The match began with a confident, probing Napoli side eager to push us onto the back foot. Which wasn’t to be for whilst they were attacking in numbers, they were creating holes in the midfield which we threatened to puncture. The first half soon developed into a pattern of this nature, with fairly even possession, Juve trying to draw out the opposing midfield or cycling the ball to the flanks, ceding the ball to then spring into life with swift counters to try catch Napoli outnumbered when committing men forward.
A couple of chances came and went, mainly for Khedira, who couldn’t quite get on the end of a lovely Sandro pass and of course Higuain, who was put through almost one-on-one and looked certain to score but was thwarted by an expert piece of last ditch, perfectly timed defending. There was also a chance for Lichsteiner, who blasted horribly over with the goal close to gaping!
Other than the rare goal-mouth action, the majority of chances falling to Juve, we lost Chiellini to injury just before the break with what looked like a muscular problem. Such a shame given his barn storming return to the first team of late. In his place, Allegri elected to deploy Cuadrado, altering the tactics to a notionally rear back four with the midfield almost too odd and changeable in shape to define as anything specific. Though I shall make a stab at it…
Unorthodox to say the least, yet the regular 3-5-2 changes to several variants throughout the course of a game, as did this formation. One of the major changes which Allegri has brought to Juve is a transition from Conte’s far more rigid, regimented system to much greater encouragement for players to express themselves as the situation best demands, rather than run like ethiopian olympians on fixed paths. Yes there are positions, but the midfield and wingbacks are fluid. However, this was a new one for me…perhaps more commonly 3-4-1-2 than any other.
Both teams emerged from the tunnel for the second half with increased zeal, the game restarting at a lively pace. And it came as no surprise to see the deadlock broken on 50′. A defensive howler by Ghoulam sent the ball spinning in the air and back towards goal with Big Leo in the right place at the right time to thunder in a left footed volley from 12 yards out for 1-0. It was an emphatic finish.
Still, as in previous games, we often switch off after scoring, which is a horrible habit and must be addressed and crushed. Less than five minutes after taking the lead, Insigne picked out Callejon in the area for a decent, yet fairly simple finish past Buffon to bring the sides level. The marking was non existent with the Spaniard able to escape the attentions of two in black and white for an unhindered strike.
With both sides going for the win, it was Juve who began to emerge as the more dominant and capable. Marchisio appeared in the 68th minute for the awfully absent Pjanic and soon after we regained the lead. With Higuain picking the ball up outside the box, chipping in to Khedira…the Argie Master followed up on the loose ball to launch an excellent first time left foot drive past the hapless and always annoying Reina.
He could and should have had another after a decent team move saw a cross find his head, yet with others in front of him in line with the flight of the ball, we can forgive him this once!
There was a late brief scramble in the box to concern the home side, but it was a scramble involving only Juve players. A few bothersome passes to invite pressure aside, we closed the game out fairly comfortably for a deserved and important victory against one of our two major rivals for the title. At last we had won a game against high quality opposition.
Buffon – Largely untested and could do little about the goal. Somewhat shaky in his distrubution late on when we were trying to play out the game. 6
Bonucci – Staggering masterclass of a performance. Big Leo was unflinching in his tackling, covering, passing and plundered the opening goal with devastating power. More often than not one of the world’s finest defenders. 8
Barzagli – Such is his prowess that he actually seemed to improve when moved to the rarely tested DCL position after Chiellini’s injury. No fuss, no nonsense, calm and composed throughout. An exceptional stalwart of the black and white army. 7
Chiellini – Combative until his departure due to injury. He will be missed, but perhaps the back four-ish we morphed into as a result of his removal is something to build upon. 6
Lichsteiner – He brought courage, adventure, defensive muscle and also whining and rustiness! What more can we expect of a player who has barely featured this term. Showed his professionalism by sticking carefully and competently to a deeper role when Cuadrado appeared on the scene.7
Sandro – He is yet to have a poor game, but was close to it in this one. Yet he dealth well enough with the forages into his defensive zone and showed good strength when moving the play forward. 6.5
Khedira – Yet again nowhere near involved as much as we need him to be. This advanced position works well against the lame, but becomes listless when facing well organised, capable foes. Worked hard, yet I remain eager to see him rested and Sturaro to take his place. Just for a game or two. Give the man a chance to take breath after starting more games on the trot than ever before for Juve. 6
Hernanes – Monstrous! Hardly impeccable when on the ball, yet gave everything, threw himself into challenges and did not once offer any quarter to the opponents. A lame shot or three aside, this was a swash-buckling effort from the Brazillian, and what I hope for of anyone set as our regista is that he makes his presence felt. On this measure, Hernanes was decent. 7
Pjanic – Outmuscled, outhustled and rarely involved. He has yet to find his feet in our squad and system and this was a game where we needed him to show. He failed to do so. Set piece work has become not just his bread and butter, but his sole input of value to our performances. Presently, the large money spent seems wasted. I hope for improvement, which may not come until…unless…we pretty much reconfigure our tactics to play him in a system akin to his Roman adventure. Yet with Marchisio now back, and the team showing signs of life everywhere but in his role and Khedira’s role, we have Asamoah soon to challenge for a more dynamic option. 5
Cuadrado – Outstanding! Our man of the match. Juan not only contributed a handful of top drawer crosses, he also defended with quality. He literally owned the right flank. If only he could reproduce such form week in, week out, we would have a major talent in our hands. I will re-open my jury and hope he can use this showing as a building block, to continue in the same vein. He was not world class, but he was superb. 8
Higuain – An exceptional player. Learning to come deep in the absence of Dybala, creating the play as much as eager to score. Physically imperious, and scored 1 of 3 decent chances forged by his own determination. His goal may well prove worth its weight in gold. He has been outstanding since the first game, and continues to threaten goals in every game. 8
Mandzukic – Finding his rhythm slowly but surely, the big man was worthy of commendation, for his endeavour, for sticking to the task. No obvious chances, but his work was reliable. 6.5
Marchisio – Quality personified. Whether finding himself surrounded by two players and irking out a decent pass, or moving the ball swiftly to create another attack, Claudio was astonishingly sharp considering this was his second game since April. We are very clearly a better side with his presence, and I am extremely excited of how much we can improve as a team as he regains match sharpness. 7
This was probably our finest performance of the season to date. From start to finish we maintained a decent level of concentration and determination, with several players giving their all and finding just reward for their endeavour. On the balance of chances created we were superior and despite the game providing a fair amount of heated moments, we managed to keep our heads and finally reveal ourselves as worthy champions elect.
Allegri got his tactics spot on, with the decision to remove a spare defender and add width on the right proving a master stroke, for the much maligned Juan Cuadrado gave one of his strongest showings in our colours, rarely putting a foot wrong and constantly taking the game to the opposition. Hernanes also proved resolute and immensely aggressive, fortunate perhaps to remain on the field without receiving his marching orders, but I enjoyed that grit, it has been sorely lacking in recent weeks.
The only negative of an enjoyable victory was Pjanic who continues to find himself unable to provide value in any part of the game but set piece deliveries. Whether he is playing too high or too far from the ball is down to the player, not our tactics, for he is too often well out of the game, to such a degree, that it is easy to forget he is even present.
A quick word on Il Principino, who looks instantly at home and classy. His distribution, concentration and solid technique were a joy to behold. And he is only going to improve game after game. Having him back in th squad is a huge bonus and is already giving the squad a lift. Claudio simply does everything well.
Napoli were strong, yet also irritating and undignified in their behaviour. Too much rolling around, going down too easily, baiting their opponents with even their manager showing his lack of class when demanding a yellow card for a nothing challenge. That transmits to the players and the only other manager who comes to mind who is often an enemy of propriety is Mourinho. Still, it comes as no surprise given the character of their owner…
This was a Juve side which made me proud, filled me with passion and found me kicking every ball, scything down every opponent, chasing every ball with my own spirit. Perhaps it is the turning point in a season of solid results, yet haphazard performances. We shall find out more on that score when Lyon visit for what could prove a pivotal tie in our quest for qualification for the knock-out stage of the champions league.
A job well done.