Feature Photo: La Presse / Spada
Welcome to Serie A, Cristiano. This is the place where even a visit to a marginally-intimidating provincial club can be full of dangers, and where what was meant to be a showcase-match for CR7’s landing in Italy can turn into a nightmare for seven-time league champions Juventus. Massimiliano Allegri’s side pulled it off in the end, but not after going down 1-2 to Chievo and turning the last 20 minutes into an ultimately successful besiege to the Gialloblu’s goal.
Cristiano Ronaldo suddenly found himself catapulted into a new dimension of football, one with its own specific rules. One where a sector of Chievo’s Marc’Antonio Bentegodi Stadium can remain empty, just because supporters from other Verona’s side Hellas said so. That portion of the stands, traditionally occupied by Hellas supporters, was destined to receive part of the massive afflux of Bianconeri supporters, but the Scaligeri consider it a holy ground, and prompted – more or less officially – the Prefecture and City of Verona to keep it closed.
But Italy, the land of endless football discussions and controversies, is also the place where VAR found the most fertile ground for its introduction, adding a new layer of deepness to Monday morning office and bar debates. The Genius of Madeira got a taste of that as well, when referee Fabrizio Pasqua took more than three minutes to disallow a Bianconeri goal with the help of technology, on the grounds of a handball right by the Portuguese.
Those who would expect a Cristiano Ronaldo greedy for scoring in his Serie A overture were pleasantly surprised in seeing a CR7 rather in the service of his brand-new club. The feeling with his teammates is still to be perfected, which can only make sense considering he has been playing with them for just three weeks, but Cristiano’s first Italian performance was an encouraging crescendo which only missed him marking his first goal. Fair enough, that can only contribute to increase the hype surrounding that.
Ronaldo fought hard to entangle himself from Chievo’s defenders spider web, assisted his teammates, went for the kill whenever he could, but found an outstanding Stefano Sorrentino on his path. The only way for him to get rid of the 39-year-old goalkeeper was stunning him with a totally unintentional knee to the head, forcing him to leave the pitch during stoppage time. That was just moments before Federico Bernardeschi could wrap Juventus’ third goal and save Allegri from a controversial start.
The Bianconeri’s Tuscanian coach was surely not expecting such a close-quarter battle, especially as Sami Khedira took only three minutes to open a breach into Chievo’s defensive wall. Coach Lorenzo D’Anna expectedly lined up his side with a pretty covered 4-5-1 module, Mariusz Stepinski being the only striker. But when a free kick by Miralem Pjanic was corrected by Giorgio Chiellini for Khedira’s winning tap in, it become clear that D’Anna strategy of parking the bus in front of the goal had failed already. All according to plan, on the other hand, for the Old Lady.
Allegri’s choice was a 4-2-3-1 line up, featuring Juan Cuadrado, Paulo Dybala and Douglas Costa behind CR7, with the Argentinian left free to advance and play more as an added forward on Cristiano Ronaldo’s side. Dybala brought little to the table anyway. Federico Bernardeschi substituted Cuadrado in the 56th minute, prompting Ronaldo to move farther on the left side, from where he became more dangerous and proactive. Allegri also preferred Sami Khedira to newcomer Emre Can – who still got a few minutes to play – which turned out to be a wise choice, in order to break the balance early in the game.
For about 30 minutes the match at the Bentegodi followed the script of Juventus pushing hard, and Chievo playing the part of the victim to be sacrificed to the gods of football. Then something suddenly changed, maybe the Bianconeri releasing their tension, maybe D’Anna’s side simply deciding they wanted to upset the ending of a seemingly already-written story. Mariusz Stepinski jumped high, way higher than Leonardo Bonucci and the other white-and-black defenders in the 38th minute, to convert a cross by Emanuele Giaccherini and level for the home side.
An awesome start for the 23-year-old Polish striker, who collected only six caps from the start last season, and on whose shoulders Chievo seems to be willing to put the burden of their striking force this year. To celebrate, Stepinski run to hug his mentor Sergio Pellissier, another Chievo forward whose age is 39, and who has been teaching a thing or two to the young starlet.
Napoli’s outcast Giaccherini, who is living a second (maybe third) youth at Chievo, continued to panic Juventus early in the second half and found his way past Joao Cancelo with a wonderful progression in the 55th minute. The Portuguese right back naively knocked him down in his own box, prompting referee Pasqua to point at the penalty kick spot with no hesitation. Giak made it two for Chievo, adding an unexpected, interesting new dimension to the afternoon in Verona.
That’s when Allegri sent in Federico Bernardeschi, and eventually vice-World Champion Mario Mandzukic to reshuffle the cards on the table. Former Fiorentina’s winger quickly made himself dangerous, calling Chievo’s Fabrizio Cacciatore to use his whole body to block a dangerous conclusion on his part. The Clivensi have a brand-new center back couple, and Luca Rossettini and Mattia Bani both held their own to frustrate the Bianconeri’s furious scoring attempts, at least until an unfortunate deflection by Bani gave Juventus an equalizer.
Before that, Stefano Sorrentino had kept his side afloat on multiple occasions, springing to his left with the agility of the tiger depicted on his flamboyant gloves to deflect a tricky curl shot by Cristiano in the 66th minute.
Nine minutes later, Bernardeschi shot a corner kick from the right side. Leonardo Bonucci and Mattia Bani both went for a header, Chievo’s defender was faster but put the ball into his own net. Juve’s comeback kid still claimed paternity for the equalizer, and polemically run to celebrate with his wash-your-mouth gesture at supporters, many of which had been booing at him since kick off. The return of Bonucci to wear a white-and-black jersey still seems to be sparking controversy among Juve’s fan base: A group of them hooted at him every time he touched the ball yesterday, while others answered with applauses. The road to redeem and forgiveness is long for Leo, but yesterday’s goal will perhaps make it easier.
With three minutes to go and Juventus now back in full control, a whirlwind of emotions burst into a single action, adding more fuel to a game that was already drifting wide away from expectations. Juve’s defender Alex Sandro – a devastating impact on the left flank, his one – produced a deadly cross from the left, and Cristiano Ronaldo hit Stefano Sorrentino with a knee as they both went for the ball, knocking the keeper unconscious for a few seconds. Mario Mandzukic pounced on the wandering ball, and pushed it towards Chievo’s goal, where it was desperately cleared away by the home defenders right on the line. Ok, stop the world please: We need some checks here…
A first technology check confirmed the ball to have fully crossed the line, but Fabrizio Pasqua had more doubts. As a dazed Sorrentino was helped out of the pitch in a litter, the referee thoroughly analyzed the video images to ultimately disallow the goal on the grounds of a hand foul by Ronaldo, as well as of a charge on the Gialloblu brave goalkeeper.
But Alex Sandro had found the picklock to put his side out of the quagmire of a disappointing season start by now, and three minutes into stoppage time he sent again the ball in from the left side, finding Bernardeschi’s magic foot for the 3-2 conversion. Phew!
Juventus made full score, Cristiano Ronaldo took a good bite at what his Italian adventure will look like, and Chievo – whose summer market was paralyzed by a looming trial on accounting fraud accusations – performed way better than expectations. Good news for everybody from Verona, especially for genuine calcio fans from all over the Peninsula, who can expect another close campionato: A few hours later, Juve’s main contender Napoli also snatched their first three points, coming from behind to beat Lazio at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome.
Fun times ahead!
August 18, 2018 – Serie A 2018-19 Round 1
SCORERS: 3′ Khedira (J) al 3’, 38′ Stepinski (C), 56′ Giaccherini (C, pen.), 75′ Bani (C. o.g.), 93′ Bernardeschi (J)
|CHIEVO (4-5-1): Sorrentino (91’ Seculin); Tomovic, Rossettini, Bani, Cacciatore; Depaoli, Rigoni, Radovanovic, Hetemaj (78’ Obi), Giaccherini; Stepinski (66’ Djordjevic) (Semper, Tanasijevic, Barba, Leris, Kiyine, Birsa, Pellissier, Jaroszynski, Meggiorini) Coach: D’Anna|
|JUVENTUS (4-2-3-1): Szczesny; Cancelo, Bonucci, Chiellini, Alex Sandro; Khedira (86’ Emre Can), Pjanic; Cuadrado (56’ Bernardeschi), Dybala, Douglas Costa (64’ Mandzukic); Cristiano Ronaldo (Perin, Pinsoglio, Benatia, Matuidi, Barzagli, Rugani, Bentancur) Coach: Allegri|
REFEREE: Mr. Pasqua from Tivoli
NOTES: Attendance: 30000; Yellow Card: Radovanovic (C)