Approaching this match, knowing that two wins in our next two league fixtures would send us to Rome needing only a draw to clinch our third straight scudetto, there was reason to be both excited and nervous. Especially after our rivals earned a valuable 0-1 away victory in Florence, reducing the gap between us back to five points.
Tevez and Vidal were named on the bench, both players still nursing slight injuries with Bonucci and Lichstiner suspended.
To the surprise of nobody, Conte lined up with our trademark 3-5-2, offering Giovinco a chance to continue his recent spurt of fine form in attack alongside Llorente. Behind him, Pirlo took up the position of fulcrum, flanked by Pogba on his right and Marchisio on the opposite side of the trident. Out wide in the wing-back areas, Asamoah matched up with Isla (who came in for the suspecneded Lichsteiner). It was Ogbonna who took up the Bonucci role, which at times can seem closer to libero than pure stopper.
We emerged from the traps at a decent pace. Immediately pushing forward and applying pressure to the Bologna blockade. Our opponent’s plan to defend in large numbers, keep 9 men behind the ball at all times and show zero interest in scoring was evident from the first whistle. Even when they were given the chance to counter, we invariably had 2-3 defenders to clean up at the back masterfully.
Pogba was looking lively. Pirlo in fine fettle. Asamoah strangely subdued, although he was faced with a wall of opponents whenever attempting to make in-roads into the final third. On the opposite flank, Isla was seeing much more of the ball, largely due to the dominating physical presence and wonderful technique of the nearby Frenchman.
Most of the first half was taken up with the same slow, deliberate build-up passing game we so often adopt against smaller teams whose prime objective is to hold firm defensively and cut off our supply routes on the wings and through the middle. Llorente found a few useful positions, as did Giovinco, but the two of them are yet to find any harmony as a pair, with both operating on different wavelengths at crucial moments when a chance could have been created and finished.
No changes were made by Conte in the interval. Clearly his thinking was that we would win the war of attrition, continue our laboured, obvious passing game, wear them down, hope for a moment of magic, or a mistake for us to capitalize upon.
It took until the 64th minute for us to finally break the dead-lock. And what a beautiful goal it was, arriving from the explosive feet of Pogba. Picking the ball up in the inner right channel from Isla, the youngster brought the ball down and smashed an unstoppable drive past the keeper from just outside the box. Just reward for an overall performance which stood out for its power, precision and skill. A true rifle-shot of a strike.
The goal caused a momentary wave of added confidence in our ranks and confusion in the Bologna rearguard yet soon enough the status quo reappeared and we reverted to the calm pressure routine whilst keeping things tidy at the back.
Padoin made a late appearance and did absolutely nothing and it was pleasing to see Vidal make a brief cameo in the dying moments. What was somewhat discouraging was the manner in which we spent the final minutes growing increasingly concerned and inviting Bologna onto us. For the first time in the whole match our opponents seemed to believe they could get something from the game and we were on the back-foot until the ref blew the final whistle. Immense relief washed through the ranks and stadium as a whole, with passionate embraces all round between manager and players symbolizing how much this victory meant to the club.
Stand out performers were few and far between since we were hardly tested defensively. And had a mountain to climb offensively due to the stifling, smothering tactics employed by Ballardini in the enemy dug-out.
Pogba was the most potent player on the field. More capable than any other of not only retaining possession when faced with an opponent, but also carving out space. Only fellow beasts can match him physically and his skill-set on the ball is slowly but surely maturing. Less fancy tricks, more successful dribbles. His shooting has never been in question, especially from long range.
At this rate, the 21 year old will soon be regarded as not only a world class talent in the making, but as one of the best midfielders in the world, such is his progress this season. There seems no major weakness to his game. Perhaps the most important transfer of the close season will be a non-transfer, keeping Paul at the club for at least another season, hopefully more.
Barzagli was average on his return to first team action, lacking match-sharpness as to be expected, but our fortunes are greatly improved by his calm presence in the first XI. The quicker he regains form the better our chances of success. Ogbonna was strong in the tackle, decisive and error-free, attempting to replicate Bonucci’s distribution responsibilities in a muted fashion.
I was interested to see Isla. He produced an assist for Pogba, worked very hard on the touchline and was noticeably more involved in the game than his counter-part on the left. The Chilean could have scored himself, after cutting in beautifully and launching the ball goalwards with his left boot. Has he done enough to warrant completing his purchase over the Summer??? For me, not in the slightest. Best to renew the co-ownership or attempt to recoup the 9m initial outlay for the 50% stake. Asmoah looks good value for the 18m we paid. To spend as much on former Udinese pal Isla would be criminal.
Up top, Llorente was useful for flick-ons and lay-offs, but rarely came close to a clear cut opening. His strike partner, Giovinco, won plenty of free-kicks, caused a steady nuisance and created a couple of good chances for other players. However, neither player impressed.
A mention should be made of Marchisio, who – as always – stuck to his task diligently, put his health on the line on a few occasions when blocking or intercepting the ball, found himself kicked, scythed, pole-axed and shoved all over the place. He is truly a great servant to the club.
Bologna were very robust in their approach to the game. Our strike force of the spaniard and imp was too weak to break through the brutal attention of Sorensen in particular, but also Antonsson, who pummelled the flimsy front men repeatedly throughout the match. This is one of the main problems with Giovinco; his complete lack of physicality. As for Llorente…I expect better of him, but it will take time to adjust fully to the sharp differences in defending between la liga and Serie A.
It was a very encouraging performance by 22 year old Freddy Sorensen. A player I have admired since he first broke into our line-up in late 2010, merely months after joining our primavera in the Summer. His natural strength and intelligent reading of the game marked him out back then as a player of serious potential and I am glad to see him more than hold his own around far more seasoned professionals. If we are in the market for a centre-back, Conte and Beppe would be wise to consider the Dane. His contract runs until 2016 and I hope we renew the co-ownership deal in the Summer. Whilst his value continues to rise, prudence suggests we maintain the present situation.
The victory was welcome and deserved but our inability to break down a resilient opponent once again highlighted what I see as a lack of malleability or reactivity in Conte’s tactical thinking. He rarely seems to have any Plan B, nor appears particularly well prepared to take advantage of an opponent’s weaknesses. Conte’s method is to stick with the 3-5-2, pass the ball as much as possible, left, then right, then left, then right, slow paced build-up. Its all so predictable. And without the muscle, hustle and class of Tevez in the final third, and swash-buckling Vidal forcing mistakes and driving forward at every opportunity we are fairly easily contained.
Conte needs to work on systems which draw such stubborn opposition out of their fortress. Laying siege works most of the time, but as we saw with Copenhagen, our lack of Plan B or C can truly be our downfall. We win by attrition in such circumstances or via a moment of magic as we saw from Pogba last night.
Instead of Padoin, why not bring on Vucinic?? Instead of Vidal, why not send Quagliarella into the fray?? Protecting a 1-0 lead at home to Bologna is understandable at this delicate stage of the campaign, though a step removed from a team confident of their superiority. Substitutions are another area in which as time wears on, I find Conte lacking.
When was the last time we saw him turn a game with a master stroke from the bench?? When was the last time he outfoxed a wily opposing manager through exploiting a weakness in a team we faced??
Its not only the playing staff which needs to improve, collectively, if we are to strive onwards and make moves to return to greatness on the European stage. It is also the management.