On Wednesday, Juventus celebrated their fourth consecutive Coppa Italia win at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome. Five days after obliterating AC Milan, the Bianconeri returned to the Eternal City for the penultimate match of the season against AS Roma. There was no neutral ground this time, but there was still the chance to celebrate.
The task couldn’t have been clearer. A single point would clinch a seventh consecutive Scudetto and turn the final game of the season, against already-relegated Hellas Verona, into one big party at the Allianz Stadium.
For those hoping for Juve to bang in a few goals and win the title in style were likely disappointed. But when referee Paolo Tagliavento blew his whistle at the end of the drab, goalless draw, Juventus had done what was needed, and the celebrations could begin.
When the lineups were released an hour before kickoff, fans were likely subjected to a bit of a surprise. The 4-2-3-1 formation has largely gone by the wayside in the second half of the year, but Massimiliano Allegri revived it for this tilt in Rome. Wojciech Szczesny was given the start in goal against his old team to give Gianluigi Buffon some rest after the Coppa. Arrayed in front of him in defense were Mattia De Sciglio, who was making his return from a foot injury, Daniele Rugani, Andrea Barzagli, and Alex Sandro. Miralem Pjanic and Sami Khedira were scheduled to form the double pivot in midfield, but Khedira suffered a muscle injury late in training, and he was scratched in place of Blaise Matuidi. Federico Bernardeschi made his first start since his return from injury on the right wing, with Mario Mandzukic on the left and Paulo Dybala in the hole behind Gonzalo Higuain.
Eusebio Di Francesco set up his Roma side in his first-choice 4-3-3. Alisson manned the net, with Alessandro Florenzi, Federico Fazio, Juan Jesus, and Aleksandar Kolarov in front of him. Radja Nainggolan Daniele De Rossi, and Lorenzo Pellegrini manned the middle, while Cengiz Under and Stephan El Shaarawy bookended Edin Dzeko up front.
The game started with Roma taking over possession and probing the Juve back line for weaknesses. They couldn’t find any themselves, but were presented with an opportunity on eight minutes when an under-hit pass from Rugani was pinched away from Matuidi by Pellegrini. The midfielder sped into the box but found Barzagli blocking his path, so he unselfishly dished the ball to Dzeko. The Bosnian settled and got himself a window past the recovering Rugani, but fired high and wide.
Two minutes later Roma was again presented with a short field when an inattentive Pjanic had his pocket picked by Nainggolan. Unlike Pellegrini, the Belgian was a bit more selfish and took the shot himself, missing the target by a large margin.
A minute after that Juve had their first opportunity. De Sciglio was the provider, slipping a ball into the channel for Higuain, but the Argentine’s angled shot was blocked by Juan Jesus. Higuain turned provider in the 15th minute, springing Dybala with a good ball over the top, but Alisson came off his line and punched clear before the No. 10 could latch on.
Regardless of those forays, the traffic tended to head in the direction of Juve’s goal. The Giallorossi pushed forward, and when Juve did have possession they often found themselves backtracking, including one amusing moment when De Sciglio hit a Rabona back to Szczesny. When the passes did go forward, they tended to be inaccurate or overhit.
And on occasion, they found the guys in the red shirts instead of the black-and-white ones. In the 26th minute an inaccurate ball triggered a counterattack that ended when Under’s shot was blocked by Rugani’s outstretched foot. Roma recovered the ball and ended up finding Pellegrini in the left channel, but his attempt to stroke it into the far corner missed. Two minutes later Pjanic tried to pass the ball back to Sandro but mishit it terribly, gifting the ball to Under. Barzagli managed to disrupt the Turk’s charge enough to make him back the ball off, and De Rossi’s cross nestled safely into the hands of Szczesny.
Juve finally had a shot get past the defense in the 34th minute when Dybala again got through the lines and latched on to an excellent long ball from Sandro. Two defenders closed in, forcing him to let fly early, and the shot skittered over the grass wide of the post. Four minutes later, Bernardeschi got in on the act, cutting almost two-thirds of the way across the field before firing a good-looking shot that, again, ended up being blocked, this time by Fazio.
The visitors got forward a bit more in the final phase of the half, and with four minutes left Higuain got himself into a good position at the top of the box, but dribbled too much and was dispossessed at the top of the box. The ball zoomed down the field, and the attack ended with Barzagli blocking a Pellegrini shot. On the ensuing corner the ball was popped into the air and eventually attacked by Fazio, whose tame header right into the arms of the keeper was the first shot on target for either team.
Nainggolan crushed Bernardeschi with a clean tackle in the 43rd minute, and Sandro was booked for hauling down Under on the counterattack. The free kick was well on the right wing, but Kolarov tried to put it on goal, missing by a comfortable margin into the side netting.
The second half nearly started with a bang, as Dybala slammed another ball over the top from Sandro into the net, only to be pulled back by a close offside call.
That spark didn’t last too long. Pjanic continued to misfire, missing Mandzukic by some margin on a diagonal ball. Under powered forward, and Barzagli, shockingly, managed to keep up with him, but was called for a foul on the wing, but Florenzi’s delivery on the free kick went over everyone. Ten minutes into the period Bernardeschi made a great interception and pushed forward. He picked out a great pass to Higuain that was poked away at the last second by a sliding De Rossi. Szczesny was then called into action when Roma slipped a ball through the lines, and he slid in to clear it out.
The determining factor of the game came just after the hour mark when Nainggolan was booked for pulling back Sandro. After five minutes, during which Pjanic blocked a Dzeko shot and Pellegrini put another tame header into Szczesny’s hands, the Belgium international took leave of his senses and slid into Dybala from behind, a dangerous challenge that could easily have injured him and earned him a very deserved second yellow card.
With Roma down to 10 men, the point Juve needed was all but assured. Higuain had another shot blocked after taking an extra touch at the top of the box, and Dybala should have had a penalty five minutes from time when Jesus simply bowled him over without giving much thought to the ball.
Uneventful as the game was, Tagliavento added only two minutes of stoppage time. Those 120 seconds proved uneventful, and at the final blast of the whistle Juve had defended their title yet again.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 6. A pretty uneventful night for the Pole. Roma got into some decent positions but couldn’t find the target with anything venomous. Only had to make two simple saves the entire night.
MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - 6. A decent first game back from a long injury layoff, he had two key passes to go along with a tackle and two interceptions.
DANIELE RUGANI - 6. Started the game a little shaky but grew into it and ended up leading the team with five clearances. Got his nose a little dirtier than normal, and tied for the team lead with three tackles.
ANDREA BARZAGLI - 6.5. Looked pretty spry for his age, twice chasing down the 20-year-old Under on the left flank. Also got a little more physical than he normally does.
ALEX SANDRO - 7. One of his better games this year, it’s a shame it came in such a drab contest. He registered two key passes, three tackles, and a team-leading four interceptions, and often bottling up Under when they faced each other up.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 4. Horrible game. Made at least three giveaways that turned into fairly dangerous counters. He’s really fallen off as the season has come to a close. Did contribute well defensively with three interceptions.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 6. Efficient passing and patrolled the midfield well enough, but didn’t really do anything incisive. But given how badly Roma won the midfield battle for the most part, the lack of his physicality could have made things worse.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 5.5. A little shaky in possession at times, but he tracked back to defend well.
PAULO DYBALA - 6. Drew the foul that took Nainggolan out of the game, and generally looked threatening. Ran through the lines well and did well as a dribbler as well. As he did on Wednedsay, he looked much more engaged.
MARIO MANDZUKIC - 5. Didn’t really get much service from the right side, and didn’t make the usual defensive contribution either.
DOUGLAS COSTA - 6.5. Picked up two key passes in 25 minutes. His speed gave Roma some problems, but it was practically a biscotto by the time he came on.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - NR. Made a really great skip through the midfield on a late counter. Continues to impress in limited time. Can’t wait to see what he does next year.
This is the kind of game that happens when Allegri simply decides to do the bare minimum of what is required and nothing more. There was very little in the way of team passing moves, and it was clear that Allegri was trying to conserve some of the team’s energy after Wednesday’s game.
It’s strange. At this time last year, Allegri’s teams were going for opponents’ throats week in and week out, but this year we just haven’t seen that. The reaction to scoring a goal was to drop back and cling to a lead—the opposite of what Allegri discovered needed to be done in European times that culminated with the introduction of the “Five Star” formation.
Unfortunately, that 4-2-3-1 doesn’t have the same effect it had last year. Juve tends to get overwhelmed in midfield when playing a double pivot, something that didn’t happen last year in that shape. If Allegri stays this summer, he’s going to have to reverse that trend and punch up the attacking attitude again. Otherwise, the ultimate goal — the Cup With the Big Ears — will remain elusive.
The title is no longer in the air. It is mathematically certain. Juve’s seven straight titles are tied for the second-longest active streak in Europe (BATE Borisov in Belarus has won their league 12 straight times). They do tie Olympique Lyon for the record for consecutive titles in the Big Five (Italy, France, England, Spain, and Germany).
Next week’s game against Verona — currently scheduled for Sunday but likely to be moved to Saturday — is going to be one big Scudetto celebration. It may be a bittersweet moment, though, as it’s also probably going to be the last game in Gianluigi Buffon’s storied Juventus career.
I will not cry.
Oh who the heck am I kidding...
Here’s to seeing that trophy lifted up again. And to breaking Lyon’s record in a year’s time.