Juve beat Spezia to consolidate fourth place
Since Juventus overtook Atalanta and took fourth place a few weeks ago, there has been a “but”.
Being one of the teams that saw a game postponed by the COVID-19 outbreak which engulfed part of the league earlier this year, Atalanta had a game in hand over Juve, as well as the break. ‘head-to-head tie, which meant that any lead the Bianconeri had on them had to be taken with a grain of salt.
But after Atalanta’s surprise loss to Roma on Saturday, Juve had a chance to change that. Victory against Spezia on Sunday would give Juve a six-point lead in the race for fourth place, giving them the breathing room they needed to be sure of being in the last Champions League spot, whatever either the result of this rescheduled match or not.
Of course, being Juventus, it wasn’t that simple, especially considering the team’s current injury problems. The Old Lady still faced the game with nine men out through injury, with Sunday seeing the return of two players (Federico Bernardeschci and Daniele Rugani) only to have their names replaced on the roster with two new moves (Leonardo Bonucci, Mattia de Sciglio ). That meant it was once again a battle of holding on, doing all they could to defend and taking a goal when they could get it.
That goal duly came midway through the first half thanks to an error from Spezia. Juve could have – and should have – had more in the first half, but they failed to benefit from an abjectly poor performance from the visitors. Spezia improved significantly after half-time and Juve were forced to defend hard to ensure their 1-0 result remained intact until the final whistle. When that whistle sounded, however, they were truly alone in fourth place with 10 games left in the season.
Massimilano Allegri’s options were, of course, severely limited by his injury situation. With Rugani’s return, however, he was able to switch from the 3-5-2 he deployed midweek to a 4-3-3 setup. Wojciech Szczesny took over after getting his traditional day off for the Coppa Italia, with Danilo, Rugani, Matthijs de Ligt and Luca Pellegrini filtering him out. He deployed all of his healthy midfielders, Manuel Locatelli, Arthur and Adrien Rabiot. Juan Cuadrado played as a right winger for the first time in weeks, joining Dusan Vlahovic and Alvaro Morata in the forward line.
Spezia coach Thiago Motta replied with a 4-2-3-1. Ivan Provedel took his usual place in goal for Spezia, behind the line of Salvador Ferrer, Martin Erlic, Dimitrios Nikolaou and Arkadiusz Reca. Giulio Maggiore and Simone Bastoni formed the midfield pivot, with Daniele Verde, Kevin Agudelo and Emmanuel Gyasi grouped behind striker Rey Manaj.
Spezia came out of the starting gates with shocking naivety. They made repeated mistakes in passing and didn’t press the ball at all. The result was a first half that Juve controlled perfectly, but failed to dominate. They were slow on the ball and failed to increase their own intensity in response to Spezia’s lackluster play, resulting in an odd dynamic that saw Juve possess the ball without really working Spezia’s defence.
Morata netted the game’s first shot in the seventh minute after a free-kick was delivered to the back post, but his shot went just wide to Provedel for an easy grab. It took over 10 minutes for either side to register another, when Cuadrado dug inside from the right with a move so good he hit poor Gyasi at the back, then brought the ball back across the box to a charging Arthur, who cracked it. on goal for the first time only for the shot to be blocked.
But Spezia’s odd half hit its low point in the 21st minute. The culprit was Provedel, whose terrible attempt to pass from behind was skipped by Rugani, who managed a first pass that opened the lines for Spezia. Vlahovic took the ball, turned and passed the ball to Locatelli, whose first touch kicked the ball for a wide-open Morata, who swept the ball past the keeper for his first goal of the calendar year.
Spezia did little to react to the drop, and at this point Juve really should have turned the screw and besieged Provedel in a bid to kill the game at half-time. But they managed just one shot the rest of the half, albeit a good one when Cuadrado and Arthur exchanged passes to re-launch the Colombian from just behind the penalty spot. He really should have scored, but didn’t have enough power on his shot and Provedel managed to parry the ball.
It was a missed opportunity, as Motta clearly got his team talking in the dressing room. The visitors were a different team after their return, with the most notable change being a vigorous press that had been absent throughout the opening period. Juve immediately struggled to get out of their own half, and Spezia really should have equalized within six minutes of the restart when Ferrer found a completely unmarked Gyasi from seven yards out, but the Ghanaian’s header into the ground missed. of power and was right in Szczesny. , who was probably stunned to have the opportunity to make a relatively easy save.
Juve were left trying to find a killer goal at the break, but their counter-attacks just didn’t have the right punch. One of the most promising, just after the hour mark, but was spoiled when Arthur fended off two passing options to carry the ball deeper into Spezia territory, only to release a pass that was looking for a run that Vlahovic did not. Juve blocked several shots with 15 minutes remaining but Spezia didn’t create much danger until the 80th minute when Agudelo burst down the left side and fired from a tight angle up high of the penalty area. that Szczesny came out and made himself big to parry the tight angle shot.
Cuadrado had a chance to put things away late, but inflated his attempt from range, and in the first minute of stoppage time he nearly found Morata at the far post with a nasty cross that Morata looked unwilling to recover . With that, it was only a matter of time before the final whistle, and Juve could look forward to being in the top four in their own right for the first time in months.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY – 7. Up to the task whenever a shooter wandered into his area of influence. Completely ruled his domain.
DANILO – 7. A rock down the flank, racking up three tackles, two interceptions and three forgivenesses while overlapping well on offense and picking up a key pass to start.
MATTHINS DE LIGT – 7. A record four clearances to go with a pair of tackles. Always the team leader in defense.
DANIELE RUGANI – 7. Didn’t rack up a whole ton of tally stats, but his positioning was still spot-on, and his interception and pass started the move that led to the goal.
LUCA PELLEGRINI – 6.5. Three defensive tackles and a key forward pass, and his attitude continues to impress. Playing against this guy must make you want to break things.
MANUAL LOCATELLI – 7. Easily the best it has been in months. Playing much further forward than usual, Locatelli pulled the strings in the attacking third throughout the first half, landing a nice assist for Moratra and consistently putting his teammates in positions where their the final bullets would be dangerous. He also had three tackles in defence. This is the kind of performance the team will need from him in the future.
ARTHUR – 6. Completed 90.9% of his passes, but also made some really questionable decisions and simple mistakes. Still, his presence to unlock Locatelli was welcome.
ADRIEN RABIOT – 5.5. His tally stats were huge – four tackles, three clearances and a team leader tie with two key assists – but the eye test showed one player focused and unfocused throughout the game, often replacing a good deed by a bad minute. later. I was called for a few late fouls, although at least one was simply the product of referee Francesco Fourneau calling any contact a foul.
JUAN CUADRADO – 6. A pair of key passes and a good defensive day with three tackles and two interceptions, but really should have scored in the 33rd minute. His versatility was huge for the team at a time like this, allowing Allegri to pull off a reserved Pellegrini.
DUSAN VLAHOVIC – 5. Only touched the ball 30 times and registered no shots. He was part of the move that resulted in Morata’s goal, but he needs more service.
ALVARO MORATA – 7. Took five shots, finding the target with a pair of them, including an excellent first-time sweep to complete the move that gave Juve their only goal of the match
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI – 5. Managed to get booked within four minutes of arriving meaning he will be suspended against Sampdoria this weekend. The rust was evident, but good to have it available again.
MOSES KEAN – NR. On to help close out the final minutes of the game.
There just isn’t much to analyze in a game like this. Allegri used what he had on hand and hung on for dear life. If there’s one thing to complain about, it’s that he never managed to turn the screw on his players and sweep Spezia in the first half – something they were capable of doing at 100 % given how terrible Spezia was for the whole first half. The fact that they just didn’t make that push shows you how conservative Allegri’s leanings have become.
Hopefully some reinforcements are on the horizon, as these players look exhausted and are about to drop from exhaustion.
Juve are actually given a full week off this week before traveling to Genoa to face Sampdoria on Saturday. Then the biggest game of the year so far comes when Villarreal arrive at Stadium J with a Champions League quarter-final stint on the line.