Juventus’ social media people have been doing a really good job with the number/letter replacement hashtags over the last few years. There was “Hi5tory” for last year’s historic fifth consecutive title, and this year it looks like we’ll see “Le6end” if and when — there is no point tempting fate — the Bianconeri put an unprecedented sixth to bed.
On Wednesday night, Juve made another little bit of history. Until Paolo Tagliavento blew his whistle to end this year’s Coppa Italia final, no team had ever won the trophy three times in a row. How do we get a number into play here? The only thing I can come up with is to get a little Shakespearian with “Histori3,” but that just looks wrong.
Oh, well. They’re better at this than me. They’ll think of something.
Coming into the final on the back of a disappointing 3-1 loss to Roma in league play on Sunday, the hope was that the setback would shake Juve from a slumber that had seen them fail to win a domestic match since they destroyed Genoa 4-0 on April 23. Draws against Atalanta and Torino had preceded the Roma game, with focus clearly shifted to the Champions League as Massimiliano Allegri tried to rest key players in a team that, in its current form, doesn’t have all that much depth thanks to injuries.
He had to shuffle things around in midfield to deal with the absence of Sami Khedira, dealing with a hamstring injury, and Miralem Pjanic, who was suspended for yellow card accumulation. That led to a starting midfield of Claudio Marchisio and Tomas Rincon. Allegri returned to the hybrid 4-2-3-1/3-4-2-1 look that had confounded Monaco in the Champions League semifinals. The BBC made its return, while Norberto Neto took the net as is team policy in the Coppa. Marchisio and Rincon were flanked by Dani Alves and Alex Sandro, with Gonzalo Higuain, Paulo Dybala, and Mario Mandzukic up in the attack.
Lazio coach Simone Inzaghi had his own worries, as No. 1 goalkeeper Federico Marchetti missed out due to injury, forcing Thomas Strakosha to deputize. Marco Parolo passed a late fitness test, and left back Jordan Lukaku was also sidelined.
As the game started, it was clear that Lazio weren’t going to sit back. They pressed hard, and the pressure paid six minutes in when Alves lost the ball, springing Keita Balde Diao on a one-man run. The Senegal international skipped past Leonardo Bonucci and fired from a tight angle. The ball struck Andrea Barzagli’s hand, which was resting by his thigh, and bounced off the post.
Juve responded immediately to the early wake-up call, with Higuain testing Strakosha from distance. The shot went right at the Albanian, who met it with a powerful parry.
The early stages developed a pattern. Lazio would press and have a bit of possession before Juve would break on dangerous counterattacks. Juve’s counter is an underrated part of their game because they tend to dominate possession against weaker Serie A teams, but they can be lethal on the run, as Strakosha found out five minutes after he denied Higuain.
After receiving a short pass in midfield from Marchisio, Sandro dribbled forward and launched an early cross to the far post. It found Alves, who was alone in a wedge of space between Wallace and Senad Lulic. The Brazilian volleyed the ball into the ground, and it bounced over Strakosha into the goal.
Twelve minutes in, Juve had the lead.
It was an incredible goal, one that truly showed off the class of both of Juve’s stellar fullbacks. Watching them duel against Real Madrid’s duo could be really fun.
Another break two minutes after the opener nearly added to the lead. Higuain laid off for Dybala, whose drive was saved by a sprawling Strakosha. Moments after that he denied the Argentinian again. Alves easily closed on the rebound, and Higuain got ahead of Bastos to try to tap in his cross, but Strakosha somehow got his foot to it.
Lazio suffered a blow in the 20th minute when the injury Parolo had tried to shake pre-match made it impossible for him to continue, and he made way for Stefan Radu.
The counterattack continued to be Juve’s key weapon as he half wore on. A long clearance set Dybala charging down the left side, but he waited a tad too long to cross and a lung-busting run by Sergej Milinkovic-Savic saw the Serb block his shot out for a corner. Dybala’s delivery was flicked on by Sandro, and Bonucci lost Stefan de Vrij in the crowd to burst into space and side-foot the finish. Juve had the game by the throat after 25 minutes.
The best chances of the rest of the half fell to Lazio, who were now faced with the daunting task of trying to get back into the game against the world’s best defense. Former Juve prospect Ciro Immobile headed wide in the 33rd minute, and on the stroke of halftime Milinkovic-Savic’s powerful header from a corner went right at Neto, sending the teams into the break at 2-0.
When going into the half with a 2-0 lead, one tends to hope that the second half becomes boring, and for the most part it was. To their credit, though, Lazio did do their darndest to make the finish interesting.
A lot of that had to do with Felipe Anderson. Inzaghi inserted the Brazilian early, replacing Bastos only eight minutes into the half. Within a minute he had almost halved the deficit, firing an angled drive with literally his first touch that Neto turned wide with a fingertip save.
Three minutes later he turned provider, popping a cross to Immobile at the far post. The ball actually rattled between his head and Barzagli’s before spinning toward goal from point-blank range, where Neto, wrong-footed by the ricochet, was somehow able to claw it away from the goal line.
Juve did have their chances in the second period. Rincon got himself some space from long range, but never came close to the target. The ball will likely be found orbiting Jupiter by NASA’s next mission to the planet.
More threatening chances fell to Higuain, who seemed to lose a bit of steam as the game progressed. In the 62nd minute Dybala finished a mazy dribble by putting the ball across the face of goal, but his compatriot hadn’t caught up and he was a good two yards behind the play. A minute later he was fed by Dani Alves after a steal but took far too long to decide what to do as he charged forward and was eventually dispossessed. Ten minutes after that he got to the byline and put the ball across the goal, but his teammates were still a good deal behind and the cross went to no one.
As these missed opportunities ticked by Inzaghi was forced into another change. De Vrij injured himself after successfully throwing himself at Dybala to prevent him from taking a close-range shot, and was replaced by attacking midfielder Luis Alberto with 21 minutes to go. Before long the young Spaniard tested Neto, but fired it right at him.
Lazio found themselves in shooting positions more and more as the game marched toward its conclusion. Juve seemed to lose a bit of focus, and Immobile, Keita, and Lucas Biglia all putting shots on goal, though all were either blocked or off target.
Higuain was given another chance to put the game on ice with two minutes to go when he was fed by Alves, but Strakosha again got a foot too the ball, keeping the thread his team was hanging by together.
But try as they might, Lazio could never get close. After three uneventful moments of stoppage time, the celebrations began and Giorgio Chiellini, as captain for the night, got to hoist the Coppa for the third time in as many years.
Norberto Neto - 8. Easily his best game of the season. Barring injuries he’ll never play a meaningful game outside the Coppa, but having someone who can play the way he did today is useful in reserve. The saves on Anderson and Immobile were truly impressive.
Andrea Barzagli - 7.5. An unexpectedly dominant performance by il Muro. He tends to struggle with pacy players these days but kept up with Keita all night and outthought his opponents, always ending up in a place to disrupt the attack.
Leonardo Bonucci - 8. Dude comes up with big goals in big games. His work in the back was solid as always and he threw in a few of his patented long balls, completing seven of eight, according to WhoScored.com.
Giorgio Chiellini - 8. Immense in the back. Racked up nine clearances and blocked a pair of shots. After a rough start to the season he’s back to his old dominant ways.
Dani Alves - 9. What an amazing goal. He didn’t stop there, giving Lazio fits down the attacking right all night long, making four key passes and making a couple of defenders look silly while not shirking his defensive work.
Tomas Rincon - 6.5. Didn’t make any huge mistakes but wasn’t an especially major player either. Held his position well and allowed Marchisio the freedom to pull the strings.
Claudio Marchisio - 7. He doesn’t command the midfield the way Andrea Pirlo used to, but his brand of regista play, while different, is no less valid. Completed 93.9 percent of his passes and fed the forwards on their breaks.
Alex Sandro - 9. Recorded both assists with an early cross and a flick-on on a corner kick. Had three key passes and completed a team-high 95.7 percent overall, along with two tackles and three interceptions.
Paulo Dybala - 7.5. Cut through the defense with a couple of great runs and was denied a few times by Strakosha. His speed was instrumental in spurring the counter early.
Mario Mandzukic - 7.5. Industrious down the left side. Got back to defend as usual and provided a target for long outlets.
Gonzalo Higuain - 6.5. Denied by a string of excellent Strakosha saves. His rating gets dragged down just a bit for two reasons: 1) his holdup play was spotty, especially in the first half, and 2) he simply takes way too long to make up his mind when he is moving with the ball at his feet. Looked a bit behind play as the game dragged on.
Mario Lemina - NR. On to give Dybala a rest, helped see the game out from midfield.
Max Allegri: 6.5. Pushing Alves forward and playing Barzagli on the right in a hybrid 4-2-3-1/3-4-2-1 has paid some major dividends, which we’ll get to in a moment. This rating is a little lower than some might expect because of Allegri’s substitutions — or rather lack thereof. Lemina relieved Dybala, but no one else came on, and given the fixture congestion and the state of the team’s depth, that was surprising, especially in the case of Higuain, who visibly flagged as the game wore on. The striker has played 52 matches this year, all but six of them as a starter. Marchisio is still getting to full fitness after last year’s knee injury and had taken a nasty knock in the 51st minute. Some of these guys should not have been playing 90 minutes.
I’ve said before that one of Allegri’s hallmarks is the use of hybrid formations that morph and change as the situation dictates. The most obvious example was seen in the Champions League group stage last season, when Andrea Barzagli was played on the right in a 3-5-2/4-3-3. Even the “Five Star” system turns itself into a 4-4-2 when Juve are defending for extended periods.
Placing Barza on the right is the fuel behind this new 4-2-3-1/3-4-2-1 look that Allegri has been giving us since the start of the Champions League semifinal tie with Monaco. In possession, he drifts wide as a full-back to allow Dani Alves to take up the right wing position. When the ball is lost Alves returns home and Barzagli returns to the familiar BBC back line with Alves and Sandro acting as wing backs.
These new tactics help Barzagli overcome his problems with pacy players, and allows Alves to have more free reign in attack. That’s a big deal, because he’s much better at breaking down an opponent from a standstill than Juan Cuadrado, who is more suited to breaking away on the counter.
It’s another innovation from Allegri. It now remains to be seen whether he’ll use this hybrid lineup against Real Madrid on June 3 or if he’ll revert to the more traditional “Five Star” lineup in a straight 4-2-3-1.
The Coppa is now done. The next objective is the scudetto. Juve will win their record sixth consecutive title with a victory in either of their next two games — provided Napoli and Roma don’t oblige them by dropping points before Sunday’s match against Crotone kicks off.
Crotone won’t be a pushover. Once thought certain to go down, Davide Nicola’s team hasn’t lost since March and have a W-D-L record of 5-2-0 in their last seven matches, including a win over Inter and a draw against AC Milan. They’re still in the drop zone, but are only a point behind Empoli and two behind Genoa. There are few opponents more dangerous than a provinciale with a purpose.
That said, they’ll be heading to the J-Stadium to face a team that has a mission of their own. After the Roma loss, Angry Juve has shown up. I like Angry Juve, and if it stays around for the weekend, the Sharks will be in for a long day.
Here’s hoping that trophy two will be in the bag by lunch.