We’ve learned not to expect surprises when Juventus step into the Stadio Bentegodi. Every time the Bianconeri travel east to take on Chievo, the match unfolds in almost exactly the same way. Their resilient opponents put up a strong fight, seemingly packing the entire population of the Veronese suburb behind the ball, Rolando Maran instructing them to relinquish possession, maintain their shape and deny the visitors the time and space they need to create an opening.
From there, the complaints begin. Juventus supporters bemoan their side’s lack of creativity, falling back on the all-too-easy criticisms of Sami Khedira, Stefano Sturaro and Kwadwo Asamoah as if their particular favourite players are not also struggling to make a tangible impact. Usually, the frustration grows and grows until the Old Lady eventually finds a breakthrough, unbeaten in her last 16 meetings with the Flying Donkeys.
On Saturday evening, the same pathology looked to be playing out. In the first half, Juve dominated possession, but – even after Samuel Bastien’s senseless red card – they could not find a way through the wall of yellow-shirted players in front of Stefano Sorrentino’s goal. Gonzalo Higuain seemed badly affected by his personal drought, booked for demanding an opponent to be punished for a foul in an incident that would prove to be a portent of things to come.
As he left the pitch for the half-time break, the Argentinian was met by Gigi Buffon – on the bench as he continues to recover from an injury – and the club Captain clearly had words of advice for his team-mate. The opening five minutes of the second period continued in the same way, but it was then that Max Allegri made his change.
Sending on Federico Bernardeschi in place of Sturaro, the team was clearly prepared for the shift, changing to a 4-2-3-1 formation and instantly looking much more dangerous. Chances finally began to arrive, but a rare Chievo foray forward led to a bizarre situation after Fabrizio Cacciatore went down in hope of being awarded a penalty.
The Turin native stayed down for quite some time and when Juve won a corner, referee Fabio Maresca allowed the medic on to treat the 31-year-old. He then refused to leave the field, until he trotted to the sideline and made a handcuffs gesture. This prompted a straight red card and left the Gialloblu with nine men for the final half hour.
Did the referee over-react in a situation where Chievo were already down to 10 men? Maybe. Was it an incredibly stupid and futile gesture to make in the circumstances? Absolutely.
It took Juve less than six minutes to capitalise, Bernardeschi playing a perfectly weighted ball back into the box which Mario Mandzukic cleverly left for Khedira. The German midfielder made no mistake, thumping his shot beyond Sorrentino and into the back of the net.
In the final minutes, Higuain nodded in Douglas Costa’s cross to claim his first goal since December 1, a timely strike given Juve have much sterner tests on the horizon. A Coppa Italia semi-final against Atalanta, the derby with Torino, a clash with bitter rivals Fiorentina and of course the Champions League meeting with Tottenham all await, meaning there really is no better time for Pipita to be back among the goals.
Ultimately, a January win over Chievo is both standard for the Old Lady and largely a meaningless result, played out in typically boring and frustrating circumstances. It is a match that will likely be remembered more for Cacciatore’s ridiculous outburst than anything else, but if it proves to be the game where Higuain finally returned to form, at the end of the season we might well look back on it as a pivotal 90 minutes in Juventus’ latest triumph.