The celebrations are on hold.
Juventus arrived at the Stadio Olimpico for their first-vs.-second battle with Roma needing only a point to seal their record-setting sixth consecutive scudetto. It would certainly be sweet to clinch it on the home turf of their most direct rival, but it wouldn’t be easy.
Luciano Spalletti’s men were riding the high of a dominant 4-1 victory over AC Milan, and Juve’s Champions League triumphs of recent weeks had papered over the fact that they had only managed draws in their last two games, against Atalanta and Tornio. By the end of the match, form held, and Roma’s 3-1 comeback win would put off the title party for at least another week.
Injuries played a part for both sides as kickoff time neared. Juve were without Sami Khedira after the German suffered a hamstring injury early in Tuesday’s game against Monaco, and Claudio Marchisio wasn’t deemed fit to start. Add in long-term absentees Marko Pjaca and Daniele Rugani, and it would certainly be difficult for Massimiliano Allegri to rotate and keep the team’s quality high.
As it was, Allegri formed the team into a 4-3-3, with Miralem Pjanic playing regista by default between Mario Lemina and Stefano Sturaro while Juan Cuadrado and Mario Mandzukic flanked Gonzalo Higuain in attack. Medhi Benatia deputized for Giorgio Chiellini while both fullbacks were rotated.
Spalletti, who was missing star striker Edin Dzeko, went with a hybrid 4-3-3/4-2-3-1, with Diego Perotti leading the line beside Stephan El Shaarawy and Mohammed Salah. Radja Nainggolan was tucked in behind Perotti, while Daniele De Rossi and Leandro Paredes completed the midfield.
As the game kicked off there were signs both good and bad. Lemina pressed hard from the first whistle, an indication that Juve would be coming in with energy and not look to sit back and hold Roma, a la the 1-1 draw with Napoli in early April. But the capital club managed a quick break when Salah was allowed to get down the defensive right. The run was eventually dealt with, but a corner a minute later produced a goalmouth scramble that saw Benatia block a shot and Stephan Lichtsteiner finally clear the ball out.
It wasn’t long, though, before Juve started asserting themselves. By the fifth minute or so they had taken the front foot, and Stephan Lichtsteiner lofted in a dangerous cross that Antonio Rudiger had to tap behind for a corner. That corner produced a similar scramble in front of goal. Mandzukic dribbled forever in the six yard box but no space opened up for a shot. Roma managed to get the ball off him, but it rolled to Kwadwo Asamoah at the edge of the penalty area. Given all day to set up, the Ghana international drove a powerful left-footed shot that slammed off of Wojciech Szczesny’s near post.
After Higuain ballooned a shot into the curva after a one-two pass with Mandzukic, it was Roma’s turn to threaten, as he came close to knocking the ball in after getting behind the defense on a long free kick delivery. The end result was a pair of Roma corners, but the defense held, and then, with the game poised at 50/50, Juve struck.
In the 21st minute, Sturaro skipped into some space and delivered a feathery pass into the box. Higuain one-timed it into the path of Lemina, whose simple tap-in gave Juve a 1-0 lead and, it seemed at the time, a clear path to the title.
But it didn’t last long. Four minutes, to be exact.
Roma hadn’t been producing much of a threat from open play, but from set pieces had created some danger. In the 25th minute, a corner from Paredes found Kostas Manolas. The Greek’s header was denied by Buffon, but De Rossi was there for the rebound. That effort was clawed away by Buffon, but De Rossi’s persistence paid off and he finally managed to fire it into the net.
The fault for the goal was two-fold: First Benatia, who didn’t even jump to take on Manolas, and then for Higuain, who was ball-watching and didn’t prevent De Rossi from pouncing on the rebound.
The rest of the half didn’t see much in the way of true chances. Five minutes from the break Mandzukic backheeled the ball to Sturaro, who cut inside and found Cuadrado on the other end of the box. The Colombian then took the wrong option, playing the ball short to Lemina rather than putting it across. Lemina had to recover to control it, and by the time he did was presented with a tight angle for his shot, which was deflected out for a corner. Salah got behind the defense but was only able to put a soft header right at Buffon, then El Shaarawy fired a bouncer at the keeper from long range. Cuadrado put a cross just over Sturaro’s head with the last meaningful act of the half, but Mandzukic could only pound the followup all the way out for a throw.
It looked like a fairly evenly matched game going into the break, and both teams seemed capable of scoring more.
Within five minutes of the second period starting, things started getting ugly. Two Roma players, Federico Fazio and De Rossi, were booked, and Nainggolan should have been. Neither side put together a credible scoring chance in the early phases, and it looked like we would be watching Juve see out an ill-tempered 1-1. Then a mistake.
In the 56th minute, El Shaarawy received a pass from Nainggolan at the top left side of the penalty area. He made himself a tiny bit of space and fired a curling grass-cutter. Buffon didn’t go for it, and turned to watch it skitter off the inside of the post and in to put Roma in the lead.
You don’t see Buffon dive willy-nilly for every shot anymore. He’s far too experienced for that. His judgement of shots in situations like this is usually impeccable, but this time, perhaps because the shot was simply that deceptive or perhaps because he was screened by a few of his defenders, he simply misjudged it.
Allegri responded quickly, replacing Lichtsteiner with Dani Alves to get some more attacking punch down the right. Alves immediately made his impact felt regaining possession before referee Luca Banti shut down what could have been a promising move by whistling Higuain for a foul. A minute later the job became a lot bigger.
Salah received a pass from Nainggolan at the top of the box and was confronted by Bonucci. The defender had him pretty well squared up, but Benatia for some reason put his full attention on Salah — and not Nainggolan, who had continued his run and slipped easily behind the Moroccan to slam past Buffon.
Allegri introduced Paulo Dybala to try to put spur the game’s pace. A minute later he took a pass from Bonucci and charged through the channel but was never in complete control, and when he tumbled into the box Banti correctly kept his whistle in his hand.
The Argentinian almost put Juve back in it with 15 minutes left when Mandzukic put in a cross, but his diving attempt at a header flew just over the bar, then a few minutes later put a free kick into the wall.
Pjanic, who to this point had been fairly quiet in his return to the Olimpico, nearly gave Juve a lifeline with five minutes left when he dribbled through the box and squared it to Higuain, but the €90 million man couldn’t get his attempt past the first defender. A minute later it was Mandzukic again putting in a good cross, with Bonucci sneaking past the shoulder of Emerson but putting it just wide.
The game moved into stoppage time and Juve should have had a penalty when Paredes threw Dybala to the ground at the top of the box, but Banti kept quiet. Roma put on Francesco Totti for a short cameo, and Higuain had one last chance to beat Szczesny but had his shot beaten away in fairly routine manner. A few kicks later, it was over, and Juve would have to look to next week to claim the crown.
Gianluigi Buffon - 6. A rare error on El Sha’s goal, but fairly good otherwise. A double save still couldn’t prevent the first goal and on the third the defense never should have let Nainggolan through.
Stephan Lichtsteiner - 6. Not his best night, but put in a few dangerous-looking crosses, which is uncharacteristic for him. I couldn’t see much fault in the way he defended El Shaarawy on the second goal, the winger just managed to open up a tiny window.
Leonardo Bonucci - 6.5. Not a bad night but certainly not as imperious as he can be. Had to react to a lot of crosses as most of Roma’s attacks came through the wing.
Medhi Benatia - 3.5. I can’t believe Juve picked up his option. Every time he plays he has made some spectacular errors, and he bore the brunt of the responsibility for two of Roma’s three goals today. He didn’t even jump to challenge Manolas in the lead-up to the first goal and was focusing on the ball on the third when Bonucci clearly had himself in front of Salah. He should have picked up Nainggolan’s run. Almost let a clearance get blocked in the six-yard box not long after the goal as well, and had to be bailed out by Asamoah. If he plays in front of a healthy Daniele Rugani next year it will be a travesty.
Kwadwo Asamoah - 5.5. Had trouble with Roma’s pace and didn’t get forward enough to compliment Mandzukic on the left.
Mario Lemina - 6. Yes, the goal was simple, but he should be credited for making the run to get there. Faded badly as the game went on.
Miralem Pjanic - 5.5. Didn’t make a huge mark in his return to his old stomping grounds. Completed 88 percent of his passes, according to WhoScored.com but couldn’t create as much as the game wore on. Could have done more.
Stefano Sturaro - 6. Fans tend to reflexively skewer Sturaro when he’s on the field for dropped points, but those people need to check themselves. Stu was the least of the team’s problems. The pass that led to Lemina’s goal was stunning, and he ran hard all night.
Juan Cuadrado - 5. Cuadrado’s form has really dropped of late. His decision making remains poor, and he just didn’t do all that much on the right hand side today. The legions of his supporters need to realize that the team must upgrade on the right next season.
Gonzalo Higuain - 6. Excellent layoff on the assist, but never made Szczesny work hard with his shooting. He looks exhausted.
Mario Mandzukic - 6.5. Made a couple of excellent crosses late, but surprisingly lacking on the defensive end today. Wasn’t back to help as much as usual.
Dani Alves - 6. Put in a heck of an effort, but the third goal right after his introduction changed the game.
Paulo Dybala - 6. Too often isolated when he got the ball. His dribbles were often met with a wall of three or more red shirts.
Claudio Marchisio - NR. On too late to get a rating, but he brought a stability to the midfield that allowed the rest of the team to push up.
Max Allegri: 6. Injuries and the need for rest limited Allegri’s options, and there are already very few things he can do to change things in attack without Pjaca. Maybe if Moise Kean was healthy? It’s also possible that he over-rotated when it came to the fullbacks — both looked uncomfortable with the pace they were facing.
Injury problems and the need to rest players for the Coppa Italia final on Wednesday forced Allegri away from the “Five Star” lineup and into a 4-3-3. At the end of the day he had few options and put cobbled together a decent unit out of what was at his disposal.
The main concern was the full-backs. Both Lichtsteiner and Asamoah seemed to struggle with the pace they were confronted by. In this system Cuadrado and Mandzukic weren’t as able to support them defensively, and when isolated they weren’t able to handle it effectively.
He often takes too long to make his changes, but the fact that he moved quickly after Roma’s goals was to his credit. But at the end of the day his limited options were his downfall.
ONE WEEK MORE?
The party is on hold for at least another week. The focus now is on Wednesday’s Coppa final against Lazio. Simone Inzaghi’s men also rotated heavily in their loss to Fiorentina on Sunday, but they’ve been on form in the last few weeks.
Juve will be looking to make a little bit of history on Wednesday. No club has won the Coppa three straight times. The team will likely look more like itself, provided Mandzukic is OK after a concerning-looking back injury kept him off the field for several minutes in the game’s end stages.
Back in January, Lazio were the first team that confronted the “Five Star” lineup. Dybala and Higuain put the game to bed within 16 minutes, and saw out a 2-0 win. They didn’t lose in the league again until today—and this certainly wasn’t the system that has turned Juve into the monster it has been over the last five months.
The first trophy of the year is in the offing. After that, the scudetto comes back into focus in what one would think would be a straightforward home match against Crotone. But first things first: beat Lazio.