Losing is never fun. Losing with a trophy on the line is even less fun.
Of course, when it comes to trophies, the Supercoppa Italiana, which is little more than a showpiece, isn’t one of the ones you care about all that much. Still, a second 3-1 loss to surprise Scudetto contenders Lazio in a span of two weeks makes for a disheartening end to 2019.
There’ll be a lot of time to get angsty over Sunday night’s result with the Christmas break upon us. I’ve already seen a lot of gripes about Maurizio Sarri and his tactics in various corners of the internet. But it’s hard to put this loss up to much of anything except the fact that, with a few exceptions, the players themselves didn’t show up.
The stats will tell you that Juve held two-thirds of the possession, but they did barely anything with it. There was little to no off-the-ball movement by players when in possession, leading to a bunch of lateral passes with very little impetus or threat. Lazio, meanwhile, stayed dynamic when they were in possession, getting into dangerous positions and eventually finishing off some good team moves to take two leads, before tacking on an exclamation point with the last kick of the game to polish off a scoreline that was identical to their victory two weeks ago in Rome.
Sarri was still dealing with a couple of long-term injuries, but he still had enough available to him to produce what should have been a strong 4-3-1-2 lineup. Wojciech Szczesny returned from a brief absence due to a shoulder injury to reclaim the starting gloves from Gianluigi Buffon. Alex Sandro made it into the starting lineup despite suffering a muscle strain midweek against Sampdoria, and he joined Mattia De Sciglio, Merih Demiral, and Leonardo Bonucci in the back four. Rodrigo Bentancur, Miralem Pjanic, and Blaise Matuidi formed the midfield, while Sarri again sent his top attacking trident of Paulo Dybala, Gonzalo Higuain, and Cristiano Ronaldo, with Dybala withdrawn into the hole behind the front two.
Simone Inzaghi had his full squad to choose from, and chose his best lineup in his traditional 3-5-2. Thomas Strakosha started in goal behind the back three of Luiz Felipe, Francesco Acerbi, and Stefan Radu. Lucas Leiva, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, and Luis Alberto formed the midfield, bookended by wingbacks Manuel Lazzari and Senad Lulic. Ciro Immobile, far and away the leader in the capocannoniere race this year, joined Joaquin Correa at the top of the formation.
Things started incredibly slowly for Juventus. Apart from an early run by Bentancur, they didn’t get the ball into threatening areas all that much. Lazio didn’t necessarily come out like gangbusters either, but they did generate the game’s only chances over the first 20 minutes. The opening salvo came in the eighth minute from Luis Alberto, who cut inside and fired just over, getting a shinful of Matuidi’s cleats on his followthrough, which earned the Frenchman a yellow card.
Eight minutes after that, Alberto put Lazio in front on the end of an excellent team move. It started on the left side, where Lulic turned De Sciglio inside out. He lofted a cross to the back post that found Milinkovic-Savic, who pulled the ball back from the byline. The intended target of the pass was Immobile, but it was a little too strong for him — but that carried it into perfect position for the Spaniard to run onto it and stroke it into an exposed goal.
Alberto nearly made it two five minutes later when he snuck into the channel, but his shot was right at Szczesny. Juve finally managed to create their first shot of the game the minute after that, when Higuain pulled down a ball over the top by Pjanic and held it up well before backing it out to Ronaldo, who fired it just wide of the post. A few minutes later Ronaldo produced a neat through ball that put Dybala into the box, but the Argentine hit the ball into orbit.
Juve’s No. 10 was far closer to the mark in the 31st minute when he took a free kick from the right side of the penalty arc and wrong-footed Strakosha by going to the far post. The ball hissed just past the pipework and crashed into the stanchion that holds up the back corner of the net. Szczesny was called into action to keep the deficit at one when Correa pushed through the defense only to be denied by a one-handed stop.
That save proved critical, as Juve managed to knot the game up on the stroke of halftime. Ronaldo’s 20-yard shot forced a fingertip save from Strakosha, and Dybala, who had been played onside by Radu, was unmarked and completely free to stride in and tap home the rebound. The goal was Dybala’s fourth in the Supercoppa, passing several others, including Alesandro Del Piero, for the most in the history of the competition.
But as the second half got going, it became clearer and clearer that Juve’s energy levels were dropping. A scheduling quirk had given Lazio two extra days of rest before this game, and they were now clearly the fresher team. Juve players were making passes into places that had no teammates there or miscontrolling simple passes. Szczesny made a pair of simple saves early in the half, and Sarri started making moves sooner rather than later, dusting off Juan Cuadrado to replace De Sciglio for some extra offensive punch.
Cuadrado’s impact was quickly felt, as he caused Luis Alberto, who had been booked in the first half, enough problems that Inzaghi withdrew him for Marco Parolo rather than risk going down to 10 men. But in spite of his added impetus on the right, Juve couldn’t get a shot anywhere close to on frame, the closest coming in the 71st minute when a pull-back from substitute Aaron Ramsey found Ronaldo, whose long-range effort just missed the top corner.
Two minutes later, Lazio had themselves back in front. Lazzari got a step on Sandro coming back from the end line and his cross was flicked on by Parolo. Waiting at the far post was Lulic, who volleyed across the face of a stranded Szczesny to send the Biancoceleste into hysterics.
Douglas Costa was sent on to search for the equalizer, but the team’s buildup remained disjointed and their off-ball running practically nonexistent. They did manage to cause a couple of frantic moments in the box, with Luiz Felipe somehow blocking Ronaldo in the box despite going to ground way early, and then a powerful cross from Costa forced Strakosha to make a play just before Ronaldo got to it.
With a minute left to go Bonucci came agonizingly close to tapping a ball in, but it wouldn’t have counted anyway, as Demiral was offside before heading the ball across. Only three minutes of stoppage time went on the board, and Juve got a last opportunity in the added minutes when Cuadrado was taken down in prime Dybala territory. But the free kick went into the wall and triggered a fast counterattack, leading to Correa getting a one-on-one with Szczesny. The Pole won it, but the rebound on the save rolled to Parolo at the top of the box. Bentancur made a challenge before he could hit it into the empty net and looked to have gotten a piece of the ball, but referee Giampaolo Calvarese ruled it a foul and showed the midfielder, who had been booked in the opening minutes of the second half, his second yellow card. Bentancur was beside himself with rage, and he had to be separated from the official before the free kick was taken. The man who hit it was Danilo Cataldi, who hit a cracking free kick that bounced in off the underside of the crossbar, ending a forgettable night and sending Juve into the winter break with some things to ponder.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 7. Made a couple good stops and was powerless to do anything on any of Lazio’s goals.
MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - 4. If I had to guess, I’d say De Sciglio was put in to try to put in a little more defensive coverage with the Dybala-Higuain-Ronaldo trident in place. Usually that works, as he’s developed into a very good defensive fullback, but he was all over the place today. Got turned inside out by Lulic on Lazio’s first goal and was beaten a few more times before being withdrawn for Cuadrado. This might’ve been his worst game in a Juve shirt.
MERIH DEMIRAL - 6.5. Got a lot of balls out of Szczesny’s box and made two tackles as well. It’ll be interesting to see whether he or Matthijs de Ligt get starts next to Bonucci in the new year, because Demiral is starting a trend.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 6. Did his job for the most part, blocking two shots and marking well. None of the goals were the responsibility of either center back.
ALEX SANDRO - 5. Had a hand in allowing both goals, missing a header on the first one and allowing Lazzari the room to make his cross on the second. He gets a slight bailout by his counting stats, including a team-leading four interceptions, but he wasn’t all that great, either.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 5.5. Was having a decent game until the red card, which I thought was pretty harsh. He was the only player in the starting XI other than Ronaldo to complete a dribble, and did well winning the ball in midfield.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 6. This is another one that gets bumped up by the counting stats, because to the eye test he wasn’t looking that great. He hasn’t taken games over the way he did in the first few weeks of the season, although his team-leading four key passes obviously marked him as the team’s creative fulcrum — when there was any creativity to be had.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 5.5. Had a nice game winning the ball as usual and actually had a pair of key passes, but his on-ball abilities are so limited. If Adrien Rabiot gets himself right, it could be a boon to the attack.
PAULO DYBALA - 6.5. Got himself into some good positions on the night and led the team with seven shots. Sprung the offside trap nicely to jump in for his goal. One of the few guys who really looked like he was moving with a purpose.
GONZALO HIGUAIN - 5. He looked tired out there. He wasn’t distributing the way he has been at times this season and was making simple mistakes in ball control as well. Having a prima punta that can spell him would be a good idea, and it’s a damn shame that Mario Mandzukic never got the opportunity to prove himself useful in that regard.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 6. Came close on a couple of shots and created the havoc that Dybala needed to score. Another of the guys that was moving with purpose when a lot of his teammates were static — although there comes a point where he’s going to have to start realizing that he can’t dribble around anyone he wants to anymore.
JUAN CUADRADO - 6. Caused some problems down the right side after his introduction, to the point that Inzaghi pulled Luis Alberto for fear he would be forced into a second booking. Made a key pass and drew a couple fouls in dangerous spots.
AARON RAMSEY - 4.5. I have no idea where his thought processes were going Sunday night. He was passing the ball into spaces his teammates simply weren’t at, and at one point opted to put a long, angled header on frame rather than take the ball down and look for a teammate, of which there were several. Not his best game.
DOUGLAS COSTA - NR. Had 10 minutes to make some havoc and had one good cross, but things were so discombobulated up front by that point that he couldn’t get much in the way of a focused run.
Maurizio Sarri said something I found interesting in his post-match press conference. He mentioned the last training session the day before the game, and that it was so good that may have fooled him into thinking that certain players had more in the tank than they actually did, to the point where he changed his mind about some planned squad rotation.
That clearly showed. Lazio had more energy from start to finish, and especially in the second half. While it’s true that Lazio was given a bit of an advantage when they had the game they would have played midweek moved to February, Juve have been playing every three days pretty much since October, and while Sarri has rotated perhaps a little more than he has in previous stops, it’s clear that some guys, like Higuain, have become gassed. He’ll have to manage that better as the business end of the season arrives in February.
This was the first time the Dybala-Higuain-Ronaldo trident was tested against a team that could really give Juve a run, and things didn’t look that great. Fatigue might have been a big factor in that, especially in the case of Higuain, so it’s hard to say whether or not this is an accurate reading of how the Big Three might fare against a high-level opponent, but the first time out showed a few signs of Sarri’s early fears about imbalance. There will have to be more tests, but things will need to be better than this.
It’s time for the winter break, so we’ll have two weeks to stew over this last run out. Play resumes on Monday, January 6 with a home game against Cagliari.
On behalf of everyone here at BWRAO, I’d like to wish all of our readers a peaceful and happy holiday season.