The first of two legs was always going to be cagey, but the draw versus Inter was a huge missed opportunity. Not only for the extremely avoidable way the result came to be. Despite its flukiness, it was fair, as the Bianconeri didn’t stomp their authority and take advantage of the opponents’ current struggles. They should have been more assertive and tried to get a victory that would have edged them close to sealing the deal since they were at home and the Nerazzurri were slumping. You never know in which shape the opponents will be in the return leg, and it’ll be wide open.

Facing Fiorentina always presents its challenges, and a final is a game on its own, but whoever comes out of this side of the bracket will be heavy favorites to take home the trophy. The coaching staff should have taken into consideration the bigger picture and not been content with gaining a small advantage, and the low-wattage showing didn’t even lead to that.

That match and the very lackluster display against Hellas Verona proved that commanding performances like the one in the past Serie A fixture versus Inter would unfortunately be outliers and not the norm because it came after a few days of rest and without midweek tilt just around the corner. The squad has gotten healthier, and now Massimiliano Allegri will have to earn his wages by mastering the rotations. The problem with that isn’t only picking the right occasion to have the best players in tip-top shape but also keeping everybody engaged and happy and making the right subs. Angel Di Maria and Dusan Vlahovic pouting after getting deservedly taken out wasn’t a great start, and hopefully it’ll be the last time it happens. The footballers have to understand the situation and contribute by having a correct attitude as well.

Juventus will be stuck in the limbo of not knowing which competition to prioritize for at least a couple more weeks until the April 19th hearing, but likely past that because of a second sports process that’s about to start. This hellish situation is arguably already worse than any punishment, and it’s not a coincidence. Even though they can smell the top positions thanks to the recent run of results, Europa League should remain the primary focus, but it’ll be challenging to field reserve-filled lineups when facing quality sides domestically, as will be the case this week.

One of the main positives of this season is that most youngsters have run with the ball when given the opportunity. Federico Gatti was the latest to join the party, and the staff has done a remarkable job with him because he looked nowhere near ready in the first few months. The imposing physical traits were always there, and his exuberant tenacity manifest in Serie B already, but the mental and tactical elements are particularly taxing in such a delicate role. He showed that he belonged, and that’s not nothing nor a given.

Instead, Enzo Barrenechea seemed over his skis as a box-to-box last week. He’s probably best suited as Manuel Locatelli’s deputy at this stage, as he doesn’t need to overextend himself to make plays in the final third but just protect the defense and distribute the ball with attention there, and he had done that just fine in previous appearances. It’s inexplicable why the ex-Sassuolo man never gets fielded in a more dynamic role even when the circumstances would make it very logical, plus, he has been on a roll for a couple of months now. Instead, it was a little disappointing that Samuel Iling-Junior didn’t get the nod when Filip Kostic was rested. His only streak of performances was very promising and should have been enough for him to earn a super-sub role given his quickness, but he has fallen off the radar after his ankle injury. The duo won’t be available for this one because they played with the Next Gen squad yesterday.

The biggest question mark about the lineup is who will join Vlahovic up front, provided he does start, and Federico Chiesa has resumed being an option. Although considering there are a few alternatives, it might be time to further explore him as a wingback or experiment with 3-4-2-1 again. Alex Sandro could be back in the XI after missing a few games, perhaps giving Danilo a breather, but that would be risky in a challenging match-up. Paul Pogba is getting closer, but he’s out again. Leonardo Bonucci has been called up. Mattia De Sciglio is nursing muscle fatigue and won’t make the trip, same as the boss, who’s under the weather.

Probable Lineup

3-5-2: Szczesny; Gatti, Bremer, Alex Sandro; De Sciglio, Fagioli, Locatelli, Rabiot, Kostic; Di Maria, Vlahovic.

Absences: Kean (suspension), Pogba (thigh strain), De Sciglio (muscle fatigue), Barrenechea, Iling-Junior (rest), Kaio Jorge (patellar tendon tear). 

Lazio went all-in on Serie A and discarded the cups once they caught a whiff about Juventus getting penalized, plus the other contenders all had some skids, allowing them to grab the second place thanks to a remarkable run of the result. They might be able to hold onto the five-point lead over seesawing sides like Roma and Inter the rest of the way since they no longer have to play midweek. Finishing in the top four would be a massive result despite the favorable circumstances.

Their recent success stems more from the other side of Sarri-ball than a glamorous and free-flowing offense. They co-lead the League in clean sheets on par with Juventus, and they haven’t conceded in six matches, prevailing in five of them.

They rebuilt their backline in the summer, and it couldn’t have worked any better. They have solid but not top-shelf contributors across the board that operated wonderfully as a unit. Much to the chagrin of Manuel Lazzari, which experienced the same thing early last season, they took it up a notch once when Elseid Hysaj re-claimed the starting job for tactical reasons.

It appears that, in the gaffer’s mind, he has to pick between the energetic fullback and Luis Alberto to have the right balance. Since the Spaniard has been in good shape for a couple of months now, the choice has been obvious. They probably could afford both now that they have fine-tuned everything, but they do it only when forced to.

Their robustness has allowed them to better navigate the routine injury setbacks of Ciro Immobile. They would have struggled had he missed so much time in the past. Instead, Felipe Anderson and Pedro have been productive enough in relief, plus their defensive prowess permits them to win without having to outgun the opponents.

Their great numbers in the back aren’t the result of parking the bus or an all-out defensive strategy but the opposite. They remain proactive but have a lower pace and more possession, so they don’t face many risks. They aren’t as bubbly as Sarri’s Napoli were in the heyday, but they are very effective.

They have playmakers in multiple roles, and keeping them all in check is challenging. Mattia Zaccagni is the most prolific one and is a big hub, and that opens up room for the other attackers, who are savvy in picking their spots and cutting from different angles, adding unpredictability. They play more horizontally when Anderson is the tip of the spear and more vertically when Immobile is in the XI. Alberto and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic look for him with through balls often and with great precision, which is highly bothersome.

They tend to attack in waves, first with their frontline on its own and then, if the situation is safe enough not to expose themselves, the midfielders move closer to the box, and they are always a threat to make a play given their class. The offensive production of the two aces has taken a slight dip due to this concerted effort to be stouter, and their channel runs are rarer, but it’d be perilous to overlook them. The tradeoff is that they treat the ball more in other areas of the pitch, and it’s complicated to strip them when they decide to hold onto it and patiently work their way around the opposing rearguard. That’s helpful especially when Matias Vecino serves as the anchor, as he’s not as good as a distributor as Danilo Cataldi, but exploiting his physicality has already paid dividends in some matches.

They seem more emotionally stable than their rivals, and they have everything in place to cruise to the result, which would ruffle a few feathers. They won the Derby and thumped Milan in late January, but they haven’t always performed up to their standards in big matches, as also evidenced in the previous bouts with Juventus or versus Atalanta. Their ongoing streak might, and should, give them the confidence to stick to their guns and not divert from their identity, as they are in trouble when they do that.

Probable Lineup

4-3-3: Provedel; Hysaj, Casale, Romagnoli, Marusic; Milinkovic-Savic, Vecino, Alberto; Felipe Anderson, Immobile, Zaccagni.