The expectation of Saturday’s clash between Juventus and Roma was a lively shootout. Roma had come into the game third in the league in goals, Juve tied for fifth and starting to finally find a groove that would make their big guns even more dangerous. In this third-versus-fourth clash, attacking football was expected to be the order of the day.
Instead, Andrea Pirlo defied expectation and decided to eschew his usual high press, sit back, and allow Roma to come at him. The decision had some merit. With Lorenzo Pellegrini suspended and Edin Dzeko starting the game on the bench as his feud with coach Paulo Fonseca was reduced to a simmer, the Giallorossi were missing their main creative force and by far their best finisher.
Pirlo set his team up and dared Fonseca’s men to beat him — and they couldn’t.
It certainly wasn’t grandstand viewing, especially if you were a Juve fan. The Bianconeri were outshot 14-3 and didn’t actually register a shot in the second half. But Roma only hit the target with three of those shots, the first of which came 68 minutes into the match. Juve, on the other hand, emulated WWE superstar Randy Orton and brought their finishing moves from outta nowhere. Two of their three shots were on frame and the third was blocked onto the crossbar. The first of those, a left-footed snooker that Cristiano Ronaldo pulled from out of the ether somewhere, gave Juve a surprise lead after Roma started the game barely giving the home team a touch. That lead stayed intact for the rest of the night, and just as Roma looked to be picking up their intensity when Dzeko checked into the game, Pirlo’s first two subs combined on another surprise move to force an own goal, sealing the deal for a 2-0 win that pushed the Old Lady two points past Roma for third and sending a signal to the two Milan teams that the title race may not be an all-Lombardy affair after all.
Pirlo had a minor crunch in midfield for this one, with Aaron Ramsey injured and Rodrigo Bentancur suspended due to yellow card accumulation. His 3-5-2/4-4-2 hybrid therefore leaned heavily on the midfield trio of Adrien Rabiot, Arthur, and Weston McKennie. Wojciech Szczesny started in goal behind the trio of Danilo, Leonardo Bonucci, and Giorgio Chiellini, with Federico Chiesa and Alex Sandro serving as the wing-backs. Ronaldo paired up with Alvaro Morata up front.
Pellegrini wasn’t the only absence Fonseca had to account for, as Chris Smalling also missed out due to a thigh injury. The Portuguese coach used a setup that lined up as a 3-5-1-1 that almost verged on a 3-4-2-1. Pau Lopez took up the keeper’s gloves, with Marash Kumbulla, Roger Ibanez, and Gianluca Mancini were stationed in front of him. Rick Karsdorp and former Juve prospect Leonardo Spinazzola served as the wing-backs, with Jordan Veretout and Gonzalo Villar sandwiched between them. Bryan Cristante pushed slighly forward in the position usually played by Pellegrini, joining Henrikh Mkhitaryan in support of Borja Mayoral.
Roma started the game on the front foot with an extended period of possession. Spinazzola had a cross into the box within seconds of the start, and Veretout put the ball in a dangerous area after beating Bonucci up the attacking left for pace only to have it dug out of the box by Sandro. Juve looked like they couldn’t string more than two passes together, but their first punch of the game scored a knockdown in the 13th minute. It all started with Sandro, who gave ground in order to twist away from the attention of Cristante and advance into the box. He squared it to Morata, who laid it back to Ronaldo inside the penalty arc. He stopped the ball with his right foot and immediately fired a shot with his left. The shot wasn’t particularly powerful, but it was released so quickly that it caught Lopez flat-footed, and was in the perfect spot to evade the Spaniard’s despairing dive.
Roma spent most of the rest of the half in Juve territory with the ball, but provided precious little in the way of true threat. Juve’s defense, led by a vintage performance from Chiellini, nullified most of their possession, and despite seven corners the capital club didn’t put a single shot on frame. The closest they came to scoring was a well-hit volley by Cristante in the 21st minute that came after a lot of head tennis in the box following a corner, but the shot bent just beyond the post.
A minute later, Ronaldo came this close to doubling his tally, latching on to a great diagonal ball into the channel from his strike partner and lining up his shot, but Kumbulla got just enough of a touch to it to send it bouncing off the grass and off the underside off the crossbar. Ronaldo seemed rather convinced that the ball had come down on the other side of the line, despite the fact that the goal-line technology had shown that it had in fact bounced a good deal short of it. His protests produced one of the most humorous moments of the season when referee Daniele Orsato pointed to his watch, indicating the GLT, and Ronaldo reached out for the official’s wrist to check it himself.
Roma continued to enjoy a lot of fruitless possession, while Juve absorbed the pressure and forced their visitors into a lot of lateral passes. Roma earned seven corners over the course of the half but only managed a single shot out of them when Mancini bundled the ball wide in the 27th minute. Ronaldo had another chance to land a punch with four minutes left in the period when he latched on to yet another excellent long ball into the channel by Morata, but his shot was punched away by a diving Lopez. It would be the last shot Juve was given credit for all game.
The Bianconeri actually created the first big chance of the second half when Chiesa fought through traffic to keep the ball in near the byline and stabbed it toward Ronaldo in the middle, but Mancini got it clear. Roma continued to hem Juve into their own half in terms of possession, but it was less of a siege and more of a distant blockade, with very little threat to Szczesny’s goal. Still, they had two shots blocked just before the hour mark, and perhaps sensing a shift in momentum Fonseca played his trump card and let Dzeko out of jail, marking the Bosnian’s first apperance since coming on as a sub in the Coppa Italia quarterfinal. He immediately moved the needle, and in the 68th minute he created his team’s first shot on target when he won an aerial duel to set up fellow substitute Carles Perez for a volley from the edge of the penalty arc that was easily stopped and gathered by Szczesny.
A minute later, Juve nailed their second RKO. A rare foray into Roma territory saw Juan Cuadrado feed Dejan Kulusevski with an excellent pass into the channel. The Swede’s run was equally as good, and he laid a cross along the top of the six-yard box. Ronaldo was waiting on the end of it, and a backtracking Ibanez must have thought he had only one option — get the ball away from the Portuguese at any cost. In fact, Kulusevski’s ball might’ve been going slightly behind Ronaldo, but Ibanez couldn’t have known that and slid in, hoping to hit the ball anywhere but where it eventually ended up — the back of his own net.
Roma tried to up their tempo down two goals, but even though Dzeko finally started giving Roma a little life in the box and actually competing with the Juve center backs, it still produced little and less. Bonucci had to limp off late after heading a long ball away from Perez, but unfortunately for the visitors his replacement was Matthijs de Ligt, who helped his team easily see out the last six minutes plus stoppages to confirm their victory and vault themselves over their opponents and into third place.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 7. He had very little to do in the way of dealing with shots, but he dealt with crosses in his penalty area very well, and had a big hand in marshaling a defense that nullified Roma’s high-powered attack for almost the entire night.
DANILO - 7. Blocked two shots and didn’t let anyone get the better of him. When he had the opportunity he got himself upfield to support the attack, but those were few and far between given the nature of the game.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 7. Another good game in a string of them, he played well again. If one had to nitpick, he could’ve used his passing range to break Juve out a little more, but that’s splitting hairs.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 8. Swallowed up Borja Mayoral and racked up a game-high six clearances. After he was out for such a long time, to see him turning in vintage performances like this is really gratifying — to say nothing of the effect it has on the rest of the defense.
FEDERICO CHIESA - 5.5. He made three tackles on the defensive end, but was also beaten by Spinazzola a few times too many, and his attacking contribution was practically nonexistent.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 6.5. A strong game from the Frenchman. He completed every pass he attempted and made a game-high four tackles, with three clearances as well.
ARTHUR - 6. Kept possession well with his tiny circles, and he was the only player on the team other than Morata to be credited with a key pass. His passing range has started to open up and see a lot more passes forward, but he can still get even better.
WESTON McKENNIE - 5. Harried players in midfield, but his passing was wonky and he didn’t make the big runs into the box he’s been making during Juve’s rare attacks. He’s looking a little low on energy right now, but there’s not much opportunity to rest him in the near future.
ALEX SANDRO - 7. His role in the opening goal shouldn’t be overlooked, and he was tight defensively as well, making a tackle, two interceptions, and three clearances. For the most part he kept Karsdorp from doing much on his flank.
ALVARO MORATA - 6.5. Contributed two of the team’s three key passes, including the assist to Ronaldo’s opener that was tricker than it looked. Did a lot of work tracking back to help the defense, recording two clearances and an assist.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 6.5. The opener was expertly taken and he was close to a second before the break, but he tailed off a little after the restart. He was also caught offside a little too much.
JUAN CUADRADO - 6. A marvelous pass to set up the second goal, and solid defense on the right flank to close the game out.
DEJAN KULUSEVSKI - 6. Made a great run and cross to force Ibanez to put the ball into his own net.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - NR. A little confusing where he played, to be honest. He almost looked like a midfielder toward the end there. Helped play out the last few minutes of the game.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - NR. Tight defensively at the end. Stepped out of the defense to interdict a ball into the box in stoppage time that could’ve caused some problems.
MERIH DEMIRAL - NR. Made a single interception in his six minutes of action as he strengthened the back end late.
Paulo Fonseca may have used his press conference to claim that Roma forced Juve into defending the way they did, but that sounds like the bluster of a coach under fire that needs to protect his job. Andrea Pirlo changed things up, sat back, and let Fonseca come to him, and confirmed as much in his own presser. It was a smart move. Not only did it take advantage of Roma’s absentees, it also showed that Pirlo is learning from previous encounters. When they met in September the high press almost worked against itself, and Roma were able to create dangerous breakouts. This time Juve kept the game in front of them and neutralized one of the most high-powered attacks in the game. Had Dzeko been starting it might have been a bit more of a white-knuckle proposition, because he was competing with the center-backs far better than Mayoral had, but Pirlo has shown enough flexibility within his favored shape to have likely adjusted to that eventuality had it occurred.
Indeed, Pirlo’s assertion that the thing he’s learned most this year is to vary things and become less predictable is a huge indication of his development as a coach. Predictability may have been his predecessor’s downfall, and early in the season it started to look like it might’ve been a weakness in his as well as his high press started getting hit hard on the counter. But Pirlo has adjusted his game plans, covering counters better while still employing the press he desires and, now, showing a willingness to put it aside altogether if he thinks the situation calls for it.
Juve are now in third place in Serie A. If AC Milan win their game against Crotone on Sunday, they’ll be seven points behind the leaders. If Milan drop points, they’ll either be tied with Inter five points ahead or in second with a four-point advantage. Juve’s game in hand looms large.
The next game on the schedule comes Tuesday, as Juve take a 2-1 lead into the second leg of the Coppa Italia semifinal against Inter. A win, any draw, or even a 1-0 loss will send them into the final for a second year in a row.
After that comes a trip to Naples to face Gennaro Gattuso’s Napoli, followed by the first leg of the Champions League Round of 16 against Porto to cap off a grueling two-week stretch of fixtures.