It was perhaps the easiest headline of the year to write, barring the local derbies. Maurizio Sarri, who 18 months ago won what would be the last of nine consecutive titles for Juventus before getting the boot days later amid Champions League defeat and rumors of locker room unrest, welcoming his old team to his new home at Lazio for a first opportunity to get revenge.
The subplot was perhaps even juicier, especially in a place like Italy. Juve were led into the Stadio Olimpico by Massimiliano Allegri, who the Juve front office had replaced with Sarri in 2019 in an effort to make the team’s football more attacking and attractive as opposed to Allegri’s pragmatic, if somewhat stuffy approach. In a country as tactics-obsessed as this one, the column inches wrote themselves.
As for the game itself, the details went about as you would expect them to. With both teams missing key players — including each team’s lead attacker — Lazio seized possession and kept it — though not quite as much as one would have expected by the end — while Juve looked to stay tight in defense and break out on the counter. After 90 minutes, the absences clearly took a bigger toll on the home side. The Biancocelesti were unable to find a way to penetrate without their star forward, while a wasteful Bianconeri side took advantage of two mistakes to pot a pair of penalties in a 2-0 win, vaulting themselves a few places up the table and taking a big result in the first of a week of really important games.
Allegri’s starting formation was listed differently everywhere you turned, with a couple variations on a three man defense being proposed, but was really the weird 4-4-2 hybrid thing he’s been using all year. A laundry list of missing players, including Paulo Dybala, Giorgio Chiellini, Federico Bernardeschi, and Mattia De Sciglio, saw a few players mixed and matched in different spots. Wojciech Szczesny took the gloves behind a defense made up of Danilo, Matthijs de Ligt, Leonardo Bonucci, and Luca Pellegrini, a surprise starter with Alex Sandro being rested after the international break. Juan Cuadrado, Weston McKennie, Manuel Locatelli, and Adrien Rabiot made up the midfield strake, with Federico Chiesa and Alvaro Morata forming the strike pair at the top.
Sarri’s big miss was Ciro Immobile, who developed a calf strain just before international duty and was still unfit to even make the bench as domestic play resumed, forcing some adjustments to Sarri’s usual 4-3-3. Pepe Reina started in goal behind the defense of Manuel Lazzari, Luiz Felipe, Francesco Acerbi, and Elseid Hysaj. Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, Danilo Cataldi, and Luis Alberto made up the midfield trio. The reworked attacking trident saw Pedro slot in as a false 9 between the wings of Felipe Anderson and Mattia Zaccagni.
Lazio came out roaring in their press, looking to swarm Juve and force them into mistakes. Juve didn’t look completely toothless, taking a couple of long balls into the Lazio box, but they were sunk by indecisiveness in the box, whereas the home side, when an opportunity was presented to shoot, immediately took initiative. Fortunately for Juve, both Anderson and Lazzari had a rather large Dutchman in the way of their efforts, and de Ligt successfully blocked both attempts.
Sarri’s plan was clear from the start: use his signature style of on-the-deck passes and movement to pull Juve’s lines apart and play through them. Problem was, without Immobile, his attack didn’t have a reference point or hold-up play, and Milinkovic-Savic’s occasional forays into the box as an aerial target didn’t present enough of a threat when they got the ball out wide. Juve weathered the quick early storm and then began to play one of the most organized defensive games they’ve played in years. They were compact, organized, strong to close the man on the ball. They allowed Lazio to play Sarrismo from side to side outside the box, but hardly ever any penetration into it.
But that didn’t mean they were playing the perfect match. Their attempts to advance the ball on the counter weren’t really creating all that much, and the selection problem went from bad to worse just over 10 minutes in when Danilo was involved in a nasty collision with Hysaj and took a hard shot to the inner thigh. He was stretchered off the field and replaced by Dejan Kulusevski, which altered the formation into something that acted more like a 4-5-1 than anything else, with Cuadrado dropping into Danilo’s vacant full-back spot.
Ten minutes later, the first big break of the game came Juve’s way.
It started with Pellegrini, who had been giving the in-form Anderson fits over the first 20 minutes of the game and was excellent overall. He also came forward a few times as Juventus started to get a little bit more into the game, and he put in a good low ball into the box for Morata on the overlap. Morata took the ball with an excellent touch and then went down under the challenge of Cataldi. Referee Marco Di Bello didn’t make any initial moves, and not even Morata made any appeals for a call, but when a cross from Chiesa was put behind seconds later, VAR official Luca Banti buzzed down to the field.
This was the kind of situation that VAR was truly meant for, and unlike a lot of other VAR calls recently, this one was crystal clear. In real time the tackle had looked pretty darn good, but the slow motion showed just how exquisite Morata’s touch had actually been, flipping the ball up to himself in preparation to turn as Cataldi’s challenge came in, missing the ball entirely and taking the striker down. Di Bello didn’t need long to come back and point to the spot. With Dybala out, Bonucci stepped up to take the penalty. He was nails, cracking a fantastic shot high into the net to his right even as Reina guessed the right way. It was a moment that will reignite the “who takes Italy’s penalties?” debate in the media, and it put Juve in front.
The rest of the half went with a relatively even cadence: Lazio attacked, but Juve soaked them up and completely neutralized them. Milinkovic-Savic had the hosts’ two best attempts before the break. A good-looking free kick just missed clearing the wall in the 34th minute, and two minutes and two corners later the ball fell to him outside the box for him to take a whack, but the shot flew right into Szczesny’s gut. No one would know it at the time, but it would be the only Lazio shot that found the target. On the other end Morata nearly put his name on the sheet on a counter five minutes from the break when Cuadrado found him with a cross after a neat counter, but the Colombian’s cross was just behind him, forcing him into an acrobatic roundhouse attempt that skied just over the bar.
There were more chances to double the lead right after the restart when Kulusevski charged into the box. Alone with his only support well-covered, the Sweden international had little choice but to take it himself and fired low at the near post, with Reina tipping it around. Pellegrini’s delivery on the ensuing corner was excellent and the defensive header only dropped right to Bonucci’s feet in the six yard box, but he could only push it wide. That was followed by an absolute waste of a chance when Chiesa burst past three defenders to trigger a four-on-two rush. He passed the ball to Kulusevski on his right, but the winger got the ball stuck in his feet and couldn’t get into shooting position nor could he pass to the three runners on his left.
All that came within the first five minutes of the half, and Juve could easily have had the game in had at that point. But Juve kept the game under total control, not allowing Lazio to get into any sort of threatening position whatsoever. Sarri finally sent on the much maligned Vedat Muriqi to serve as a true center-forward in the 65th minute, but the low quality of Muriqi’s play didn’t help make the home side any more incisive. As the game wore on, they looked more and more like the Sarri’s Juve squad on their bad days, when they would move the ball everywhere but fail to actually break anyone down. Juve, meanwhile, kept on countering but couldn’t fashion any real chances out of decent positions.
With 15 minutes to go Allegri made a slight adjustment, sending on Moise Kean in place of Morata. Kean had just been coming off fitness issues, but he showed a great spring in his step, forcing Acerbi to block a shot within 60 seconds of his introduction, then looping a header just past the upper corner of the goal after the ensuing corner kick. Lazio continued to crash against the rocks that were Juve, but little came of their efforts. But the game remained in the balance with the score 1-0, and with 11 minutes to Milinkovic-Savic cushioned a header into the path of Muriqi, who mistimed his leap and completely missed with the goal at his mercy, drawing ever more ire from the Lazio faithful.
Some uncomfortable memories of last year’s visit to the Olimpico, when Juventus led 1-0 for much of the game only to cough up an equalizer on the last kick of the game, were starting to creep in. But only a minute after Muriqi’s miss, Juve finally managed to seal the deal.
This time it came in the form of a gift from Reina. Brought in for stability and experience, the Spanish keeper inexplicably charged 20 yards out of his goal after Chiesa was released upfield. The winger easily slipped past his sliding challenge and began lining himself up to fire into the empty net. Reina desperately tried to recover but only succeeded in bringing Chiesa down from behind for one of the easiest penalty calls Di Bello will ever make in his life. Luis Alberto was booked for vociferously demanding a foul be called on De Ligt in the buildup, but Bonucci lined it up again and went the same way, this time with Reina going the other way, and the deal was sealed.
The last of Lazio’s energy drained away. Juve looked the more likely to add an emphasis as opposed to Lazio grabbing a consolation. Kean was twice turned away by Reina in the last five minutes, and after five more minutes of stoppage time Di Bello ended the night, sending Juve home with three huge points.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 7. Had hardly anything to do in terms of saves, but kept the defense well organized as they completely denied Lazio anything. He’s looking more and more like the Woj of 2018-20 with every game.
DANILO - NR. Took a really hard shot to the inside of the thigh and was withdrawn after 10 minutes. Hopefully he’ll be ok soon.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 7.5. Led the team with six clearances and constantly tracked Milinkovic-Savic on the occasions that he ran into the box to serve as the aerial threat. Rock solid.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 8.5. A stellar game reminiscent of the times before the Milan incident. Ice cold on both of his penalties, rock-solid in defense (four clearances) and deadly accurate in distribution, completing 93.2 percent of his passes and six of eight long balls. He did his armband proud in this one.
LUCA PELLEGRINI - 7.5. We could look back on this game as the day that Pellegrini broke out. He completely shackled one of the most in-form wingers in the league in Felipe Anderson. He didn’t rack up anything in the counting stats department, but his positioning was excellent, denying crosses, disrupting passing lanes, and at one point in the first half simply getting in between Anderson and the ball as he dribbled and shielding the ball out for a goal kick. He also got forward well, registering two dribbles and helping create the first penalty. Why was this kid left out on loan for two years?
JUAN CUADRADO - 6. Made three tackles after dropping into the back four following Danilo’s injury, and added in a key pass in attack. He might end up needing some rest soon, but he’ll have to slog through the next two games at least.
WESTON McKENNIE - 6. Very stout defensively, and added some support to attack when Juve were able to pour numbers forward. Mostly, though, he was a valuable defensive piece as the team weathered Lazio’s possession.
MANUEL LOCATELLI - 6. Led the team with four interceptions. His passing was decent, although he almost caused a catastrophe when he hit a back pass short, but Szczesny was able to clear it. Hopefully him holding his hamstring at the end of the game was just a cramp.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 6. His production going forward still left a lot to be desired, although he was better when he was kicked inside as the team morphed into a 4-5-1 after Danilo’s departure. However, his defensive efforts were great, going toe-to-toe with Milinkovic- Savic, severely denting his ability to assist in the attack and buildup. He had three tackles and three interceptions on the defensive end. Now he just had to even things out.
FEDERICO CHIESA - 6.5. Made a ton of really dangerous runs up the field, racking up a game-high seven dribbles, but he wasn’t quite as lethal as he could have been. Needs to make his decisions a little quicker, and if that decision is to let fly he needs to do so immediately.
ALVARO MORATA - 6. Played well, holding the ball up, joining the counter, and earning the first penalty. Didn’t quite get the service he’d have liked, and he isn’t as dynamic running with the ball as Kean is, but he made some really good touches to keep possession and allow attacks to continue.
DEJAN KULUSEVSKI - 5. Unfortunately his feet tended to be where attacks went to die. Got himself tied up in himself a few times when he was in a really dangerous spot. His brain and his body aren’t in sync right now, and it’s causing him to question everything and make his decisions too late. We’ve seen how good he can be at the end of last year, but he’s gotta get back there.
MOISE KEAN - 6. A ton of dynamism off the bench. In 15 minutes he took four shots, two of them on target, and completed more dribbles than any Lazio player did all game. It shows you just how dangerous he can be when he’s fit, and he’s maybe put a question in Allegri’s mind as to whether or not he should be starting as the prima punta soon.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - NR. On late to shore up the midfield for an ailing Locatelli.
Allegri has been setting the team up to defend and counter for most of the season, but today lent itself to it better than some others. Without Immobile, Sarri simply didn’t have the kind of ammunition to pull Juve’s lines apart, and the team held together wonderfully while Lazio danced around throwing jabs but never following it up with power shots.
That said, seeing Rabiot’s name on the team sheet where it was was more than a little frustrating when lineups came out. Keeping him out on the left is really wearing thin. While losing Danilo was most unfortunate, it had the somewhat positive knock-on of moving Rabiot more central, and the decision to have him latch on to Milinkovic-Savic — who, with Immobile gone, was probably Lazio’s most dangerous player — and largely neutralize him was a huge part of defanging Sarri’s team.
As successful as the day ultimately was, this team needs to kill games off earlier. Leaving a 1-0 lead so late is always a gamble, and if Immobile’s backup was anyone even slightly better than Muriqi, one of the biggest Serie A transfer flops of the last 10 years, the score would’ve been tied with 10 minutes to go, and the team likely would’ve thrown away more points. If Juve are going to look to do the same to Atalanta in a week’s time, they can’t expect to be so lucky.
Juve’s big week continues on Tuesday when they fly to London to face Chelsea in a Champions League group stage tie. With a three-point lead over the defending European champions, a draw would be sufficient to clinch the group with a game to spare.
After that, they face another stern test in Atalanta, the team directly above them in the fourth and final Champions League position. La Dea are currently four points ahead of Juve, and a win at the Allianz would be a huge moment in the race for the top spots. Then it’s another midweek fixture the following Tuesday at Salernitana.