Those cursing the international break were to be proved right in their concerns, for after the travels, matches played in foreign lands and departure from what was developing into a steadily blossoming domestic momentum, Juve returned to the haphazard, error prone form of earlier this season.
There were other mitigating factors such as the decision to rest key players for the upcoming european tie against Lyon and also the change in formation to a skewed 4-4-2. Explanations aside, let me move briefly onto outlining the flow of the match and swiftly towards the player ratings.
We began with a spring in our step, which lasted all of five minutes. Del Neri had set his new side out to adopt a high press, which is the most obvious way to cause us trouble yet cannot often be sustained for 90 minutes meaning the opponent must make their period of hounding us on every ball count.
The game seemed even, end to end in a enjoyable for the neutral manner, with Juve misplacing passes and signs of that horrid sickness resurfacing wherein the players take turns to lose the ball with schoolboy errors. However it was to the home side where a couple of chances materialised, with Dybala and Hernanes both going close before Mandzukic missed a gilt edged opportunity from 8 yards out with the goal gaping. Admittedly he was under pressure, but for a man of his physical prowess, he should of scored.
On 30′ the lively visitors charged forward, found Hernanes unable to trap and control the ball, which set up Jankto to smash a fair effort towards goal. The ball blasted through Buffon for a fair 0-1 lead with half hour played. It should have been saved or parried.
Barely a serious fight-back was noted thereafter, but Dybala magically pulled us level before half time with a majestic free kick sent high into the net from 20 yards out. Delightful execution.
We emerged from the dug-out after the break with a semblance of increased determination, and began to take the game to Udinese. The biggest reason for the change in the flow of the game – for we began to close to dominate – was that Allegri has dispensed with the failing 4-4-2 and reverted to the 3-5-2, most importantly offering the right flank to Lichsteiner. With balance returned to the side we looked a different team.
Cuadrado did what he does best, when horribly spooning after finding himself put through on goal, and it was the the much improved Sandro who soon after won the penalty in the 50th minute with a neat piece of ball control tricking the defender into making the foul. Dybala calmly finished for his 4th goal in the last 3 games.
Lichsteiner produced a brilliant cross for Sandro to inexplicably nod wide, when it looked easier to score. After which, the game seemed strangely in the balance yet again, and as time wore on, the ascendency was ceded to Udinese, who took up the challenge.
We suffered in the final 10-15 minutes and in the end appeared far closer to clinging on than triumphantly confirming a resounding and warranted victory.
Our individual quality won the tie, not our team performance.
Buffon – Very much at fault for the opening goal which was well within his grasp and should have been saved. That is two major errors in succession of games played. However, he produced two fine saves later in the game and hopefully these recent mistakes have been an anomaly. 6
Barzagli- Was far busier than he had hoped for and yet showed decent pace and made some important tackles. 6.5
Benatia – Still finding his feet and rusty after his recent injury lay-off. Displayed decent distribution. 6
Lichsteiner – Fielding Cuadrado in the RW role curtails the offensive zeal of Stephan, who looked in good form, sharp and eager to join the fray higher up the field. He wasted a decent chance when attacking the goal from the flank and was unlucky not to earn an assist with a gorgeous ball to Sandro, other than which he looked much happier in the 2nd half when given licence to attack alongside sole responsibility for defending the wide right area. 6.5
Evra – Rarely involved in the first half other than when seen stupidly pushing the wall in the build up to Dybala’s sublime equaliser. Grew in stature as the game wore on and made a smart and important clearance in the box late on. 6
Hernanes – His failure to control what appeared to be a swift yet simple pass led directly to the first goal of the match. Other than which he tried to keep the ball moving but was let down by Lemina and Sandro failing to find useful positions or make the most of opportunities when they did get the ball. Improved in the second half after we returned to 3-5-2. 6
Lemina– One of his poorest showing in our colours. Did little to nothing in either the defensive or offensive phases of the game, completely failed to make his presence felt and remains, by my reckoning, well off the level required to compete with the elite. 4
Sandro – Fairly anonymous in the first half yet a return to his favoured LWB role in a 3-5-2 led to the goal and other chances. He seems better with space to run into than participating in moves high up the field in an orthodox LW or LM role. 6
Cuadrado – He was abject in the first half and only valuable in the second due to finding himself out of the play and tasked with making up the bodies centrally in a LCM position. His shooting was (and is close to always) pathetic, his passing far from competent, his dribbling useless. We carry him as a player far too often for my liking and I retain hope that the lengthy loan deal does not include an obligation to purchase, for he has always appeared and continues to appear, at very best, a squad player whose pace can unsettle opponents. He is an attacking player who cannot shoot and whose passing more often than not leaves a lot to be desired. Higher mark than Lemina, for his effort could not be faulted. 4.5
Mandzukic – Yes yes! We all hoped he had regained his confidence and goal scoring touch after hitting four in two matches during the international break. However, 3 of those came against Kosovo, a ‘country’ of less than 2 million people, created mainly to somehow legitimise the US backed balkanisation of Yugoslavia and the installation of a mega US military base at Camp BondSteel. The other came against the footballing powerhouse known as Finland. Still, goals are goals, and yet…he was close to wretched in this encounter. One wayward header and a miss from close range with the goal at his mercy pretty much summed up his evening. A couple of smart lay-offs aside, this was another performance which made me miss Zaza. It must be stated however, that we are rarely playing to his strengths, despite the focus on width, for he is tasked mainly with linking the play, often with his back to goal. 5.5
Dybala – Along with Barzagli, he was the only player to emerge from the first half with his pride intact. An early chance dragged wide, constant foraging to try spark his side into life and a stunning free kick to draw the sides level. He eased up a little (thankfully) in the second half after scoring the penalty with a clinical finish. Confidence is growing, the goals ares flowing, and his place in Juve history seems ever more assured.8
Allegri’s decision to rest Higuian, Bonucci, Pjanic and Alves was always going to affect our performance, whilst playing with two LWBs and two naturally adventurous right sided players gave the team a problem in controlling the central midfield areas. Add to this the inability of Sandro – in the first half especially – to impose himself, and the shambolic nature of much of Cuadrado’s ‘work’ and it is simple to understand why we struggled. Lemina and Hernanes had a bad night, with the former barely offering anything of value. Yet in their defence…
…With the central midfield area leaving us constantly out-numbered, and our lack of penetration on the flanks, we were barely recognisable from the side from before the international break. 1-1 was a fair reflection of the first half. For Udinese were more spirited, better organised and they were carrying not one player. All were pulling in the right direction.
The Dybala free-kick obviously took the wind out their sails, but it was far more a case of reverting to 3-5-2, adding bodies centrally, creating gaps out wide to exploit, which turned the tide.
Yet again, we played quite poorly, but won. Udinese did well to create a handful of decent chances, but we created at least double the amount and should have won far more handsomely than by a single goal.
This was an experiment, an odd one really…for whilst I understand the option to rest players, before a key european tie, why the devil deploy a flat 4-4-2 for the first time this term? Chopping and changing personnel is one way to unsettle a side, adding in a change of formation further rocks the boat. So why do it? It was not as if Allegri was trialling a new 4-3-1-2 or 4-3- anything, instead we played the two players we use for LWB and two of the three players we use for RWB in the same starting XI. Leaving the inexperienced Lemina horribly exposed and Hernanes with far too much work to do alone.
Tactically, Alllegri got this wrong. At least before the break. After which he saw sense and rectified the most obvious of issues.
It was shameful to see us settling for a 2-1 victory with ten minutes to go, and literally inviting our opponents to attack us, pulling men deep and constantly giving the ball away. The complete absence of grinta and pride. We looked not just scared, but tired.
Given the changes made to the first XI and tactics, I can understand why we were disjointed and lethargic in the first half. What I cannot excuse or explain though is that mass hysteria that began rising to the surface once again, in which each player in turn makes mistake after mistake, even simple passes go wildly astray. Of all 11 players, only Barzagli and Dybala looked like professional footballers at the top of their game for the first 45 minutes. Not one other of their colleagues impressed, other than Lichsteiner in flashes. This is nowhere near enough to entertain aspirations of glory anywhere else but domestically.
With a sigh however, I must nod my head in begrudging homage towards the Steve Buscemi lookalike, for we won, created far more opportunities than our opponents, succumbed to no new injuries and were undone only by two players on the trot committing individual errors. Also worth noting, is that we were without Chiellini, Rugani and Pjaca, with Sturaro and Marchisio miles away from match sharpness. Kean and Mattiello were on the bench, simply to make up numbers and give us options we could not find in the seniors.
Not only was Il Principino back in the squad, but Luca Clemenza – for many moons one of the hottest prospects in the youth sector – made his return from a similar ACL injury suffered in the Viareggio last March, entering the fray in the second half of an 1-8 drubbing of Avellino for the primavera yesterday. Luca scored with a superb free kick before tucking away his second from the spot in the dying seconds.
Mattiello, who was on the bench, is another returning from serious injury. Firstly finding himself in agony courtesy of the aggression and steel legs of spite merchant Radja Nainggolan who crunched his shin in a sickening collision in early 2015, then breaking the same leg last October whilst on loan at Verona.
Welcome back ragazzi…
I would have preferred a resounding victory, as I would have preferred to have seen us start with our strongest available first XI in effort to gain momentum before the crunch tie with Lyon. I am not an advocate of resting players at this stage of the season, unless they need rest. For cohesion comes from playing together regularly, the same shape, the same players. Without which, our form will remain volatile.
Despite my grumbles, and the bothersome fear factor seeping into our play late on, we never looked liked losing, have extended our lead at the top of the Serie A table and head to France with several of our key players well rested.