Aug. 23, 2015.
Going into Saturday’s game against Lazio, that was the last time Juventus had lost a game at home in any competition. It was an incredible run, but the fortress was finally breached by Simone Inzaghi’s men in this game, as Lazio came from behind to claim a 2-1 win.
Avenging the 3-2 defeat suffered at the hands of Lazio in August’s Supercoppa Italiana couldn’t have been far from the minds of Massimiliano Allegri’s men in the run-up to this one. In that game Juve never got a foothold until about 10 minutes from time, when a flurry from Paulo Dybala tied the game 2-2 before a last-gasp winner gave Lazio the hardware.
Allegri was going into the game with a clutch of injured players, including Claudio Marchisio, Benedikt Howdes, and Mattia De Sciglio. Additionally, a good number of the team’s South American stars — namely Alex Sandro, Juan Cuadrado, and Dybala — had only just returned from South American World Cup qualifying.
Given who he had available, Allegri decided to send the team out in a 4-3-3 rather than the now-customary 4-2-3-1. Gianluigi Buffon took his customary place in goal. Kwadwo Asamoah deputized for Sandro at the left back position, while Stephan Lichtsteiner took his place on the right. Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli manned the middle. The midfield was made up of Blaise Matuidi, Rodrigo Bentancur — who showed no ill effects from his own trip back from South America — and Sami Khedira, making his return from an injury suffered during the September international break. Gonzalo Higuain led the forward line, flanked by Mario Mandzukic and Douglas Costa.
Inzaghi brought a 3-5-1-1 look to the table, with Albanian keeper Thomas Strakosha anchoring a back three of Bastos, Stefan de Vrij, and Stefan Radu. Senad Lulic and Adam Marusic manned the wing-back spots, while Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, Lucas Leiva and Marco Parolo patrolled the midfield behind Luis Alberto and former Juve farmhand Ciro Immobile.
The game started quickly. Lulic tried to make an early run down Lazio’s attacking left but was quickly dispossessed by Lichtsteiner. De Vrij shut down an ambitious long-range shot from Asamoah, and then both strikers traded opportunities, with Immobile being stopped in the box by Chiellini and Higuain prevented from doing anything with a ball over the top by de Vrij and Bastos.
In the 11th minute, the first truly dangerous shot was produced by Juventus when Matuidi dipped an 18-yard shot just over the bar. Juve kept the lion’s share of possession and looked the more dangerous team going forward, but Lazio managed an opportunity of their own in the 17th minute when Milinkovic-Savic stood over a free kick and put it right into the wall—or more specifically into Mandzukic’s face.
It wasn’t long after that that Juve took the lead.
In the 23rd minute, Asamoah darted down the left side through the Lazio defense and laid the ball off to Khedira. The Germany international’s shot was saved well by Strakosha, but Costa was positioned perfectly to slam the rebound home. A quick VAR review made sure the Brazilian was onside for the initial shot, and it was 1-0 to Juve. Neither team had done a whole lot thus far, but it was a deserved lead.
Higuain went right after a second but dribbled too long and was dispossesesd by Bastos. Juve stayed on the front foot but didn’t really look too dangerous until the 36th minute, when Khedira loaded up and sent a cannon of a long-range effort that Strakosha somehow managed to keep out with one hand. In the followup to the ensuing corner the keeper received a back pass only to find Higuain in his face bare feet away from the goal line. His attempt to clear the ball hit the striker, but the ricochet popped up and bounced off the crossbar and into Strakosha’s hands. Somehow, it was still 1-0.
The warning signs started showing up with about five minutes left in the half, when Immobile slipped into the box and caused a scramble in front of Buffon’s six-yard box, then Luis Alberto fired shot from distance into a group of defenders. The half ended with Juve up 1-0, but it could have been more.
The fact that it wasn’t came back to haunt them almost immediately.
It was less than two minutes into the second period when Immobile and Alberto played a one-two. Immobile blasted past a bamboozled Barzagli and slotted the ball past Buffon and into the net to tie the score.
The momentum was swinging in Lazio’s direction, but two minutes after the equalizer Juve should have stopped it in its tracks when Higuain was put through one-on-one with Strakosha. It was easier to score than to miss, but somehow the Argentine managed to shoot the ball straight at the goalkeeper. In a matter of minutes, things went from bad to worse.
Again it was Immobile at the center of it all. He managed to split Chiellini and a flat-footed Barzagli and burst into the box. Buffon came out to meet him, and there was contact as the striker tried to round him. Immobile was clearly looking for the contact — if you look at the right angle it’s clear that he left his trailing leg out — but it was enough for Paolo Mazzoleni to point to the spot. Immobile picked him self up off the deck and slotted the 54th-minute spot kick home to put Lazio into the lead.
Juve managed to come close right after the restart through Khedira, but as the game wore on every pass that didn’t find its mark sped the other way on a dangerous counterattack. In the 65th minute Dybala arrived at the halfway line, replacing Khedira and reverting the team to the 4-2-3-1 as Allegri attempted to change the game.
He nearly made an immediate impact, lofting a ball to the back post for fellow substitute Federico Bernardeschi. The winger tried meeting it with what amounted to a flying side kid, but Radu managed to prevent him from getting full contact and out the ball flew for a goal kick.
In the 79th minute, Asamoah put the follow-up to a corner into the box and the ball fell to Higuain. He would have had a clear path to the goal but couldn’t control the ball and fumbled it over the end line. The frustration started to mount, as ineffectual corners and free kick deliveries were easily diverted away from danger.
As stoppage time began Dybala nearly pulled a point from the fire, firing a dart from the edge of the penalty area that beat a diving Strakosha — but slammed into the post.
Two minutes later Lazio nearly sealed the game when Milinkovic-Savic put Lazio sub Felipe Caicedo through on goal. But the Ecuadorian couldn’t beat Buffon, and Juve had a last gasp. They got the ball into the box, and, with the last few seconds of stoppage time winding down Bernardeschi was chopped down by Patric as they went for a loose ball.
Initially Mazzoleni didn’t take any action, other than to try to break up the scuffle that broke out on the wake of the challenge. But after a moment, he trotted to the sideline to consult with the VAR. After his review, he gave Juve the ultimate lifeline when he pointed to the spot.
But such was the way things had gone in the second half that even this golden opportunity was spurned. Dybala stepped up to take the kick, but it was at the perfect hight for Strakosha, who guessed right and parried the ball away. Mazzoleni immediately blew the final whistle as the fortress finally fell.
GIANLUIGI BUFFON - 6.5. Was left out to dry both on the equalizer and in the run-up to the penalty. His save on Caicedo was huge to keep Juve alive late.
STEPHAN LICHTSTEINER - 6. Made more tackles (6) than anyone on either side. Didn’t make much dent in the attacking side of things, but much of that came from the fact that the lion’s share of Juve’s wide attacks came from the opposite side.
ANDREA BARZAGLI - 5. Father Time has finally put his foot down. Totally lost Immobile on the equalizer and wasn’t much better in the run-up to the penalty. He needs to start thinking about calling time.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 6. Could have done better on the sequence that led to the penalty, but also made a whopping seven interceptions and five clearances. He also blocked two shots. He was the best player on the field for the Azzurri over the international break and kept up that work rate here.
KWADWO ASAMOAH - 6.5. Completed 97.3 percent of his passes and made five key passes, including the pass that led to Costa’s goal. Focused more on attack support than defense.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 6. A pair of key passes and a 93.9 completion rate, but he wasn’t the ball-winning force he’s been in games past.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 6. The only midfielder to record a tackle — three of them, to be precise — and completed 88 percent of his passes. Mostly deferred to his more experienced teammates going forward.
SAMI KHEDIRA - 6.5. A great return from injury. Tested Strakosha several times — the Lazio keeper will have some marks on his hand from that 36th-minute drive.
DOUGLAS COSTA - 6.5. In the right spot to score his first Juventus goal, but faded in the second half before being subbed for Bernardeschi.
GONZALO HIGUAIN - 4. So much for Higuain getting back on track. Dribbled too much, only managed to get himself in position for a single shot — the one he hit Strakosha with one-on-one.
MARIO MANDZUKIC - 5.5. Even he needs a rest now and then, and after two intense games for Croatia — and all the hysteria over whether he picked up an injury on international duty — this may have been the time for it. He made four key passes, but faded badly late and didn’t make the kind of defensive contributions he usually does.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 4.5. He looked out of control. Made a couple of attempts at crossing that cleared everyone in the target area by significant distances. It seems like he was trying to do too much to impress the coach and earn himself some more playing time.
PAULO DYBALA - 5.5. Gave some offensive boost, but not nearly enough. Could he have been thinking about that ball off the post when he stepped up to the penalty spot?
STEFANO STURARO - 5.5. A curious introduction with 18 minutes left, he was obviously meant to provide more attacking oomph from the right back spot but Juve was running so much down the left that he never really got a chance to do it. Did clear a dangerous cross and put a shot on target, however weakly.
Between injuries and the international break, Allegri had to get creative with this lineup, but some of his choices didn’t quite work. That was particularly the case in defense, which is rapidly becoming an area of concern.
For one thing, this was the wrong game to have Barzagli start. Against a team like Lazio, who are so dangerous on the counterattack, Barzagli becomes a liability. He’s had issues with pacier players for years, and Immobile made him look silly multiple times on Saturday. He can still do his job when the ball is in front of him, but if he has to chase someone he just can’t do it anymore.
The defense in general is becoming more and more of a concern. Allegri has been rotating to try and keep people fresh. Fine. But there’s such a thing as too much, and we’re running up against it. The departure of Leonardo Bonucci has created a void in terms of chemistry at the back, and the constant rotation beside Giorgio Chiellini has prevented the development of a new relationship to take its place. Allegri needs to settle on one guy —- preferably Daniele Rugani — and stick to him.
This was a rotten game, there’s no two ways about it. But it’s not time to panic just yet. Remember: This time two years ago Juventus were in 14th place — a few weeks later they started a 15 game winning streak and propelled themselves all the way to the top of the standings. Given the changes this team has been forced to go through every year since Allegri arrived, it tends to take until Halloween or later for them to actually come together.
Of course, the competition in Serie A has stepped up an order of magnitude since the ‘15-16 season. Juve are five points back of Napoli, but if they can put things back together before the first game against Napoli on the first day of December, they can very easily put themselves in position to end the year with yet another scudetto.
In the short term, though, it’s time to pay attention to the Champions League again. The back-to-back games against Sporting will be decisive in terms of progression to the round of 16, and Juve pretty much need to win them both, starting with the home match on Wednesday. We’ll see if this game manages to nudge Angry Juve out the locker room door as the Champions League anthem plays.