This is a sight we’re not used to.
One of the hallmarks of Juventus’ eight-year reign atop Serie A has been the ruthless exploitation of the opportunities that their opponents present to them. Opportunities like the one presented when Inter were held to a scoreless draw against Roma on Friday, giving Juve the chance to jump their arch-rivals just a week after allowing them to get ahead of them for the league lead.
Beating a Lazio team that was sitting in third place on the back of six wins in a row at the Stadio Olimpico was no easy task, but it was still the kind of opportunity that we’ve seen this team exploit time and time again.
The first half of the matchup was encouraging enough. Both teams created good scoring chances, but it was Juve that took the lead through an excellent combination between Rodrigo Bentancur and Cristiano Ronaldo. It was an open and intense half but Juve probably had the better of it, but Lazio tied it on the stroke of half-time, and Juve proceeded to wilt in the second half. They were holding on, but neither team had threatened much before Juan Cuadrado was shown a straight red card with 20 minutes to go. Five minutes later the home side took the lead through Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, and despite some heroics from Wojciech Szczesny that kept Juve within touching distance, they couldn’t muster a shot on target from then on, and a stoppage-time sealer condemned them to their first defeat of the season, a 3-1 loss to Lazio. Inter’s lead was extended to two points despite their slip-up, and Lazio inserted themselves into the title picture as the third wheel we all thought Napoli would be, pulling to within three points of Juve in second and five of the lead.
Maurizio Sarri made a couple of changes from the team that gakked against Sassuolo a week ago, but injuries to Sami Khedira, Aaron Ramsey, and Douglas Costa limited some of his options in his 4-3-1-2. Wojciech Szczesny took up his place in goal, protected by Cuadrado, Leonardo Bonucci, Matthijs De Ligt, and Alex Sandro. Bentancur combined with Miralem Pjanic and Blaise Matuidi in midfield. Federico Bernardeschi took up the trequartista spot, with Ronaldo and Paulo Dybala forming the strike pair up top.
Simone Inzaghi, considered at one time a major candidate to replace Massimiliano Allegri this past summer before Sarri was finally signed, deployed the exact same 3-5-1-1 setup that had seen his team steamroll Udinese last round. Thomas Strakosha took the starting gloves. The trio of Luiz Felipe, Francesco Acerbi, and Stefan Radu formed the back line. Manuel Lazzari and Senad Lulic were the wingbacks, framing a midfield that contained Milinkovic-Savic, Lucas Leiva, and Luis Alberto. Ciro Immobile played as the striker with Joaquin Correa in the hole behind him.
Juve started the game on the back foot. Lazio used long balls to try to cut through Juve’s defense, and Immobile latched on to one within two minutes, causing Bonucci to scramble over to clear — a task that took him a couple of attempts as he popped the ball into the air multiple times. Milinkovic-Savic then intercepted an attempted switch by Cuadrado. He again fed Immobile, but De Ligt came in to block the shot. Sandro was then called into action when Milinkovic-Savic made a run into the channel for another long ball.
Juve’s first sight at goal came after their first extended passing move, stringing together 10 balls before Dybala cut into his favorite spot in the right channel and fired a shot to the far post that had some good curl and forced Strakosha into a sprawling save. A few minutes later he was standing over a corner kick on the right side. He spotted Strakosha leaving his near post available and, perhaps buoyed by his audacious angled finish against Atletico Madrid two weeks ago, went for an Olimpico at the Olimpico. Strakosha scrambled over just in time, and was able to get just enough of the ball to keep it out.
With 15 minutes on the clock Ronaldo got himself into a good crossing position, but Bernardeschi couldn’t get up to meet it at the right spot, and his header went harmlessly wide. The half wore on with a lot of intensity but surprisingly few real goal-scoring opportunities, but on 25 minutes Juve finally broke through.
Dybala started the move, with his pass to Ronaldo redirected first-time to Bentancur on the wing, who charged ahead and put the ball across to the top of the six-yard box with his first touch, setting up a simple tap-in for Ronaldo, who scored his first goal from open play in seven weeks.
Lazio attempted to muster a response, and Immobile burst into the penalty area only three minutes later, but went down far too easily under a challenge from Cuadrado and referee Michael Fabbri played on. Moments later, the home side had a free kick from just outside of the box. The attempt went over, but the sequence cost Juve dearly nonetheless. Trying to make the tackle that led to the foul, Bentancur banged his knee with Lulic, and stayed down on the field for several minutes in what looked like substantial pain. He returned to the field and tried to play on, even making a really impressive dribble down the right wing that earned a corner. But that move saw him hit the ground again, and it was obvious that the 22-year-old was struggling, and he was replaced by Emre Can with five minutes left in the half.
Can’s first touch saw him give the ball away, but he made up for that with a through ball to Bernardeschi, who came back from the byline and found Ronaldo with a good cross. The forward met it with a diving header, but Strakosha managed to claw it away from the goal line.
It had been a good half all told, until just before stoppage time, when a short corner kick saw Luis Alberto get himself into position to make an excellent cross that Luiz Felipe met after ghosting behind Bonucci, whose ineffectual jump came nowhere close. He thumped a header home, and the teams went into the locker room 1-1.
The second half saw a lot of intensity and some end-to-end football, but little in the way of real chances being created. It wasn’t until the 68th minute, when Lazzari broke on a counter off a corner kick, that things picked up. Cuadrado was coming across to meet Lazzari, but got his bearings horribly wrong and made a hash out of the tackle, taking the wing-back out. Fabbri initially gave a yellow card, but was called to the VAR screen. When he returned to the field he had upgraded the card to a straight red, judging that the Colombian had denied Lazzari a clear goalscoring opportunity. It was a terrible tackle, and while it looked like Lazzari might have been forced wide, it’s just as possible he’d have been able to stay on his bearings. It’s hard to disagree too hard with the call.
Bernardeschi was immediately sacrificed to being in Danilo, but five minutes later Milinkovic-Savic put Lazio ahead, taking down a great long ball from Alberto with an exquisite first touch before blasting it past a despairing Szczesny.
Juve tried to get back into things, but they couldn’t muster anything creative to get back into the game. Lazio, meanwhile, looked to seal things, wary of just how quickly Juve can turn things around. They thought they had their clincher when Correa was brought down in the box by Szczesny, but the Pole made up for it by both sussing out Immobile’s penalty and then getting up fast enough to deny the striker on his rebound.
It kept Juve in the game, but they didn’t do much of anything with it. Pjanic tried to catch Strakosha napping with 10 minutes to go by going for goal on a free kick from the halfway line, but missed wide. Can had a ball fall to him in the penalty area after a bad punch by Strakosha, but Lulic made a good block. Aside from that, the only potential equalizer came when Danilo skied a shot from the top of the penalty area in stoppage time. Forced to throw caution to the wind, everyone was up for a late free kick, and after Lazio broke the press they triggered a three-on-one break. Szczesny made a one-on-one save on the onrushing Lazzari, but the rebound popped to subsititue Felipe Caicedo, who took it down with his first touch and rifled the ball into the net with his second, ending the game on an extreme high for the Capitol club.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 6.5. That double save was really impressive stuff, and he was the only reason Juve had any chance of coming back, but he also made some questionable decisions coming out from his line that he’s lucky didn’t get punished.
JUAN CUADRADO - 4. That red card really killed things. but it was only the capper on what might be his worst game since moving to the right back spot. His counting stats were high — he led the team in tackles even after missing the last 20 minutes — but he made some mistakes defensively and didn’t create many chances upfield in attack.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 5. Really bad marking on Lazio’s equalizer, and he looked shaky all game. Not a great day.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 6. Blocked a pair of shots and did well defensively, not allowing much of anything behind him and generally being in the right position all night long.
ALEX SANDRO - 6. Led the team in interceptions and was generally solid all night long on his flank, although for a second consecutive game his attacking was virtually nil.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 7. Easily the best Juve player on the field, which is kinda depressing considering he only lasted 40 minutes. Led the team in key passes — indeed, the rest of the team had only one more combined the entire night than he had in less than a half — and his cross to Ronaldo was inch-perfect. Growing in stature by the game, one can only hope his knee injury isn’t serious.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 5.5. Managed only a lone key pass, and wasn’t able to control the game in midfield. He was chasing the ball more than he was using it.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 5.5. Had a nice defensive game, but couldn’t influence the game going forward at all.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 5. He actually had some decent end product when he was on the ball, and he was denied an assist when Strakosha beat away Ronaldo’s header late in the first half. The problem was that he wasn’t on the ball all that much, touching the ball only 16 times in the first half and 36 times overall before being sacrificed for Danilo. He’s going to have to step up in this position with Ramsey hurt again, but at this point it’s hard to see him getting there.
PAULO DYBALA - 6. Really should have scored in the second half when Strakosha gifted him a shot, but he forced two saves off of him and linked well with others up front in the first half, especially Ronaldo and Bentancur.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 6.5. Better than the last month, for sure. Combined with his teammates a bit better, and the pass he made to Bentancur that set up his goal was delicious. Gonna need more of this from him.
EMRE CAN - 5.5. Definitely better than he was against Sassuolo, but that is a very low bar to clear. Has as many giveaways as he did positive plays, although he very nearly set up a second goal only moments after coming on.
DANILO - 5.5. Actually out-touched Can in 30 minutes less game time, but didn’t make any substantial contribution up front as Juve started mindlessly hoofing the ball forward.
GONZALO HIGUAIN - NR. Waited vainly for any service after coming on for Dybala with 10 minutes left.
As has been the case all season to this point, we saw some nice, isolated examples of what Sarrismo can be on this team in the first half. In particular, the lead-up to the shot Dybala had saved from the channel and the goal itself were born out of some nice one-touch passing — one an extended move, one a quick one after regaining possession further upfield. The next step is tying all those isolated passages into a full game together.
The manager had some tough luck Saturday night in terms of how he was able to manage the game. Burning a sub due to injury is always a hamper, especially when it’s a guy like Bentancur. Having to use another to reconstitute his back line after the red card was also a huge blow. I’d be willing to bet that Adrien Rabiot would have gotten a run in the midfield to add some attacking impetus to the unit if he hadn’t been forced into that move, and we might have even seen a Ronaldo-Dybala-Higuain triumvirate up front if the need arose. Lazio ended up the better team on the day, but Sarri’s only true tactical move was throwing on Higuain late, and given the situation the only thing that he could have done was offer the chance for him to poach something on a chance out of nowhere. It was more than a little concerning to see Juve just hoofing the ball upfield late, as opposed to trying to build up and supply the remaining attackers. There still needs to be some kind of patience and build-up when down a goal and a man, as opposed to the panic that we saw against Lazio.
Juve next take the field on Wednesday, when they close the Champions League group stage against Bayer Leverkusen. The game is a dead rubber for Juve, who have already clinched the top spot in Group D, but a Bayer win and an Atletico Madrid loss will knock the Spaniards out of the competition, so there is a significance to this match, but it remains to be seen how hard Sarri will pursue a result with nothing for his team to play for. At the very least, we should be seeing some rotation in the back line.
After that, Juve return home for a Sunday morning (New York time, anyway) tilt against Udinese.