Juventus’ inability to rise to the occasion in big matches bit them again versus Lazio. Every contest is his own, considering the diverse characteristics of the opponents, but the only acceptable performances have come versus Inter in that regard. The Biancocelesti are in particular good form, so some issues were to be expected, but, despite some controversial episodes and an okay late push, the Old Lady was at the mercy of the enemies for way too long. Rope-a-dope shouldn’t always be the go-to strategy in this kind of contest, and what happened against Napoli should have served as a valuable lesson. The capital side isn’t at that level, but their game plan and level of proactivity aren’t that different.

The Bianconeri are reasonably comfortable when they can just overwhelm opponents with their quality without having to do anything fancy or face too much pressure in the back. Instead, things change drastically against brazen adversaries that aren’t scared of the moment or the match-up. Top-tier sides have long figured that out, and smaller ones are catching up too. At some point, they’ll have to defeat somebody really good to go all the way in Europa League and Coppa Italia, and their resume in crunch matches isn’t promising. It’s an atavistic issue at the continental level, while more recent domestically.

The qualification is wide open after the first leg versus Sporting CP, where Juventus were lucky to come away with a narrow win and will need another big-boy performance on the road. The tilt was telling for a couple of reasons. Even though it’s alluring on paper, the squad doesn’t seem ready to use 3-4-2-1 regularly. Its positive effects faded quickly, making way for its defects, as the Portuguese side gained the upper hand chiefly because they were superior in the midfield. In some instances, the absence of a commanding deep-lying playmaker is very noticeable. The management tried to address it with Leandro Paredes, and they’ll have to do it again in the summer rather than focusing on players with different traits.

Even though Manuel Locatelli and Adrien Rabiot should be very suitable for a two-man line, it didn’t work out. The scheme looked poorly rehearsed. The distances between the lines weren’t the right ones, and there were too many holes. The attackers working harder in the passive phases would only partially offset those issues. In addition, the offense missed the contribution of the two box-to-box.

Things improved by switching to 4-3-3, with some contribution from Sporting CP, whose intensity dipped. It’s nothing new for the Bianconeri to gain steam as the game progresses, and perhaps the more aggressive tactic should be used in those instances rather than from the jump. The obvious downside is that it forces the coach to alternate Federico Chiesa, Angel Di Maria, and the strikers rather than fielding all the top weapons at the same time.

Speaking of the center-forwards, the concerns and chatter about Dusan Vlahovic inevitably resurfaced after another string of goalless performances. While things are magnified with him since he has to carry the burden of expectations that come with his stature and price tag, Juventus have a problem with the position in general rather than with the Serb per se. All too often his only tasks are to get open in the box and wait for the ball and fight in the air on long balls. No matter who stars there, there isn’t an effort to keep him involved and interplay with him, and not necessarily in the final third. It’s tough to fare well with so few touches, and the striker is invisible if the team doesn’t create a lot, which is often the case. The no.9 should be the focal point and not just the finisher, as the risk of becoming an afterthought is one step away considering how much the wingers and midfielders like to hold the ball or take shots. They aren’t selfish players, so the mandate of feeding the big kahuna only very deep on the pitch must come from the bench.

The rotation will once again be robust, and it’d be beneficial if one between Di Maria and Chiesa could start, as the heavy frontline hasn’t yielded great results, but things seem headed in such direction. Moise Kean is out with a minor problem. Gleison Bremer, Juan Cuadrado, and Locatelli are candidates for a breather, with Leonardo Bonucci and Leandro Paredes replacing them, as the Argentine has patched things up with the gaffer. Tommaso Barbieri is rumored to make his first start out wide since Mattia De Sciglio is missing, and that’d be interesting for the future too. Wojciech Szczesny appears to be fine after a weird malaise, but Mattia Perin will get the nod in this one.

Probable Lineup

3-5-2: Perin; Gatti, Bremer, Danilo; Barbieri, Fagioli, Paredes, Rabiot, Kostic; Milik, Vlahovic. 

Absences: Alex Sandro (suspension), Kean, De Sciglio (muscle fatigue), Kaio Jorge (patellar tendon tear). 

To nobody’s surprise, Sassuolo, which were seriously wobbling in the first half of the season, turned things around once Domenico Berardi got healthy and played a few games in a row. While he hasn’t necessarily been as superb as in the past, he’s their polar star and the stick that stirs the drink. They have other good players, but it’s a matter of intimidation. Any opponent believed to have a chance to beat them when he was unavailable. Therefore, even though they are better equipped to replace him with Nedim Bajrami and Gregoire Defrel, who missed a lot of time with a foot injury, Juventus will catch a big break with the star right winger unavailable for this tie.

Once he shook off his muscular problem, they ripped off an impressive run, interrupted only by a loss to Napoli and the recent one against Hellas Verona, where they fumbled away a point, if not more, as they were firmly in control for most of it, and the game-winning goal came on a laughable blunder.

The winning streak, and the low level of this year’s relegation struggle, dissipated their worries, and they resumed doing what they generally do, which is to perform freely and showcase players that will eventually be sold for a boatload of money.

They would have been in a much worse spot if they hadn’t signed Armand Laurienté, who carried the attack for a long time. He’s a poor man’s version of Rafael Leao, as he has incredible pace and technique, can zoom past any defender, and is a fantastic shooter. Some inconsistency comes with the package. He wasn’t a proper revelation because he had already flourished with Lorient but signing him was reportedly a chore. They insisted and were rewarded, currently on the pitch and eventually financially in the future. His performances allowed them to cash in on Hamed Traoré, who was a linchpin last season, without any blowback or hurting the team.

Alessio Dionisi decided to tilt his previous 4-2-3-1, which he inherited from Roberto De Zerbi, into a 4-3-3 to better accommodate Davide Frattesi. Considering Berardi and Traoré’s early injuries, he has been a true workhorse and leader. He has a shot this campaign already, but he’ll easily become a double-digit scorer when he moves to a team where he doesn’t have to exert so much energy in the passive phase and can begin his lethal channel runs deeper on the pitch. He’s not as physical, but he’d be a fine choice to replace Adrien Rabiot, should he leave at the end of his contract. But they could easily star together. Juventus are said to be hot on his trail, and it’d be highly satisfying to steal him from under Roma’s nose.

While they gave plenty of chances to Kristjan Thorstvedt and a few to Traoré in the short time he was available before leaving, their midfield made the leap once Matheus Henrique became the third starter, as his technique and hustle complement Frattesi and Maxime Lopez, who’s a great passer despite some peaks and valleys in his relationship with the gaffer. In addition, he’s a good cutter too, and he often sneaks by enemies that focus more on his well-known teammate. Abdou Harroui is more workmanlike but not that far off in terms of skillset. He started and scored in the past game and would be a more defensive-minded choice if deployed here.

The coach is stubborn when he feels like something works, and he sticks with it rather than rotating his men. That for instance cost them a quality fullback like Georgios Kyriakopoulos, who left because Rogerio constantly played over him. Gianmarco Ferrari is paying the price for that now, as the go-to duo in the back is apparently Martin Erlic and Ruan Tressoldi. The latter has grown a lot during his time in Italy, and the mandate might have come from the management that wanted to reap the fruits of their investment, but it was odd that the switch happened in the first place. It’s happening at right-back too, as Jeremy Toljan reclaimed the starting job after an injury, and Nadir Zortea was completely cast aside despite being more than passable when called upon, and the starter not being all that great.

Dionisi will have to be more flexible with his choices if he ever makes it to a big team. His contract is up in June and, despite some rumors linking him even to Juventus, he needs more seasoning and an intermediate step to get to that level. While they are adequately proactive and bold, he’s one of the most pragmatic coaches in the wave of up-and-comers. Their results hinge more on the players’ performances than on his tactical and stylistic contribution.

Probable Lineup

4-3-3: ConsiglI; Toljan, Erlic, Ruan, Rogerio; Frattesi, Maxime Lopez, Henrique; Bajrami, Pinamonti, Laurienté.  

Absences: Berardi (thigh injury), Muldur (ankle fracture).