Lazio should have been warned. Prior to their 2-0 defeat away to champions Juventus yesterday, the Roman club should have been ready for something special. After all, there was always the chance that Juventus would have been in wounded lion mode, angry and all too hungry to wipe out the memory of their emphatic 2-1 defeat by Fiorentina eight days ago.
If that defeat by the Tuscan club was not reason enough to be worried, Lazio should have had a good listen to Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri at his eve of match press conference last Saturday. Peeved by a week of speculation about his side’s future in the wake of that Florence defeat, Allegri told reporters:
“Nobody does us any favours and if we’re going to win the title we’ve got to prove that we are the best…I keep on saying that we haven’t won anything, although, mind you, we have won one title, that of the most criticised side in the league…”
It took Juventus just 15 minutes to wrap up this game with two splendid goals from the Argentine twin terrors, Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain. Domestic commentators were stunned by the audacious, at least by Italian standards, formation fielded by Allegri.
Using a basic 4-2-3-1 formation, Allegri played all his most attacking players, with Higuain backed by the trio of Colombian Juan Cuadrado, Dybala and Croat Mario Mandzukic. On top of that, Bosnian schemer Miralem Pjanic played alongside German Sami Khedira in front of the back four. All of that, too, against a side which went into the game in a respectable fourth place, five points behind the Old Lady.
Speaking after the game, Allegri admitted that the defeat by Fiorentina, Juve’s fourth league defeat this season, had impacted upon him too, saying:
“Last Wednesday morning, I woke up and I said to myself, I’ve got to make changes. Even if I had my doubts, the sensations of the last two days blew them away…There are games which mark a turning point in the season and the match against Lazio was one of these. We came into it after a night to forget in Florence and this was the right moment to experiment…”
The curious thing is that the critical concern prompted by the Fiorentina defeat really did not make a lot of sense. After all, as Allegri pointed out midweek, his side were one point clear on top of the Serie A table with a game in hand, whilst they are in line for a Champions League second round tie against Porto after having won their group. On top of that, they are still on course in the Coppa Italia, in which face AC Milan in a prestige, knock-out tie on Wednesday night.
This all sounds pretty good, no? Criticism of Juve, however, is not based on their Serie A form, rather it is focussed on Juve’s prospects in the Champions League. It is all very well dominating at home but if the Old Lady is to go all the way to the Cardiff final then she has to be more aggressive, more attack-minded in European competition…or so the criticism goes.
It remains to be seen how often, injuries and opponents permitting, Allegri opts for a similarly attacking formation. Against Lazio, Juve goalkeeper Gigi Buffon was your classic non-paying spectator. Against Barcelona, Bayern, Real Madrid et al, he would expect to be rather busier. Will the two man, deep midfield of Pjanic and Khedira, playing in front of a four man defence (for example, Lichtsteiner, Bonucci, Chiellini, Barzagli) really be able to hold the fort?
All that is for the future. What is clear, however, is that with Mandzukic willing and able to play left side of midfield, covering back as well as attacking effectively, Allegri has a terrific extra weapon in his already impressive armoury.
If Juventus took little time to deal with Lazio, rivals Napoli took even less time to dispatch Milan at the San Siro on Saturday night. After only eight minutes, Napoli were 2-0 in front thanks to two utterly brilliant goals, scored by Lorenzo Insigne and Spaniard José Maria Callejon.
For periods in the first half of this game, Napoli played some of the best football seen this season. However, the Neapolitans blotted their copy book somewhat, first by missing chances to make the score 3-0 and secondly by conceding a half-time goal that owed everything to sloppy defensive work.
Milan’s goal, scored by useful Slovak, Juraj Kucka, was the sign for a second half revival which redefined Napoli’s extraordinary first half. On occasions, Milan might have merited a draw. However, the final impression left by this game is clear enough. Namely that the league table is telling no lies when it says that along with Juve and Roma, Napoli are one of Italy’s three best sides. Their home Champions League clash with Real Madrid on March 7th is going to be one of the great nights of this Italian season.
Final, not so happy thought. Umbrian side Foligno looks set to become the third Serie D (amateur level) side in Italian football to be excluded from the Serie D league this season, following the exclusions of Chieti and Due Torre. Foligno was hit with an “anti-mafia” prohibitive order by Perugia state investigators last week, linked to money laundering and fraud charges levelled against club President Gianluca Ius, Recently, things have not gone well for Foligno, given that President Ius was arrested on December 15th and that, in the meantime, the team lost its last league game, 11-0 v L’Aquila. Life at the bottom end of Italian football is not easy…