L’Ultimo Uomo (Flavio Fusi) Roma-Juventus could have marked the finishing line in the race for the scudetto: 7 points ahead at kick-off, the Bianconeri only needed 1 point to shake off the Giallorossi for good and seal their 6th consecutive title, a Serie A record. For Spalletti’s team, on the other hand, the threat of watching the Bianconeri celebrate the title in their own stadium loomed over them, a worse prospect than 2014 when Osvaldo’s goal gave Juventus – who were already champions by that point – a record-breaking number of points, ruining the celebrations of the final home game of Rudi Garcia’s first season.
Spalletti was forced to prepare for the game with 2 major absentees: Strootman, still banned after his dive in the derby, and the injured Dzeko, scorer of more than a third of his team’s goals. As a result, Paredes reclaimed his position in midfield alongside De Rossi, while Perotti played in the centre of the attack, with Salah and El Shaarawy on the wings and Nainggolan as trequartista in the 4-2-3-1 formation that Roma have utilised in the last few weeks. After a lot of tactical experiments and a long period using a 3-man defence, Spalletti’s Roma went out onto the pitch using the same formation they had used in the first game against Juve, although their tactics and personnel were very different (for example, in the first game Gerson was used on the right wing).
Meanwhile, with the Coppa Italia final on the horizon and the Champions League final a little over 2 weeks away, Allegri decided to rotate his team so that his most important players could conserve their energies: 5 of his first choice XI were left on the bench (in addition to Marchisio, who wasn’t 100% fit) and the 4-2-3-1 formation was abandoned in favour of a 4-5-1. The defensive line in front of Buffon was made up of Lichtsteiner, Bonucci, Benatia and Asamoah; Pjanic took up a position just in front of the defence, with Lemina and Sturaro (who had more licence of the two to get forward) in central midfield; Mandzukic once again played on the left wing, with Cuadrado on the right and Higuain as the lone striker.
Juventus were inevitably affected by the fact that both a win and a draw would do for them: since they didn’t need to go out to score goals, the Bianconeri instead tried to pass the ball around at a more leisurely pace, taking as few risks as possible. Pjanic regularly dropped deeper to help Bonucci and Benatia take the ball out of central defence, and if necessary the full backs were available as well to avoid leaving their team-mates outnumbered, seeing as Roma normally press with three players: Perotti, Nainggolan, and either El Shaarawy or Salah depending on which side of the pitch the ball is on.
What may have seemed to be a purely defensive attitude was actually an entirely logical move to attack Roma by exploiting their weak points: by passing the ball around in defence for long periods they invited the Giallorossi players to press them, which opened up more space on the pitch for Allegri’s players.
It was noticeable how much higher up Sturaro was playing than Lemina (who played a more active part in retaining possession) in the inside left position, and that forced Paredes and De Rossi to play much further apart. Roma’s two mediani frequently had to deal with Juventus’ full backs as well, who were left free by Salah and El Shaarawy when they pushed up to press the centre backs.
Despite this though, Juve often utilised a long ball approach, with one of Pjanic or Bonucci trying to pick out Cuadrado to give him a one-on-one with Emerson Palmieri. Another tactic they frequently used was in giving the ball to Mandzukic, and when he received a long pass out on the left he would systematically play a diagonal ball into the inside left for Sturaro, who was left free to pick up his passes for the entire first half.
It was exactly this sort of situation that led to Lemina’s opening goal. Sturaro, wide on the left, picked up the ball from Asamoah and, thanks to the distance left between Paredes and De Rossi, had complete freedom to attack the central area in the final third. His ball found Higuain, who made a great assist to set up Lemina.
However, after going 0-1 down, Roma didn’t fall apart and continued to follow their own game play with even more intensity. De Rossi’s subsequent equaliser was the result of a surprisingly well-organised high press. The corner from which the Roma captain scored the equaliser came about after some clumsy play from Benatia; under pressure from Salah, he gave Bonucci a very difficult pass, and the Giallorossi were subsequently able to regain possession and win the corner.
After the teams went in level at half time, Roma came back out onto the pitch with more intensity than they had played with at any time this season, which Juventus weren’t able to deal with in their usual fashion (Allegri talked about his players being ‘asleep’). Retaining possession became decidedly more difficult, which was partly down to the Giallorossi pressing several metres higher up the pitch. It was El Shaarawy who completed the turnaround for the Giallorossi; after attacking from the left corner of the penalty area and beating Lichtsteiner, he found the perfect angle – with the help of a slight deflection off Bonucci – to curl the ball inside the far post.
Even though Perotti and Nainggolan were not co-ordinating particularly well and were struggling to work together when they were both in a central area, Roma were still able to bypass Juventus’ defensive blockade – without the ball they fell back into a compact 4-1-4-1 shape – for long stretches of the game. Particularly when they had controlled possession in an attacking position, Roma were able to move it around quickly enough to get through Juventus’ two lines of defence.
Furthermore, Perotti’s runs out wide, particularly towards the left, with El Shaarawy or Salah moving into the centre, prevented Juve from getting any fixed points of reference, which are crucial to a team that is defending as they were. Perotti’s activity in the build-up to Nainggolan’s goal to make it 3-1 was very clear, as he created additional options for a pass while Salah took up his role of centre forward. In a sense, Juventus came up against a Roma side that was playing more as a team than they had all season, even though it was nearly all completely spontaneous.
Roma’s 2 second half goals forced Massimiliano Allegri to abandon his own game plan and make some substitutions. After 2-1 he turned to Dani Alves to replace Lichtsteiner, while the substitution of Dybala – who came on at 3-1 – caused Juventus to change to their now classic 4-2-3-1 shape. For once, Allegri’s changes were too late to have an effect on the result and seal the scudetto. It was logical for him to rest some of his players but, considering how difficult Roma found it to manage the spaces left between their defence and midfield, if he had started the Argentine would have definitely caused them more problems than Sturaro.
After making the third and final change, with Marchisio on for Cuadrado, Juventus then had to deal with an injury to Mandzukic, who only stayed on the pitch to make up the numbers. Roma diligently closed off any spaces that opened up for the Bianconeri, shifting to a deep and compact 4-1-4-1 that Juve failed to break down. In fact, the only chance the Giallorossi conceded was Higuain’s, which came in the 5th minute of injury time.
Not only did Roma delay Juventus’ title celebrations and reclaim 2nd place from Napoli, they kept alive their own faint hopes of winning the title. The 37th round of games sees Spalletti’s squad play at Chievo at 5.00 on Saturday: a win would take the Giallorossi to an incredible -1 in the league, and Juventus would have to win at home against Crotone – although there is an obvious gap in quality, Crotone are coming into the game in exceptional form (with 17 points over the last 7 games they have the best form in Serie A).
The title race is still alive and Juventus will have to react immediately: on Wednesday and Sunday they will be playing for 2 of 3 possible trophies that they could win this season. Even though their defeat at the Olimpico could soon simply turn out to be a temporary setback, it’s worth remembering that the gap between top teams (particularly in football), and therefore the gap between victory and defeat, is often smaller than we sometimes think.