A last-gasp Fernando Llorente header enabled Juventus to move three points clear at the summit of Serie A with this evening’s dramatic 1-0 win over Udinese.
The Zebrette appeared to have frustrated the Bianconeri in their attempts to unlock their well-marshalled backline with a commendable display of defensive solidarity throughout, but Antonio Conte’s men kept believing and eventually saw their persistence pay off when the Spanish frontman swooped to divert substitute Stephan Lichtsteiner’s cross past Zeljko Brkic in stoppage time.
Llorente’s third goal in as many league fixtures enabled the reigning champions to tighten their grip on top spot after closest challengers Roma played out a 1-1 draw with Atalanta earlier on in the day.
For his team’s return to league action, Conte elected to make three changes from the side that ran out 3-1 winners in Wednesday’s crunch Champions League clash against FC Copenhagen. Andrea Barzagli reprised his role on the right side of the defensive trio in his first appearance since the international break, Claudio Marchisio replaced Paul Pogba in midfield, while Paolo De Ceglie came in for the suspended Kwadwo Asamoah on the left flank.
Backed by over 12,000 youngsters occupying the north and south stands as part of the ‘Gioca Con Me… Tifa Con Me’ initiative, Juventus made their attacking intentions clear from the first whistle and could have gone in front when Marchisio teed up Carlos Tevez inside the area, only for Brkic to beat the Argentine’s fierce strike away from point-blank range on seven minutes.
Looking to preserve their 100 per cent Serie A record on home soil, the Bianconeri continued to rampage forward and worked themselves another promising opening three minutes later when Llorente’s perfectly-weighted through ball sent the onrushing Marchisio one-on-one with Brkic. The midfielder, however, misjudged his first touch and gave Udinese’s shotstopper that split second he required to make the interception.
With an early knock to Andrea Pirlo forcing the midfielder to depart the action after 14 minutes, Paul Pogba, who netted a sensational double the last time the two teams met in Turin, was introduced from the substitutes bench as a like-for-like replacement.
As the first half wore on, Pamplona-born forward Llorente again displayed his qualities as the focal point of the Bianconeri attack. And it was the Spanish international whose excellent footwork almost carved out an opening for strike partner Carlos Tevez, who rolled a left-footed shot just wide of the upright on 19 minutes.
In spite of having to endure one-way traffic for most of the opening half an hour, Udinese remained unrattled and could have profited from a loose Leonardo Bonucci backpass which allowed Antonio Di Natale to scamper through on goal, Gigi Buffon riding to the hosts’ rescue with a one-handed stop to thwart the talismanic striker’s lobbed effort.
And despite a purposeful introduction to the second half by Conte’s men, Buffon’s reflexes were again required to avert the danger of a quick Udinese break, beating Bruno Fernandes’ cross clear before readjusting himself to deny Di Natale what appeared to be a certain goal on 52 minutes.
The Bianconeri captain, who surpassed the 500 Serie A appearance barrier in last week’s 2-0 away win over Livorno, was called into action on a third occasion ten minutes later, touching Andrea Lazzari’s dipping 25-yard strike over the crossbar as the Zebrette’s belief in causing an upset began to increase.
Back came Juventus, yet the attacking precision displayed in recent weeks appeared to be somewhat lacking. Tevez shot tamely at Brkic, while Arturo Vidal, making his 100th Juventus appearance in all competitions, blasted over from range.
In a bid to sharpen up his strikeforce, Conte introduced Quagliarella in place of De Ceglie, with the former Udinese frontman joining Tevez and Llorente as part of a three-pronged frontline.
With Udinese’s well-drilled system keeping the hosts at bay, it appeared a moment of inspiration would be required to break the deadlock. Substitute Quagliarella went closest to answering the call with a stunning shot on the turn from 25 yards, only to see Brkic perform heroics of his own by diverting the ball wide for a corner.
Another introduction to the action, the returning Lichtsteiner, looked to better his team-mate’s attempt when he cut in from the right flank and blasted a left-footed effort towards goal which flew wide of the target.
But the Swiss full-back was to have a determining contribution to the final outcome, hooking the ball into the danger zone in the direction of Llorente, whose instinctive header flew past a motionless Brkic with 91 minutes on the clock.