I was putting together a much different article in my head as the seconds ticked away in the late stages of Juventus’ big lunchtime clash with Lazio on Sunday. An article about Andrea Pirlo’s first win against a major opponent, about a game that was tight on the scoreboard but ultimately controlled by Juve, a good way to go into the international break on a high.
But that all went up in a puff of smoke with the last kick of the game.
When Juve, who for the entire game had limited the vaunted Lazio attack to a couple of weak shots at the goalkeeper, had a collective brain fart and, with about 10 seconds left until the final whistle, let in the equalizer with the final kick of the game. It started when Paulo Dybala, who came off the bench after Cristiano Ronaldo was forced off with an ankle problem, mishandled an outlet pass from fellow sub Weston McKennie under little pressure. That let Lazio take a throw in, which went to Joaquin Correa along the left sideline. Taking advantage of the fact that both of the men in front of him were playing on yellow cards, he nutmegged Rodrigo Bentancur and blasted past Juan Cuadrado. Adrien Rabiot pulled out of a challenge just inside the box as he realized he’d give away a penalty if he followed through, then shielded Merih Demiral off the ball and squared it to Felipe Caicedo. Leonardo Bonucci was marking Caicedo, but he’d been ball-watching, and ended up in a horrible position on the striker’s outside hip, That allowed Caicedo to make a quick turn and slam a shot past a diving Wojciech Szczesny, tying the score at 1-1, salvaging a point from a game Juve should have won and leaving the team with more questions as the international break takes center stage.
Juve were coming off back-to-back four-goal performances, albeit against weak competition in Spezia and Ferencvaros, and it was hoped that they would stand up to the tougher test of Lazio, their closest title challengers for much of last season prior to the shutdown in Italy. For the most part, that hope was born out, although not quite how we would have expected it. Juve sat off the ball defensively, pressing selectively but content for the most part to let Lazio play and defend in tight, orderly lines that didn’t let their opponents’ star midfielders, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Luis Alberto, have much in the way of passing lanes. They looked dangerous on the counter, but were only able to get the one goal — a failure that eventually came back to haunt them.
Andrea Pirlo started with his usual 3-4-1-2/4-4-2 hybrid, but was forced into several changes from Wednesday’s lineup thanks to muscle injuries to Aaron Ramsey, Giorgio Chiellini, and Federico Chiesa, the latter two of whom were discovered in the 24 hours leading up to kickoff in Rome. Wojciech Szczesny took his place at the base of the formation, with Demiral and Bonucci joining Danilo in the back three. Bentancur and Rabiot made up the midfield, with Cuadrado and Gianluca Frabotta playing in the wing-back positions, with Dejan Kulusevski in the hole behind Ronaldo and Alvaro Morata.
Simone Inzaghi countered with his usual 3-5-2, although he also had a few selection issues due to COVID-19. The Biancoceleste have had a bit of a saga over the last few weeks, with several players being declared positive tests by UEFA when Serie A declared them eligible to play. That’s led to Torino considering filing an appeal for that game to be defaulted to them, and the most recent round of testing ended up excluding starting keeper Thomas Strakosha, midfielder Lucas Leiva, and reigning capocanninere Ciro immobile. That forced Pepe Reina into action in the Lazio goal, behind a defensive line of Luiz Felipe, Francesco Acerbi, and Stefan Radu. Adam Marusic and Mohamad Fares played on the wings, with the midfield three of Milinkovic-Savic, Alberto, and Danilo Cataldi. Correa started up front with Vedat Muriqi.
The game started lively, with Cataldi hitting over less than 120 seconds into the game. Juve responded when Frabotta sent a cross past Morata and clean through the box, then Ronaldo and Rabiot both fired on goal, forcing Reina into relatively simple saves.
Over the first quarter of an hour Lazio had the better of the possession, but Juve defended well and kept the passing lanes clogged and didn’t allow any serious danger. Then, with 15 minutes on the clock, a counterattack paid when Bentancur slipped Cuadrado a nice through pass. Ronaldo had been in an offside position when Cuadrado got the ball, but he simply allowed the play to develop into putting him back on and then stuck out his leg when the Colombian’s bullet of a cross fizzed into the middle of the field. It was an excellent strike, and it staked Juve to an early 1-0 lead.
The home side tried to strike back, fashioning a pair of decent looks over the five minutes after falling behind, but in the first Correa fired well over, and then Milinkoivic-Savic headed a good ball over the top by Radu into a dangerous area, but Muriqi couldn’t get to it with a full-stretch lunge.
It certainly looked as though Juve were letting the game come to them and springing forward on the counter, although they were also guilty of letting Lazio keep the ball in their half thanks to some inaccurate passing. They were still creating danger on the break, though, and in the last 10 minutes of the half they fashioned two excellent shooting chances for Ronaldo, but he wasn’t able to finish either, first pulling a shot wide and then smacking the ball off of the post. The Portuguese had one last shot in the first half when Kulusevski was brought down in the penalty arc, and he hit the target from a direct free kick for the second time in the game, bypassing the wall by going for the far corner, but Reina dove to make an impressive save as the halftime whistle sounded.
Things stayed open as the second period opened, with Bentancur missing wide after Juve broke out their press upfield to force a turnover and Marusic curling a ball just over on the other end. Both managers had short benches, but Inzaghi wasted little time in making a change, inserting three new players, including Caicedo, only eight minutes after the restart. Initially, that didn’t change much, and Juve continued to be the most likely to score. Ronaldo turned back the clock with some great wing play, only to see Reina jump out to collect his cross with Morata making an excellent run behind him. A minute later, Rabiot stepped out of a deep position in defense to jump a pass and start a three-man break with the two strikers. He got the ball returned to him and fired across goal to the far post, prompting another good save by the veteran Spanish keeper.
It wasn’t until there were 14 minutes left that Pirlo finally dipped into his own bench, sending on Dybala for an ailing Ronaldo, who had taken an knock to the ankle, and inserting McKennie into the game, sacrificing Kulusevski’s abilities on the counter for the American’s ball-winning abilities. Lazio kept the lion’s share of possession, but save for a cross over the top that a stooping Marusic headed directly at Szczesny, the majority of it was empty possession as Juve continued to play excellent team defense.
Until that critical moment right at the end when they didn’t.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 6.5. Played very well, orchestrating a strong defensive effort and making the plays he needed to make on the occasions that Lazio did manage to find his goal with a shot. Had zero chance on the goal.
MERIH DEMIRAL - 6.5. Posted an unreal 11 clearances and completed 96.2 percent of his passes. A key for most of the game but also a culprit in the final breakdown, albeit to a lesser degree.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 5. He gets a big downgrade for his marking of Caicedo. You can’t give him the inside turn in that situation. Get on his inside hip, and if he moves outside and gets off a shot you expect Szczesny to do his job at the near post. To be sitting on his outside — because he was ball-watching, no less—and allowing him to turn for the shot was the final straw in a collective crash.
DANILO - 7. Another day, another solid Danilo performance. Led the team in interceptions with four and would step out and join the attack on occasion. It can be argued that he’s been the most consistent player on the team this year, outside of maybe Morata.
JUAN CUADRADO - 6.5. The cross for his assist was excellent, and he totaled three key passes and three tackles, but he also made some decisions in defense that were difficult to watch, and he was one of the ones that let Correa move into the box.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 5.5. Took a silly booking early in the second half that perhaps prevented him from being a little more aggressive defending Correa. Then again, he’d made an excellent sliding challenge a little early to deny a cross on that same side, so he may have just screwed up.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 7. Led the team with five tackles and was very adept at stepping up from a deep position to jump the ball and start a counterattack. Also turned in two key passes and hit the target with two of three shots. This is the guy we all thought was signing last year. It took a little while, but he’s working his way onto the list of free transfer successes.
GIANLUCA FRABOTTA - 5.5. Did well defensively but failed to provide all that much going forward. He’s still very much a work in progress, although you see the odd moment that makes you think he can be solid at this level.
DEJAN KULUSEVSKI - 6. Started slowly but grew into the game and looked really good on the counterattack. He’ll take this trequartista position more often while Ramsey is out.
ALVARO MORATA - 6.5. Did a whole lot of dirty work, holding the ball up really well and providing three key passes and leading the team in dribbles. Didn’t get off a shot, but was really dangerous and made good runs that freed up Ronaldo.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 6.5. Got himself to the right spot for Cuadrado’s cross for the goal, but he’s going to rue those two misses in the first half, especially the one that hit the post. Who knows how much the beating he took today—he landed hard on his shoulder as well as the ankle knock that ultimately saw him leave the field—may have put him off.
PAULO DYBALA - NR. He doesn’t get a rating due to his minutes count, but that mishandle when all he had to do was control and advance was a bad look. I think the anger at him over it is a little bit over the top — yes, it was a mistake, but there certainly were opportunities to pick him up — but Dybala is clearly still trying to work his way into this squad and gain confidence. Hopefully it happens soon.
WESTON McKENNIE - NR. Lively as he tried to serve as a ball-winner in the later stages. racking up two tackles, an interception, and a clearance in only 15 minutes.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - NR. Only touched the ball twice as he came off for a physically struggling Morata at the very end.
It was certainly a bit of a different look today from Juve. Pirlo’s usually ever-present press was only broken out as a situational weapon, and the team was content to defend as a unit and counterattack as they let Lazio play. The result was, until the very end, one of the team’s more impressive defensive performances. Until the goal, Lazio hadn’t had much in the way of chances to make one truly worried. They probably did want to play themselves a little more, but some rough passing, especially in the first half, didn’t help in that regard, and for the most part Juve sat back, guarded the passing lanes to deny Milinkovic-Savic and Alberto the ability to work their magic, and nearly had a big win in the bag.
This change may have been due to Kulusevski’s presence in the lineup. The approach brought out some of his best abilities, and he started looking really dangerous on the break as he grew into the match. He’s a much better counterattacker than Ramsey, who can play Pirlo’s trequartista position as more of a presser and orchestrator, and it will behoove Pirlo to use his young star in the making’s best attributes as he tries to work this team into its best version of itself. Considering that for 93 minutes and 50 seconds of this game Juve was in relative control, he might be getting the team closer to that — and he’ll have two big puzzle pieces back after the international break in the form of Matthijs de Ligt and Alex Sandro.
The November internationals are upon us, and Juve’s call-ups will — we think — soon scatter to the winds. Make your own mind up as to whether or not that’s a good idea as the pandemic starts to take on a second life in certain areas.
Juve’s next game will be back-to-back home games against Cagliari and Ferencvaros — two teams that Juve will be expected to defeat.