Juventus come through final test against Lazio with Coppa Italia win
In 1958, Juventus president Umberto Agnelli asked the Italian Football Federation if they could commemorate the fact his side had won their 10th Scudetti by stitching a gold star on their shirts. A tradition was born. Fifty seven years later, his son Andrea will now request that they inaugurate a silver one to mark the club's 10th Coppa Italia.
La Decima, as Tuttosport were calling it on Thursday morning, has been a long time coming. Twice the Old Lady had to file away her application for the stella d'argento (silver star) after losing finals to Parma in 2002, to Lazio in 2004 and Napoli in 2012, while their rivals Roma, also on nine, had the opportunity to pip them to it two years ago only to suffer a painful defeat to Lazio, the same opponents Juventus faced on Wednesday night.
Captaining the team in place of Gigi Buffon who passed his gloves to cup goalkeeper Marco Storari, centre-back Giorgio Chiellini dismissed the notion that this is a Coppetta (a small trophy) that his club didn't care about winning. "Success never gets boring for us," he said. "Particularly those of us [like Buffon and the suspended Claudio Marchisio] who were there in Rimini, Crotone and Frosinone [when Juventus were relegated to Serie B after the Calciopoli scandal]."
Taken personally by a clutch of core players, it has also assumed a renewed significance for the club, not only in the context of a prospective treble. "It's a special final," Chiellini added. "Because Juventus have gone without this trophy for too long. We sweat hard to get to this stage, burning a lot of energy [particularly in the semifinal when a 2-1 defeat to Fiorentina in Turin was improbably reversed with a remarkable 3-0 win in Florence], so it's a cup we want to win."
The most telling comment of all, however, was another. "In the 10 years that I have been here, we have only played one final and I didn't like losing it," Chiellini reflected of their 2-0 defeat to Napoli in 2012.
A single final appearance in a decade. Think about that. It's not a great deal of group experience in big one-off games like these. Stretching back further Juventus have lost their last six finals in all competitions [excluding the Italian Super Cup]. Interestingly, their last success in one came against Ajax in the Champions League in 1996 at the Stadio Olimpico, the setting for Wednesday's Coppa Italia showdown.
So for La Stampa this was "finals training" and "a final test" -- a double entendre underlining how it represented both the last game of significance before the Champions League showpiece against Barcelona on June 6 and an examination of Juventus' ability to cope and deliver on these special occasions. It served as a "flight simulator" for Berlin, wrote Maurizio Crosetti in La Repubblica and as a live exercise it wasn't without turbulence.
After losing 5-0 on aggregate to Juventus in the league this season, Lazio made an adjustment. They changed shape and played 3-4-3 for the first time. Much more competitive than a month ago when they had gone to Turin on an eight-game winning streak only to disappoint and be out-played, Stefano Pioli initially had his players press high and aggressively, crowd the midfield and make life uncomfortable for Juventus. Allegri's airplane had difficulty taking off and was grounded when Stefan Radu shouldered Lazio in front via a Danilo Cataldi free kick inside the opening five minutes. Had the "home side" held their advantage a while longer, settled and ascended to a state of calm and collectedness, then the outcome of this final could have been different.
But Juventus got back level almost immediately through another dead-ball situation. A Pirlo out-swinger caused problems at the far-post, Patrice Evra made himself a nuisance and knocked it down -- just as he did for Alvaro Morata's goal in the UCL semifinal in Madrid -- and Chiellini of all people contrived to execute a fine scissor kick to surprise Etrit Berisha. If Juventus were unflappable, Lazio looked a little fazed by the equaliser. They sat deeper, wary of conceding on the counter. Four of the five goals they had given up against Juventus this season had been on fast-breaks. Now Lazio sought to use the tactic against them.
Anderson drove at them at pace and released Cataldi but it came to nothing. Marco Parolo pounced on a mistake by Pogba but shot wide. When Filip Djordjevic ran onto a ball over the top in the second half, a moment's hesitancy and a timid air-shot permitted Storari to recover and see out the danger. However, the defining moment of Lazio's final came early in extra-time when Djordjevic, on for the ineffective Miroslav Klose, watched a shot finally beat Storari. Already embarking on a celebratory run, the Serb suddenly checked it after seeing his strike hit the post then fell into despair as it skimmed across the goal-line, struck the other post and bounced out. "All it took was a little bit of luck tonight, but we didn't get it," Pioli lamented later.
Not for the first time this season, destiny was smiling on Juventus. Within a minute Pirlo produced a world-class pass to the hero of the night, Alessandro Matri. It bisected Lazio's centre-backs and even though his first touch was heavy, the confusion it and the presence of Carlos Tevez caused meant he seized on the loose ball and buried it past Berisha who, like Samir Handanovic in the Derby d'Italia at the weekend, really should have done better.
Allegri had nailed another substitution and Matri repaid the trust of a coach who got the best out of him at Cagliari, took him to Milan and then brought him back to Juventus when it no longer looked like he'd ever be allowed near a big club again. He had got the comeback underway against Fiorentina in the second leg of the semifinal and now ensured Juventus did the double for only the third time in their history and for the first time in 20 years.
Not only has Allegri accomplished something that Conte fell short of in 2013, he cleared the hurdle Cestmir Vycpalek fell at in 1973. Vycpalek, the uncle of Zdenek Zeman, won the Scudetto with Juve that season, but then lost the Coppa Italia final (5-2 on penalties to Milan) and the European Cup final (1-0 to Ajax). Unlike the Czech and later Lippi, whose teams arrived at the biggest dance of all hard pushed and frazzled domestically, Allegri will have had the league wrapped up more than a month beforehand by the time he reaches Berlin. The team is fit and healthy and finished the game the stronger against Real and Lazio.
"Now let's see if we can turn this dream into reality," Allegri said. He was convinced that winning the Coppa would allow Juventus to better prepare for the Champions League final given the ulterior surge in confidence it would generate and the absence of any doubts and scrutiny defeat might bring. How ideal things are then.
And while the Old Lady smiles, Lazio have to turn that frown upside down. Champions League qualification and €50 million are riding on the next five days. Napoli go to Turin on Saturday in the belief that they can get the win they need against a Juventus team that is likely to be weaker in its composition than the one they beat in the Italian Super Cup in December. Do it, and they will be level on points with Lazio but have the edge on head-to-head, adding to the pressure resting on the shoulders of Pioli and his players before Monday's Derby della Capitale against Roma who are less in form but should be fresher.
Everything is so delicately poised, particularly with Napoli hosting Lazio on the final day, a game expected to be Rafa Benitez's farewell. A place on the podium and in the Champions League is an acceptable way for him to say goodbye. Victorious on each of the four occasions he has met Lazio in the league, in no small part because of the six goals Gonzalo Higuain has scored in those games, however, holders Napoli were eliminated from the Coppa this season after Lazio knocked them out at the San Paolo in April.
For now, though, Pioli is 100 percent focused on Roma. 2-0 up against them at the interval in January, Lazio need to make it stick rather than let Totti and co back in like they did then. "I hope Monday is the turning point," he said. "We have worked all year to get to this point. We hoped it would be decisive for our future. I believe my team deserves to play in the Champions League next year for how we have played and the spirit we have shown. The lads deserve it. But we have to show it on the pitch. We'll try and do it in the derby." Monday promises to be colossal.
James covers the Italian Serie A and European football for ESPN FC Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.