Facing our arch enemies from Rome, Allegri opted for arguably our strongest possible starting XI with the expected 3-5-2. Barzagli returned to the ranks after recovering from his latest muscular bother.
The game struck a fair rhythm early doors with Spalletti’s game-plan clearly set to frustrate in the middle, cut off key supply routes to the big man up top and defend in numbers, hopeful of coming across – by fortune and defensive robustness – chances on the break. For vast periods it was one way traffic as Roma ceded possession and waited to pounce, yet when they did recover the ball in any promising positions, Dzeko lacked any semblance of support with all balls played forward easily snuffed out by the hugely experienced rearguard I regard as the finest on the planet over the last few seasons.
Dybala had a useful effort from a free kick, other than which our pressure and domination of possession was not creating much of value. We were in control, with a few flurries of fancy footwork around the box leading to half chances, yet the box was too congested and lady luck wasn’t smiling upon us.
The second half saw an upturn in tempo, at least temporarily, with Lichsteiner continuing to prove our major attacking outlet on the right flank, dovetailing usefully with Khedira and Dybala constantly roaming deep to pick up the ball and seek out runners, if not drive forward with the ball stuck to his lower paws.
I should mention that part of the parking the bus routine of Roma involved a fair few hefty fouls, yet I felt the referee performed well. Nipped any bother in the bud and tried to allow the game to flow as best as could be hoped for.
With a stalemate on the cards, our siege engines failing to break through the defences, other than a wonderful chance for Evra fashioned beautifully by Pogba, Allegri threw on Cuadrado on 65 minutes. The Colombian did make a difference of sorts, mainly due to the fact that he is no wingback, so our formation changed to something far closer to 4-4-2 or even 4-3-3, yet that is a tricky thing to clearly delineate as Dybala roams not just deeply but across the field constantly.
The on loan Chelsea player’s energy and drive opened up a chance to shoot, which was comfortably saved, and also began to drag the Roma defenders slightly askew of their fortified positions on the ramparts. The value of Cuadrado in such a game is that his huge focus on offensive play opens us up a little defensively, edges ajar the attacking channels towards our rear third, encourages the opposition to drive forward when we lose possession, especially high up the field. In short, his attacking play leaves space in our midfield and defence. This may well have been in Allegri’s thinking. Regardless, it worked a treat.
Just when I was becoming irritated by our inability to break down a resolute phalanx of Romans, and feeling more worried of succumbing to a goal on the counter as Cuadrado danced and dallied, Khedira won the ball deep in our own half, set Pogba on his way, who strode into the box, had spotted Dybala on the overlap, played a sublime pass through to the Argentine, who in one motion, controlled the ball with one touch and despatched the ball into the net across the keeper for 1-0. The trigger was pulled with incredible speed. It was a tremendously well made and executed goal. World class. And well deserved on the balance of play and endeavour.
Morata appeared very late on, and we did appear to sit back somewhat, which invited Roma more opportunity in our half than previously discovered, yet they had no real game plan other than to get the ball to Pjanic or Nainggolan, and hope they create mischief. There was a disallowed goal from Dzeko, who pushed and pulled at Barzagli’s shirt as the burly defender jumped to head the ball away from danger. The absence of any contention from Dzeko and his comrades confirmed the referee was correct.
It finished 1-0 for our 11th Serie A victory on the trot. Leaving us 2 points off Napoli in top spot, four points clear of Fiorentina and Inter in 3rd and 4th and to much joy, 10 points clear of Roma in 5th.
Had one save to make from a long range Florenzi effort – which he dealt with comfortably, other than which was untested. Sturdy. 6.
I am one of many who increasingly value Sandro, especially for his attacking prowess, yet this was a game which reminded me of the outstanding quality and experience of the 34 year old frenchman. Patrice was superb, from start to finish, offering support in the final third which almost led to a goal from a volley, and unbeatable defensively. I quite like Florenzi yet he was given short shrift throughout from our stalwart on the left edge of our rearguard action. It seems a given, that we will soon offer Evra an extension to his contract which expires in the Summer. He deserves a two year contract, which will prove the perfect transition period to bed in the new lad, Sandro, into the role as he learns from one of the finest fullbacks of the last decade. 7.5.
Definitely back to his best. Sliding tackles from his war boots are one of my favourite elements of our game and we saw several against Roma, all of which were perfectly timed and wonderfully effective. Not only was he indomitable in the air and on the ground, he has very much developed his game under Allegri in terms of spotting gaps in the midfield and striding forward with the ball at his feet. Which is essential for at least one of our centre backs to embrace when playing 3 at the back. No bloodied bandage, though nonetheless a stellar showing. 7.5
Big Leo has turned the corner and is approaching his finest form of late. Outstanding reading of the game, interceptions aplenty, far too strong to be muscled off the ball and for the first time in many moons I saw his distribution and foraging beyond the halfway line vastly more confident and composed. One of his passes almost led to goal. Both his head and feet are once more in the right place. Wonderful to see him enjoying his football again. 7
Calm, reliable, always in the right place at the right time. Only when fouled by Dzeko did he appear anything other than imperious. You wouldn’t have thought he had been out a week or three with injury, as he returned to the team seamlessly. When Evra plays, and especially with Cuadrado involved, he becomes a hybrid CB/RB yet performs admirably. Continues to prove one of the most resolute and under appreciated defenders in the world. 7
Most of our attacking impetus flowed down his flank, and the Swiss locomotive was solid throughout, offering support in the final third whilst owning his defensive zone and always making himself available for Khedira and Barzagli and whoever else found the ball at their feet. His engine remains strong and powerful, always willing to run and very hard to beat at the back. It is the one area of the squad where I am intrigued to learn more of plans for succession of Beppe and Paratici, especially if Caceres leaves during this mercato window, which seems ever more unlikely. Talk of a swap with Milan for Di Sciglio is…interesting. Other than which, Vrsaljko of Sassuolo appears a definite target for the Summer, yet more eyes than solely ours are fixated on the Croatian’s progress. 6.5
Still a few steps away from full match sharpness, yet involved constantly in the defensive phase, even if that meant simply occupying a position on the field which precluded a pass being played due to his marking and covering. Also showed eagerness to get involved in the 18 yard box, with intelligent movement and passing and was unlucky his efforts failed to yield any decent chances.
It is amusing to find on whoscored.com that Sami has no listed strengths and tackling as a weakness. Lame effort shown there by the writers for his footballing intelligence is top drawer, as is his short passing. He knows where to be to help the team maintain pressure and remain sturdy defensively and lively higher up the field. Improving game by game I believe and proving, with every passing week of fitness, an outstanding free signing. Just need to keep him fit.
He has played 14 games for Juve, of which we have drawn 2 and won 12.
Lucky charm or highly experienced, classy footballer? More the latter. 6.5
Claudio was ubiquitous. Possibly, even probably, the most important cog in the bianconeri machine. 57 passes with 94% accuracy tells a story in itself. The fulcrum of the team, his dedication to always seeking the optimum position is remarkable and potent. Often an unsung hero, he was my player of last season whilst the likes of Tevez, Pogba and Morata won the plaudits. I had considered our wretched period earlier this season massively due to his absence, and sure enough, his return has coincided with a huge upturn in performances and results. Il Principino has embraced the regista role to perfection. His passing, work rate, positioning and intelligence are world class. Whilst I have long been opposed to his much discussed captain elect qualities, he has become – even more so since Pirlo departed – the foundation upon which so much quality in the final third is designed and built. An assured performance of a seasoned professional. 8
Set up one chance with a gorgeous piece of skill to bring the ball under control then back heel a pass into the danger area, created the goal with perfect timing and execution of his pass to Dybala, otherwise seemed getting back to his best especially in his defensive work. Which may well take a little away from his potency in the final third, yet is required and is improving his overall game. Always eager to receive the ball, Paul has recovered from a prickly start to the season and is flying from strength to strength. The goals will come, until which, I will continue to enjoy his power and flair and fast improving positioning. 7.5
Was constantly man marked and fouled by De Rossi and others, drew a fair few free kicks in promising positions yet found no avenue – through the melee of bodies – to find a decent goal scoring opportunity. Unremarkable yet his work rate was immense. As could be seen late on when found tackling back close to our own goal to regain possession and start another attack. So strong, so physical; a wonderful asset for the club. 7
The Argie continues to blossom beautifully. It is easy to forget that the 22 year old has one season of Serie A action under his belt, for his performances are becoming consistently sparkling and he appears an already fine tuned galactico. One of the major moves of Allegri last term, which few have noted, is the transformation of Tevez into a roaming trequartista. Carlitos was unshackled, allowed and expected to roam deep and wide to win the ball, receive the ball, then drive forward or pick out a key pass. Whilst Paulo has a long way to go in order to fill those sacred boots, he is dangerous every time he steps onto the field. His free kicks were not great in this match, yet he has scored twice from such areas of late and he netted the winner in this tie. Brilliant run, tucked away with ruthless, incredibly swift zeal. He also had a chance which flicked off the bar, would have been wrongly disallowed for offside had it crept in under the woodwork, as the players offside were not interfering with play.
The manner in which he can bring the ball under control, especially from a lofted pass through the air, and swivel and move or pass or shoot, in one motion, is reminiscent of Bergkamp. Which is a huge compliment for a youngster in his first season at a major club.
His last 10 matches in which he has played more than a minute or three, have delivered 5 assists and 7 goals. He is fast becoming our bandiera and I am of the opinion that he will achieve in his career a world class standing, perhaps progressing to become one of the best of all time, hopefully in our colours.
Sublime….For his work rate, first touch, flair, creativity, dribbling, turn of pace and finishing. 9.
Changed the outlook of the game when he appeared with close to half hour left to play. Whilst he made the game more open – for both sides – and had a shot on goal, he seemed reluctant to take a man on, his passing was average and I continue to assert that we have no need to sign him. When Pereyra finally returns, I feel we will see much less of the Colombian, before he heads back to London. 6
Its high time I stopped mentioning the haphazard form of earlier this season, for we have just won our 11th league game in succession, which is an outstanding achievement at any level of the game.
The beauty of this side is that we remain in transition. There is plenty more to come from Dybala, Sandro, Khedira and soon we will welcome Pereyra back into the squad, which will afford Allegri the chance to lessen the focus of Dybala on playing between the lines. The defence has regained its magnificent cohesion and stinginess; I believe that only our opponents in the champions league, Bayern Munich, afford foes less strikes on goal per match out of the top european leagues. Il Principino is back to his best, Pogba is approaching the same, and Khedira is going about his business with smartness and power. The flanks are superb, with evergreen Evra never anything but commendable, Sandro able to come in and liven up the offensive potency of the left wing and Lichsteiner dependable and valuable in all aspects of the RWB role we ask of him.
There is also Morata to mention. A player capable of exceptional marvels, who has been out of sorts, since splitting with his missus. So I count him alongside Pereyra, as valuable as two new signings of potentially match winning quality. Both can yet play prominent roles in our procession towards glory and honour.
We have major momentum. Are approaching every game expecting to triumph. And now we are to face the most pivotal of battles which must be waged and won if our season is to prove a success.
Firstly, in the coppa italia, against Inter, then three eminently winnable domestic league games against Chievo, Genoa and Frosinone. Which leads to the home match against Naples. Soon after which, we host the germans.
Regardless of what happens in our European adventure, I am most keen for our focus to be blinkered upon Serie A. Winning a fifth straight league title after such an atrocious start, our worst for 50 years, would be a phenomenal achievement. Let us add the coppa italia, do the double yet again, and it will be a season to cause my heart to smile and soul to soar.
Before I leave this be, and chuckle at my hellhound who rather than runs wild and scared when the fireworks paint the sky red and blue and his ears horrid, he appears in the garden and roars at the source of such nuisance and the best translation I can offer is ‘put up or shut up with your explosions and bright lights, face me here and now’…the rotten apple rarely falls too far from the tree…I will briefly mention that Grosso’s primavera outfit won their 8th match in a row over the weekend…
So many reasons to be cheerful.