There was literally nothing to play for Saturday night at the Allianz Stadium.
Juventus were confirmed as champions for the ninth consecutive year. Roma was locked into fifth place, in the Europa League group stage for next season. Both teams would be involved in the restart of the European season next week, with Juve facing Lyon in the second leg of their Champions League Round of 16 tie, Roma in a one-off round of 16 with Sevilla in the Europa League the day before. It was very clear that this game — the last of the 2019-20 Serie A season for both clubs — would be one between two teams whose primary goal was to leave the stadium with their teams as healthy and rested as possible.
That’s exactly the kind of game we got.
In a contest that was played mostly in first gear, Roma prevailed 3-1, registering their first-ever win at the Allianz Stadium. But perhaps most important, they avoided any important injuries, as opposed the bloodbath that was their first meeting in January.
Maurizio Sarri spent the last game of the season in the stands due to a yellow card suspension, leaving top assistant Giovanni Martusciello in charge on the touch line. The 4-3-3 setup he deployed was heavy on backups and threw in three starters from the Under-23 squad. Wojciech Szczesny got the start in goal against his former team, with Danilo, Daniele Rugani, Leonardo Bonucci, and youngster Gianluca Frabotta. Adrien Rabiot returned from suspension to start in midfield alongside Simone Muratore and Blaise Matuidi. The front three was comprised of Federico Bernardeschi, Gonzalo Higuain, and Luca Zanimacchia.
Roma coach Paulo Fonseca has quiety turned in a solid season in the Eternal City, and he sent his team out in the 3-4-2-1 that has become his standard. He also rotated heavily, handing out a pair of Serie A debuts, including goalkeeper Daniel Fuzato. Federico Fazio, Chris Smalling, and Roger Ibanez made up the back three. The wingbacks were Davide Zappacosta and 18-year-old Riccardo Calafiori, the next big product to come out of the Roma academy and the other debutant. Bryan Cristante and Gonzalo Villar made the double-pivot in the midfield, with Diego Perotti and Nicolo Zaniolo — who was making his first start since blowing out his knee in that ill-fated January contest in Rome — playing behind Nikola Kalinic up front.
(I usually mention who the referee is at some point, but it’s worth noting it beforehand, because it was the final match of the retiring Gianluca Rocchi. His departure will lift the collective quality of the Italian officiating pool.)
For a while, it looked like Juve would be celebrating in style. It only took five minutes for them to open the scoring, with Rabiot flicking a low corner kick delivery at the near post across the box to a waiting Higuain, who had position in front of Zappacosta and tapped the ball past the goalkeeper. Given the scuttlebutt about Higuain’s future, it may well have been the last goal he’ll score in Serie A.
The next 15 minutes or so were entirely uneventful, with Roma taking the lion’s share of possession but not much of anything actually happening. That changed in the 22nd minute when Bonucci blocked a Zappacosta at the end of a counter, and on the ensuing corner Kalinic took advantage of some really weak marking by Rugani, holding him at arms length as he stooped down and flicked in the delivery at the far post.
Over the next 15 minutes it was more of the same uneventful football, with the two young left-backs trading chances. Frabotta got himself into the box after a nice exchange with Zanimacchia and Matuidi, but Higuain slipped and fell on the supporting run, forcing the 21-year-old to go it alone and just miss the far post. Calafiori then put the ball into the Juve net with a rather spectacular volley after Szczesny punched a corner out, but the initial delivery had bent over the end line, invalidating the goal.
Calafiori was very much involved when Roma took the lead just before halftime. He took advantage of some horrendous positioning by Danilo to control a long ball into the box. Danilo’s attempt to recover put him in an awkward position, and while there wasn’t much he could do to get out of the Roma player’s way it was clearly a penalty. Perotti stepped up and Szczesny guessed right as to where he was going, but the Argentine’s shot just snuck past his former teammate’s hand.
Zaniolo has been connected to Juventus over the summer, and he sometimes looked like he was auditioning for the team. He nearly made it 3-1 with a snap shot right after Perotti’s goal, then was the catalyst behind Roma’s actual third, taking a pass from Zappacosta and then fending off Matuidi and Bernardeschi, making the latter look quite silly, and driving down the center of the field. Rugani did what he could with multiple runners to pay attention to, but Zaniolo got a pass in as Perotti crossed behind him and fired a shot past a helpless Szczesny. The ball took a deflection off the newly-entered Merih Demiral — the other man who tore up his knee that day back in January, making his first appearance since — and I actually agree with the game commentators on the world feed who opined that it’s entirely possible that the shot was going wide without it, but the goal remained credited to Perotti.
Juve came close a to drawing themselves back a few times. Aaron Ramsey came off the bench and put a nice pass from Higuain off the post just before the hour, and Marco Olivieri got onto a nice long ball by Muratore and tested Fuzato with a hard shot that the youngster managed to tip over. But for most of the rest of the match the two teams simply played out the string, with eyes firmly fixed on the future, on games that mean much, much more.
Rocchi blew his whistle for the final time in his career, and the Bianconeri shifted gears, heading to a stage set up in the empty stands to accept the Serie A trophy for the ninth year in a row.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 6. Could maybe have done a wee bit better on Roma’s equalizer — he was a little bit in no-man’s land — but made several good saves in the second half and very nearly stopped Perotti’s penalty.
DANILO - 4. Really sloppy game Saturday. Lost possession constantly and his positioning on the ball that led to the penalty was shades of Joao Cancelo. Somehow ended up leading the team in dribbles, but this was not a good night.
DANIELE RUGANI - 5.5. It would be slightly better had it not been for his weak marking on the first goal. Made three tackles, an interception, a clearance, and blocked a shot while completing 92 percent of his passes.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 5.5. Blocked a pair of shots but only completed only 80 percent of his passes before making way for Demiral early in the second half.
GIANLUCA FRABOTTA - 6.5. A really bright debut for this youngster. Made three tackles and was strong going forward, interchanging well with Zanimacchia. One to watch.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 7. The redemption tour continues. Excellent early assist, led the midfield with three tackles, and generally looked strong. Took some studs to the ankle not long before he went off, but it still looked more like a scheduled change than an injury-related one.
SIMONE MURATORE - 6. Completed all 10 of his attempted long passes, including a near-assist to Olivieri at game’s end, and led the team in interceptions. I do hope there’s some sort of handshake buyback with Atalanta, because if he proves himself there, he’d be very useful in this team.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 5.5. Made one nice pass that led to Frabotta’s near miss, but didn’t really contribute much in either phase. Zaniolo overpowering him on the third goal was a sign of how hard the condensed schedule has been even on a guy with an engine like this one.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 5. Made one key pass but didn’t have much impact elsewhere, and just looked terrible trying to stop Zaniolo on the run for Perotti’s second. It’s entirely possible that he just saw his replacement. Really needs to take a step as the Champions League arrives unless Douglas Costa makes a miraculous recovery.
GONZALO HIGUAIN - 6.5. Smartly taken goal, and he worked so damn hard for the rest of the game, nearly setting up a goal for Ramsey and not letting up until it was time for him to leave the field. In what might’ve been his final game in Serie A.
LUCA ZANIMACCHIA - 5.5. Led the team with four tackles and gave a lot of effort, although his end product wasn’t quite where it was against Cagliari in midweek. Still an intriguing prospect who could provide something in the future.
AARON RAMSEY - 6. Probably his best performance of the restart, hitting the post and making more key passes in 40 minutes than anyone in the starting XI did. The run into the channel that he made when he hit the post is the kind of run the team is going to need with consistency if they’re to overturn the deficit against Lyon.
MERIH DEMIRAL - 5. It was good just to see him on the field, but the rust was obvious. Unless his injury has career-altering side effects — and while not common anymore it can still happen — he’ll be fine over the long term.
MARCO OLIVIERI - 6. Nearly scored and was energetic up top.
CARLO PINSOGLIO - NR. Pinso time is the best time.
GIACOMO VRIONI - NR. On late to give Higuain a rest.
Martusciello almost certainly had a plan to work from, but he did well distributing minutes. Rabiot, whose workload has increased in recent weeks and was probably the most important player on the pitch on the day, was withdrawn early, as was Bonucci. By game’s end he got the guys who would be needed on Friday off the field and rested. That’s all that any coach needed to do in a game like this. Everyone came through healthy and ready for Lyon, and that’s what matters.
The Serie A season is over — but there’s still more to come.
The European season finally restarts this week. Juventus will play the second leg of their Champions League round of 16 tie against Lyon on Friday in Turin. Lyon lead 1-0 after the first leg in France, meaning Juve need to win by two in order to win outright. A 1-0 win would trigger extra time and penalties.
Watch this space this week for Episode 13 of The Old Lady Speaks, which will be a full Champions League preview!