Going into Sunday’s game against Lecce, Juventus had not finished a week of games in first place since Aug. 1, 2020, the last day of the COVID restart and the last time Juve won the scudetto.
A win in Puglia would have broken that string. But that wouldn’t necessarily be easy. Juve had beaten Lecce in September in one of Massimiliano Allegri’s corto muso specials, but they had only lost two games at the Stadio Via del Mare this year, and Allegri spent much of his pre-game press conference warning against allowing this to become a trap game.
For the first 45 minutes of the game, maybe a little more, Lecce were proving the coach right. The first half didn’t see much in the way of clear-cut chances for either side, but the home team had stated quite emphatically that Juve was going to have to work to come away with all three points.
But as the game moved on, the Bianconeri slowly began to turn the screws, and superior talent finally told just before the hour mark, when a quick counterattack and a frantic rebound play saw Dusan Vlahovic open the scoring. Juve kept pushing, and the Serbian striker added another shortly after. A late Bremer header on a free kick confirmed the 3-0 score, adding to their impressive 2024 run and putting ending that unfortunate streak at the top of the table.
Allegri had announced in his presser that Federico Chiesa and Adrien Rabiot were again out due to the knee and calf injuries, respectively, that have been giving them problems for the last week or so. They joined Mattia De Sciglio and Moise Kean on the injured list, as well as the usual suspension absences in midfield. Allegri was therefore a little light on his bench as he sent out his 3-5-2. Wojciech Szczesny anchored the formation. Federico Gatti returned from a yellow card suspension to rejoin Bremer and Danilo in the back. Andrea Cambiaso and Filip Kostic started out on the wings, with Weston McKennie, Manuel Locatelli, and Fabio Miretti between them in midfield. Vlahovic joined Kenan Yildiz in the strike pair.
Lecce coach Roberto D’Aversa also had some significant names on his injured list, including Lameck Banda, Hamza Raifa, Ahmed Touba, and Kastriot Dermaku. He countered Allegri with a 4-1-4-1 setup. Wladimiro Falcone started in goal behind the back four of Valentin Gendry, Marin Pongracic, Federico Baschirotto, and Antonino Gallo. Ylber Ramadani sat in front of the defense, while Pontus Almqvist, Mohamed Kaba, Joan Gonzalez, and Remi Oudin played in the midfield strake behind Nikola Kristovic.
First indications were that this game was going to shoot out of the blocks. Cambiaso put a ball in for Vlahovic within 13 seconds, but the shot was pushed wide of the near post. Kristovic had a chance five minutes later when he received a layoff at the top of the box, but pressure from Danilo forced him to likewise push the ball wide.
Juve then had a pair of excellent chances within 60 seconds of each other. In the 11th minute, McKennie headed a back-post corner back across the grain. It looked destined for the goal, but Kristovic headed it off the line. A minute later, Vlahovic fed his countryman Kostic on the left side, but he blazed over from short range.
After that, the chances mostly dried up. Cambiaso put in a good cross in the 19th minute that missed Vlahovic’s head by an inch or so, while the most Lecce came up with was a weak shot from outside the box by Oudin that counted as the only shot on target either team would register in the half.
Juve fans’ hearts skipped seven or eight beats right out of the restart when Almqvist looked to have been taken down in the box after having beaten Bremer, but referee Daniele Doveri made no call, and replays later showed the two far closer to shoulder-to-shoulder than it looked in real time, making Doveri’s call very much the correct one.
As the half wore on, both McKennie and Vlahovic failed to get any purchase on headers from decent positions, while Cambiaso thought he had a square ball to an unmarked Vlahovic only to see the defense scramble it away at the last moment. But as the half went on the flow of play started to flow toward the Lecce goal.
The dam broke just shy of the hour mark. It was a move started and finished by Vlahovic, who picked up a loose ball in his own half and got it to McKennie before turning and hauling ass to join the counter. McKennie found Yildiz, who immediately bombed downfield and unleashed a 22-yard daisy-cutter. It was right at Falcone, but it’s lack of height forced the keeper into an awkward parry. Cambiaso rushed to the loose ball and, peeking behind, saw Vlahovic completely alone in the middle of the box. He crossed it to him with his first touch and Vlahovic swung his foot around for a volley. It wasn’t the best-struck shot in the world, but it was struck just the right way; the ball took a bounce and flew into the top corner.
Less than 10 minutes later, the lead was doubled on a goal that involved some Juve-on-Juve crime. The ball was thrown back into the attacking third after a corner and Kostic launched an excellent cross to the back post that was met by McKennie. His header was absolutely going to bounce in at the far post, but Vlahovic, perhaps not sure of its trajectory, reached out at the last second and tapped it before it went in, claiming the goal for his second consecutive brace.
Juve had firm control of the game now, and Lecce wasn’t able to do much of anything to pull themselves back into the match. Their only sniff was a decent shot by Patrick Dorgu that Szczesny read well and pulled out of the air. Juve then slammed the door shut with five minutes left when Bremer rose over everyone to hammer home a free kick delivered by Samuel Iling-Junior.
The final minutes slipped by uneventfully, and as Doveri blew for full time, Juventus could once again lay claim to the top of the table—and a scudetto race could kick off in earnest.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 6. Had barely anything to do in this one, with the only save of any true difficulty came in stoppage time when the game was firmly in Juve’s hands.
FEDERICO GATTI - 6. A by-the-book day for Freddy Cats, who finished the day tied for the team lead in clearances (3) as well as the game high for aerials won (4).
BREMER - 7.5. It looked a little shaky at first as Kristovic seemed to be matching him physically, but he got into a groove and erased him the same way he has most other strikers this season. He blocked three shots and towered over his marker on the final goal. Imperious, as usual.
DANILO - 7. Led the team with four tackles and made a couple of very good interventions on crosses. Steady leadership as usual.
ANDREA CAMBIASO - 7.5. His assist was his only official key pass, but he came desperately close to a couple of other ones with some excellent crosses. Speaking of the assist, it was absolutely incredible, not just hitting the cross first time, but putting it exactly where he wanted even though he’d been facing away from his target until the moment he struck it. The previous front office doesn’t have much to hang their hat on in their final few years, but finding Cambiaso is one thing they can claim.
WESTON McKENNIE - 8. The Big Mac redemption tour continues with gusto. The lack of goals on his tally is almost comical, especially after having one shot cleared off the line and another blatantly poached by Vlahovic. But he’s doing absolutely everything well right now. He made two key passes, hit the target with all three of his shots, made three tackles and three clearances. And the assist is a decent consolation prize.
MANUEL LOCATELLI - 6.5. Protected the defense well and kept Juve on rhythm for the most part in attack. He’s finally getting more and more comfortable in the regista position.
FABIO MIRETTI - 5.5. A strange day for him. The eye test saw a guy who didn’t have a very good game, but he led the team with three key passes and three dribbles. His big weakness remains his decision making — and even then he often makes the right choice, he just makes it a few beats too late. This wasn’t his best, but his overall form since the new year is still good.
FILIP KOSTIC - 5.5. A lot like Miretti in that the stats told a better story than the eye — mostly. He made three tackles and had two key passes, but he only completed two-thirds of his total passes, which simply isn’t good enough. He’s still not an autostart in my book.
KENAN YILDIZ - 6. Didn’t have as many of the eye-popping moments he had earlier in the month, but he’s still doing a really good job connecting the lines and caused a fair share of danger himself — including the shot that eventually set up the first goal.
DUSAN VLAHOVIC - 8.5. What a day for Juve’s big-ticket striker. His first goal wasn’t exactly the most beautiful, but it did exactly what was needed, and while his poach off McKennie was, perhaps, a dick move, it showed just how dogged he is in pursuit of the ball right now. The mental aspect of his game is probably the most impressive thing right now, because his confidence is sky high.
TIMOTHY WEAH - 5. Didn’t manage to integrate him into the attack very well, and wasn’t able to contribute much apart from a few give-and-gos on the right side.
ARKADIUSZ MILIK - 5. Only touched the ball seven times, so there wasn’t much of anything for him to be able to do.
SAMUEL ILING-JUNIOR - 6. Was done something of a disservice when he was moved inside late, but still managed to notch an assist late on with a great free kick delivery.
ALEX SANDRO - NR. Drew the foul that led to the third goal, but otherwise just there to play out the minutes.
The introduction of Yildiz has made Juventus into a completely different team — and Dusan Vlahovic into a completely different player — chiefly because he is actually a seconda punta as opposed to the other forwards on the roster. His ability to connect the lines is something Juve hasn’t had since Paulo Dybala left — and you remember the connection those two had in the brief time they were together. The rest of the attackers, especially Federico Chiesa, do a lot of things very well, but not that kind of interplay.
While it’s certainly a good thing, it’s worth wondering why the coaching staff didn’t realize that sooner — and why they didn’t adjust make an adjustment to maximize the talents of players like Chiesa instead of forcing them into a role that they weren’t as good in for so long. It took a couple of attacking injuries for Yildiz to get the opportunity to stake a claim in the starting lineup, but before that, it had to be obvious that the other attackers didn’t provide the same kind of link-up, and that some sort of adjustment needed to be made to compensate for that.
Now that we’ve found ourselves in the right groove, it’s a moot point, but if the staff had been a bit more proactive, either to adjust to their more experienced players or to take a chance on Yildiz earlier, the kind of form we’re seeing right now could have come much earlier. That said, now it’s their job to keep us in said groove as the season progresses.
Juve welcome Empoli to the Allianz next week. Then comes the massive head-to-head with Inter at the San Siro. For the record, the makeup of the game Inter skipped due to the newfangled (read: stupid) Supercoppa is scheduled for Feb. 28, so unless they drop a points between now and then, they still control their own destiny when it comes to regaining first place.