The title of “winter champions,” bestowed by the media on the team leading the Serie A standings after the first round of games is complete, is sometimes used as a pejorative by Juventus fans. Supporters of potential title challengers — coughNapolicough — are sometimes accused of making too much hay out of an honor that comes when there are 19 games still to be played.
But being winter champion isn’t an irrelevant thing. Since the 2003-04 season, the winter champion has failed to take home the Scudetto only twice. Coincidentally, both of those instances have come during Juventus’ seven-year title reign. In both cases the team the Bianconeri overtook was Napoli — once during the epic comeback of 2015-16 and again last year, hence the use of campioni d’inverno as a taunt toward that team the last few years.
With an eight-point lead and three games to go before the season’s second leg begins, Juventus went into Saturday’s game against Roma a win away from becoming winter champs for the sixth time in eight years. The prospects were good. Roma had come into the game in turmoil, entering the round in seventh place with coach Eusebio Di Francesco was under fire. They were also going to a venue that hadn’t been good to them at all: Since the Allianz Stadium opened in 2011, Roma has played eight games at the stadium and lost every one by a combined score of 20-3, although each of the last three meetings in Turin have been decided by 1-0 scores.
That 1-0 trend continued, as a first-half goal from Mario Mandzukic proved enough on a day when Roma goalkeeper Robin Olsen dug deep to keep Juve from making the scoreline far more convincing.
Massimiliano Allegri sent the team out in the 4-3-3 that he’s favored in the last few games. Wojciech Szczesny returned to the starting lineup after his night off against Torino last week. Arrayed in front of him were Mattia De Sciglio, Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini, and Alex Sandro. Rodrigo Bentancur was back in the starting XI after his yellow card suspension, and he rejoined Miralem Pjanic and Blaise Matuidi in midfield. Mandzukic formed the tip of the spear along with Paulo Dybala and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Di Francesco had to deal with some significant injuries. Most significantly, Edin Dzeko failed to make the starting lineup, although he was fit enough to make the matchday squad for the first time in a month, while Stephan El Shaarawy has been shelved entirely for a good month now. Di Francesco adjusted to those absences with a lineup that was probably best described as a 4-2-3-1. Olsen manned the goal with Davide Santon, Federico Fazio, Kostas Manolas, and Alexaandr Kolarov in front of him. Bryan Cristante and Steven Nzonzi made up the midfield, while Alessandro Florenzi, Nicolo Zaniolo, and Cengiz Under dropped in behind former Juve target Patrik Schick up front.
The first half was the Juventus show. The first opportunity came barely two minutes into the game when a Dybala free kick was met by Mandzukic at the far post, who put it back into the mix and just missed Bonucci’s head from point blank range.
Olsen was called into action for the first time in the eighth minute when a long-range shot from Bentancur was deflected into the path of Sandro, who suddenly found himself at point-blank range. He fired off a good shot but Olsen made an excellent reaction save to deny him.
Sandro seemed bent on celebrating his new contract extension with a goal because 10 minutes later he tested Olsen again from a tough angle on the left side, but the Swede was able to again beat the ball away. He was in another great position 60 seconds later after a layoff on a corner kick, but his powerful effort was blocked.
The siege continued. Roma barely ever got out of their own half. Bentancur was everywhere, recovering the ball and keeping the Giallorossi penned in. Olsen was again called into action in the 33rd minute when he denied Ronaldo with a diving save, but there was nothing he could do two minutes later.
Florenzi had beaten De Sciglio to a long ball and flicked it to Zaniolo, but Bentancur harassed the 19-year-old midfielder into coughing up the ball, and De Sciglio met it with a first-time cross that found Mandzukic at the back post, who headed it in off the bounce with authority. He was being marked by Santon, who had the misfortune of being the latest full-back to be completely overpowered by the big Croatian — this is how Mandzukic do.
Di Francesco needed to do something to get his team back into the game, and at halftime he made his move, bringing Justin Kluivert in for Florenzi. The young Dutchman’s presence wasn’t the only thing different about Roma. Things started getting a lot more physical, and referee Davide Massa didn’t react to the uptick in intensity particularly well. Nzonzi should have gotten a second yellow for pulling Dybala back on the run, but Massa played advantage and after Ronaldo missed, he declined to give the Frenchman another card. He similarly refused to do so when the midfielder grabbed Bentancur by the back of the neck and threw him in a scrum before a corner kick and when he again wrestled Dybala down while the Argentine charged forward, this time not even calling a foul at all.
This increase in intensity allowed Roma to flip the script for much of the second half in terms of possession, but they didn’t quite have enough to break the Juve defense. The Bianconeri got forward on the counter a few times, forcing Olsen into another set of fantastic saves on the hour mark, denying Ronaldo twice. They thought they finally had their second on 70 minutes, but Chiellini was whistled for a foul for impeding the goalkeeper as he bundled the ball over the line.
Roma pushed hard for their equalizer, and as the game wore on Mandzukic could be seen all over the defensive third to help out. For all their efforts, Di Francesco’s men couldn’t make much in the way of shooting opportunities. Their biggest opportunity came right at the death when Cristante met a free kick with his head. There wasn’t much power on the shot but it was excellently placed toward the far top corner, but Szczesny soared up not only to meet it but to catch it, preventing any possibility of a rebound.
Juve again thought they had the final nail in the coffin when substitute Douglas Costa tapped a Ronaldo cross home, but Massa ended up at the VAR screen going over a supposed foul in the buildup. Matuidi’s cleats did end up contacting the back of Zaniolo’s trailing foot as the youngster lost the ball, but it didn’t look like it had in any way impeded him — he didn’t even go to ground until he executed a halfhearted flop after the ball was already going the other way. But it was apparently enough for the referee to chalk off the goal. Fortunately that was the last true action in the game, and Massa finally blew his whistle two minutes later, confirming that Juve would be top of the table come the end of the andata.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 8. Made a couple of saves but wasn’t really made to work with the exception of his excellent stop on the Cristante header. A top-level performance against his old team.
MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - 8. Not only does he continue to be a rock in defense, now he’s throwing assists in the mix. He supplemented that assist with a pair of tackles, an interception, and two clearnaces. He’s making the most of this extended run, and is a viable starting option at either flank.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 6.5. Didn’t get troubled all that much by Roma’s defense, even under sustained attack in the second half. I did catch him ball-watching on Cristante’s header, although for once he wasn’t responsible for marking him.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 7. Blocked a pair of shots and led the team with five clearances and three interceptions. The usual high-level performance from the captain.
ALEX SANDRO - 8. Clearly he was determined to celebrate his new contract. Only a couple of fantastic saves by Olsen kept him off the scoresheet in the first half, and he also supplied two key passes. He didn’t just go on the attack — he made three tackles, two interceptions, and four clearances at the back. With his extension in hand, perhaps the lack of transfer rumors will see a real return to the Sandro of two years ago.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 8.5. He made eight tackles. Eight. Oh, and he was second to Chiellini in pass completion with a 91.7 percent rate, including two key passes. I think it’s time to start considering whether your No. 30 shirts are going to become collectors items, cause I can see him inheriting the No. 8 shirt soon.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 6. Had a pair of key passes but didn’t really take control of the game. He still looks like he needs to sit and rest for a game or two.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 6. He can look like he has two left feet in possession sometimes, and he had trouble controlling the ball today. He could have scored at the end of his first half but got tangled up in himself. Solid as ever defensively, though.
PAULO DYBALA - 7. Led the team with four key passes and did really well connecting the lines. No, he didn’t score, but he did a lot of other things. He did look a little wide for his own good (we’ll talk about that later), but this was one of his better games of the year. He’s settling into a role as a creator.
MARIO MANDZUKIC - 9. The goal was a typical big-game goal put away with ruthless efficiency. Then there he was in front of his own penalty area almost looking like another center-back. He was second on the team in tackles — as a center-forward. That’s commitment.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 6.5. Wasn’t the most efficient, and he lost possession a few times, but also was extremely unlucky to be denied by three absurd saves. I’d like to see him sit and rest a bit — he does look a tiny bit fatigued.
EMRE CAN - 6. Brought in to add a little physicality in the midfield after Roma upped the ante.
DOUGLAS COSTA - NR. Broke Roma’s possession a few times by simply blowing by them with his speed.
Earlier in the season, when Dybala, Ronaldo, and Mandzukic were on the field at the same time, Dybala would play as an out-and-out trequartista. But over the last few games it feels like he’s been out wide as more of a winger a bit more than he was before. I’m not sure how good that is yet. Saturday, obviously, he had a heck of a game, but it remains to be seen whether or not that position will be the best for him as opposed to being more central and allowed to roam.
Allegri did a good job setting the team up, particularly in the first half, but the second half again saw the team dropping back again. He did say in his post-match press conference that the team “should’ve done more” after taking the lead, but we’ve been saying that for the entire season and not much is changing. Chiellini concurred, but this has been going on for the better part of a season and a half now, and the team is still dropping in intensity after a lead is taken. Allegri has been talking about this for months now, but it’s his job to make sure there’s a change, and he hasn’t done that yet. Something has to be done here.
And on another note, Max, here’s your obligatory reminder that you do in fact have three subs to use in a game.
Only two more games left until the winter break. Juve travel to Bergamo on Wednesday for Serie A’s first-ever Boxing Day fixture against an Atalanta team that will be under-powered following a pair of red cards on Saturday. After that, a Saturday home date with Sampdoria will round out the first half of the season and lead us into the winter recess.