Sunday, June 4, 2023

Juventus secure champions league spot as Napoli bottles top 4 finish

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Coming into the last game of the season without having Champions League qualification — hell, having the Scudetto — sewn up was a weird feeling. Even weirder was the fact that Juventus’ destiny was not in their own hands.

They needed to win, and they needed either AC Milan or Napoli to drop points against Atalanta or Hellas Verona, respectively. As they headed into an away game against a Bologna team that had nothing to lose — precisely the kind of team Juventus had struggled with all year — there was some real anxiety that hadn’t been felt on the last day of the season for a very long time. But, lo and behold, the cards that Juventus needed to come up actually came up.

An early goal turned into an onslaught the likes of which we haven’t seen all season. It was perhaps the most complete game the Bianconeri have played all season, scoring within the first five minutes and dominating wire to wire. By the time two minutes were gone in the second half, the only thing in question was whether or not Juve would get the help they needed, ratcheting up the blood pressure in a way that could never happen otherwise in a 4-1 game. But the right result from Naples trickled in, and at the end of the game Juve had snuck into fourth place against all the odds.

Apart from the Champions League situation, the big news of the day came an hour before kickoff, when the lineups were released and it became clear that Cristiano Ronaldo would be starting on the bench. Pick the explanation that you want for the decision, but it was certainly a ballsy decision for Andrea Pirlo to make on the decisive day of the season with his job potentially hanging in the balance. Pirlo trotted out a 4-4-2 setup, with Wojciech Szczesny at its base.

NAPLES, ITALY – FEBRUARY 25: Dries Mertens (L) of Napoli celebrates scoring the opening goal alongside Lorenzo Insigne (R) during the UEFA Champions League round of 16 first leg match between SSC Napoli and FC Barcelona at Stadio San Paolo on February 25, 2020 in Naples, Italy. (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

Giorgio Chiellini played perhaps his final game in Juventus colors, joining Matthijs de Ligt in the middle of the back line, flanked by Juan Cuadrado and Alex Sandro. Dejan Kulusevski and Federico Chiesa played wide in midfield, while Danilo was pushed forward into midfield in place of the suspended Rodrigo Bentancur to pair with Adrien Rabiot. In Ronaldo’s absence, Alvaro Morata and Paulo Dybala joined forces up top.

Sinisa Mihajlovic amused much of the media when he ended up correctly predicting which referee would be assigning to the game (Paolo Valeri). He had vowed to make a run of this game to finish in the top half of the table, and sent out a 4-2-3-1 setup to try to do it. Lukasz Skorupski played in goal, behind the defensive screen of Takehiro Tomiyasu, Gary Medel, Adama Soumaoro, and Lorenzo De Silvestri. Jerdy Schouten and Mattias Svanberg played the double pivot, with Andreas Skov Olsen, Emanuel Vignato, and Musa Barrow arrayed behind Padawan learner striker Rodrigo Palacio.

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