Juventus win, but fail to convince against Atalanta
They hoped it would be easy. They hoped they would glide their way to another victory to boost their confidence. Yet on Friday evening, in front of their own fans, Juventus suffered against a determined Atalanta side who, against the run of play, opened the scoring. The Old Lady won in the end but not as comprehensively as she would have hoped.
For one thing, Stefano Colantuono has constructed a determined side that possess the right spirit. They may have conceded a lot of space to Juventus, which is unusual for them, but they showed courage going forward and were intelligent in profiting from Juve's obvious flaw -- the slowing down of pace in the final third.
This particular point irks the critics. Juventus will push and move men forward, but just at a time when the opponent is not yet organised and swift play is required, the Bianconeri lose momentum and slow things down, resulting in a well-executed block or tackle by the defence. When pushing forward with pace, players must think quickly and maintain concentration so as to create opportunities at a faster rate than defences have time to arrange themselves. Instead, it's a repeat of the same one-twos in congested areas that eventually lead to the opponent winning the ball.
Always on hand to win back possession just outside the box and counter-attack with pace, Atalanta read the game well and benefitted from Juve's imprecision. While Martin Caceres exploited the space on the right flank in an attempt to deliver the right pass or the right cross into the box, Juventus grew too attached to the notion of pushing through centrally in the second half. This made it easier for Atalanta to steal the ball and push.
These are the games when one cannot help but miss Kwadwo Asamoah. Not only would he have managed more on the left wing, utilising the space available to him, but he would have always been on hand to rescue his team from the away side's counter-attacks. An intelligent man who understands how to balance his tasks, he would have made the difference on the night.
Thankfully for Juventus, Fernando Llorente did. The player, under a mountain of pressure especially since Alvaro Morata's recent improvement, managed a scrappy, confidence-boosting goal to equalise for his side. While he earned applause and quiet appreciation for his efforts, many continue to accuse the player of being sub-par for a side like Juve.
He doesn't have the pace of Morata, the creativity of Carlos Tevez or the mobility of other strikers, but he doesn't deserve the criticism. There are few who work as hard as he does in the box, occupying the centre-backs and using his strength to control and shoot. Boasting a towering physique, he's the player who draws defenders away and battles consistently to hold the ball up to help those around him.
He may not always be the most elegant. And he has a habit of succumbing to frustration by registering fouls. But against the Nerazzurri on Friday, he demonstrated what a fine touch he has, taking balls into his stride as he moved forward. Admittedly he hasn't been prolific and he has limitations on a technical level, but at least Llorente always fights, displaying the Juve mentality.
While Llorente's goal brought relief, Andrea Pirlo's brought back the beauty. Scoring an outrageously delightful goal from distance, demonstrating true technique and ability, the player effectively won the game for his side. Not because he was always on hand to look for the right avenues going forward, and not even because his goal proved to be the winner. No, Pirlo won the match for Juve by owning the midfield both offensively and defensively.
Jumping to win headers, intercepting passes and stealing possession, Pirlo ensured Atalanta were consistently interrupted as they tried to move quickly up the field. His defensive contributions on the night proved valuable and entertaining, earning the Italian standing ovations and continuous applause from the fans who heralded his achievements. He may have disappointed recently, but when Pirlo wants to turn the magic on, opponents -- and critics -- are forced to sit and admire.
Fighting to the end and reverting to a 3-5-2 formation to win the match, Juventus showed maturity but perhaps should not have suffered so much against a side decimated by injuries and struggling to climb the table. However, they will be happy to realise that when they remain determined and humble, they can seal victories, which should stand them in good stead for Borussia Dortmund.
Mina Rzouki covers Juventus and the Italian national team for ESPN FC. Follow her on Twitter: @Minarzouki.