The fact that Serie A fixtures aren’t all that meaningful to Juventus has produced weird games, and the Derby della Mole was the wildest one. Granted that three goals came on set pieces and weren’t the result of a drastic strategic change, it was just the second time the Bianconeri scored four times in a game, and they did it against a decent defensive team too. While it leaves a lot to be desired from the entertainment standpoint, at least they are reaping the benefits from having such a physical team. It’s not the most attractive strategy that has worked since the dawn of time.
The only negative aspect of the victory was Dusan Vlahovic not hitting the net and getting down in the dumps after missing a clear-cut chance. That’s the single biggest step forward he has to take, as he can’t outright exit the game when that happens. The squad is now producing more than in the past thanks to Angel Di Maria, Filip Kostic, Federico Chiesa, and Nicolò Fagioli, so the opportunities will be there. Being ambitious is fine, but he shouldn’t strive for perfection, as that’s a lost battle.
The scenario changes every week, and Atalanta slumping offers an opportunity to aim for sixth place, which is a real objective, unlike the seventh one. It shouldn’t be enough to completely shift the focus toward domestic play, as Europa League should continue to be the main priority, but at least it gives more sense to the matches. The players can only handle what’s in front of them, and the next developments from the sports justice won’t arrive before a month at the earliest.
Enzo Barrenechea getting the start was the biggest news of the Derby, and, while his performance was nothing to write home about, it spelled the end of the Leandro Paredes fiasco. At least he joined on loan, so moving on from him won’t be an economic bloodbath. Considering who’s at the helm and his initial distrust toward youngsters, it would have been risky going into the season with four of five prospects in the same role, but the results would have been better, and the balance sheets would have benefitted too. In addition, there were a few other options the front office could have targeted.
We’ll see what the summer plans for the midfield will be, but the Argentinian starlet should definitely get more looks to see whether he can hold his own. He’s different, more defensive-minded, and meshes well with the other talents already in Turin, Fagioli and Fabio Miretti, and others that may stay next season, like Nicolò Rovella, Hans Nicolussi Caviglia, and Filippo Ranocchia. A bolder team would stand pat and give them all a real shot, especially if Paul Pogba stays healthy and perform as expected, even if Adrien Rabiot leaves.
Speaking of the transfer market, fresh reports suggest Alex Sandro is now likely to stay put since the club has an option to extend his contract for another season. That’d be worrying, not because he’s been poor this season; as a matter of fact, this has been the best he has fared in years, and he has been surprisingly comfortable in a back-three for somebody whose forte has never been defending. On the other hand, it means that the budget will be tiny. One has to wonder whether Juan Cuadrado will be next. Hopefully, even if more veterans than expected stay, that won’t keep the management from sprucing up the roster with a few prodigies. But I wouldn’t get my hopes up.
The squad is almost whole as Fabio Miretti is back, while Mattia De Sciglio is out with a minor injury. The formation should be the standard one, with either Di Maria or Chiesa supporting Vlahovic, although Massimiliano Allegri occasionally pulls one out of the hat in big matches.
3-5-2: Szczesny; Danilo, Bremer, Alex Sandro; Cuadrado, Fagioli, Locatelli, Rabiot, Kostic; Di Maria; Vlahovic.
Absences: Milik (thigh strain), De Sciglio (muscle fatigue), Kaio Jorge (patellar tendon tear).
Roma were arguably the biggest winners of Juventus being taken out of the Champions League race, but they have fumbled away multiple opportunities to prove that they are more legitimate contenders than Lazio and Atalanta. Juggling two competitions continues to be a major struggle, and the missteps against Lecce and Cremonese resulted from that. They have recovered some pieces, and other have rounded into shape, so they might be in a better spot in the near future.
Paulo Dybala has found his right dimension here, as they handed him the reins of the game and gave him the starring role he rarely had at Juventus. On the other hand, he’s not the leader of a team competing at the highest levels, which he proved he couldn’t be in Turin. It’s still a regret, especially since the Bianconeri replaced him with a 35-year-old that may be a one-season patch and ended up using a scheme that would have suited him perfectly, but only if they could keep him at the same salary he eventually accepted from the Giallorossi. He’s the one that toils the most with coping with short turnarounds, but he’ll be well-rested for this one. He handles the ball a lot, makes classy plays all over the pitch, and this has been his best campaign in years.
Instead, Lorenzo Pellegrini is having a weird one, and perhaps he took a subconscious hit because he’s no longer their head honcho, or it’s just a matter of fitness, as he’s seemingly always pushing through minor thigh injuries. Even before Nicolò Zaniolo departed, they didn’t use the scheme with all their four best players together because one of them was always hurt, but the departure of the startler was surely good news for him, as he returned to the position he’s most comfortable. He hasn’t been as brilliant and productive as in the past, but not giving him the proper amount of attention and respect would be a grave error, as he can bust out a great assist or a pile-driver at any time. He’s reportedly battling the flu, but he’ll probably gut through it.
The final piece of the puzzle they envisioned last summer is Georginio Wijnaldum, who finally got his first start and had a very encouraging performance against Cremonese after a long recovery from a leg fracture. They have gone back and forth with whom they want to have in the midfield, with Bryan Cristante being the only constant. Pellegrini played there for a while in their most aggressive design, which went away once they shipped off Zaniolo. They resisted utilizing Cristante and Nemanja Matic together for months, occasionally fielding youngster Edoardo Bove and Benjamin Tahirovic, but they leaned more on such solution from mid-January on, and the balance it provides freed up all the attackers. But the ex-Liverpool ace offers much more playmaking, so they’ll probably just rotate the trio from now on.
The other recent positive turn of events for them has been Leonardo Spinazzola hitting his stride and performing to the best of his capabilities after multiple muscular hiccups. He’s one of the most impactful and dynamic fullbacks around when he’s 100 percent, but that’s rarely the case. He has created havoc with his sprints in recent matches. Nicola Zalewski is more than a prospect at this point, and he’s generally solid, but he doesn’t impose his will as much as the Azzurri star. Still, they can field them together, as the Polish youngster can adapt to the right wing too, where they have so-so options in Rick Karsdorp and Zeki Celik. It’s a formation filled with pizzazz.
Andrea Belotti is also showings signs of life after a very poor first few months, and that puts some pressure on Tammy Abraham, who has been wildly seesawing, going from stretches where he couldn’t score in the ocean to others where he was extremely clutch and energetic. They both work their tail off, but they could use one of them turning into a super-duper goal poacher, but that’s unlikely. They are whole, considering that Stephan El Shaarawy has turned into a very valuable weapon, either as an attacker or a wingback, and Ola Solbakken is starting to get acclimated. He’ll be at worst a quality super-sub in multiple positions. He’s doubtful for this one with a muscular injury, though.
They have everything in place to be humming, which made the result against Cremonese more baffling, as the only negative factor was Chris Smalling being suspended and the fatigue generated by the midweek Europa League fixture. Perhaps they should have rotated more from the jump, but that should be routine for a big club, and instead, things tend to snowball on them at the first sign of trouble, and they aren’t great at getting off the mat when they are down. They always live on the edge, also due to the level of tension constantly maintained by José Mourinho and the infinite passion of their fans, which has some drawbacks too.
They have the means to rip off five or six wins in a row where they stomp their authority and take care of business, but that hasn’t happened yet. The conservative style of the Special One might be holding them back, and throwing all the forwards on the pitch in late-game situations when they need a goal is more window-dressing than a real strategy. But he and his antics are also the perfect umbrella for a squad and a city whose mood and psyche are always teetering.
3-4-2-1: Patricio; Mancini, Smalling, Ibanez; Zalewski, Cristante, Matic, Spinazzola; Dybala, Pellegrini; Abraham.
Absences: Darboe (ACL tear).