Disaster was in the air in Turin.
A badly shorthanded Juventus side was down 1-0 to Lazio at home in a game they absolutely had to have and been completely dominated the first 20 minutes of the game. Drop more points here, and any faint hope of a 10th consecutive Scudetto would be well and truly over. Things looked bad. In those first 20 minutes Juve looked much like they had after they had given up their lead against Verona last week — like they were so devoid of ideas that they could’ve played for a week and not scored.
But then something rather unexpected happened.
Like the ghosts of their predecessors over the last nine years, they rose up and regained the initiative. Perhaps it was a product of getting angry after an egregious miss on a penalty call from referee Davide Massa. Maybe they just clicked into the new setup that was forced on them by the absences. But they climbed back into the game when Adrien Rabiot hit what I like to call a Randy Orton goal (read: FROM OUTTA NOWHERE!), and in the second half outplayed and outlasted a Lazio side that should have had a stamina advantage after having their midweek fixture postponed due to COVID-19, turning the game on its head with two goals in three minutes and seeing out a massive 3-1 victory that put pressure on AC Milan and Inter, who are facing tricky tests later in the week against Verona and Atalanta, respectively.
Andrea Pirlo’s selection crisis continued heading into the fixture. Giorgio Chiellini and Paulo Dybala were still long-term absentees. Also missing was Matthijs de Ligt, who sat to rest the calf issue he suffered at Verona, and Rodrigo Bentancur, who tested positive for COVID-19 on Thursday. Cristiano Ronaldo and Weston McKennie were both carrying nagging injuries and were rested from the start, as was Leonardo Bonucci, who made his return to the squad from his own muscle injury.
With so few choices, Pirlo pulled out one of the craziest improvisations we’ve seen out of a Juventus coach since Massimiliano Allegri nearly pulled off a shorthanded win over Bayern Munich in the second leg of the Champions League Round of 16 in 2015-16. Rather than his traditional 3-5-2/4-4-2 hybrid, Pirlo sent out a 4-2-3-1 with players in ... weird places. Wojciech Szczesny took his usual spot in goal, with the defensive line in front of him consisting of a returning Juan Cuadrado, Merih Demiral, Alex Sandro, and — of all people — Federico Bernardeschi. Danilo was deployed as a midfielder alongside Rabiot. Dejan Kulusevski, Aaron Ramsey, and Federico Chiesa formed the bank of three behind Alvaro Morata.
Lazio manager Simone Inzaghi had some problems of his own. Manuel Lazzari, Luiz Felipe and Stefan Radu were all out, forcing Inzaghi into some changes in the back of his traditional 3-5-2. Pepe Reina stood in goal, with Francesco Acerbi, Adam Marusic, and Wesley Hoedt screening him. Senad Lulic and Mohammed Fares played as the wing-backs, bookending the midfield trio of Lucas Leiva, Luis Alberto, and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic. Ciro Immobile and Joaquin Correa played up front.
The troubles started almost immediately. Cuadrado had missed nearly a month with a hamstring injury, and unlike his return from COVID-19 in the Supercoppa the rust was very much evident. In the fourth minute, he tried to intercept a pass but instead chested it right to Fares, who had a free run to the box, where he unleashed a powerful drive that flashed over the bar by less than a foot. Massa had a downright terrible game in charge, and it started early when he refused to call a foul when Morata was clearly pulled down by the shoulder as he tried to chase a ball over the top.
Lazio had a dangerous opportunity when Kulusevski gave away a free kick 25 yards out. Milinkovic-Savic hit a powerful shot that headed for the far post, but didn’t get the bend he needed with Szczesny perhaps beaten if it had come back. Lazio continued to boss the game, and in the 14th minute their dominance paid off. As with so many of the negatives this season, this one was entirely self-inflicted. The latest bullet to the foot came in the form of an egregiously stupid back pass by Kulusevski, who was ostensibly looking for Demiral but instead kicked the ball straight to Correa. The Lazio striker scampered into the box and easily—too easily—turned Demiral around. Szcznsey was stranded and had to make a decision about where to go, and when he moved toward the far post the Argentine slid the ball under Demiral’s leg and into the goal at the near post.
Lazio continued to press on, and in the 20th minute got another opportunity when Juve stood protesting a foul call and Alberto took the free kick quickly, allowing Milikovic-Savic to drive toward the box and curl a low shot toward the far corner and forcing Szczesny to get down to punch it away. Then Alberto had a shot after he was allowed to run through the middle of the field, but hit a shot right at Szczesny that was easily smothered.
Juve was getting absolutely nowhere, but they should have had the chance to equalize from the penalty spot in the 24th minute when Ramsey sent Chiesa into the box. The defense got to the pass first, but it was deflected off of the outstretched hand of Hoedt. It was one of the most blatant handballs you’ll see all year, with Hoedt’s hand clearly making himself bigger and altering the flight of the ball. Massa, however, waved all appeals away, and whoever was in the VAR booth was apparently in the bathroom or something.
That no-call seemed to be a turning point, because Juve slowly started to get themselves into the game after that. Eight minutes later, they finally registered their first shot when Ramsey chopped the ball to the inside and fired wide of the far post. A few minutes later, Morata got a free header off a free kick. It was just a shade away from a sitter, but the ball flashed wide.
But the Spaniard made up for it less than 60 seconds later. He took a pass from Bernardeschi and sent the ball through for Rabiot, who had found a huge hole between Hoedt and Acerbi. His angle was extraordinarily tight — level with the six-yard box but a few yards to the left. Reina clearly thought he would either shoot low to the far post or put the ball across for the run of Ramsey. Instead the Frenchman ripped a first-time shot into the upper near corner, leaving Reina staring at the ground where he had been expecting the ball to go.
Fares had a chance to reinstate the lead on the stroke of halftime, but missed wide, and Massa sent the teams into the locker rooms on level terms. The second half started end to end with each team zipping back the other way the minute they gained the ball. Four minutes in Chiesa freed himself from the attention of Marusic with a fantastic spin move and hit a hard shot to the near post that Reina got one hand to to top around the post. Lazio came even closer on the other end three minutes later when Acerbi put the ball into the box and Milinkovic-Savic evaded the attentions of Bernardeschi to get on the end of it. That he even put the header close to the target was incredible — he had his back to the goal and was twisting to direct it goalwards — but the ball clipped off the top of the bar and over.
The game continued to work back and forth, an entertaining matchup for the neutral but likely a source of agita for a fan of either side. Then things turned on a dime after a wild passage of play in the 57th minute. After Morata was pulled down from behind in the penalty area — another big miss by the officiating crew — leading to a Lazio counter. But Fares pulled up and the attack lost momentum. As they attempted to recycle, Chiesa jumped in between substitutes Patric and Gonzalo Escalante, triggering a 2-on-1 break. He pushed it forward for Morata, who beat Hoedt to the pass, took one touch to settle, then blasted the ball in high at the near post.
Lazio have always had problems getting back up after they get hit, and this game was no different, because a moment of complete stupidity allowed Juve to find the final margin. Ramsey had been put into the left channel by a through pass from Kulusevski, but was immediately cut off from cutting inside by a group of three defenders and was forced to back off and move wide. He posed no danger in that position, but Milinkovic-Savic lost his head and bundled him over from behind. This time Massa pointed to the spot without any hesitation, and Morata duly dispatched the penalty, slotting it to his right as Reina went the other way.
Now well and truly in command, Juve spent the next 30 minutes neatly finishing the game out.
Immobile, who had never really gotten into the game, pulled out a long-range strike with 15 minutes left that forced Szczesny into a diving save, but the visitors didn’t put the ball on frame again. They did come very close to forcing a grandstand finish when Fares lashed the ball into the side netting right at the end of the game, but for the most part things went smoothly as Pirlo made a couple of changes to more closely resemble his usual 3-5-2 to see things out, and when Massa lifted his whistle to his lips for the final time, Juve had a huge victory, both materially and psychologically.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 8. Made a couple of excellent saves, one of which was really important to keep Juve in the game in the first half. Had to keep an entirely different formation in line ahead of him and for the most part did so very well.
JUAN CUADRADO - 5.5. Grew into the game after a bad start, but definitely wasn’t his usual self until later in his shift and wasn’t the same kind of threat as he normally is going forward. If this game shook off the rust for Porto, so much the better.
MERIH DEMIRAL - 6. His defending on the goal wasn’t great, but he had also been put into a really bad spot by Kulusevski. The rest of his day was pretty good, leading the team with five tackles and making four interceptions. That last number is usually enough to lead a team, but ... we’ll get to that in a second.
ALEX SANDRO - 7.5. He was all over the place Saturday night, in the good way. Racked up two tackles, three interceptions, and four clearances. He defended intelligently, constantly shepherding balls out of play and drawing three fouls late.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 6. Terzino is the one place Bernardeschi didn’t play under Max Allegri or Maurizio Sarri, but he ... might not be terrible there? While not necessarily spectacular, he did what he needed to do, defending well and making the most of his occasional forays farther upfield, notching a key pass and drawing four fouls.
DANILO - 8. Yeah, this one was insane. When I realized he was playing in midfield my jaw hit the ground, but he did an excellent job. He made an absolutely absurd eight interceptions, to go along with four tackles. When he won the ball back he got it upfield immediately, and he completed six of seven long passes. He’s been so good this year, and to play as a midfielder crazy in the best way.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 7.5. What an amazing finish that was! Nine times out of 10 that shot is going to go into the second deck, but he placed it perfectly from an insane angle. He was just as active defensively, making four tackles and three interceptions.
DEJAN KULUSEVSKI - 5. Allowed to play his natural right wing position for the first time in a Juve shirt, but didn’t have a particularly good day of it. The mistake he made to allow Lazio their goal was horrific, on par with Bentancur’s screw-up against Porto two weeks ago. While he did get credit for two key passes — the only player on the team to notch more than one — he once again seemed hesitant and made less of an impact than he could have. He does get credit for a nice defensive contribution with three tackles.
AARON RAMSEY - 6. The only non-defender to complete more than 90 percent of his passes, and his gain of the penalty was intelligent. Could maybe have used some of his runs a little better, though.
FEDERICO CHIESA - 8. Created the go-ahead goal with an excellent move to win the ball and then set up Morata, and was unlucky not to score himself with that pretty spin move early in the second half. Made a huge contribution to the press, making four tackles and two interceptions. Rapidly making a serious case for team MVP.
ALVARO MORATA - 8. Took both goals with aplomb and was just as good picking out the pass to Rabiot for the equalizer. With Ronaldo starting on the bench he needed to step up to lead the line and he did that. His presence could be critical on Tuesday.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 5.5. Wasn’t all that involved when he came on, only touching the ball six times. With the score the way it was it would’ve been nice to see him stay on the bench, but with Morata still on a pitch count after his bout with cytomegalovirus he was the only forward that could come off the bench.
ARTHUR - 6. It was an unexpected pleasure to see him get a run out before the Porto game. He was a willing defender, posting a tackle and two clearances in his 20 minutes of work.
WESTON McKENNIE - 6. Two tackles as he came on to solidify the midfield and protect the lead in the later phases.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - NR. Made a pair of clearances in nine minutes of work to keep things tight in defense.
ALESSANDRO DI PARDO - NR. A late time-waster.
I don’t know what part of the ether Andrea Pirlo cooked this alignment up in. Had the game stayed the way it was looking in the first 20 minutes, he would have been pilloried. Danilo as a midfielder? Seriously?
But his players gradually worked their way into the game, and whatever he said at halftime kicked the team into another gear. Anyone who has criticized him for not getting the team motivated will be stymied by the way they managed to change this game. This was the kind of dig-deep win that the Juve teams he played on would get — and it can’t be overstated that this was with an emergency squad. I also think it’s important from a psychological standpoint that the team flipped the script before Ronaldo came onto the field. It dealt a blow to the “they can’t do it without Ronaldo” narrative that has been cropping up, and has to give the players the confidence that they can do things without him, regardless of whether he’s on the pitch.
If Pirlo can get the kind of performance he got in the last 65 minute or so out of his players on a regular basis, the latter parts of the season are going to be very interesting to watch.
The biggest game of the year to this point comes on Tuesday when Porto comes to turn for the second leg of the Champions League round of 16. Like the last two years, Juve are coming into the second leg with a deficit to overturn after losing 2-1 at the Estadio do Dragao a few weeks ago. Juventus must win to advance, but the margin is important. A 1-0 win will send them through on away goals. Should Porto score, things get more complicated. If they don’t keep a clean sheet, Juve will need a two-goal margin in order to get to the quarters, while a 2-1 win would force extra time and potentially penalties.
After that, the team travels to Sardinia to face Cagliari, followed by what might be the most significant league game of the season: the rescheduled Round 3 fixture against Napoli, which will go a long way toward determining whether Juventus can make a true run at defending their title one more time.