Old Lady in Distress

Nicola Sansone: from being born in Munich to dispatching Turin.

Another symbolic margin of error has been reached. On Wednesday, Juventus have lost their fourth game of 2015/16 season, surpassing negative record of the previous campaign by one defeat – even though we’re only ten matchdays into the current Serie A haul. This is already somewhat of emergency for the club that captured four last Scudettos, outrunning rest of the pack by 4, 11, 17 and again, 17 points en route to an unprecedented, four-year long, domestic dominance. As we speak, there are eleven teams ahead of Zebrette in the Italian’s top-flight table – which includes Chievo (44-points behind at the end of 15/16 season), AC Milan (35 points) and Torino (33 points). Even more importantly, current leaders from Roma are already 11 points ahead of the reigning champions. With Napoli and Inter looking very strong too, it seems that the status quo in Italy has been destroyed for good.

As people usually say in such cases – it’s a drop that didn’t happen overnight. However, in Juve’s case, it almost seems like it did. First of all, last four years were so overwhelmingly one-sided in their favour, pretty much every defeat they’d suffer would create a sensation. Today? Shockingly, it doesn’t. Not anymore – and the drastic difference makes quite an impression. Secondly, the 2015/16 opening loss against Udinese has been widely attributed to a fluke. The champions heavily dominated that match but were stopped by a confident goalkeeping performance of Orestis Karnezis – something only few goalies in Italy have managed to accomplish against the Old Lady in the last 5 years. So, for a while, there were reasons to think that nothing bad has happened. Today, we’ve all suddenly woke up in a new, Serie A reality that isn’t monochromatic anymore – and it’s still yet to be figured out.

But apart from those two, there’s also a third reason why this sudden transformation seems so bizarre and wrong. Bianco-neri might’ve let go of their three main assets in form of Arturo Vidal, Andrea Pirlo and Carlos Tevez – but the replacements they’ve made for this trio were, to say the least, suitable. Consistently efficient goalscorer Mario Mandžukić seemed like an ideal fit for the league that prioritizes hard work and dedication over everything else. Sami Khedira, although not as athletically gifted as Vidal, has proven himself useful in a fairly similar role in the past – the best example of that would be a 2014 World Cup semifinal. As for Paulo Dybala: 21 years of age and 13 league goals for a rather mediocre Palermo were enough of a recommendation. The last-minute purchases of Hernanes and Cuadrado weren’t that convincing anymore, but surely Juve didn’t seem like a club that will fall behind so badly.

This time, though, it was a case of a club caught in a difficult, transitional moment by more difficult, heavily unfavourable circumstances. Early August was a bad time for Khedira’s knee, which got damaged in a friendly match against Marseille, following a rather tame challenge he’s made on Brice Dja Djédjé. That was a 2-month long absence that ruled the German out of the final part of his team’s pre-season schedule. Eighteen days after that incident, during a training session, Claudio Marchisio picked up a thigh problem that needed 1 month to be resolved. What’s worse, in both cases, the players would return back to fitness and then get injured again – extending the period of Massimiliano Allegri’s selection misery. Even when Kwadwo Asamoah has made a return after 337 days spent on the sidelines – he immediately tore a muscle in his thigh and went back to a physio’s room!

In wake of the midfield issues, it was Paul Pogba, who was expected to lead the team to the victories during the hard times. The highly rated Frenchman used to benefit from the Pirlo – Vidal partnership, in which he provided the necessary cover for the Italian playmaker while remaining an all-around, versatile midfielder. This season, with both of his key teammates gone, the downsides of his footballing characteristics are coming into play. Though Pogba is an excellent passer who constantly scores Modrić-like success percentages in ball delivery, he lacks flair to actually create something substantial out of it – thus only one assist in 9 Serie A appearances this season. What’s worse, his shots are equally bad: out of 29 tries on goal, he’s made 23 misses and only scored once, by converting a penalty. At such rate, we’re not witnessing the ‘next Barcelona player’, that’s for sure.

Alongside Pogba, there’s a rather big kaleidoscope of footballers with more downs than ups. Loaned from OM after a decent display against Juve in a friendly match, Mario Lemina had a rough start as Vidal’s heir apparent. Even though the Gabonese lad leads the club charts in term of tackles and fouls per minute, neither the experience nor the confidence can really be seen in his play. Another player who’s not really developing into a bright talent is Stefano Sturaro. With less than 400 minutes under their belts, they still should be considered the second-choice midfielders – but the circumstances forced them to step up, which they hardly managed to do. And Roberto Pereyra? The Argentinian, decently preforming in a trequartista role this season, has just joined the long list of casualties with a six-week-long break caused by yet another muscle rupture.

When an Italian club finds itself in such a vulnerable spot, going to Sassuolo and taking on the local squad of Neroverdi is one of the most unpleasant things to do. The club, formerly known as one of the Juventus’ most prominent feeders (Domenico Berardi and Simone Zaza have developed a lot during their loans at USS), they’ve earned a reputation of competent big-club slayers, backed up last season by two wins over AC Milan and one triumph over Inter. The dirtiest team in the Italian top division – 32 yellows and 2 reds in just ten matches – is also one of the best Serie A outfits when it comes to dealing with aerial threats. They proved that very quickly on Wednesday, by easily dealing with two Juventus’ corners early in the game. Mandžukić, rather helpless upfront, was more often seen in front of his own goal than as a threat to Gianluca Pegolo’s clean sheet.

Without a strong, creative force in the middle of the pitch, Juve started off relying on flank raids by Juan Cuadrado and Alex Sandro. They couldn’t really do much with all that wingplay, though, because the hosts, in their traditional 4-3-3 formation, have doubled up the marking on both Zebrette’s wingers. The only one to actually aid them by creating short-pass opportunities for his teammates, was Dybala – but that left his Croatian partner isolated. While all those problems kept troubling the reigning champions, Sassuolo looked for direct passes to either Floccari or Sansone. The latter, on pretty much the first dangerous occasion, has been tripped by Lemina – and punished that offence severely, by placing a brilliant free-kick shot in the top corner of Buffon’s net. No chance in hell for any goalkeeper in the world – but that was only the beginning of bianco-neri’s trouble.

1-0. Pogba has nearly managed to even it all up with a venomous long shot – but, truth to be told, that was the only serious goal chance Juve had before the break. Try as he might, the Frenchman could split the opposition’s backline in any way and Dybala’s mobility down the wings has been largely neutralized by good defensive awareness from Šime Vrsaljko and Fedrico Peluso. At the other end, Chiellini had one, very clean challenge to make on Floccari in a dangerous position. Despite picking up an early booking, the centre-back with #3 on his shirt looked fairly composed out there. Not for long, though: in 39th minute, he’s executed a completely inexplicable sliding tackle on Berardi’s legs. The ball was beyond his reach, his opponent was turning around and, most importantly, there was no need to make that challenge, as all this happened near the halfway line. Red card. Just terrible.

The expulsion didn’t really change Sassuolo’s approach, but it didn’t need to; what they kept doing was just about enough to remain firmly in a drivers’ seat. With three midfielders clogging up the space in front of backline, they had it easy by just surrendering some ground in their own half and clearing the ball towards Sergio Floccari. It was tedious to watch, but since Scudetto holders couldn’t come up with anything to break it – I guess it was a correct strategy. Eventually, Alex Sandro has managed to find a weakness in this monolith by dribbling forward and cutting inside. It was a good effort by the Brazilian, but his run ended with a blocked pass to Dybala and an inaccurate shot by Pogba. Argentinian youngster must’ve been quite upset with that missed opportunity, as he immediately proceeded to screw up a free kick completely and soon, to elbow Simone Missiroli.

Dybala has given his 100% and it still wasn’t enough to change the outcome.

Down to 10 men, with a 0-1 scoreline and heavy rain falling at Mapei Stadium, Juventus were desperate to make something happen. Several free kicks and corners couldn’t really cut it (again: lack of Andrea Pirlo to take them) and Allegri finally decided to put in Morata for Mandžukić. Coincidentally, from that point onwards, Zebrette started looking better. Cuadrado’s shot from a narrow angle did cause problems to Pegolo and soon after that, Pogba’s cross was narrowly cleared by Francesco Acerbi. USS’ sweeper was undoubtedly a hero of his team, making 6 clearances as well as 2 interceptions. Had this been still a goalless game, the hosts would probably gamble more ambitiously, but with a lead in their pocket, they had an easy time reducing the game to long balls, fouls and tackles. The only man capable of losing his man was Cuadrado – but his final pass looked abysmal.

Needing some relief for his backline, Eusebio Di Francesco has subbed Grégoire Defrel in. The Frenchman almost repaid the credit of faith put in him after just 7 minutes, when his long run down the right flank wasn’t stopped until he reached the penalty area. The time was running out and nothing really changed; so what was Allegri waiting for? With 10 men on the pitch and Pogba-Lemina duo always choosing the safest, most mundane options, he needed to either put in Hernanes right away or just throw in the towel. He sort of did both, giving the Brazilian a chance with just eight minutes left on the clock. It didn’t work. Neither did Juventus’ reasonable appeals for a red card when Acerbi shamelessly elbowed Dybala in the face. Mister Andrea Gervasoni was rather lenient to the hosts – but it’s never an excuse for having only 3 shots on target through the entire game!

Neither Allegri nor Buffon denied the poor quality of their team’s performance yesterday. Zebrette simply made few critical mistakes and then proceeded to show nothing that could outweigh those lapses of concentration. In an ugly display of route-one football, Sassuolo were better than the champions and Francesco Magnanelli (6 interceptions, 5 tackles won, 3 clearances) looked like a better midfielder than Pogba. Which is quite disheartening, prior to a prestigious Turin derby and a Champions League trip to Mönchengladbach. If the other team can basically replicate an already-known blueprint set by Udinese early this season and still snatch a victory – then something is wrong with Juve’s ability to impose their style on the rivals. And Torino will be fired-up this Saturday – in last 2 matchdays, they’ve received a smackdown from Lazio and threw away an easy win over Genoa…

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