A cold Saturday night in Turin marked what was a top-of-the-table showdown between Juventus and Roma. Juventus entered the game with four-point lead at the top of Serie A, one that could easily have shrunk to just one based on the result of the night’s game, yet Bianconeri coach Max Allegri made it a point to downplay the significance of the match in his usual trademark style. Nevertheless, continuing the remarkable run of form the team is having at home in the Italian league — unbeaten since opening week of the league last season — Juventus battled their way to 1-0 win, three hard-fought points and extended their lead atop Serie A to a strong seven points.
The game started in a brisk fashion, as a long ball was headed by Mario Mandzukic into the path of Gonzalo Higuain, who under pressure from Kostas Manolas, managed to find a half-yard of space to shoot on goal, but it was easily saved by Roma’s Polish keeper Wojciech Szczesny. The game continued to be brisk and end to end, as both teams fought for an early advantage in the game.
The first golden chance fell to Juventus’ most expensive player, Higuain, again. A quick throw in on the right flank found Mandzukic in space down the right, and he ran into the box before cutting back to his Argentine partner. The cut back was at an awkward height however, and Pipita’s first-time shot was saved by Szczesny once again.
The third time however, on what was arguably the hardest chance, Higuain would make no mistake. He battled away with Daniele De Rossi in the middle of the Roma half, drove forward with the ball, seemingly just gliding past two defenders into space, and fired a pinpoint shot with his left foot straight into the bottom corner of the goal. 1-0 Juventus.
The game continued to be end to end for the remainder of the opening 20 minutes, but with time it looked like Juve would be happy to sit back and let Roma have the ball, before hitting them on the counter. It seemed to be a justified tactic, as the likes of Sami Khedira, Miralem Pjanic, Mandzukic and Higuain all looked very threatening when they broke forward in numbers.
Roma began to dominate possession, but struggled to have anything to show for it, as the Juventus defense led by Giorgio Chiellini and Daniele Rugani proved to be impregnable. A speculative shot by Radja Nainggolan from inside the box that went wide of Gigi Buffon’s near post, and a Kevin Strootman attempt which was blocked by Stephan Lichtsteiner following a series of ricochets in the box after a corner aside, they struggled to fancy openings on goal. Juventus for their part had a few promising moments on the counter, including a 4v3 after a quick break by Claudio Marchisio and Higuain, but Khedira’s cross into the box was dealt with well by Manolas.
The second half continued where the first half left off, with Juventus retreating deeper and deeper into their half and relying on trying to hit Roma on the counter. Roma continued to try and force the issue down the wings, with tricky players like Diego Perotti and second half sub Mohamed Salah, but were coming up against the wall that is the Juventus defense time and time again.
Allegri was force to switch things up soon after, as Pjanic ended up pulling up clutching his hip, and looked to be in too much pain to continue. On came Juan Cuadrado in his place. Juventus’ tactic of playing on the counter, and Roma’s inability to carve an opening for themselves meant that the second half was vastly devoid of attempts on either goal.
The only two chances fell to the polarizing Stefano Sturaro, who was having a great game in the middle of the park for Juventus. Following a corner kick that found its way all the way back to Gigi Buffon, his clearance found Chiellini battling away on the wing. He laid the ball off to Higuain, who crossed it somewhat beyond Mandzukic. The big Croat however brilliantly turned the ball back into the path of the onrushing Sturaro, who took a touch and under pressure fired in a strong shot that was brilliantly saved by Szczesny. It is hard to find fault with the Italian in this case, as it was a stunning save, one that kept Roma in the game. Another chance fell to the young Italian near the full time whistle, as a through ball was a little beyond his reach, and he slid in to try and turn it goalwards, but it was once again well saved by Szczesny.
A series of conceded set pieces that saw Allegri turn his Hulk mode on aside, the game ebbed to its conclusion without too much further incident. Three more points, a first clean sheet in a month, 25 straight victories at home, and a seven-point lead at the top of the table. Job well done!
Juventus continued their evolution under Allegri, as he once again lined up in the 4-3-1-2 formation that he seems to be making the team’s primary formation gradually. Pjanic supported the duo of Mandzukic and Higuain in attack, backed by a midfield trio of Khedira-Marchisio-Sturaro. Roma for their part lined up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, with a midfield duo of Strootman and De Rossi, with Perotti, Nainggolan and Gerson supporting Dzeko.
The inclusion of young trequartista Gerson, who was making only his second Serie A start, on the right wing, was a surprise to many. Spalleti in his interview stated that the idea was to use him to try and peg Alex Sandro back, considering that Salah was still not fit to start. This was reinforced by the selection of Rudiger at right back, a player who is traditionally a CB. This might have been forced by the injuries to Alessandro Florenzi and Bruno Peres, but it resulted in what was a very defensive right wing, with very little attacking overlap. It might have worked though, as the hardworking duo kept Alex Sandro quiet down the wing. In this manner, their formation somewhat resembled the zona mista formation employed by Allegri early last season, with Barzagli as an unorthodox RB. However, both Perotti and Gerson (Salah for the second half), really struggled to get into the game and get any service to Dzeko, who ended up relying on long balls and the support of Nainggolan through the center. Rugani however had a stunning match to ensure that the big Bosnian struggled to see the ball at all. Sturaro and Khedira also did their parts to ensure that Lichtsteiner and Sandro were hardly ever overrun down either flank.
The game was a physical affair from start to finish, and in my mind there is no doubt that this game could have gone very differently had Allegri started with the midfield trio he probably envisioned starting the season with, in Pjanic-Marchisio-Khedira. There just isn’t enough tenacity, physical presence and aggression in that trio. Games like this highlight the importance that Sturaro and his role plays in the squad. The physical nature of the game suited him immensely, and his snapping away at the ankles of his counter parts really got under the skin of the likes of De Rossi, Strootman and Nainggolan, and forced them to lose their cool/turn the ball over on many occasions. The physical presence and defensive cover afforded by him, also gave Pjanic the freedom to drift between the lines and seek the ball out, and as such, the Bosnian was indeed looking very menacing on the ball in the opening 20 minutes. Unfortunately, the team continued to drop deeper and deeper thereafter, meaning he saw very little of the ball for his remaining time on the pitch.
Overall, the combative and physical nature of the game meant that the team’s passing was well below their usual standard, as evident from the image below. Both teams were guilty of turning the ball over way too often. The feisty midfield battle also meant that both teams struggled to get the full range of their passing in midfield going. Players like Marchisio especially struggled, as evidence by his surprisingly low number of passes completed and passing accuracy.
Even the likes of Chiellini and Rugani, who normally have the most touches on the ball, and the highest passing accuracies, struggled. Both touched the ball a mere 49 and 42 times respectively, in stark contrast to the numbers they post when the team manages possession better (its normally in the 90’s). Sturaro and Marchisio both touched the ball more (52 times).
This was a game clearly decided by certain moments, and its hard to say how it would have gone had Higuain not grabbed that early goal. That said, despite an evermounting pressure from the Roma attack, they truly did struggle to fashion any chances at all, as evident by their meagre 2 shots on target.
Remarkably, Superman’s Luigi/Tom Selleck alternate identity had next to nothing to do all game, besides his usual competent organization of the defense. Had absolutely no saves of note to make.
Coped very well with the threat of Perotti down the right, affording him very little space on the wing. However, if his offensive contributions were suspect in years gone by, they’ve truly jumped off the cliff this season. Struggled to provide any natural width or crosses down the right, and the introduction of Cuadrado seems to have done more harm than good, as the wing just ended up looking extremely confused thereafter.
Rugani: 8.5 (MotM)
Monster game from the young Italian, who is truly turning into a world class defender right before our very eyes. His tussle with Belotti last week was a joy to watch, and so was his brilliant managing of Dzeko. He was all over the Bosnian, cutting channels through to him through the center, and using his aerial prowess to deny him from any crosses from the wings too. His positioning is exemplary, as evident by his game-high five interceptions and 8 clearances. Were it to be on purely sporting reasons and not team hierarchy, it could be a struggle for Barzagli-Benatia-Bonucci to win this spot back.
The veteran bulldozer has had a welcome return to fitness and form. His partnership with Rugani is very interesting, as the young Italian’s more passive approach to reading the game, complements his aggression perfectly, while Rugani’s ability to push forward and put pressure on the CF he is marking, leaves Chiellini in a good position to sweep up any danger from other sources. The pair work well in tandem together. Its very interesting to note that its been Rugani man marking physical forwards like Belotti and Dzeko, and not Chiellini.
A very solid game at the back from the Brazilian bomber, who kept both Gerson, and the much trickier Salah extremely quiet for the duration of the game, no mean feat. That said, he did struggle to have his usual effect going forward down the left, but I’d attribute this to the defensive Rudiger standing opposite him, who did a great job in not affording Sandro a lot of space to fire in those usual deadly crosses of his. Ran his socks off however, and its worth noting that Roma’s somewhat defensive approach to their right flank can be attributed to his looming threat.
Solid, if unspectacular game from the German. His movements are truly world class however, as time and time again he found himself in the right spot at the right time while going forward on the counter, however, like the rest of the team around him, he just lacked that killer touch in the final third. Did well to assist Lichtsteiner in keeping Perotti and Nainggolan quiet.
Uncharacteristically sloppy game from our Principino. Maybe it was the nature of the game itself, coupled with the team’s approach however. With just 52 touches, he found himself asking for the ball a lot less than he normally does, as the team quickly looked to push forward with Mandzukic and Higuain, as opposed to trying to maintain possession effectively. I’d have to question Allegri’s tactics here more than anything, as we badly could have used his calm composure on the ball for much of the second half.
A few days after his shiny new contract bump, he proved the role he can play in this squad, with a fiery performance full of grinta, aggression and positivity. He never allowed the central midfielders of Roma to settle, and that definitely played a role in their inability to make their possession count. Led the team with a game-high five tackles, as well as one interception and two clearances, not to mention his four completed dribbles. He had the joint most touches of the ball with Marchisio, and a passing percentage of 71 percent (on par with the squad total) shows he wasn’t letting the team down as a whole in that department. The freedom he affords Pjanic is the biggest positive one can take from his role in the squad. Unlucky not to get a goal, and he would be my man of the match had he managed to convert either of his chances.
The flow of the game and the team’s approach cost him more than anyone else, as he struggled to get the ball at all after the first 20 minutes, during which he certainly looked very menacing. It was a shame to see him go off injured, as we badly missed his cool control of the ball and possession in the second half, not to mention his set pieces. Is getting better with every game in this new TQ position, and we must hope that his injury is not too serious, as it’d be a terrible time for him to put on the treatment table.
You know what you’re going to get with Mandzukic every game. Bucket loads of grinta, him running his socks off, and a few crucial tackles/blocks/headers won on the defensive side. Did very well to set up both Higuain and Sturaro for chances, and fought for the team all game. Shockingly, he still doesn’t seem to be looking tired. I can’t wait to see more of Higuain+Dybala, but I will certainly miss his battling persona.
He truly is lethal in the box. For the first time (unless my memory deceives me), we saw Mandzukic supporting him, as opposed to the vice versa I’ve gotten used to for the duration of Dybala’s injury absence. His presence in the box cannot be discounted, as his runs are just so intelligent. Couldn’t have done much better for his first chance, as Mandzukic’s cut back was at an awkward height, but his goal was a thing of beauty, and the kind of scary clinical attacking prowess we haven’t seen in the squad since David Trezeguet. Continued to sacrifice for the team for the rest of the game, which is very encouraging.
Appalling cameo from the Columbian, who seemingly couldn’t do anything right for this game. I suppose everyone has these kind of days, and let’s hope he can shrug it off soon. Lost possession more times than most of his counterpoints put together, and was shockingly ineffective going forward on the counter, as the Cuadrado of last year who was on a completely different wavelength to his teammates, reared his ugly head again.
Had little to do after coming on, and added some composure to the defense. Its interesting to note that despite Barzagli originally being first choice to replace Bonucci in the center of the back 3, and Allegri later saying that Benatia would be the other choice, it was Rugani who continued in the middle of the three.. Shows just how far the young Italian has come, and is adapting to his game to become the brilliant amalgamation of all three legendary Italian defenders of the BBC. (Sorry, I can’t stop raving at just how damn good Rugani is).
Hope to see him starting soon!
His lineup was spot on, and full credit for the faith he’s showing in the likes of Rugani and Sturaro, the two stand out performers from today. As usual, his handling of the youngsters is brilliant. That said, his tactic of going on the defensive and conservative mode after taking the lead is trying. Today its hard to question it too much, considering we held out for the clean sheet and victory, but based on the goals we’ve conceded this season so far, no one would complain or be surprised had Roma snuck an equaliser against the run of play, or from a set piece at the depth. Grinding to victories is one thing, but there is no excuse for refusing to stamp your authority on a vital game like this.
Three more points, plus-7 lead atop the table, a relatively favourable Champions League draw.. Let’s see how this season pans out for us! Players like Rugani, Pjanic, Higuain etc. finding form at this crucial time is important. First piece of silverware is up for grabs next week! Let’s win the Supercoppa and enjoy a well earned Christmas break.
Happy holidays to all my friends across the globe (and happy end of the dreaded 2016!). My well wishes to all of you, and as always, Forza Juve!
Kaushik signing out.