Well, my blood pressure has finally gone down. How about you guys?
The first 70 minutes or so of Saturday’s game between Juventus and Roma were roughly analogous to Juve’s clash with Inter two weeks ago. Thanks to some good team defense, Roma did very little to trouble their former No. 1, Wojciech Szczesny, in goal, while creating some great chances themselves. The big difference between that game and this one is that Juve managed to convert one of those chances, ramming the ball home in a goalmouth scramble after a corner kick.
But unlike Inter, Roma managed to finally claw out a foothold far earlier. Starting with about 20 minutes to go, the Giallorossi started clawing out a few chances, and that foothold evolved into a grandstand finish that required Szczesny to make one of the saves of the season to procure all three points.
Roma had never so much as drawn in Turin since the Allianz Stadium opened in 2011, and have been on the receiving end of some epic beatings over the intervening six years. While things had been closer the last two seasons, Roma has still had more players send off on this ground (four) than they have scored goals (three).
Massimiliano Allegri looked to keep that record intact with a squad depleted by injuries, and as he has done for the past few games he opted for a 4-3-3. Gianluigi Buffon is still trying to shake off a calf injury, so Szczesny deputized for the legend once again. Mattia De Sciglio was out with a flexor injury, and with Stephan Lichtsteiner having played 90 minutes midweek in the Coppa Italia, Allegri opted to put Andrea Barzagli in the right back spot. Former Roma center back Medhi Benatia joined vice-captain Giorgio Chiellini in the center of defense, with Alex Sandro on the left. Another former Roma man showed up in midfield in Miralem Pjanic, joined by Sami Khedira and Blaise Matuidi. It was decided that Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain were incompatible with each other in a 4-3-3, so Pipita was flanked by Juan Cuadrado and Mario Mandzukic on the wings.
Roma coach Eusebio Di Francesco knew that if he could come up with a result, he had the chance to draw level — or pull ahead — if his team wins the game they have in hand with Sampdoria. He used his staple 4-3-3 formation. Alisson Becker, Szczesny’s successor, started in goal, protected by Alessandro Florenzi, Federico Fazio, Kostas Manolas, and Aleksandar Kolarov. Captain and stalwart Daniele De Rossi led the midfield with Kevin Strootman and Radja Nainggolan, while Edin Dzeko led the line with Diego Perotti and Stephan El Shaarawy flanking him.
The opening stages of the game saw possession swing back and forth, but what noise was made was made by Juventus. Higuain was the focal point of the early goings, but not in the way he’d like. Three minutes in he made a hash of a simple pass to release Sandro down the left side and left it short to be intercepted. Three minutes later the Argentinian again made a bad pass, this time lacking power on a through ball for Cuadrado. The winger had to pull up to corral it rather than taking it in stride, and was dispossessed at the top of the box. Khedira latched onto the loose ball but fired a first time shot way wide.
Their next shot was a good deal closer, when Mandzukic got into great position for a free header but flashed Matuidi’s cross wide of the post.
Traffic continued to flow toward Alisson’s goal. In the 11th minute Higuain finally made a decent pass by knocking the ball down for Khedira to run free, but the Germany international’s lack of pace became a problem and he was chased down before he could get into position to shoot before he was dispossessed.
In the 13th minute Roma made their first dangerous move. Dzeko found Florenzi all alone in the box with a nice diagonal ball, but the full-back blazed wildly off the volley.
Higuain was handed a tough job to head the ball from the very top of the box and ended up pushing it wide, but in the 18th minute was involved in the sequence that led to the game’s first goal.
It came when Sandro released Higuain with a marvelous ball over the top. Fazio caught him just as he was ready to shoot, tackling the ball out for a corner kick. Pjanic’s delivery found an unmarked Chiellini, who was denied by an excellent save. Alisson was alert again to deny Benatia on the rebound, tipping it onto the crossbar. But the Moroccan would not be denied and he slammed home on the second effort to give his current team the lead over his old one. He clearly didn’t have any qualms about celebrating.
Roma mounted a mini rally after the goal, but after a free kick was defended easily in the box the ball started heading toward Alisson again. This time it was his own defender putting it toward him, as Fazio attempted a terrible back pass that Higuain got to, but the Roma keeper managed to disrupt him enough to end the threat, with referee Paulo Tagliavento rightly waving away the striker’s appeal for a penalty.
After a bit of a breathing period, Roma worked their way into their first major chance. Dzeko dropped deep to get the ball and then uncorked another really good pass, this one sending Perotti down the field alone. Perotti might have been marginally offside, but he was easily able to outrun Barzagli and square the ball to El Shaarawy, whose tap-in was met with a smart save by Szczesny, who had to go back the way he came to parry it.
Juve coasted through the rest of the half, although both Benatia and Szczesny put a few hearts in mouths with some risky ball-handling in their own penalty area. Roma had a few chances off set pieces, but terrible deliveries from Kolarov took the teeth out of them.
The second half began with a couple of benign Juve attacks. There was some momentary anxiety over Khedira after he took an elbow to the ribs from Fazio in the buildup of an attack and crumpled to the turf a few seconds later. But after a bit of treatment he got right back on to the pitch. Then, nine minutes into the half, a cross from Mandzukic found Khedira, who put Higuain neatly through on goal. With Alisson charging him, Higuain put the ball over the top from eight yards out.
Roma started showing signs of life after that. In the 57th minute Florenzi fizzed in a cross toward Dzeko, but the Bosnian was well marked by Benatia, who got his head to it to steer it away. The pendulum swung back toward Juve on the hour, when a scramble at the top of the box failed to produce a shooting chance despite several good opportunities. There was some more injury anxiety after the move when Mandzukic slammed his knee into Nainggolan’s leg, but like Khedira the Croatian was back on the field in short order.
Higuain kept on getting chances to double the lead, but kept on wasting them. In the 65th minute another mistake by Fazio gifted Pjanic the ball at the top of the box and he found Pipita with a through pass, but De Rossi was there to block the shot. Two minutes later Mandzukic was released down the wing and sent in an excellent cross. Higuain latched onto it just behind the penalty spot but again managed to do nothing other than balloon it into the curva.
Pjanic then tried his luck, his shot taking a deflection but still being met well by Alisson. On the other end Dzeko finally got into a shooting position but put it a yard or two too high, then tried getting another opportunity but was held off perfectly by Chiellini, who got the ball away easily.
King Kong provided a bit of comedy with 15 minutes left when he burst out of the back with the ball and carried it into shooting position, only to slip as he wound up, resulting in a ball that skittered into Alisson’s waiting arms.
The real turning point of the match came in the 78th minute. Mandzukic sent Matuidi on a nice run down the left-hand channel, and he fired a shot that sizzled just over Alisson’s near post. But the Frenchman pulled up the minute he released the shot and immediately called for a sub. Claudio Marchisio quickly replaced him, but Matuidi had smothered the Roma midfield for the entire game, and without him Roma began to create better opportunities.
The first one was practically gifted to them with 10 minutes to go, when Chiellini and Sandro both left a ball over the top to bounce to Florenzi. Based on an amateur interpretation of their body language, it looked to me like they were used to Gigi Buffon coming out for a ball like this and were waiting for Szczesny to do the same. The three of them all got lucky though—Flornenzi’s chip got over Szczesny’s hand but doinked off the crossbar.
The clock ticked on, and with two minutes to go Dzeko turned provider again, finding substitute Cengiz Under at the far post, whose header was met by Szczesny for another excellent save.
The clock hit 90 and somehow Tagliavento saw fit to add five minutes to the game. Pjanic made sure it almost didn’t matter, taking an interception deep in his own territory all the way to the edge of the Roma penalty area and then, despite having options on either side of him, fired a shot that Alisson somehow got a hand to to divert onto the crossbar.
Two minutes later Juve almost paid for their missed opportunities. A miscommunication between Chiellini and Benatia saw the ball squirt out back towards goal. Latching onto it was Patrik Schick.
The 21-year-old Czech had been destined for Juventus over the summer, but a cardiac issue discovered in his medical saw the deal break down, and he ended up in Rome instead. He had entered the game in place of El Shaarawy in the 67th minute. Now he barrelled downfield with only Szczesny between him and a last-gasp equalizer that would have serious repercussions to the top of the table and stamp his name in the history of this rivalry.
Schick’s only problem was that no one had told Szczesny about that. One on one with the young striker, he dove to his right but left his legs out the other way, and Schick’s shot didn’t get past them. It was a save worthy of the man Szczesny is destined to replace.
One minute and a punched corner later, Tagliavento blew his whistle for the last time, and Juve had escaped with a vital win.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 9. Made two fantastic saves on El Shaarawy and Schick, along with another good one on Under in the last minutes of regular time. He also claimed pretty much every ball that came his way. An immense performance in a huge game.
ANDREA BARZAGLI - 6. Stayed in the defensive half for the most part, but locked down Perotti for most of the game. That 27th-minute breakaway was the exception — if Barzagli has to turn and chase the ball, he’s not gonna catch up anymore.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 6.5. Made a whopping 10 clearances and marked Dzeko tightly when Benatia passed him off. But he was a major part of both of the late-game defensive errors, which depresses his grade just a tad.
MEDHI BENATAI - 7.5. The clearances were up there as well — eight for him. The goal was a study in determination, and he had Dzeko in his pocket for much of the night. Gets an ever so slight downgrade over the late miscommunication that led to Schick’s breakaway, but his great form continues.
ALEX SANDRO - 6. A step in the right direction. Four tackles and some good crosses, but still not the commanding presence on the flank that he was a year ago. The improvement is encouraging though.
SAMI KHEDIRA - 6. The lack of pace hurt him early as he was run down from behind on a breakaway. Made his passes and played pretty well in defense, but I’d really like to see Marchisio in this spot alongside Pjanic and Matuidi to see if there is a difference.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 7. Didn’t complete his passes at his usual rate (82.8 percent as opposed to 90.4 on the season), but made four key passes and put two of his four shots on target, including that stoppage time laser that Alisson only just tipped onto the bar.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 8. Really the difference maker in this game. Completed 91 percent of his passes, made three key passes and forced a pair of saves out of Alisson. His box-to-box presence has coincided with Juve’s improvement in form. Hopefully that injury he picked up in the second half isn’t serious.
JUAN CUADRADO - 5.5. Looked a tad slow, which is to be expected considering the fact that he’s been out with an injury. His decision making wasn’t on point today either.
GONZALO HIGUAIN - 4.5. Awful day. Missed the target with all six of his shots, including two second-half sitters that a striker of his caliber needs to put away. Had he done so, the game would have been a lot less stressful at the end. Also had an awful day as a passer, badly underhitting a couple balls and totally misfiring on others. He really should’ve been replaced.
MARIO MANDZUKIC - 8. A week out from getting 13 stitches in his leg, Mandzukic was everywhere. Take a look at this stat line: three tackles, three interceptions, five clearances, three key passes, one of two shots on target. Looked a little gassed at the end, but still made a great defensive header and a lung-busting run to provide options on a breakaway.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 5.5. Spent most of his time behind the ball, and didn’t do too much when he did get forward. Did make a neat defensive play or two at the end.
CLAUDIO MARCHISIO - NR. On in relief of the injured Matuidi, he didn’t quite replicate the Frenchman’s frenetic efforts, although he did play hard and never gave up on balls, even when he was on the turf.
It’s becoming clear that using a three-man midfield is dramatically improving this team. The alarming defensive frailties that marked the team’s early efforts have largely been eliminated since Allegri moved to it, as evidenced by the eight straight clean sheets the team has posted.
But using a three-man midfield conjures up a few question too. Specifically, where does Dybala fit in? It seems fairly clear that Allegri doesn’t think he and Higuain are compatible in a 4-3-3. How, then, do you fit both of them on the field together? A “Christmas tree” with Dybala and another forward behind Higuain and in front of a three-man midfield might be the the best solution, but that also likely pushes Mandzukic out. In the end Allegri may have to shuffle his tactical deck from game to game to see who he gets into the game.
A word on his handling of subs: it sucked. It took too long to introduce Bernardeschi for Cuadrado even thought he was clearly a little off after his injury, and he failed to make any changes that would potentially bolster the effort to kill off the game. With Higuain misfiring badly, seeing Dybala on the field wouldn’t have been a bad idea. The way things were going, it almost felt like had Matuidi not gotten hurt he would have stayed pat and only used one sub. Had he been a bit more aggressive he could probably have killed off the game.
The andata comes to a close on Saturday as Juve travel to the Stadio Marc’Antonio Bentegodi to take on Hellas Verona. It will be a chance to see loanee Moise Kean in action, and any slip-ups by Napoli against Crotone means the Bianconeri will reclaim the league lead.
After that, the Coppa Italia resumes with a bonus Derby della Mole in the quarterfinal to begin the new year.
On a last note, from all of us here at BWRAO, we hope the remainder of your holiday season is both blessed and safe. Buon Natale, and happy holidays all. Fino alla fine.