The moment the schedule was released for the restart, July 20 was circled on the calendar. At the time, Juventus and Lazio were separated by only a point, and it seemed all but certain that that game would decide which of the two teams ended up winning the scudetto.
That narrative started turning on its head real fast. Lazio squandered a two-goal lead and lost to Atalanta in their first game after the restart. That was the first hiccup. They won their next two games — albeit after falling behind both times — before dropping three straight, including a mystifying 2-1 loss against Lecce that saw the relegation-threatened southerners come from behind to win. In all, Lazio had dropped 14 points since the restart, including a goalless draw against Udinese in their last game.
Juve hadn’t looked all that great themselves over the last few rounds, dropping seven of the last nine points on offer and blowing another 2-0 lead against Sassuolo on Wednesday before scraping out a 3-3 draw. But Lazio’s form had dropped them all the way into fourth, and Inter and Atalanta weren’t in position to become serious threats, leaving this game, which had been hyped by so many for so long, so anticlimactic that the Italian media started started making the rather outrageous claim that Sarri would be sacked if Juve stumbled on Monday.
Anything to drum up the hype, I guess.
It turned out that even if such histrionics were true, Sarri would still be sleeping a bit more soundly. It certainly helped that Lazio was without a whopping seven players due to injury, including midfield lynchpins Luis Alberto and Lucas Leiva, but on Monday Juventus managed to put their struggles aside and stay in complete control throughout almost the entire game. They took a 2-0 lead (*shudder*) in the second half following a pair of mistakes by the visitors, and saw things through despite a ridiculous mistake at the back that allowed Lazio to pull one back. Regardless, the 2-1 victory put the Bianconeri eight points ahead of Inter, who had drawn 2-2 with Roma on Sunday, and all but assured Juve of their ninth straight Scudetto.
Sarri was dealing with a selection crunch of his own against Lazio, though nothing close to what Inzaghi was facing. Federico Bernardeschi was suspended and Giorgio Chiellini’s still out with a muscle problem, and unbeknownst to the public, he initially planned on keeping Paulo Dybala out after the striker experienced back pain in training Sunday. Unfortunately, Gonzalo Higuain pulled up with a similar ailment in pre-game warmups, so Dybala was pressed into service in the usual 4-3-3. Wojciech Szczesny anchored the XI, with Juan Cuadrado, Matthijs de Ligt, Leonardo Bonucci, and Alex Sandro in defense. Miralem Pjanic was surprisingly dropped for Aaron Ramsey, who took the right side of midfield beside Rodrigo Bentancur and Adrien Rabiot. Dybala was flanked by Douglas Costa and Cristiano Ronaldo up front.
As was mentioned before, Inzaghi was really hard up. Along with seven injuries and a suspension, he also dropped Jordan Lukaku overnight after the Belgian reacted badly to being left out of the starting lineup. That left him with hardly any bench and a starting XI that included a youngster making his debut. Thomas Strakosha took his usual place in goal behind Inzaghi’s 3-5-2. Bastos, Luiz Felipe, and Francesco Acerbi took their places at the back, while Manuel Lazzari joined with Djavan Anderson, the aforementioned debutant, to form the wing back pair. Danilo Cataldi, Marco Parolo, and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic made up the midfield, while Ciro Immobile and Felipe Caicedo joined together up front.
In several recent episodes of The Old Lady Speaks, our man Chucks has made a lot of references to game control, and I thought a lot about that as this game began to take shape. It was clear from early on that Juventus had that control. Lazio wasn’t exactly under siege, but Juve took possession quickly and kept the lion’s share of it. Lazio jumped out on the counter a few times, but very rarely with the energy and danger that had made them the league’s form team before the shutdown. More to the point, they don’t have any player that can replicate Alberto’s creativity, and there simply wasn’t any venom when they did get possession. Juve, meanwhile, were making the quick passes Sarri likes to see, but weren’t combining it with the off-ball movement that could create room for them to threaten.
The Bianconeri finally fired the first shot after eight minutes, a long-range bomb from Costa that went straight at the keeper. Three minutes later they came this close to taking the lead when a free kick from Dybala was headed away by Milinkovic-Savic. It was more of a flick and found de Ligt on the right side of the box, who volleyed the ball back across, where it was met by Sandro, whose header banged off the post with Strakosha stranded.
The pace of the game was fairly slow, but it was the home team that was setting it. It took a few minutes to threaten again, until Rabiot took a nice Ronaldo layoff at midfield and surged into the box, pulling back for Ramsey, whose shot was blocked by Luiz Felipe. Rabiot’s energy and technique in the middle of the park was on display a few more times in the first half, taking a good-looking shot from range that was blocked (again) by Luiz Felipe. Two minutes later he surged down field again, only to find he’d outrun any support. His only option was a shot, a powerful one that forced Strakosha to beat it away from the top near corner.
Lazio had done next to nothing in attack so far, but got a gift when Bentancur made a bad pass that was deflected into the path of Immobile, who hit a wicked shot that skipped onto the post and bounced out to the left. Had it been on target, Szczesny would’ve had no chance, but the game ended up headed into the half scoreless.
Straight out of the restart Dybala, who had been playing a fantastic game, somehow managed to squeeze through a crowd in the right channel and, by some black magic, get a shot away. Strakosha was probably shocked the ball was coming at him and just got a leg to it, while Ronaldo, who had hit the deck trying to redirect the initial effort, did his darndest to poke in the rebound but got no power behind it and Lazzari was able to clear it before it got to the line.
But the first goal was on the cards, although the actual sequence took a while. It started in the 47th minute, when Ronaldo got to a loose ball about 21 yards out and loaded up for a first-time shot. The ball hit the outstretched arm of Bastos, and referee Daniele Orsato blew his whistle immediately. Initially he ruled that the contact was made outside the box, but the VAR called down and, after a few minutes, Orsato was called to the monitor. There was a replay angle that clearly showed that while Bastos’ body was outside the area, his arm had been just inside when it was hit, and the ref returned pointing to the spot. Ronaldo reset himself at the spot, and fired a low shot to his right that just evaded the efforts of Strakosha to give Juve the lead. It was Ronaldo’s first bit of history on the day, as he became the first player in history to score 50 or more goals in Serie A, La Liga, and the Premier League, as well as breaking Andriy Shevchenko’s record for fastest to 50 Serie A goals.
In the two recent games against Milan and Sassuolo Juve had doubled their leads rather quickly, and this followed that pattern, because three minutes after the first goal Lazio completely shot themselves in the foot. Ronaldo and Dybala both converged on Luiz Felipe in the midfield circle, with the latter stealing the ball. The two forwards charged forward in a two-on-one rush toward Strakosha’s goal. No one was able to recover, and all Strakosha could do was feebly appeal for offside as Dybala fed Ronaldo for what might’ve been the simplest finish of his life, making him only the third player since 1959 to score 30 or more goals in a Serie A season.
Sarri is known for going for the throat up 2-0, but he may have changed his mind after recent games, because it didn’t take long for him to send on some players to provide some more defensive stability, replacing Ramsey with Blaise Matuidi and Costa with Danilo, bumping Cuadrado forward to the wing. The blown leads against Milan and Sassuolo had both seen Juve go to pieces and lose control soon after the second goal, but they kept the screws turning this time, and Ronaldo nearly got himself a hat trick in the 66th minute after Dybala shrugged off Bastos and pulled a cross back to him, but he hit it off the crossbar. Six minutes later Dybala had his best chance to put himself on the scoresheet when Bonucci found him with one of those patented diagonal long balls into the right channel. He was in his sweet spot, but decided to go near post instead of far and Strakosha got down to keep it out.
The visitors were in a bind. Inzaghi had absolutely no one to turn to on his bench. Such were his options that at one point he threw on another center-back and moved Acerbi to the left wing because he had little else to do. By the end of the game he was throwing on 20-year-old Luca Falbo and 17-year-old Raul Moro, both of whom were making their Serie A debuts and the latter of whom was making his first appearance with the senior team. At one point a shot of Inzaghi looking absolutely hopeless came up on the screen.
It looked like Juve were going to cruise into the finish line until the 82nd minute, when Bonucci had a brain fart. Communication broke down between he and Szczesny, with the defender expecting the keeper to come out and claim the pass and therefore trying to shield Immobile off. It wasn’t until it was too late that he realized his teammate wasn’t coming, by which point Immobile had burst past him. A last-ditch challenge caught Immobile, and Orsato immediately blew for a penalty. Szczesny guessed Immobile’s direction right just as Strakosha had Ronaldo’s but Immobile’s execution was equally good and the ball snapped the net — ironically putting Immobile over the magic 30-goal mark that he had been fighting to get to for weeks and that Ronaldo had just pipped him to.
The goal set up a grandstand finish, and Sarri went so far as to put on a third center-back in Daniele Rugani, something that the coach has never done before, to ensure solidity. Juve defended for the last seven minutes, plus six of stoppage time, but didn’t really lose their hold of things and kept Szczesny’s goal safe — with one major exception. Just before the end of regular time Danilo took his man down and Orsato pulled play back after the advantage was lost, giving Lazio a good look at a direct free kick. Visions of Wednesday’s game against Sassuolo, which Domenico Berardi equalized with an exquisite free kick, loomed ominously, and Milinkovic-Savic’s kick was no less perfectly executed. It was destined for the top corner, but Szczesny played it perfectly, flying into the air and meeting it with both hands to push it away.
Some excellent holding play by Rabiot, among others, kept the ball in the Lazio corner for much of stoppage time, and when Orsato blew his whistle, everyone in black and white breathed a big sigh of relief, now within touching distance of their ninth straight title.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 7. He deserves some criticism for his indecision in the penalty incident, but his huge save on Milinkovic-Savic’s free kick, and a good save on a missile by substitute Andre Anderson — the only other shot on target Lazio had all game — put him firmly in the positive camp.
JUAN CUADRADO - 7. The rest he got thanks to his suspension did him good, as he was back to his pesky best. He led the team in tackles and buzzed up and down the right side all game long to provide a dangerous outlet. He also drew five fouls, including a few that were useful in winding the clock at the end of the game.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 6.5. Not a lot special from him, but he generally didn’t need it. He completed a team-high 95.7 percent of his passes and didn’t commit a foul. He was mostly higher up the pitch helping the team recycle play.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 5.5. Offered Lazio a lifeline with an absolutely dopey foul, which dropped his grade significantly. He did make a pair of key passes and blocked two shots, but you just can’t have a lapse like that so late.
ALEX SANDRO - 6. Hit the post early and generally did a good job to quell the occasional Lazio attack and support going forward.
AARON RAMSEY - 5.5. He wasn’t quite as useless as he’s seemed in his recent 10-minute cameos, he also wasn’t exactly on point. Lost possession in a bad area a few times and at least twice simply fell down as he was trying to make a move. He’s lost the stride he was starting to hit before the shutdown, and the pendulum in the “who to sell” question between him and Rabiot has swung the other way since the restart.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 7. He’s had a couple of rough games, but was excellent Monday night. He made a pair of key passes and, perhaps more importantly, man-marked Milinkovic-Savic out of the game in midfield.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 7. Entrenching himself deeper and deeper by the game. The surging runs he’s made through midfield can be breathtaking to watch, and he simply has more technique than Matuidi could ever hope. Also made a pair of tackles. Here’s to keeping him going.
DOUGLAS COSTA - 6.5. Made a pair of key passes and moved the ball around the right side well. Didn’t quite get to use the full range of his skills — he was probably expecting to have Higuain to target with crosses — but certainly contributed.
PAULO DYBALA - 8. Dude balled today. His close control and dribbling were at their very best — he did a whole lot of this — and he stayed farther forward and central than he has in previous games playing the nine. Made a mind-melting seven key passes, produced the pressure that led to the second goal (for which he got the assist) and was only prevented from grabbing a goal by Strakosha.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 8. Started slowly but came alive in the second half, helping create his own goal against Luiz Felipe with some good pressure and was clinical on both that goal and the penalty that opened the scoring. His chemistry with Dybala — once thought an impossibility — is really hitting stride.
DANILO - 5.5. Made two tackles in 33 minutes of work but his passing wasn’t the best (77.3 percent completion) and put the team in real danger late when he committed a foul in a good shooting position.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 6. Came on to solidify things defensively and did just that, doing some dirty work and keeping Lazio from developing much rhythm in midfield.
DANIELE RUGANI - NR. On to add some defensive oomph at the very end and won an aerial in stoppages to keep Lazio away.
This wasn’t quite full-flowing Sarrismo, but it was definitely better than the last few games. Players off the ball were a little too static, which has been a problem in the implementation of this system all season, but the passes were quick and assured, and Juventus kept control of the game pretty much throughout. Sarri’s move to immediately add some more defensive mettle after taking the the 2-0 lead was a level of pragmatism that we don’t often see from him, but it was a good move that kept the team solid while they searched for the third goal to kill the game off. That they didn’t get it was pretty much down to bad luck, while the insertion of Rugani to essentially create a 5-4-1 was something totally foreign to the coach — it will be interesting to see whether or not it ever happens again.
One tactical decision that paid off in spades was the decision to man-mark Milinkovic-Savic, who was only real midfield threat with Luis Alberto out. Until his last-gasp free kick the Serb was anonymous, making it a lot easier to control the game.
With Inter dropping points on Sunday against Roma, Juventus now has an eight-point lead with four games to go. They could clinch the title as early as Thursday if they beat Udinese and Inter drop any points on Wednesday against Fiorentina.
After Thursday’s game in Udine Juve plays on Sunday at home against Sampdoria.