In the second tenure of Massimiliano Allegri, Juventus has often wound up at different ends of two extremes.
When they lose, emotions abound. Fury, despair, frustration, and the occasional desire to do violence to one’s television in the manner of a Dallas Cowboys fan all bubble up from the depths of a fan’s being and manifest themselves in various impassioned ways.
When they win, the attitude is often decidedly meh. They do just enough to win the game — and perhaps cause your blood pressure to spike repeatedly as the clock gets closer to full time — but once the game is over, the bare fact of the victory tends to be all that remains. Very few are the wins that become classic in the minds of the fan base, the ones that are introduced with “remember that game when...” and etch themselves into lore.
Thursday’s Coppa Italia quarterfinal against Lazio was another such game. It was not a paragon of entertainment. There was no end-to-end action, no strings of incredible saves, or punch/counterpunch exchanges of chances.
This game was the kind of match we’ve come to expect out of Max: a grinding contest that, while efficient, was about as entertaining as a 1 a.m. programming block on CSPAN. At the very least, it can be said that Juventus thoroughly earned its 1-0 victory over Lazio. Juve actually had the better of play in the first half, missing out on a few chances to take the lead before finally breaking through on the stroke of halftime. Lazio, on the other hand, were completely neutralized. Their only shot on target on the day, out of 11 total, was a direct free kick. They completely failed to break Juventus down, forcing them to resort to long shots from distance, as many of which were blocked as made it through only to sail off target.
The win propelled Juve into the semifinals of the Coppa for the fourth consecutive season, and set up a deeply intriguing two-legged clash with Inter in April.
Allegri regained both Federico Chiesa and Juan Cuadrado after the two were kept out of the weekend loss to Monza for maintenance purposes, but Paul Pogba’s return to the squad proved to be short lived after picking up another muscle injury, much to the annoyance of all involved. Arkadiusz Milik, Leonarco Bonucci, and Kaio Jorge were also absent through their respective injuries. Allegri kept the team’s 3-5-2 shape, giving Mattia Perin his usual turn in goal in the Coppa. The Brazilian triad of Danilo, Bremer, and Alex Sandro formed the defensive line, while Cuadrado started at wing-back opposite Filip Kostic. Nicolo Fagioli, Manuel Locatelli, and Adrien Rabiot made up the midfield, while Chiesa and Dusan Vlahovic started together for the first time as Juventus players up front.
Maurizio Sarri made his second trip back to his old stomping grounds this season with his Lazio squad. Luis Maximiano started in goal behind Sarri’s typical 4-3-3. Manuel Lazzari, Patric, Alessio Romagnoli, and Adam Marusic made up the defensive line. Sergej Milinkovic-Savic was rested at the start, giving way to Matias Vecino to join up with Danilo Cataldi and Luis Alberto. Ciro Immobile came back from injury to play his first game in a month, bracketed by Felipe Anderson and Mattia Zaccagni.
As the game started to stretch its legs, it started looking like every game that has seemed typical of Allegri’s approach over the last two years, attempting to absorb pressure and break out to strike on the counter. But as things began to settle, Juve started to push out of that shell a little bit. That almost burned them in the 14th minute, when a bad pass from Fagioli triggered a counter that ended with the ball being laid off for Zaccagni in the left channel, but the winger couldn’t get his shot to bend and Perin watched it skip wide. Barely 60 seconds later if was Juve who broke out, with Kostic being fed into the box and testing Maximiano with a hard shot from an impossibly tight angle that the keeper did well to tip past the far post with one hand.
To the likely surprise of a lot of people, myself included, Juve started pushing the action more and more as the half went on. Several crosses went into good areas only for some last-ditch defending to keep them away from their targets, while Chiesa was left screaming for a penalty after a collision with Patric, but replay confirmed that referee Fabio Maresca had gotten it right and that the Spaniard was simply holding his ground. A minute later came the chance of the game to that point, when Kostic chased down a wayward cross by Danilo and sent in one of his own that flew over a double-teamed Vlahovic and straight to a completely unmarked Rabiot. It was the freest of free headers, and had it gone in any direction but straight it would’ve opened the scoring, but the Frenchman somehow contrived to hit it right at Maximiano, who duly kept the game level.
Lazio, meanwhile, simply weren’t finding a rhythm at all. The team that had taken the defending champions’ lunch money a week and a half ago was nowhere to be seen, and were reduced to taking long potshots that never came close to the target.
That state of affairs was fine by Juve, who finally got the lead that their play deserved right on the stroke of halftime. The big targets were still up after a string of corner kicks, and after Chiesa accidentally-on-purpose switched play to Kostic on the other wing. He immediately controlled the ball and crossed it back in, where Bremer had made an excellent diagonal run. The lack of game time of Maximiano showed when he took a terrible angle to try to intercept the pass. The center-back still had a tough shot, but flicked it into the net with the back of his head to give Juve a thoroughly deserved lead going into the half.
Sarri changed tactics at the break, removing Immobile, who likely wouldn’t have had much in his legs for the second half anyway, and putting Pedro on in his stead. That moved Anderson into them middle to serve as a false nine, and Lazio looked far more energized as play resumed. Four minutes in, Fagioli was called for a handball about 28 yards from goal and Cataldi struck the ensuing free kick at goal, but it was right at Perin, who palmed the ball into the ground and held it.
That would be the only time Perin was called into action all night. Milinkovic-Savic was summoned at the hour mark to try to step up the pressure for Lazio, but he could do little to step up the pressure. In fact, Juve, who early on looked as though they intended to sit back and defend their 1-0 lead for the entirety of the second half, started to get a bigger bite of the possession in the middle of the period. A great passing move saw Locatelli get into shooting position only to hit a tame shot at Maximiliano, then with 20 minutes to go the midfielder dropped an absolute beauty of a pass into the path of Moise Kean, who beat his defender for pace and charged in on goal. He was forced into a tough angle, but nearly scored anyway, his drive coming this close to powering through Maximiliano’s legs, but the keeper arrested just enough of its momentum to stop it.
The game’s pattern remained unchanged in its final 20 minutes, with Lazio simply unable to create danger in the box and Juve trying to seal the game off the break and, while at times coming close, failing to truly put the game away. One last block deep into stoppage time saw the game put beyond all doubt, and when Maresca blew his whistle for the final time, this cup team was one step closer to getting themselves back to the final.
MATTIA PERIN - 8. Got to every ball in his box and was live for the game’s only save while keeping the defense organized so that he had very little to do.
DANILO - 7. Blocked a shot and kept Zaccagni, who has been one of the best wingers in the league this season, quiet along that side of the field.
BREMER - 7. A huge game for him to get his form right after being out of sorts for much of the calendar year. The header for his goal was not an easy one, and he had more clearances (6) than anyone on the field. He defended well against two different kinds of attack, keeping Immobile quiet in the first half and then kept Anderson from wreaking the kind of havoc he often has as a false 9 under Sarri.
ALEX SANDRO - 7. Made five clearances himself and won four of five duels on the ground and both in the air.
JUAN CUADRADO - 6. Didn’t make any huge mistakes defensively, but on the other end his presence doesn’t seem to have been particularly beneficial. Just like earlier in this season, beating his man is a major issue, as his best crosses come when he’s already got good room to make them as opposed to making himself the room. Still, a solid day.
NICOLO FAGIOLI - 5.5. A tough game for Fagioli, who made one or two fantastic moves but overall was showing his need to fully adjust to life as a top option. He’ll get there, though.
MANUEL LOCATELLI - 7. Dropped some pretty gorgeous passes as the game went on, more than making up for a slow start. His defense was impeccable, notching four blocked shots and three interceptions defensively in addition to his excellent passing.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 6. Made three interceptions and was pugnacious in defense, triggering numerous attacks. That said, there is absolutely no excuse to miss the chance he had in the first half. It was as free as a header can get and he put it right at the keeper.
FILIP KOSTIC - 7. Emerged from a fog that he’s been in since the World Cup to deliver his finest performance of the calendar year. Assisted on Bremer’s goal and had three other key passes, Hopefully this is a turnaround.
FEDERICO CHIESA - 6. Made a pair of key passes as he felt his way around playing as a seconda punta, which isn’t the greatest use of his talents but better than putting him at wing-back like he had a few weeks ago.
DUSAN VLAHOVIC - 5.5. VERY clearly shaking off the rust. His first touch was rough all night long, and everything from his passing to his headers were just off. He’ll get better as he gets the minutes.
FABIO MIRETTI - 6. Made a couple of good runs in midfield and barely missed scoring late, he helped keep the energy up in midfield.
MOISE KEAN - 6. Unlucky not to have scored after taking down that lovely Locatelli pass shortly after he came on. Added a different dimension on the counter with the ball at his feet than Vlahovic.
ANGEL DI MARIA - NR. Absolutey humiliated a couple of Lazio defenders, but couldn’t finish off the moves he started.
MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - NR. On late for a cramping Cuadrado to keep the defense stable.
It was a pleasant surprise to see Allegri allow his players to push forward as the first half went on. They had Lazio on the back foot and they pushed for the opener they finally got. It was wonderful to see happen, but it was also something of a confirmation that this team plays down to its opposition when not playing a team like Lazio. If they did that against Monza, maybe we’d be talking about a couple of games going differently this year.
What I have issue with was the clear indication that Allegri decided to set up shop as the second half began. That’s 45 minutes of potentially waiting out the onslaught of a team that ripped apart the reigning champions not two weeks ago. This competition should have taught him last year that going that long parking the bus against a good team is a good recipe for letting something bad happen. This time it didn’t, and Juve even took a spell of possession in the middle of the second half as well. But to sit back and defend for that long against a team this good is still suicide, and someone has to talk Allegri out of it. The data shows it’s a bad idea.
Juve will be given adequate rest in their next match, a rare Tuesday setting with Salernitana. Then Fiorentina come to town, followed by the first leg of the UEFA Europa League playoff against Nantes.