When the schedule was announced, I figured there wouldn’t be much of anything that would be able to eclipse the Round 3 storyline of Paulo Dybala making his return to the Allianz Stadium in a Roma shirt.
Then Juventus played like such flaming garbage on Monday against Sampdoria that all anyone could talk about in the run-up to Saturday’s match was how the Old Lady would respond to such a dire performance in their first big match of the season.
The answer, in the end, was ... mixed. The Bianconeri came out of the dugout like their collective hair was on fire, taking the lead in the blink of an eye. They then defied the usual tendencies of a Massimiliano Allegri team by keeping up the pressure and thoroughly dominating the first half as opposed to dropping into a defensive shell immediately after their goal.
Unfortunately, despite their efforts, they didn’t manage to put the game away. They were unlucky to see a goal chalked off by a VAR call that was the correct interpretation of a flawed rule, and after the halftime interval they gradually dropped off. Roma weren’t putting them under siege by any means, but they were hanging around, and in the end that cost Juve dearly when their marking went to hell on a corner kick, allowing Dybala to notch an assist when he sent the ball back into the mix from the back post. Roma had the better chances to win the game in its end phases, and as the teams went into the locker room Juve could only have been wondering what might have been in a game they should have won but instead finished with a 1-1 draw.
Allegri was still missing Paul Pogba and Angel Di Maria, as well as long-term absentees Federico Chiesa and Kaio Jorge. He stuck with his 4-3-3 shape but made a couple of changes after the debacle at Marassi. Wojciech Szczesny reclaimed his starting spot in goal after missing the first two games with a groin injury. With Leonardo Bonucci still hurt, Allegri opted for an unconventional solution rather than give Daniele Rugani another start or a debut to Federico Gatti. Danilo was moved inside to the center-back slot alongside Bremer, with Mattia De Sciglio and Alex Sandro flanking them. The biggest surprise of all was Allegri’s decision to give 19-year-old Fabio Miretti his first start of the season in midfield, playing alongside Manuel Locatelli and Adrien Rabiot. Juan Cuadrado, Dusan Vlahovic, and Filip Kostic started up front.
Jose Mourinho was also missing important pieces after Nicolo Zaniolo was carted off the field with a shoulder injury last week and Giorgino Wijnaldum was lost for three months after breaking his leg in training. He went with a 3-4-2-1 system, with Rui Patricio anchoring things in goal. Gianluca Mancini, Chris Smalling, and Ibanez made up the back three. Rick Karsdorp and Leonardo Spinazzola served as the wing-backs, flanking the midfield pair of Bryan Cristante and Nemanja Matic. Dybala was joined by Lorenzo Pellegrini in supporting striker Tammy Abraham.
The home side got off to about as incredible a start as you can imagine. Less than half a minute into the game a ferocious press forced a Roma turnover and a foul very much in shooting range. It had been since July 2020 that Juve had scored an honest to goodness direct free kick, but Vlahovic changed that and made an early Juve lead when he curled an absolutely gorgeous shot that left Rui Patricio rooted to his spot and kissed the bottom of the crossbar on it’s way into the net.
Juve regained the ball almost immediately after kickoff and continued to press the hell out of Mourinho’s men. Roma did register the game’s next shot, a long-range effort for Pellegrini right at Szczesny, but for the most part Roma could barely get two or three touches without losing the ball. in the 16th minute Kostic dispossessed Dybala and moved the ball forward to Miretti, who bamboozled Cristante and charged downfield. Cuadrado was running free in the right channel and the teenager fed him there. The Colombian’s first touch perhaps narrowed his angle a bit too much, but his powerful shot still forced Patricio to throw his hands over hi a two-handed parry away.
Just under 10 minutes later, Juve thought they had their second goal when Cuadrado laid the ball back for Locatelli, who rifled a stunning finish from outside the box. But referee Massimiliano Irrati was called to the VAR monitor for a look at the buildup play, which included the ball bouncing off Vlahovic’s arm. The touch looked like a simple product of Vlahovic readjusting his body and did little to change the trajectory of the ball, but the idiocy of the rules regarding handballs in buildup play remains in the law of the game, and the ruling to chalk the goal off was the correct one according to the rules—even though that rule is nonsense.
Juve continued to push Roma and pin them back. Just after the half-hour mark Kostic found Miretti with a neat ball in the box, but his shot was charged down before he could make the most of it. Three minutes later, another free kick at the right corner of the penalty arc saw Cuadrado bypass the wall with a low shot to the far corner, but Patricio stood his ground rather than cheat for the curler, and he got down to stop and hold it.
The teams headed into the locker room for the break with Juve in an absolutely dominant position, but there were some caveats to that. Juve had taken 10 shots and hit the target with three, but only one of those three had come from open play. For all their dominance, there hadn’t been a whole lot behind it to make the keeper work, and in spite of that dominant half Roma were still very much in the game with a lineup full of guys that only needed a single touch to change things.
Juve started out the half much they way they did the first, but there were also signs that they were running out of steam. Their passing wasn’t quite as crisp, and their decision making in the final third was starting to get a little discombobulated. There was still the occasional close call, especially in the 54th minute when Cuadrado cut inside, faced up substitute Nicola Zalewski, and tried to go far post with his left foot, but he didn’t get a curl on it and it flashed wide. But every passing minute started to become an ever-more painful reminder that the margin was still only one goal.
The moment finally came with just over 20 minutes left to go. First came a warning shot, as Abraham finally got behind the defense and into a shooting position, but he scuffed it and Szczesny made an easy save. But less than 60 seconds later Zalewski earned Roma a corner, and everything fell apart. Sandro, who was supposed to be marking Dybala at the far post, completely lost his old teammate and let him leak out from the pack and volley the delivery off the ground and back into the mix. Absolutely no one moved to get in front of their men on the back side, and there were three Roma players who could’ve turned the ball home had it come to them. As it turned out, the ball came to Abraham, and the Englishman headed the ball past a stranded Szczesny to level the match.
Juve tried to muster up a response, but never came close to getting themselves back in front. Roma had yet another chance off a corner with five minutes left when the Juve defense simply left the ball sitting there in the box after Szczesny came for it and missed. When they finally cleared it it was only as far as Stephan El Shaarawy, whose shot from just outside the box was blocked.
After a late Juve corner was dealt with at the very end of stoppage time, the final whistle sounded, leaving everyone on the Juve side of the equation with a deep sense of a missed opportunity.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 6.5. Didn’t have a whole lot to do, but did what he did have to do with great efficiency. The only weird wrinkle was that corner at the end of the game when he came for the ball and completely missed it, fortunately getting bailed out by his defenders.
MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - 6. Bit of a mixed bag for MDS. He recored two tackles and actually let loose on two shots in the game, but there were some times, especially in the first half, that saw him get cooked by the likes of Spinazzola and be left him in the dust.
DANILO - 7. A good day even as a makeshift center-back. Had a team-high three tackles and three clearances, and even put together a key pass. Solid as ever as he continues to become Allegri’s Swiss Army knife in the back.
BREMER - 7. Led the team with five clearances and generally looked strong throughout. He’s living up to his price tag so far.
ALEX SANDRO - 5.5. Bright going forward in the first half but faded badly in the second and was chiefly responsible for allowing Dybala to get the ball back into the mix for the equalizer.
FABIO MIRETTI - 7.5. A positive force all game long. Looked to move the ball forward the instant he received it with no hesitation. Of course he has the rough edges of a 19-year-old, but he was thrown into the first big game of the year and absolutely showed he belonged at this level.
MANUEL LOCATELLI - 6. A much better game than the first two. The intensity of the early press often put him closer to goal, which seemed to help things, and when Zakaria entered Allegri actually put him at the base of the midfield and let Locatelli go forward. He notched two key passes and also had a strong defensive day, with two tackles and two interceptions. Definitely a step in the right direction.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 6. Actually had a really good day before coming off due to an injury that Allegri indicated in his press conference was simply cramping. He led the team in dribbles with two and and also picked up a key pass, and was all over Roma on the press, consistently helping teammates win the ball.
JUAN CUADRADO - 6. Led the team in shots with four and hit the target with half of them, but he’s looking...tired, and I can’t tell if that’s because of a busy early season run or because Father Time preparing to cash in his chit on him.
DUSAN VLAHOVIC - 6.5. What. A. Free kick. He’s stamped that job as his, at least from the left-footed side, He was a lot more active in the final third today as Juve had the ball buzzing in there, especially in the first half, but faded a bit in the second.
FILIP KOSTIC - 5.5. Attempted 12 crosses, but only one found its target and a lot of them didn’t make it past the first man. He’s got energy and industry to spare, but I’d like to see a little more precision in the crosses.
DENIS ZAKARIA - 6. Don’t look now, but Max Allegri actually used Zakaria as a CDM toward the end of the game. Glory hallelujah. He made a pair of tackles and generally played well after Rabiot’s injury.
ARKADIUSZ MILIK - NR. Didn’t get anything in the way of service after coming on for his Juve debut. Had two clearances before he ever put a shot toward goal.
WESTON McKENNIE - NR. Was miscast as a winger when he came on and couldn’t really get the balls into the box that Cuadrado did.
NICOLO ROVELLA - NR. Came on a bit too late to do anything to the midfield, needs more than five minutes to affect things.
MOISE KEAN - NR. Had nothing come his way and only got a single touch.
This was a step in the right direction.
Allegri had this team playing on the front foot, pressing hard, seeking out the ball and immediately pushing it toward goal. One of the biggest parts of that was the presence of Miretti. The fact that Allegri decided to start him in a game this big was unexpected but very welcome indeed. His natural inclination is to move the ball forward the second he receives it, and he has the instincts to bypass his marker to get it there, which is something that a lot of Juve’s midfielders lack.
It was also nice to see some players finally being put into better positions to succeed. Zakaria plugged into Rabiot’s box-to-box role when he was introduced, but as the game went on he started playing in front of the defense and allowing Locatelli to move forward where he’s most effective. The sticking point is that McKennie was then put into a really weird spot where he was effectively like-for-like on the wing for Cuadrado, which didn’t really do him any favors. It’s still a mixed bag in this area for Allegri, but the fact that there were trends in the right direction is encouraging.
It’s impossible for a team to keep that level of pressing up the entire game, and eventually Juve started to fall back in that regard. They never completely lost the game to the point of being under siege, but they certainly lost focus on the corner kick that led to the equalizer, which is a coaching issue that needs to be solved. With another big game against Fiorentina on the horizon next week, that problem needs to be tightened up ASAP.
Now this crazy World Cup starts to exert its influence. From now until the season breaks for the tournament, Juventus has only two instances where they won’t play a midweek game, and one of those is an international break.
That starts on Wednesday when Spezia comes to Turin. That’s followed by a Saturday afternoon tilt with Fiorentina at the Franchi. Then the Champions League begins in earnest with a trip to France to face Paris Saint-Germain.