…But then something happened that the
RingBall did not intend. It was picked up by the most unlikely creature imaginable…
– J.R.R. Tolkien
When Emanuele Giaccherini scored the match winning goal against Catania earlier today, it indeed felt as if no-one was more unlikely to be the hero. Given his build and lack of playing time and impact so far this season, the above quote on fellow hobbit Bilbo Baggins seemed very appropriate.
For while Giacch has been scantily used and has failed to deliver anything spectacular for a very long time – and that the highlight of his performance up until his glorious moment was drawing a yellow card for diving when he really should have done anything but that – his goal against a very resilient and compact Catania side may prove to have a tremendous effect in the grander scheme of things, much like Bilbo’s tomfoolery with a ring he far from fully realised the importance of.
While there is still a long way to go, and Juve will have some big games to face before this heroic tale is over, the win against Catania combined with Napoli’s loss to Chievo means that the Bianconeri now have a nine point gap down to Napoli in second – and 11 points to a resurging Milan in third.
In football (as well as fantasy fiction), almost anything can happen, and only a fool feels assured of victory until the last page is turned. However, the chasm opened up between the Old Lady and her rivals is bound to make a fearsome impression on a psychological level. Few will feel that catching up is even possible now, which – any way you look at it – makes the task all the more insurmountable.
And for that we can thank little Emanuele, so often criticised and questioned (and equally often for good reason). It turned out he still had his role to play in Conte’s formidable narrative about Juventus FC. The true importance of which may only be evident – or even unjustly forgotten about – come May…
by Lars Aabjerg Pedersen
As predicted, Conte opted to field the tried and tested line-up against Catania: Chiellini, Marchisio, Lichtsteiner, Asamoah, Vucinic and Giovinco were all included in the starting line-up after missing out vs. Celtic on Wednesday, making Vidal the only absentee from what has been widely considered the strongest eleven (striker polemic aside). Rolando Maran set up his Catania side to mirror Juve’s 3-5-2, sitting very deep and closing down the Bianconeri close to the penalty area.
After a decent start to the game, it soon became obvious that for all the possession Juve managed to keep, the Elefanti were not going to allow many opportunities. Too often, the final ball lacked in quality or was simply blocked by the Rossazzurri players, efficiently closing down both centrally and on the wings before any real danger materialised.
As a result, the shots the home side did manage to get away were long range efforts that – apart from one really good strike from Mirko Vucinic which forced at great save out of Andujar – left something to be desired. Tellingly, the biggest chance of the first half came after a mess-up in the Catania defence that allowed Vucinic to fire it past Andujar only to see the ball hitting inside of the right post. Catania coach Maran was sent to the stands after being too vocal about a foul not given on Gomez, but this seemed to have little impact on proceedings.
After the break, the pattern continued somewhat, but Catania got more involved and managed a few dangerous counters as the Juve midfield became ever more sloppy in possession, with especially Andrea Pirlo losing the ball numerous times in unfortunate positions. Pirlo tried to redeem himself by recovering the ball too, but clearly the Elven Elder’s head was elsewhere today, be it in Rivendell or simply at his vineyard.
This is something that happens at times, as the Bearded One has such faith in his own abilities that he seems to rule out the very possibility of the ball being taken from him, which – given his deep position – can be very unnerving. That said, though, it is an element of his playing style that has rarely been exposed during his time in black and white.
As the other midfielders were below par (Marchisio and the wing-backs were rather bland too), Paul Pogba again rose to the challenge of a starting berth delivering a stunning second half performance, creating and destroying like the dwarves under the mountain when things were well – and it was only fitting that it was he who played in that pass for Giaccherini that proved so decisive at the very end.
Before that happy ending, though, the game was very much in the balance, and Catania did extremely well defending deep and launching counter attacks with Gomez and Castro. Had it not been for some solid defending by the back three, especially Andrea Barzagli (the Man, the Myth, the Legend), the Etnei might have stolen a point or even three.
As it happened, though, Conte’s subs paid off… In a weird way. Alessandro Matri looked better than Giovinco when he replaced him after the hour mark, and while Fabio Quagliarella did miss a few chances after his introduction for Vucinic, he looked up for it at least.
Giaccherini, who replaced Asamoah (still not on song after returning from the African Cup of Nations), however, did not look up for it. At all. In fact, he looked more likely to make a massive fool of himself than to bag the winner as he struggled to do anything right on the left flank, culminating in that dive that was only slightly more accomplished than Bonucci’s effort earlier in the season… But as Pogba played that ball back into the box in the 92nd minute, the Little Hobbit that Could rose to the occasion; chesting down the ball before managing to bundle it over the line for that crucial 1-0 goal.
by John Cascarano
Gianluigi Buffon 6.0 - Had very little to do, as usual, but performed when called upon.
Giorgio Chiellini 6.0 - Good to have Giorgio back, but Kaiser looked a little bit tired at times, undoubtedly due to the long injury layoff. Did well to get up field to get involved offensively as well, but could not make it happen.
Leonardo Bonucci 6.5 - Marshaled the center of defense well, and like the remainder of the backline (+Buffon), did not look troubled at all. Confident and poised, Leo is a completely different player than last year.
Andrea Barzagli 7.0 - Barzagli? More like wallzagli! What else is new…
Kwadwo Asamoah 5.5 - Worked hard on the left side, but his passes and dribbling are not what they were during the first half of the season. I know it’s trite, but he has looked tired post AFCON…that has not yet changed.
Emanuele Giaccherini 6.0 - He gets an above-average grade for scoring the winning goal, but in truth he owed it to his teammates and the fans for one of the most egregious dives I have ever witnessed. The goblin and grease-look-a-like saved all of the kingdoms in Middle Earth.
Stephan Lichtsteiner 6.0 - The Swiss Express bossed the right side but, like the rest of the team, looked at a loss for answers in the face of Catania’s defense.
Claudio Marchisio 5.5 - Worked the midfield as best as he could, but like Pirlo, seemed to disappear at times. Missed a golden opportunity to put the game away late on an unfortunately timed chance off a deflection.
Andrea Pirlo 5.0 - A decidedly average, anonymous performance from the bearded one. Was unfortunate to not score on a free kick, which would have upped his grade.
Paul Pogba 8.5 - Man of the match performance from Teenaged Mutant Ninja Pogba, who single-handedly carried the team on his shoulders during the second half. Nothing more to say.
Mirko Vucinic 6.5 - Typical performance. Moments of brilliants peppered amongst frustrating near-misses. Looked likely to score during the first half, which would have alleviated the pressure a bit. Mirko being Mirko.
Fabio Quagliarella sv - Only saw about 10 minutes of action, and should have doubled the lead if not for Andujar. Did not have much of a chance to make more of an impact.
Sebastian Giovinco 5.0 - Wait, he played today? And started? I actually noticed him more on the pitch when he tracked back to defend (which he deserves kudos for). That’s saying something.
Alessandro Matri 6.0 - Came on for the struggling pocket poacher, but similarly could not make much of an impact. Also tracked back well, and was able to at least hold up play a bit when necessary.
Conte 7.0 - He knew that Catania would try and park the bus, and did what he could to work around it. Did what he could considering this, and on the heels of a fatigue-inducing midweek UCL fixture. As critical as I have been with his substitutions at times, seems like he got them spot-on this time around.
by Lars Aabjerg Pedersen
As mentioned earlier, the three points earned today, while by no means through an impressive display, may prove crucial in the end. In some respects, this performance was reminiscent of those games of yesteryear under Trappatoni, Lippi and Capello, when every team would fear Juventus so much that a late winning goal seemed almost inevitable in close matches.
While Conte’s Juve is yet to have such an aura about it, results like this one are exactly what generates that belief within the team – and sow the invaluable seeds of fear in the opposition ranks.
>One or two positions in the team seem more up in the air at this point than earlier in the season, which is both good and bad; Asamoah is not having the impact he used too, Pirlo today looked like he might be fatigued a bit mentally, and the strikers… Well, they’re basically blowing as hot and cold as one has come to expect from this team.
The good news is that actual alternatives have transpired as the fixture list has made them necessary: Pogba is an obvious revelation, Peluso and Caceres have both put in good shifts as well, and even the Padoin has proven useful to some extend. Matri and Quagliarella easily rival Vucinic and Giovinco up front too. All in all; a squad, rather than merely a team, is emerging.
And when a dash of Tolkien-esque unlikelihood is added to the tale as it was today, the prospect of Conte’s troops dominating Middle Earth once more is made all the more plausible.
While the Bianconeri have not been overwhelming when facing the Dark Enemies of Milan and Rome so far this season, I truly believe that the road to the destruction of these go through the muddy marshes and ill-lit stadia of the provinces first of all. Sliding, slipping underway, perhaps – but moving forward all the same, ever readying to face and focus on the true adversaries. Long may the journey continue; to May and Mordor, in whichever shape or form!
ANTONIO CONTE IL NOSTRO CAPITANO!
Juventus 1-0 Catania – Goal and full Highlights Video