At least on paper, Wednesday’s Coppa Italia final between Lazio and Juventus is a worrying one for Simone Inzaghi’s charges. Already beaten twice this season by the Bianconeri, Rome’s oldest team has been positively allergic to this tie since Massimo Allegri took over in 2014, never scoring against his men in the six Serie A games he has supervised, and losing each and every one.
It’s a good job, then, that one-off Finals are a great way to buck trends. Even with no Sami Khedira (he’s unlikely to recover from his left thigh strain) and Miralem Pjanic suspended, the stars still seem to align for Juventus in this particular tie. Having come away from the Olimpico with a 1-0 win despite a poor Serie A performance, Coach Allegri did the double over the Biancocelesti by unleashing his winning 4-2-3-1 against Lazio in January, easily dominating the visitors in the reverse fixture.
Beyond ending the 3-5-2’s supremacy, the 2-0 January win heralded the emergence of Juve’s thick network of passing lanes: with Mario Mandzukic’s tireless running and Juan Cuadrado’s dynamism, the Old Lady found herself with another kitchen sink to throw at the opposition. Lazio’s midfield didn’t really know who to mark in Turin: even if they took the two full-backs and the two central midfielders, they couldn’t protect themselves against Paulo Dybala’s forays, Gonzalo Higuain’s new-found work ethic or Mandzukic himself.
With the new system, Juventus became something that Conte’s team never did - an XI capable of quick one-twos to create space, numerical superiority and penetration very quickly, with Cuadrado a particular highlight.
That said, Lazio themselves have undergone a number of transformations this season, flying in the face of the negative forecasts with a stunning campaign. It’s capped off by an all-but-guaranteed fourth place finish, not to mention a series of spectacular results, recently besting rivals Roma twice and hammering Sampdoria 7-3 at the Olimpico.
Coach Inzaghi’s 3-5-2 may also be the speed trap that brings Juventus to a halt. Defending deeper and completely smothering the Lupi in the first leg of their Coppa Italia semi-final, the Biancocelesti countered their opponents with aplomb, using Ciro Immobile, Keita Balde Diao and Felipe Anderson’s pace to devastating effect. Imagine what they could do against the slower Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci, especially down wings vacated by the attacking Alex Sandro and Dani Alves.
Eagles fans will be hoping that Juventus will struggle as much as they did against Atalanta, the only side to score multiple goals more than once against the Old Lady this season, and which coincidentally also relies on a well-oiled, three-at-the-back system with fast sucker punches. Lazio can also aspire to frustrate the Bianconeri as rivals Torino did by defending deep, though Juve admittedly fielded a weakened side in that recent 1-1 Derby draw.
With diligent marker Marco Parolo likely to recover, moreover, Lazio can hope to field a full-strength side in a game that is known for being unpredictable - whether it was Lazio’s own win over rivals Roma in 2012 or the Giallorossi’s 6-2 humbling of Inter in 2007.
The Capital club could also play on the fact that Juventus have to get everything absolutely right if they’re to win their own Treble - Inter needing to win three nail-biters in 2010 for the first in Calcio history, a fact which still rankles with the Bianconeri faithful.
The trouble is, Juventus are the complete package. They can recover from poor starts and have a first team so rich and a system so well-drilled that they can do just about anything to anyone. Even worse, they’ve been doing this for years, whether it was Paulo Dybala’s spectacular opener back in January or the Bianconeri’s comeback in the 2015 Cup Final - the Old Lady has made it a habit of breaking hearts left, right and centre.
As Inzaghi himself put it, Lazio will have to play the perfect game… and even that may not be enough.