Sunday night’s Supercoppa Italiana was certainly a roller coaster ride. Ten minutes in, it looked like Juventus was going to rise out of an iffy preseason and smash Lazio’s face in. For most of the next 80, we were wondering just what was had gone so terribly wrong.
Then for a fleeting moment, everything went right. In his first game wearing Juve’s iconic No. 10 shirt, Paulo Dybala pumped in two goals in the final five minutes of the match, seemingly securing extra time and proving once again that you can never count this Juventus team out of a domestic match.
Then Mattia De Sciglio happened. I haven’t seen a whiff that bad since Greg Maddux was in his heyday with the Atlanta Braves.
Depressing as the last-second defeat was, it came in a game that, in the long run of things, didn’t mean a whole heck of a lot. At least not when compared with what’s coming.
Massimiliano Allegri, as we’ll get to in a bit, has to bear the majority of the responsibility for this loss. His starting lieup was, at first glance, perplexing. Playing Medhi Benatia next to Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli at right back raised an eyebrow. So too did the exclusion of Claudio Marchisio, who so thoroughly outplayed Sami Khedira in preseason. One also wondered why Juan Cuadrado was starting in the stead of newcomers Douglas Costa and Federico Bernardeschi, both of whom were bought as upgrades to the Colombian on the wing.
Of course, for the first 10 minutes of the game, it looked like it wouldn’t matter how many people were doing their best Spock eyebrows at the team sheet. Three minutes in, Alex Sandro was sent slashing down the left side. He put in a fantastic low cross that was met by Cuadrado. It was the first of many letdowns for Cuadrado on the day. He met the ball for a first-time shot and had Lazio keeper Thomas Strakosha going the other way, but somehow managed to hit the Albanian in the leg — and let’s be real here, he was not flailing back for it, the ball hit him, not the other way around.
That passage of play turned into three consecutive corners, the first two of which saw Strakosha called into action again. The first, a short play, saw an angled drive from Dybala beaten away. Then Gonzalo Higuain got in on the act, pouncing on a second ball and firing a bouncing shot that the keeper again had to scramble to.
But from the moment Lazio broke that initial wave of pressure, Juve was never able to re-establish themselves in the attacking half. Players were dispossessed, passes were scattered to the winds, and Lazio settled in. By the 18th minute, when Benatia blocked an attempted bicycle kick with his face, it was clear that the momentum had turned.
It was about a minute after that sequence that it started becoming clear that Cuadrado needed to be removed as fast as possible. He was overpowered by Senad Lulic, who sent Lazio on a dangerous counter down the right side. It was broken up, but Cuadrado had firmly established himself as a liability.
Chiellini made a few important defensive interventions as the half wore on, but in the 31st minute, Juve finally paid the price for his failure. He allowed himself to be dispossessed again, and the resulting counterattack sent Ciro Immobile careening downfield. Gianluigi Buffon came to meet him, but was never going to gain the ball. He clattered into the former Juve youth player, earning Immobile a penalty and himself a yellow card. Immobile came up to take the penalty himself, sending a low shot that was perfectly angled to beat Buffon, who had correctly guessed that his young Italy teammate would take the shot to his right. 1-0 Lazio.
Two minutes later it could have been all but over, but Buffon redeemed himself by pulling of a sensational double save, winning a 1-on-1 matchup with a free-running Dusan Basta before resetting and tipping Lucas Leiva’s follow-up over the bar.
Juve, meanwhile, was totally unable to formulate any offense of their own. Cuadrado gave the ball away a few more times, and even when Juve recovered quickly from those, players were isolated by Lazio’s pressure and forced into giving the ball away. By halftime, even Dybala was passing the ball to no one in particular.
As the teams arrived on the field for the second half, it was upsetting to see that Allegri had not seen fit to change anything. Cuadrado was imploding and Barzagli was having problems with pace out wide, but apparently Max was going to give it another go.
Unsurprisingly, the second period started much the same as the first ended — with Juve, and Cuadrado in particular, giving the ball away left and right. It also didn’t help when the winger was shoved to the ground without any call from referee Davide Massa, while barely a minute later Mario Mandzukic was called for a foul that didn’t actually happen and was booked for dissent.
Ten minutes into the half Marco Parolo, who until then had literally made a friend sitting next to me forget he was in the starting lineup, put a fantastic cross into the Juve box. Benatia was caught ball-watching — surprise, surprise... — and Immobile easily jumped in front of Barzagli to power home his second goal. It was 2-0 to Lazio, and Juve was showing no signs of being able to turn things around.
Allegri finally cut the cord on Cuadrado and Benatia two minutes later, sending on Costa in a straight swap on the wing and De Sciglio to take over at right-back while Barzagli moved into the center.
Things improved from there. De Sciglio’s first action was to float in a cross, and while his high crosses are notoriously inaccurate, his first one was put into a fairly dangerous spot that Lazio couldn’t completely clear, but Chiellini’s shot on the follow-up went tamely into Strakosha’s hands.
On the hour Immobile nearly had a hat-trick handed to him after a miscommunication in the back left the ball in open space in the box, but Buffon sprang out and beat him to the ball.
Costa proved a shot in the arm. He cut inside hard and forced the Lazio players to react to him. In the 68th minute he slipped inside and unleashed a hard shot that unfortunately went right at Strakosha, but considering the fact that that was the most dangerous shot the Lazio keeper had seen in about 65 minutes of game time, it was a clear improvement. A few minutes later he curled in a beautiful ball to the far post that really should have made it game on, but Higuain, who after his one shot in the opening minutes had managed to do just shy of nothing, couldn’t manage to get on the end of it.
Federico Bernardeschi made his competitive debut for Juve with 18 minutes remaining, but frustration was setting in, and Miralem Pjanic, saw yellow for an off-ball shove a minute later. Buffon again kept his team in it by saving an absolute screamer from Luis Alberto, but there just didn’t seem to be any light at the end of the tunnel.
That changed with five minutes of normal time remaining. After earning a free kick and getting Parolo booked in the process, Dybala took over free kick duties from Pjanic, who had been airmailing his efforts up to that point, and put a wicked curve into his shot, bending it inside of the post and around Strakosha’s hand at the same time to set up a grandstand finish.
Juve pressed hard into Lazio’s penalty area but couldn’t come up with a killer ball. Then Sandro burst into the box and was tripped by Adam Marusic. It was a clear penalty, and as the game lapsed into stoppage time Dybala sent Strakosha the wrong way, improbably tying the game.
Had Juve gotten to the full time whistle level, it wouldn’t have been hard to see them winning in extra time. That kind of comeback is enough to take the light out of a team’s eyes. But Lazio got lucky when substitute Jordan Lukaku’s normal-looking run down the attacking left became very dangerous indeed when De Sciglio went for a sliding tackle and missed. Missed the ball, missed the man, missed absolutely everything. Free to pick a spot at his leisure, the Belgian found a pocket of space for 21-year-old academy product Alessandro Muriga to fire past a stranded Buffon as Bernardeschi desperately tried to get back in time.
Massa let play go on an extra minute beyond the minimum after Lazio’s celebrations, but there was no more magic in those desperate seconds. The whistle sounded, and the first match of the year ended in a deserved defeat.
Gianluigi Buffon - 6. You can’t get too upset over his conceding the penalty — he had been completely stranded and few options. He more than made up for it as the game wore on, making a bunch of saves that kept Juve in some kind of striking distance. His double stop on Basta and Leiva was remarkable, although he makes that kind of stop so often that for a Juventino it almost seems a matter of routine.
Andrea Barzagli - 5.5. He just doesn’t belong on the flank anymore, period. He can’t deal with pacy players at his age. Much better once he moved inside after the introduction of De Sciglio.
Giorgio Chiellini - 6. Struggled to mesh with Benatia, but knowing the Moroccan that might not his fault. Still made a couple of good defensive interventions and did his best to push forward as the clock ticked down.
Medhi Benatia - 4. The king of mistakes is back! Just as I was thinking that he had had a fairly strong game to that point, he throws it all away by ball watching. That was a totally preventable goal.
Alex Sandro - 6. Shackled offensively as the game went on, but that early burst was a thing of beauty and he did well to earn the equalizing penalty. One of the few players that can really hold his head high tonight.
Sami Khedira - 4. Did absolutely nothing. The decline in his level of play from this time last year to this is stunning.
Miralem Pjanic - 4.5. A wee bit better than Khedira, but not by much. His free kick deliveries were atrocious.
Juan Cuadrado - 3. It was harder to miss that early chance than it was to score. You wonder if that killed his confidence, because his play after that was totally indifferent. Gave the ball away whenever it came close to him and went down far too easy.
Paulo Dybala - 7. Not a bad way to start off your tenure as the No. 10. He didn’t respond to Lazio’s pressure in the best of ways, but made a couple of good dribbles, earned some free kicks, and came up big when it counted to tie the score. All three of his shots hit the target, and he made two key passes as well.
Mario Mandzukic - 4. I usually rank Mario quite highly even if he has a below-average offensive day because of his defensive contributions, but even that was limited for the most part today. Definitely not his best.
Gonzalo Higuain - 4. He got little service, yes, but when he did get the ball he usually made the wrong decisions with it. One particular incident early in the second half saw him blindly cross the ball when he was pushed out wide when there wasn’t any support in the middle. Needs to come up bigger in high-stakes games.
Douglas Costa - 7. Totally changed the game on being introduced. Stretched the Lazio defense the way Cuadrado was supposed to and made a couple of really great crosses.
Mattia De Sciglio - 4.5. Crossing was wayward. He did make the back four more balanced against pace—until that whiff. I still can’t believe I saw that.
Federico Bernardeschi - 5.5. Didn’t really do a whole lot in attack. Culpability in marking Murgia on the winning goal is debatable—he likely wouldn’t have been in that position at all if De Sciglio had done his job.
Mx Allegri - 3. The starting XI was atrocious. He had two fully fit right backs to choose from and decided to use Barzagli out of position instead. Two years ago he would have been able to manage, but not now. Heck, he’d been having issues with dealing with pace far longer than that. Most of Lazio’s most dangerous attacks came down that side in the first half, including the one that earned the penalty (although that was Cuadrado’s fault).
Speaking of Cuadrado, he simply should not be starting anymore. Bernardeschi and Costa were brought in as upgrades on the wing. Both are better players than him at this point. He can’t be the starter anymore.
The same can be said of Benatia. The only acceptable reason for Daniele Rugani riding the bench right now is if he still isn’t back to full fitness after his extended break following the U-21 Euros. If Benatia is starting over a healthy and fit Rugani by the middle of September, then questions need to start being asked.
Beyond the choices for the starters, Allegri also changed things far too late. Cuadrado should have been off at halftime.
The biggest strike, though, comes in the form of Marchisio. Why il Principino didn’t play AT ALL is beyond comprehension. He he outplayed Khedira during preseason by a significant margin, and with the midfield being overrun Marchisio’s passing ability and experience could have been decisive in turning the tide against Lazio’s press. He should have been starting this game, but the fact that he didn’t even make an appearance is unconscionable.
It’s weird to see Juventus struggling against teams that press them. Three seasons ago Juve disposed of one of the most significant pressing teams in recent times in Jurgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund. Yes, that BVB team wasn’t at it’s 2010-12 prime, but they still slipped that press with relative ease.
It’s concerning, then to see Juve’s midfield fold so badly in the face of the press. This isn’t a case of buying a player to give the midfield more steel, this is a tactical issue. Lazio managed to strand players in possession far from any outlets to keep possession. That forced them into the bad passes and giveaways that because the story of this game.
For years, of course, Juve’s best weapon against the press was a long ball over the top by Leonardo Bonucci, but that option is no longer available. It’s going to take Allegri’s tactical skill to come up with an alternative option.
Other teams in Serie A are going to take this game as a blueprint for how to cause the bianconeri maximum trouble. Allegri is going to have to work out how to get support to the player on the ball so that they won’t be harried into the kind of performance we saw today. If he can’t figure it out, it could be a long season.
At the end of the day, the Supercoppa isn’t the be-all and end-all of the world. Next week’s game against Cagliari means a lot more. If things go well, this won’t even be a footnote in the story of the season.
But Allegri needs to learn the lessons of today. It will take time for the back line to adjust without Bonucci, but it looks like the new players up front are settling in nicely, particularly Costa.
A loss like this can be instructive, but Allegri needs to learn those lessons quickly as league play approaches. The season starts in earnest in six days.