the club has come as a link-up man between the midfield and attack, roaming the lines, finding himself in tight spaces up top and creating chances for others. Maybe I am alone in this stance? Yet it seemed a bizarre decision. Yes yes! Pereyra needs games to gather match sharpness, but only in his own role.
We started well enough, enjoyed a fair amount of more potent possession yet Empoli were in fine fettle and deservedly keeping the game level through defensive endeavour and eagerness to attack. Mandzukic had a great chance provided by Pogba yet both Saponara ad Pucciarelli could have done better with their own opportunities. Still, considering the difference in quality of the sides it came as no surprise to find Pogba providing Big Mario with a second chance to make it 1-0 close to half time, which the Croat giant pounced upon clinically.
Other than a wonderful Morata effort which kissed the post on its way to safety, it is fair to conclude that both sides created close to equal gilt-edged chances. Whilst looking the more capable side, we were not proving as much in the final third.
The second period began with a more even balance, with only Morata and Pogba looking capable of providing any serious carnage offensively. Ten minutes after the restart Chiellini was substituted for Cuadrado, which left our formation…
Lichsteiner Rugani Barzagli Evra
Cuadrado Pereyra Marchisio Pogba
This change in formation completely unsettled the side and ended all semblance of flow. Which afforded Empoli the encouragement to attack with more conviction. With momentum moving more towards our opponents Allegri brought on Zaza. Who was booked within minutes of entering the fray. The remainder of the match appeared more defensive, with the result up in the air, never decisive, until the final ten minutes when Asamoah appeared. The Ghanaian turned the tide, adding threat and determination which had been lacking. We closed the game out comfortably and could have added a second through the Asamoah, Pogba and also Zaza before the ref drew a close to not quite a worrying outing, but neither a satisfying victory. All that matters are the three points, especially with so many players unavailable.
Was forced into several saves which the veteran dealt with comfortably. 7
Offered constant support high up the field and defended intelligently. His whining bothers me, as its not in line with lo stile juve, and we MUST find a solid alternative for his role in the Summer. Aside from which, a solid showing from the Swiss locomotive. 7
Ever dependable defensively and smart on the ball, yet the stronger Sandro becomes the more I see Evra as second fiddle. His experience and drive is wonderful for the squad and I hope he remains for next season, yet the time of Sandro is upon us. Performed as well as can be expected of a 34 year old full-back. 7
Seemed back to his old self, and we were far more resolute at the back with his presence. Got forward well, misplaced a few passes and caused trouble within the lines of the law wherever he swashbuckled. He was pulled off for signs of a groin strain, which will be assessed over the coming days. It was more precautionary a measure than due to a definite strain or tear. Great to see the gladiator back in the ranks. 7
Kept his cool when others were uneasy. Admirable in the tackle, covering and interceptions, also imperious in the air. 7
This was the first game where I saw Daniele clearly growing in confidence, feeling less an imposter, more like he deserves to be where he has found himself playing. Yet perhaps this was partly due to lining up against his old chums? Made no mistakes, adjusted commendably to two new roles. His future looks bright. 7.5
I wasn’t expecting to see him included. Not match sharp, his set pieces and general distribution were average, nothing special, yet he met his objectives by and large. Screened the defence, put his body on the line to intercept and end Empoli attacks. Nowhere near top form, yet he emerges unscathed and another game under the belt towards returning to his best. 6.5
Asked to perform a service the Argentine is ill-equipped to supply, Pererya was weak, more often absent than involved and showed nothing of any value in the second half before making way for Asamoah. The only mention I found in my notes was of his despicable demand to the ref to award a yellow card to an opponent for a nothing challenge which put him on the turf. Which I found disgusting. I hate to see any player asking the referee to book other players, and when it is one of our own, I begin to think…maybe he is not worthy of the shirt.5
Barely put a foot wrong. Created two outstanding chances for his colleagues, one of which proved the winner and had a couple of half chances himself. He barely broke sweat yet was clearly our most powerful player on the ball. Often close to impossible to knock out of his stride, double marked, closed down with always 2-3 players, Paul was in decent form. We are fortunate to have him in our side, especially given his obvious talent and the blossoming worldwide eagerness for his signature from clubs who can pay him – with ease – thrice what we offer to line his pockets. Justifiably spoken of as the best young player in the world. 8
He dovetails more seamlessly with Dybala, who looks for him as a reference point and brings out the Croatian’s best more readily and consistently. Yet with Morata, who is far more selfish a player than the Argie, he seems unable to find a steady rhythm, let alone any semblance of a partnership. Mario toiled hard, as is always the case, took his goal well enough and should have had another. Yet still, his singular talents were plain for all to see. Immense work-rate, got the winner, so why complain? I am unsure, other than his lack of guile, dribbling, pace. Still…worthy of a 7.
His pace is lightning. His ability is world class. Back to form and constantly a menace. We really need to keep him, for few other strikers I find on the global stage prove as constantly dangerous against all opposition. Worked damn hard, his sharpness has returned, and was unlucky not to get on the score-sheet. 8
Achieved little, yet did offer some intelligence defensively. 6.5
Offered next to nothing, other than in the final minutes when he had a shot saved and thought he won a penalty which was rightfully not given. The manner in which he threw himself into a booking merely minutes after his entrance was unprofessional. I like his swagger, and he can be potent in the box, yet I do not see him as a long term Juve player. For he lacks the class and propriety. 5
Back to his best. His introduction led to the result becoming instantly more assured, for the Ghanaian was ubiquitous, his work conjuring multiple chances, his defensive prowess a welcome wolf howl. I was very impressed with the cameo and surely he will be given more minutes as we embark on the next 8 games which decide league and cup. 9
We very much missed Bonucci, Khedira and Dyabala. Marchisio is not fit, neither is Pereyra, who was deployed in an odd position. After missing much of the campaign due to injury, my present inklings of the value of the Argie are somewhat mitigated, yet I must assert that he has been bang out of form since returning to the ranks, and if he cannot improve with the remaining games, I suspect he will be moved on in the Summer. For if we are aspiring to greatness, we need to conjure a squad of greatness.
The same applies to Mandzukic, by a different reckoning. He can be a useful squad player, nothing more. For if we are to aim for the pinnacle, we need Dybala and Morata up top, we need Pogba, Sandro,Chiellini, Barzagli, Bonucci, Buffon, Lichsteiner and then many other new recruits to raise the level of our ideal first XI and second string behind them in the pecking order.
I could add Khedira into that mix, if he stayed fit for more than a handful of matches.
Lichsteiner Barzagli Bonucci Chiellini Sandro
Khedira X Pogba
When all are fit, we can field 10 world class players. Add in a regista capable of putting his foot on the ball and dictating the tempo against the very best, and I see us as rightfully among the top five sides on the planet.
Cuadrado, Mandzukic, Asamoah and Sturaro/Rugani are worth keeping other than those I mentioned above. The rest need to be improved upon. Other than Lemina, who can be bought for great value at 9.5m and given a chance as a squad player next term.
We struggled to put victory beyond doubt until the final seconds. I won’t add that we were lucky, for we deserved victory on chances created and quality shown on the battle field. Yet…this was no walk in the park. And where are Empoli? Not even challenging for Europe. How heavily the absences of key players can see us struggle – by some measures – to beat lowly Empoli, a few weeks after coming so close to beating one the finest sides the world has ever known, makes me smile, and also ponder the deadwood. We need to be cut-throat if serious ambition resides in our minds, not just our hearts, to become a consistent mega thorn in the side of ANYONE we face, domestically or elsewhere.
We need a defensive midfielder. Marchisio is up to the task sporadically. Which is not enough to succeed at the top level. We need more potent in the final third strikers than Zaza and Mandzukic. We need another centre-back, Tonelli will do. We need to replace Pererya and Hernanes as our trequartista options. And finally, we need a viable alternative to Lichsteiner at RWB.
If we can meet those demands, I feel we will be supreme, an unwelcome tide appearing on any shoreline. We punched above our weight against Munich. Imagine what we could do with that spirit, with a higher calibre of players…
The squad remains solid enough to continue to dominate domestically as well as challenge stronger sides on the continental stage, yet I feel our hand will be forced in terms of squad renovation sooner than we would choose. Pogba will be joined by Dybala and Morata this Summer as targets for sides with bottomless pockets who are also able to offer a potentially more fierce assault on major honours alongside the opportunity to sample new cultures. Who can say? Perhaps all three will stay and we will strengthen elsewhere. I would happily see Pereyra join Caceres in leaving the club in the Summer and Saponara and Tonelli replace them in our ranks.
With Napoli self destructing in Udine and the possible loss of their most powerful offensive weapon for a handful of games (one of which is away to Inter) the gap between 1st and 2nd could well increase over the coming weeks. Regardless of which, we must continue to strive for our own excellence and will need to improve for the battle against a faltering, yet perennial rival of AC Milan next weekend. By which time we should be able to call upon several more first XI players. All of whom will be required if we are to retain the scudetto and repeat the double.
Other than Mario Rui, whose diving and theatrics were by far the worst I have seen in Serie A this season, I was very impressed with Empoli. Who played some lovely football, passed intricately and swiftly and were undaunted and confident despite their woeful run of results since December. Saponara was lively until a knock saw him replaced and the team as a whole seemed very well knit together and keen on adopting an adventurous passing game. Sarri obviously performed a fine job there and Gimapaolo has continued to build on the foundations laid before. Great football, an Italian heart to the side and well run off the pitch.
The scudetto is by no means already won. Anything can happen against Milan, a match where I believe form is of less meaning, for the fixture stirs the hearts of all players involved, given the illustrious history of both clubs and their historical positions as the twin pillars of Italian football’s elite. We must also visit Florence and host Lazio.
Exciting, tense times ahead!