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Lazio pays the price for not putting Juve away

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Lazio completely dominated for more than an hour, but couldn’t put the wounded champions away — and got bit for it.

Photo by Daniele Badolato - Juventus FC/Juventus FC via Getty Images

Last year, the away game to Lazio seemed to be the decisive game in the Serie A season for Juventus. Juve went to the Stadio Olimpico on a March night and put on a tepid display against a team that had already beaten them twice that year. Lazio weren’t all that much better, but in the final moments of stoppage time Paulo Dybala, in an impressive and not-often-seen display of strength, held off Marco Parolo in the box and swung his left leg at the ball, poking it past the keeper and giving Juve a 1-0 win.

The late-game win heaped pressure on then-leaders Napoli, who lost 4-2 to Roma later that night, bringing Juve within striking distance of the lead, which they took the next week after they beat Udinese and Napoli was held to a scoreless draw against Inter. It was the win over Lazio that really made you think Juventus had the title in their grasp.

This year’s away matchup against the Biancoceleste came earlier in the season, and Juve wasn’t chasing anybody in the standings. But the rest of the circumstances were all eerily similar. Juve went into the Olimpico and, for the most part, played like flaming garbage. Lazio should have had them put away by halftime. Unlike last year, the Bianconeri actually fell behind, but Lazio showed exactly why they’re still not ready to stand with the biggest of the boys when they spurned chance after chance at killing the game off, and Juve managed to claw their way back, equalizing with 15 minutes to go and scoring the winner off a foolishly conceded penalty with just minutes to go. The 2-1 win took advantage of a scoreless draw by Napoli a day earlier, stretching Juve’s lead in the league to 11 points, and one couldn’t help but think that the Scudetto was now so firmly in their hands that the team’s other goals could start coming more to the fore.

Massimiliano Allegri had some injury problems to deal with. He was missing Sami Khedira and Miralem Pjanic in midfield. Andrea Barzagli was still a long-term absence at the back, and Medhi Benatia was prepping for his move to Qatar. Mario Mandzukic and Juan Cuadrado remained out as well, while Joao Cancelo was only fit for the bench. Allegri took a gamble by throwing all three of his healthy midfielders into a 4-3-3 formation. Wojciech Szczesny took up his usual spot in goal, with Mattia De Sciglio, Daniele Rugani, Leonardo Bonucci, and Alex Sandro in front of him. Emre Can started in front of the back four, with Blaise Matuidi and Rodrigo Bentancur flanking him. Dybala was moved from the wing/trequartista hybrid position that he’s been playing the last few months and deployed as a straight false 9, with Douglas Costa and Cristiano Ronaldo joining him up top.

Simone Inzaghi was also looking at a selection crisis. Francesco Acerbi and Adam Marusic were both suspended and Felipe Luiz was out injured. That forced Inzaghi to put some players out of position in a formation that was alternatively called a 3-1-4-2 or a 3-4-2-1. Lazio mainstay Thomas Strakosha took his usual place in goal, screened by Bastos, Wallace, and Stefan Radu. Parolo was the one forced into an unusual place on the right wing, and he and Senad Lulic bookended Lucas Leiva and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic in midfield. Luis Alberto and Joaquin Correa backed former Juve farmhand Ciro Immobile up front.

Lazio stamped their dominance on the game almost immediately, earning a pair of corners in the first three minutes. It took eight minutes for Juve to get their first ball into the Lazio box — a harmless effort from Alex Sandro that was easily claimed by Strakosha. Ten minutes in, Correa got himself into the box and completely juked Bonucci out of his shoes before putting a cross in that was beaten away by Rugani. Bonucci had been so fooled by the Argentine’s moves that he badly twisted his ankle, and spent several minutes on the ground and several more on the sideline. The ensuing corner saw Wallace rise for a completely free header only to pop it into the air, allowing Szczesny to come out and claim it.

Juve’s attempts to get back into the game were simply futile. Any move they attempted was stopped by either their own bad passing or, almost as often, was stuffed by Lucas Leiva, who had clearly eaten his Wheaties in the morning and ended up finishing the day with seven tackles.

SS Lazio v Juventus - Serie A Photo by Marco Rosi/Getty Images

Szczesny made his first real save with 20 minutes on the clock when he got down to stop a good 20-yard shot from Correa. A horrific giveaway by Can saw Luis Alberto the next man to get an opportunity for the shot, but the Pole was again up to the task, this time holding it and heaving it downfield to Costa, who flew down the middle of the field but didn’t look up once he got into the box and was dispossessed trying to go it alone.

Juve wanted a penalty against the run of play in the 36th minute, but Wallace had gotten a foot to it before it hit his hand, and referee Marco Guida waved play on. Less than 60 seconds later Szczesny had his finest in a string of excellent saves when Parolo somehow got into the box all alone and fired. Szczesny somehow got his left hand to it and pushed it away, while Immobile’s followup went wide.

Bonucci had been soldiering on since rolling his ankle, but by this point it was clear that he wouldn’t be able to continue, and Giorgio Chiellini, who had been warming up and on standby since Bonucci first was hurt, entered the game in his stead, kicking Rugani to the right side center back spot. The younger man was then on hand to bail the team out in a big way when Immobile flipped a ball past Szczesny, meeting the ball halfway to the goal and clearing an otherwise certain goal out for a corner.

The goal-line clearance was the last significant action of a half that, for the first time since Opta began keeping data in the 2004-05 season, passed without Juventus attempting a shot.

The second half started far more brightly, with Costa sending in a good early cross that nearly found Ronaldo, but he was well defended by Radu and wasn’t able to latch on to it.

As the second period progressed it began to look like Lazio was starting to feel it in their legs a little after such a high-energy first half. Alberto missed just wide on a loose ball four minutes in, and then Juve began to creep in and put a little bit of pressure on Inzaghi’s men. In the 52nd minute Wallace sliced a clearance attempt right into Ronaldo’s chest, but the forward couldn’t react in time to do anything with it. The Brazilian center back had to be alert a few minutes later, heading away a Costa cross that would have found Ronaldo at the back post with Juventus had it not been interdicted.

But just as there were signs that Juve was gaining some kind of foothold in the game, Lazio finally broke through — although not on their own. For all their dominance, it took a massive mistake from Can, whose plan to defend a corner kick in the 59th minute seemed to be put his head down and hope it doesn’t go towards his own net. That didn’t go well, and rather than clearing it he directed it right past a stranded Szczesny for an own goal.

SS Lazio v Juventus - Serie A Photo by Marco Rosi/Getty Images

Allegri reacted immediately, introducing Federico Bernardeschi for Matuidi and implementing a 4-2-3-1. But their deserved lead gave Lazio a fresh spring in their step, and they had multiple opportunities to put the game to bed in the next 10 minutes. The first was an absolutely shocking miss by Immobile, who had been slipped clean through by Correa and forced Szczesny to commit to going to ground early, only to completely miss the target. Alberto was the next man up. Bentancur initially gave him way too much room, but eventually closed in just enough to redirect the Spaniard’s shot just past the post. Then it was Milinkovic-Savic’s turn to turn one wide.

But with 20 minutes to go, Allegri made the move that eventually decided the game, replacing Costa with Cancelo and moving the Portuguese up into the right-wing spot. Four minutes later, Bernardeschi evaded Bastos with a wonderful burst of speed and laid off to Dybala, who fired a first-time shot. It was right at Strakosha but powerful enough to force him to spill it, and Cancelo angled in to get to the rebound, cooly sliding it through Radu’s legs and into the side of the net for his first goal as a Juventus player.

Cancelo nearly put Juve ahead with his next touch, but couldn’t quite control a lovely diagonal ball to the far post. The ball whizzed up and down the field, but started showing an affinity for the Lazio end of the field, and Inzaghi started making changes to inject some fresher legs into the game. But two minutes from time his efforts came to nought thanks to a silly foul from one of his most experienced players. Bernardeschi had burst down the left again and Cancelo was in the middle of the penalty area, looking to be in perfect position to attack any delivery. Radu reached out and yanked on Cancelo’s arm, spinning him to the ground. Bernardeschi’s bullet of a cross met nothing but air, but Marco Guida spotted the infraction and pointed to the spot. Ronaldo stepped up and made up for his miss a week earlier, sending Strakosha to the shooter’s left and slamming the ball high into the middle of the net to give Juve an improbable lead.

Things weren’t over yet, though. Cancelo should have sealed the deal a minute later when he was sent one-on-one with Strakosha, but instead of taking his shot he got altruistic and tried to set up Bernardeschi, who was running with him on the left but absolutely not expecting to be fed the ball. Then, with full time a whisker away, Rugani committed a foul 20 yards out and to the left side, giving Lazio one kick to equalize. It was taken by Milinkovic-Savic and was quite frankly terrible, flying high over the bar as Guida’s last whistle sounded and Juve headed out of the Olimpico with three points that they may not have deserved but certainly wouldn’t shun.

LE PAGELLE

WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 8.5. Without any doubts the reason Juventus wasn’t down multiple goals by halftime. He made some excellent saves in the first half and also ruled over a good number of crosses in his box. The best Juventus performer by a very wide margin.

MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - 6.5. Very few of Lazio’s opportunities came through the wing on his side. Made four clearances and as many interceptions. Had little opportunity to join in the attack because until Juve started making changes there wasn’t much attack to speak of.

LEONARDO BONUCCI - 6. Credit to him for staying out there as long as he did when he was clearly hampered.

DANIELE RUGNAI - 7. Other than Woj he was the best player Juve had on the field in the first half. Squared up against dribblers several times and did not allow them past, was consistently in the right position — he blocked a pair of shots — and made that huge goal line clearance at the end of the first half, one of nine he made over the course of the game. Oh, and he completed 90.7 percent of his passes on a day when few players were completing much of anything. Any mistakes he made are minor compared to what he did to keep the team in the game.

ALEX SANDRO - 6. Didn’t get up the field as well as usual thanks to Lazio’s incessant press, but got in a few decent balls in and was generally solid in defense. His pass let Bernardeschi in to set up the opener.

RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 5. Was a little better when he swapped spots with Can, but Sunday’s game wasn’t his finest hour. Gave the ball away a few too many times and couldn’t deal with Leiva physically for the first part of the game.

EMRE CAN - 3. Just because you look like Sami Khedira doesn’t mean you should play like him. The German was horrific against Lazio, giving the ball away, scoring the own goal, and putting a free header miles over the bar. I’m guessing the only thing that kept him on the field when Bernardeschi came on was because Matuidi was on a yellow.

BLAISE MATUIDI - 5.5. Better, perhaps, than anyone else in midfield, but that’s not saying much. He did lead the team with four tackles, but wasn’t really able to stitch things together for the attack.

DOUGLAS COSTA - 5. Got a couple of nice crosses in in the second half but for the most part was pretty awful. He wasn’t able to get past Leiva and the rest of the Lazio press and simply didn’t look like his usual shifty self.

PAULO DYBALA - 5.5. Everything looked stacked against him. He was playing as a false 9, which limited his ability to dictate play up top, and the lack of service to him from the midfield further hampered him. He did fire in a nice shot that eventually produced the goal, but he was really shackled.

CRISTIANO RONALDO - 6. He’s only getting this high for the goal, because he did little else besides occasionally falling over looking for a free kick. The only shot he took was the winning spot kick.

SUBS

GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 6. Filled in ably for the fallen Bonucci, once he got into the flow of the game took up his position with his usual aplomb.

FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 7. Once he camped out on the left he was really a handful for a weary Lazio defense. That run in the run-up to the equalizer was a thing of beauty. He’s starting to flow at full force again.

JOAO CANCELO - 7.5. His presence totally changed the game. Got into good positions and could have had a hat trick had his touch and then his judgement not let him down. And, of course, he was Johnny on the spot when Strakosha spilled Dybala’s shot.

SS Lazio v Juventus - Serie A Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images

MANAGER ANALYSIS

There were some interesting things to parse out here. Allegri started Can out in front of the back four, and it was something he acknowledged in his post-match press conference was a mistake, as the German doesn’t have his feet under him enough yet to play that role. He eventually moved Bentancur into that slot and solidifying things a bit.

Another big problem was Allegri’s use of Dybala as a false 9. It was a major hamper on Dybala, who didn’t really have as much freedom from sideline to sideline. As the winger/trequartista hybrid that he’s played as the last few months, Dybala has more chance to dictate play, whereas on Sunday he was the nominal focal point of whatever attack Juve managed to gin up. He completed every pass he made and often dropped deep to try to get things triggered, but playing him as a false 9 squanders the playmaking ability that he’s started to flash this season.

But full compliments are in order for his substitutions in the second half. Bernardeschi brought a life to the team that it was lacking, and Cancelo was all over the place. It’s nice to know he can play on the wing in a pinch. Allegri managed to make just enough adjustments to cover for the fact that he was getting his tail whipped for the first 55-60 minutes of the game and steal a win.

LOOKING AHEAD

Bergamo has been a bit of a bogey city for Juventus over the last three years. The last three years they’ve been held to 2-2 draws in the League on their trip to Atalanta, while the first leg of last year’s Coppa Italia semifinal saw the Bianconeri prevail 1-0 in a game played in heavy fog. La Dea will look to avenge that knockout loss last year when Juve travel back to the Stadio Atleti Azzurri d’Italia for the Coppa quarters in what could be the biggest threat to the team’s defense of the trophy.

That game is followed Parma’s first trip back to the Allianz Stadium since their bankruptcy season in 2014-15.