Every now and then, a football match comes along that defies explanation. “Was Roma-Juve a comeback or a collapse?” asked the front-page of Monday’s Corriere dello Sport, but those options seemed too narrow. This game was a melodrama, a saga, a whole HBO series worth of narratives crammed into 90 minuti, complete with celebrity cameos and premature farewells to your favourite characters.
Juventus won 4-3, and that was improbable enough. The Bianconeri had been the lowest-scoring team in the top half of the table, con 28 goals to show for their first 20 matches. Roma had conceded only eight all season at the Stadio Olimpico.
They did so three times in seven second-half minutes on Sunday, throwing away a 3-1 lead after already having surrendered a 1-0 advantage at the start. The last goal was scored by Mattia De Sciglio, a 29-year-old full-back who had found the net just once before in his professional career – and that half a decade before.
That was not the final plot twist in a game that featured a red card, a penalty, game-changing substitutions, crucial VAR interventions and an injury that could spell longer-term disaster for Juventus but also Italy’s World Cup qualifying bid. All this with Francesco Totti making a rare appearance in the stands.
Forse, anche se, we ought to start at the beginning. Before kick-off we knew that this could be a defining game in both teams’ seasons. Roma, seventh in the table, had a chance to pull level with fifth-placed Juventus. But the Bianconeri needed a win to stay within touching distance of Atalanta ahead of them.
Expectations were low for Roma after a disappointing performance against a depleted Milan on Thursday. They had lost 3-1 to opponents missing their first-choice central midfield pairing as well as three-quarters of a starting defence.
But José Mourinho changed up his tactics, swapping away from the three-man defence he used at San Siro to mirror Juventus in a 4-2-3-1. He named Ainsley Maitland-Niles as his right-back, just two days after the player arrived on loan from Arsenal. Bryan Cristante was drafted into midfield and academy graduate Felix Afena-Gyan given a start on the left wing.
Individually, those players did not all sparkle. Juventus’s first goal arrived when Federico Chiesa forced Maitland-Niles on to his heels with a powerful run down the left, before serving Paulo Dybala in the middle. Cristante should have been tracking the Argentinian but was caught ball-watching. Dybala had all the time he needed to pick out the bottom corner.
Roma’s change in shape, tuttavia, was effective. Juventus’s manager, Massimiliano Allegri, was serving a suspension but his sideline surrogate, Marco Landucci, confessed that the switch caught them off guard.
Cristante and Jordan Veretout held the middle of the pitch, starving their Juventus counterparts Manuel Locatelli and Rodrigo Bentancur of early possession. Roma won five corners in the game’s opening 11 minutes and took the lead from the last of those with a Tammy Abraham header. They could have had a penalty, and a chance to go 2-0 su, when Lorenzo Pellegrini’s shot rebounded from Matthijs De Ligt’s boot on to his outstretched arm.
Anziché, Juventus equalised through Dybala. But Roma stayed on top. They retook the lead on a deflected shot from Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Then Pellegrini, Roma’s captain, scored a magnificent free-kick to make it 3-1. The TV cameras tracked to his predecessor Totti.
Here was your story: a passing-of-the-baton moment, the rise of a new Roma team made possible by the emergence of another homegrown captain. A Juventus comeback seemed implausible. Chiesa had exited the game before half-time with what immediately looked like a serious knee injury and has now been confirmed as a cruciate ligament tear – a hammer blow for club and country.
Landucci sent on Álvaro Morata for Moise Kean in the 63rd minute. The Spaniard scarcely saw the ball for the next seven, ma allora, out of nowhere, conjured a game-changing assist, driving toward the touchline on the right, dragging the ball away from Roger Ibañez’s sliding challenge and floating a cross for Locatelli to head home.
Just like that, the game was transformed. Dejan Kulusevski fired Juventus level, driving his shot into the ground and up into the roof of the net after Morata’s initial attempt was blocked. The goal was initially disallowed but VAR confirmed that there was no offside.
Then Morata combined with Weston McKennie down the left, before the American chipped the ball over for De Sciglio to run inside. Chris Smalling got his head on the ball but could not intercept it. The full-back finished at the near post.
Delirium. And a new story: Juventus rescued by Morata, the forward whose future had been in doubt amid reports of interest from Atletico Madrid.
Solo, this game still was not done. Roma won a penalty in the 81st minute, De Ligt handling the ball inside the area a second time. The Dutchman, already booked, was shown a red card. The cameras went back to Totti as Pellegrini stepped up, but this time we would not see either man celebrate. A weak spot-kick was saved by Wojciech Szczęsny – the Juventus goalkeeper who turned his career around during three seasons right here at Roma.
When the full-time whistle finally went, half of the people inside the Olimpico looked to be in a daze. Juventus celebrated, but even Landucci joked that he hoped Allegri “comes back soon because I just lost five or six years of my life.”
To throw away such an important game from such a commanding position could only be a hammer blow to Roma. Defeat left them nine points adrift of the Champions League places, and there are more damning statistics to be found. This is the first time since 1988-89 that the Giallorossi have been beaten at home by Juventus, Milan and Inter in the same season.
A crestfallen Mourinho sought to portray the defeat afterwards as further evidence of the limitations of the squad he had inherited. “My heart hurts because I am not used to this profile of team,” he was quoted as saying in La Repubblica. “I am here to give the lads a way to improve. But I want the team to follow me in going above their limits, not that they should take me to their level.”
Right now the question might be whether they have moved forward at all. Roma are eight points worse off than they were at the corresponding point last season, despite considerable summer investment. The Portugal midfielder Sérgio Oliveira is set to join on loan and it is possible that the club may do more business before the end of this month.
There is no new signing, anche se, who can restore the opportunity they threw away to beat Juventus this weekend.