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Think of every single cliché or stereotype you’ve ever heard with regards to Italian soccer. The affinity for tactical chess matches. The defensive solidity. The conservative approaches. The caginess.
They all applied to one of the biggest games of the Serie A season on Saturday, the second-v-third clash between Juventus and Lazio. And they’ve been applying a lot lately. The title race, for the first time in a while, has been anything but predictable, but the games that will decide it have been predictably boring. Predictably tense. Predictably low-scoring. Predictably uneventful.
And then none of that mattered. None of those stereotypical characteristics mattered. Because up popped Paulo Dybala to steal yet another massive 1-0 win for Juventus at the death:
The little Argentine had looked gassed – bottled up by Lazio, restrained by a lack of support from teammates, muted by a slow, congested game that was everything you’d have predicted it to be.
But with one final flick of his wand, he slipped the ball through the legs of Luiz Felipe, slithered away from him, fended off Marco Parolo with mighty-mouse strength, and vindicated a Juve strategy that otherwise would have been condemned.
The six-time reigning champions, the dominant force in Italian soccer this decade, have been the main culprit for all the big-game caginess over the past three-plus months. Juventus has a proper title fight on its hands for the first time since the first of those six titles. Its plan for winning that fight has seemingly been to simply avoid it – to not lose it.
It has been determined to make every potential title-decider as dull as possible. Ever since a 3-2 loss to Sampdoria in November compounded early-season struggles, Juve has shut up shop. It has conceded just one goal in 17 games against Italian opposition. It has met each of its top-five brethren once, and has refused to engage in the type high-octane tussle fans would have hoped to see.
The aggregate goal tally in those four games, though, has been validation: Juventus 3, opponents 0.
The Bianconeri scored early against Napoli and Roma, and held out for 1-0 victories. In between, they settled for a 0-0 draw at home against Inter, back when Inter was also a title contender. They were quite happy to sacrifice three points to ensure one.
They seemed content to do so again at the Stadio Olimpico against Lazio. Manager Max Allegri switched to a 3-5-2 formation with Blaise Matuidi, Sami Khedira and Miralem Pjanic clogging the middle of the field. The result was … nothing. The game was as excruciating as it was easy to tune out. Juve hadn’t had a shot on goal before Dybala’s winner. A stalemate appeared to be on the cards.
And had it been, Allegri and Juventus would have been in for criticism. Their approach has essentially been to bank on Napoli slip-ups. Juve has been rolling, unbeaten in all competitions since the Sampdoria defeat, winner of nine in a row in Serie A. In that context, a draw absolutely would have been acceptable.
But not in the context of Napoli’s pace. The league leaders had won ten in a row. Had Juve dropped two points at Lazio, it was in danger of falling six points behind top spot, with Napoli set to host Roma later in the day.
And had it ended the day six back, its conservative approach likely would have been picked apart, held responsible for what many would have seen as a failure.
Instead, thanks to Dybala, it looks ingenious. Ten points from the last four games against the big boys looks like a potential title-winning return. And the three most recent points sent all sorts of pressure flooding to Naples in Europe’s most intense title race.
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