The last time Juventus was presented with an opportunity to jump over Inter in the Serie A standings, they were headed into the Stadio Olimpico in Rome to face off against Lazio. They took the lead in that match, but fell apart after going up a goal, falling 3-1 in their first of two losses to the Biancoceleste in December.
After Inter’s Saturday draw against Atalanta, Juve again had the chance to vault themselves back into first, and again that chance came as they marched into the Olimpico, this time to face off against Roma. Juve had fallen to the Giallorossi the last time they met in May, and Roma weren’t nearly the shambles they had been a season ago. Sitting in fourth place going into the round, the capital club is playing well under new coach Paulo Fonseca, and this game was very much in the balance as the teams processed out of the locker rooms.
Fortunately, this time the Bianconeri rose to the challenge. Building on the phenomenal second half performance they put in against Cagliari on Monday, Juve blitzed the home side for a pair of goals in the first 10 minutes. While they missed a few chances to add a third and ended up suffering for the last half an hour or so as they took their foot off the gas, it ended up being enough, and despite giving up a penalty with just over 20 minutes to go they managed to hold the hosts at bay and took home a 2-1 win, claiming the league lead and the title of winter champions in a game that may prove costly to both sides.
Maurizio Sarri didn’t make any changes from the 4-3-1-2 setup that crushed Cagliari on Monday. Wojciech Szczesny stepped between the sticks to face his former team, protected by Juan Cuadrado, Merih Demiral, Leonardo Bonucci, and Alex Sandro. Adrien Rabiot again played for the suspended Rodrigo Bentancur, joining Miralem Pjanic and Blaise Matuidi in midfield. Aaron Ramsey was deployed in the trequartista position behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Paulo Dybala.
Fonseca came into the game facing an injury crisis, missing the likes of Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Javier Pastore, Justin Kluivert, Davide Santon, Federico Fazio, and Davide Zappacosta. He deployed a 4-2-3-1 lineup that was unchanged from the last round’s surprising 2-0 loss to Torino. Pau Lopez started in goal, with Alessandro Florenzi, Gianluca Mancini, Chris Smalling, and Aleksandar Kolarov in front of him. Jordan Veretout and Amadou Diawara formed the double pivot in midfield, with Nicolo Zaniolo, Lorenzo Pellegrini, and Diego Perotti supporting Edin Dzeko in the striker spot.
The game started out with a bang three minutes in. After Ronaldo was fouled by a Mancini in the Roma half, Dybala stepped up and sent a ball in to the back post. Smalling got a glancing touch to the ball, and that little diversion put it right into the path of Demiral, who stuck out his leg and tapped the ball past Lopez with his shin for his first goal as a Juve player.
Roma tried to mount a response and earned a series of corner kicks, but couldn’t didn’t create much danger from those chances, and six minutes later the lead was doubled thanks in part to a collective brain fart on the part of the Roma back line. Lopez played a ball to Veretout at the top of the box, but the Frenchman fell asleep and was jumped by Dybala and forced to bring the Argentine down in the box. Ronaldo stepped up to the resulting penalty and produced a carbon copy of the one he scored on Monday, shooting low to his right as the keeper moved the other way. It was his sixth consecutive Serie A game with a goal.
Demiral had been useful ends on both ends of the field, tackling the ball away from Dzeko in his box in between the goals, but on 15 minutes, he left his feet to go after another free kick. He landed awkwardly on his left leg and went down in a heap. He was clearly in significant pain, and a cart was brought out onto the field, although the Turk eventually got upright and limped off. He even asked for the chance to work it off, but was clearly in no condition to continue, and he was replaced by Matthijs de Ligt. Before the Dutchman waiting to come on, Roma got the ball down the attacking right and Szczesny pushed a cross into the path of Pellegrini. His shot hit Rabiot and definitely got a piece of his arm, but that arm was tucked tightly into his chest and was in no way making him larger, and referee Marco Guida rightly waved off Roma’s penalty appeals.
Juve continued to play the ball around, and while they didn’t often get a shot off in the end they still created some threats that forced the defenders to get the ball clear. Roma pushed forward on the other end and focused their efforts on the wings — something that Juve identified and almost completely neutralized. Whether the delivery came from a dead ball or open play, they couldn’t get any crosses into the box, with de Ligt in particular started meeting them with strong defensive headers. On the few times they did go through the middle, they presented more of a threat. That came primarily through Zaniolo, who made two mazy runs, the first of which ended in a blocked shot and the second of which ended in a clash with de Ligt at the top of the penalty area. The contact was minimal, but it saw Zaniolo’s leg jam itself into the ground in a similar way to Demiral — unfortunately with similar results. The 20-year-old Italian crumbled to the ground screaming in pain, and eventually had to be carted off the field in tears. It was later confirmed that he had torn his ACL and also damaged his meniscus — a pair of injuries that will end his season and likely keep him out of Euro 2020 this summer.
With their most threatening player gone, Roma had to refocus. They wasted a couple of good positions in the last minutes of the first half, and halfway through stoppage time nearly saw themselves buried when Ronaldo burst down the right channel to meet a ball from Rabiot, but Lopez was able to make a good stop on his low, angled drive.
The opening stages of the second half saw a similar pattern.
Roma gradually grew to control possession, but they were doing precious little with it, continually funneling the ball to the wings only to see crosses either headed away or grabbed by Szczesny. It wasn’t until the 65th minute when Roma finally saw their first real opportunity, when Dzeko powered a delivery from Florenzi off the post. The Bosnia international stayed with the play and floated a cross to the back post for Cengiz Under, who had replaced Zaniolo in the first half. The winger headed the ball off of Sandro’s chest. He stayed with it and tried to stab it back in, but Szczesny stopped the shot and then slapped it behind for a corner as Under turned back to the referee to beg for a handball on the initial shot. The ball had hit the full-back in the chest before it hit his arm, which generally leans the call in favor of the defender, but Sandro’s arm was moving toward the ball, which likely influenced Guida’s decision when he went to the VAR screen and awarded a penalty to Roma. Perotti stood over it, and he sent Szczesny the wrong way and rifled the ball in to the shooter’s left, halving the deficit.
Sarri reacted immediately, sending Gonzalo Higuain and Danilo in and changing the setup to a 4-3-3 look. Perotti’s goal looked to get him into a groove, and he took advantage of some space on the left to cut in and cross, just missing Dzeko. Szczesny then alertly jumped in to scarf the ball up when Smalling tried to head a cross back across the box for the big striker.
Juve hadn’t been presenting much of a threat to the goal at this point, but in the 77th minute really should have had the game put away when Matuidi found a free-running Ronaldo at the back post, but the forward missed his free header wide. Two minutes later they were presented with a three-on-one counterattack, but Cuadrado waited too long to pass the ball to Ronaldo, and when he did put it behind him. That forced Ronaldo to deliver his pass to Higuain a fraction too late. Higuain stroked a good finish into the far post, but he was offside by the length of his kneecap — an infraction identified on the field by the assistant referee and confirmed by VAR.
Roma was pushing hard in the last 10 minutes, but still were missing the final product. Kolarov hit a free header right at Szczesny, then in the first minute of stoppage time Dzeko received a good pass from Bryan Cristante, but was dispossessed by a fantastic tackle from De Ligt, with Pellegrini hitting the follow-up over. Diawara then hit a shot right at Szczesny, and Cristante went way over the bar. Higuain had another attempt on goal in the final seconds, but Lopez got down to deny him, and he probably would have been called offside had he managed to beat the Spaniard. Guida blew his whistle moments later, and Juve walked off the field winter champions.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 7.5. Ruled his penalty area, making play after play on crosses and cooly saving multiple shots in the closing minutes. A very good day at the office.
JUAN CUADRADO - 5.5. He wasn’t bad defensively, but he didn’t really produce going forward in this one. He didn’t provide much in the way of crosses, and he essentially killed a three-on-one counter that could have put the game away with a really bad pass. This one wasn’t his best.
MERIH DEMIRAL - NR. Was on his way to a really high rating before his injury, which we all hope isn’t as serious as it looked. Sarri sounded a bit gloomy about his prospects in his post-match press conference, which is worrying.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 6. A good job defensively, but his passing was uncharacteristically off.
ALEX SANDRO - 6. A workhorse defensively with a team-leading four tackles along with three clearances. This would have been a little higher had he not gotten careless with his arms.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 7. Easily his best game since arriving in Turin. One of only two players on the team to register a key pass, blocked two shots, and pulled out a skill move or two to keep possession once or twice.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 6. Completed 93 percent of his passes and kept the ball moving a lot in the first half. He had to be careful after an early booking and wasn’t the defensive presence he sometimes could be, resulting in a little bit of open space for Roma players later on.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 6.5. Led the team in key passes and also tied for the lead in dribbles (no, really). He also shared the team lead in interceptions. Completed every pass he attempted.
AARON RAMSEY - 6. Made a lot of intelligent runs that weren’t necessarily meant to get on the receiving end of a pass but instead to open up space for Ronaldo or Dybala. Also made a couple of nice plays to keep possession in the first half.
PAULO DYBALA - 7. You don’t often talk about Dybala making tackles, but he had two of them in this game. One produced a dangerous counterattack that was thwarted by a last-second interventions, and another produced the penalty that proved to be the decisive goal. Another really influential performance.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 7. Scored the deciding goal and contributed on the defensive end as well, making two clearance and blocking a shot. He really should have put the game away with that free header, though.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 7.5. Led the team with seven clearances and was continually meeting any cross Roma put into the box. It was good to see him back on the field, although the circumstances were unfortunate.
GONZALO HIGUAIN - 6. Made some good runs and was really done badly by Cuadrado on his disallowed goal. He’s still clicking on all cylinders.
DANILO - 5.5. Had a couple of weird moments in defense, but did have one important intervention at game’s end and registered two interceptions in 22 minutes—as many as his co-leader, Matuidi, did all game.
When Sarri first switched from the 4-3-3 that people had considered his standard to the 4-3-1-2 that has become the norm, I wondered whether he would keep the former shape in his back pocket and revert to it to try to change the game. This game was the first time Sarri did just that, making that double switch after Roma’s goal to introduce Higuain and Danilo, pushing Cuadrado up into the wing.
It didn’t necessarily change the game, because the team seemed content to defend the lead — much to Sarri’s disappointment — but when used at the appropriate time, this tactic could be a very useful one indeed. A change like this could really change the game if employed at the right time, especially if someone like Douglas Costa is inserted on the wing. While not something to necessarily look forward to on a regular basis, it’s a wrinkle that we haven’t seen before — and the fact that Sarri saw fit to introduce the wrinkle may be a sign that the coach is more confident that his charges have absorbed his system.
Juve are now two points ahead of Inter in first place, and are winter champions for the seventh time in nine years.
Their next run-out, however, will be their season debut in the Coppa Italia, a Wednesday home game against Udinese. That will be followed by another home contest against Parma as the ritorna begins.