Juventus v Lazio
Serie A Week 34 – Monday, 20th July – 21:45 GMT – Juventus Stadium
I guess the lads are not going to feel the pressure to perform at their best until the heat is really on because against Sassuolo the same problems that affected them all season long reared their ugly heads again, even though they had appeared to go away before the meltdown at San Siro. After easily going 2-0 up in no time at all, the team completely mailed it in, but the opposition were nowhere near dead. They should have known better as the Neroverdi have been not only feisty, but also very effective recently. It is even more baffling considering that the squad can actually wake up when they realize they have messed up, re-flip the switch back to ‘on’ and resume attacking with some purpose.
They collectively have such high ‘highs’ and low ‘lows’ that for the most part it seems like they are playing against themselves and that they are being their own worst enemies. Such inconsistency is maddening and even the coach could not come up with answers for what is happening. Perhaps he has indeed lost the pulse of the situation and there are nasty rumours floating around in case of another faux pas, but, while pretty absurd, they are natural because, in the recent past, it has rare that we go three games without winning, let alone four.
While the defence has never been in its full composition and at the top of its strength in the resumption, the amount of goals conceded lately is intolerable and, even more worryingly, only one or two have been caused by individual blunders. Besides the merits of the opponents, the rest were systemic. Giorgio Chiellini got hurt again, Matthijs De Ligt and Leonardo Bonucci are banged up, Merih Demiral just came back and Daniele Rugani is what he is at this point, so I am not sure things can really improve a lot there, if not thanks to a concerted effort. The dip in form of Rodrigo Bentancur also contributed. The attack sputtered only in the Coppa Italia tilts, so most of this year’s blackouts have arrived when there were troubles in the back and it is bleak right now. Hopefully they can find a way to steady the ship.
The only positive aspect of the Sassuolo game was that a couple of players managed to bounce back after not-so-great performances: Wojciech Szczesny was superb and Miralem Pjanic set up two goals. The goalie was pretty poor against Atalanta and Milan, which was uncharacteristic since has been a rock throughout the season. Pjanic is clearly in a weird spot with the whole Barcelona thing, but he is the most capable of pulling the strings and break the monotony of the midfield. Also, Alex Sandro was pretty strong.
Big picture-wise, Juventus need three wins out of five matches, and they should be able to get it done as the schedule eases up as they will soon stop facing high-flying opponents. One could argue that will begin here given Lazio’s recent results, even though it has been billed as the mother of all matches for months.
There are few doubts regarding the lineup which will forcibly change since Federico Bernardeschi is suspended. The most streamlined option would be to just put Douglas Costa there, but the manager could take a couple of different routes, like advancing Juan Cuadrado or using the star-studded trident, which has at times been deployed to send a message, more inward than to the outside.
Bonucci and De Ligt will probably gut it out, while I guess we are not going to see Chiellini for a while even though he did not pick up a serious injury. Bentancur is also dealing with a small muscular problem, but Adrien Rabiot has looked at ease on both sides of the midfield and, while never completely convincing, at least Blaise Matuidi at least brings some energy, so there are okay ways to replace him should he need to rest.
4-3-3: Szczesny; Cuadrado, De Ligt, Bonucci, Sandro; Bentancur, Pjanic, Rabiot; Costa, Dybala, Ronaldo.
A post-lockdown crisis killed Lazio’s title chances, ruining a marvellous season, as everything that could go wrong simply did. Injuries to key men started piling up, the condensed schedule exposed their lack of quality depth, the intensity and peak fitness they had displayed vanished, like Ciro Immobile’s King Midas touch in the box. It is ironic given that their president was the one that pushed the most to get Serie A back, but, revisiting that now with some hindsight, it was a correct stance as the ramifications of shutting down the season altogether could have been catastrophic on multiple levels. Despite his unpleasant behaviour, credit where credit is due.
Even though they are unlikely to re-enter the title picture even if they prevailed here, as Inter and Atalanta leapfrogged them and are just in better form, what they had accomplished before should not be dismissed and qualifying for Champions League after a pair of heart-breaks is an achievement. They can be disappointed because the pandemic severely affected the chances of fulfilling their ultimate dream, but not for how the season has gone overall.
In the fifth year with Simone Inzaghi at the helm, everything had clicked, which goes to show the power of continuity, but also the brilliance of some of their players and the smartness of their coach, who through the years perfectly moulded his formation and the pieces at his disposal and turned them into a juggernaut, up until the recent lull. For example, a few campaigns back they would have never been able to pull off a scheme featuring both Luis Alberto and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic as box-to-box midfielders because they were too offensive-minded, but now they easily can and that allows them to field a tremendous amount of quality.
When they are at the peak of their powers, it is a well-oiled machine that culminates in the scoring prowess of Ciro Immobile, who was on a tear prior to the hiatus and his teammates have become masters in finding him in his most comfortable spots. You can not be particularly one-dimensional to bag this many goals, but his bread and butter remains toeing the offside trap and lurking for through balls. He has had few juicy chances in the recent games, just missing them, so he can easily resurface.
Even though they generally prefer to go through the middle, Manuel Lazzari and Jony provide essential width to their 3-5-2, and they are both prolific crossers. They are necessary outlets for when Alberto, their main creator and the second top assist-man in the League, is bottled up. Lazzari has arguably been their best performer after Serie A restarted. Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, who pretty match furnishes on his own physicality, has been a little banged up and not as dominant as before, but he has a reputation of shining in big matches.
They have had injury issues throughout the formation: Stefan Radu and Senad Lulic, who may not be high on their totem pole but are useful grizzled veterans, are done for the season, Joaquin Correa is currently out with a sprained knee and, while Felipe Caicedo can be fairly prolific, they are not the same without his burst. The same can be said for Lucas Leiva, since his replacement Marco Parolo and Danilo Cataldi do not possess the same kind of pull and leadership. Furthermore, Luiz Felipe and Adam Marusic had to deal with muscular injuries and Patric was hit with a lengthy suspension.
Their primary approach will be to wait, lure the opponents into exposing themselves and then strike quickly. It was their main weapon even at full force, even more now that they are depleted. For such a gambit and for other reasons, they have been Juventus’ nightmare in this and in the previous seasons. The last date in the Supercoppa was embarrassing for the Bianconeri, hopefully they will have learnt a thing or two from that even though it was ages ago. Then they can hope the opponents will not find a way out of their recent struggles in this pivotal match-up.
UPDATE: Alberto and Jony have been ruled out due to last-minute injury and therefore they will be even more short-handed. Alberto is really their mastermind so somebody will have to step up creatively, as his likely replacement Danilo Cataldi is a different kind of player, although pretty dangerous on set pieces. Either Jordan Lukaku and Djavan Anderson will man the left flank. The two young Andersons, Bobby Adekanye and Raul Moro are pretty much their only reserves available and their enthusiasm will have to be tamed if they get to play.
3-5-2: Strakosha; Felipe, Acerbi, Bastos; Lazzari, Milinkovic-Savic, Parolo, Cataldi, Lukaku; Caicedo, Immobile.
Correa (knee), Leiva (knee), Radu (calf), Lulic (ankle), Alberto, Jony.