The nature of the major European soccer leagues means you have all sorts of opportunities for drama. There's usually a relegation scrap that lasts to the last matchday (or second-to-last, at worst). There's usually an intriguing battle for one of the Champions League or, at least, Europa League spots, too.
The above is good for several reasons, but above all, it's good because we don't get all that many great title races. From 2014 to 2019 in Europe's five richest leagues, only seven of a possible 25 titles were decided by six or fewer points. Three of those came in La Liga, which benefits from having two of the most high-revenue clubs in the world (Barcelona and Real Madrid) going at it instead of just one. Paris Saint-Germain (French Ligue 1), Bayern Munich (German Bundesliga) and Juventus (Italian Serie A) win their respective leagues nearly every season, and often by huge margins. The drama at the top is lacking.
Therefore, it's instantly noteworthy when there's an actual down-to-the-wire race, and when the coronavirus stopped play throughout the world, it appeared that was exactly what we were getting in Serie A. Through 26 matches, Juventus had 63 points to Lazio's 62. After a slow start, Lazio had lapped the rest of the league, too: from Oct. 21 to the stoppage, they posted 50 points out of a possible 54 -- nine more than Juve and 17 more than anyone else. They stomped Juve 3-1 in league play in early December, then did it again in the Supercoppa Italiana a couple of weeks later.
With play resuming in Italy -- Juve beat Bologna 2-0 on Monday to at least temporarily go four points up, while Lazio gets going on Wednesday with a huge match against Atalanta (3:45 p.m. ET, live on ESPN and ESPN+) -- let's take a look at how this battle might actually play out.
Wait a second. Is anyone else involved in the race?
Technically, yes. Inter Milan wait just six points back of Juventus and five back of Lazio after a 2-1 win over Sampdoria on Sunday. But Inter have already played both teams twice -- they lost to both back-to-back right before the virus stopped play -- and therefore have no chance at a six-point swing on either. While FiveThirtyEight's club soccer ratings rank Inter above Lazio, they also give Inter only a 5% chance at the title.
We can talk about them when they make up a bit more ground. For now, we'll focus on the top two.
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Is this really a battle, or is this a "champ plays with its food for a while before striking" thing?
You never totally know in advance. In 2018, for instance, Juve led Roma by only one point with four matches left but won by four. The sport's superpowers have a sixth gear, and you never know when they're going to just start laying waste to the field. Just look at Bayern in Germany this year: fired their coach in November, trailed the leader by seven points in December ... and now lead by 10 points. (They clinched the title last Tuesday.)
Juve still have more money and accumulated talent than anyone else in the league, from forwards Cristiano Ronaldo and Paulo Dybala, to defenders Leonardo Bonucci and Matthijs de Ligt, to ageless goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon. Still, what we can say for sure is that the Old Lady has not been incredibly in sync for a while and Lazio have been the superior team, both head-to-head and in the league, over nearly the past five pre-stoppage months. Plus, Juve played two Coppa Italia matches last week against Milan (semifinal, second leg) and Napoli (final) and scored zero combined goals in 180 minutes. They allowed none as well -- they lost the final to Napoli in a shootout -- but the three-month stoppage didn't inspire a sudden rejuvenation in form.
So why haven't Juve pulled away?
First, let's give Lazio credit. Juve have averaged 2.42 points per match over the past seven seasons (all title wins) and are averaging 2.42 this year as well. They're technically right on schedule; their biggest issue is that their primary title rival has, again, dropped only four points in its past 18 matches. Still, it's hard not to notice that something is amiss.
From 2013 to 2018, Juve's average goal differential in league play was +1.43, but it slipped to +1.05 last season and +1.00 this season. Their Champions League form has been uninspiring, too -- they were eliminated by Ajax in the quarterfinals last year and trail Lyon, 1-0, one leg into the round of 16 this year.
This nearly two-season slip is not what Juve signed up for when they acquired Ronaldo from Real Madrid in the summer of 2018. They've been a little unfortunate in the goals department -- their expected goals (XG) average is 2.0, their best since 2012-13, but they've averaged only 1.92 goals, fifth in the league and their second-worst average in the past five years. This issue would be even worse if not for Ronaldo's XG over-achievement (17.8 XG, but 21 actual goals).
This is the kind of "weakness" that has defined Juve's performance this season: they're not actually bad at anything, except they're just not elite at much either. They're fifth in goals scored (fourth in XG), second in goals allowed (third in XG allowed), second in average possession, third in chances created and allowed, second in possessions won in the attacking third and fourth in opponents' possessions won in the attacking third, etc.
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First-year manager Mauricio Sarri, most recently of Chelsea (2018-19) and Napoli (2015-18), has Juve between identities at the moment: their possession rate is higher than it's been in eight years, they're averaging more passes per possession and boast more possessions started in the attacking third than ever. But their strange finishing problems have held them back a bit, and their defense has lost some edge: opponents are averaging more shots and goals than Juve has allowed since 2010-11.
That season happens to be the last time they didn't win Serie A.
What have Lazio done so well?
For starters, they have established far greater continuity than soccer clubs are usually able to achieve. Lazio near-lifer Simone Inzaghi has been in charge since 2016, when he was promoted from his perch leading the youth team after Marcelo Bielsa's two-day stint as manager. Lazio finished just fifth, fifth and eighth in the league in his first three seasons, though they thrived in tournament play: they reached the finals of the 2017 Coppa Italia, won it in 2019 and acquired the Supercoppa in 2017 and 2019.
There's been continuity on the field, too. Among the core lineup of 11 players with over 1,400 minutes in league play, midfield addition Manuel Lazzari is the only player who wasn't part of the team in 2018-19. The familiarity with Inzaghi's unique-for-the-day 3-5-2 system has paid off, as has pure commitment to identity. This isn't a modern possession team -- their 50.2% possession rate is 10th in the league, and since the start of 2020, opponents have started 2.3 more possessions in the attacking third than they have, a shockingly bad margin for a contender.
Instead, Lazio thrive on pragmatism.
They maintain defensive organization -- they've allowed the fewest goals in the league, and you could legitimately call their system more of a 5-3-2 if you want. Midfielder Lucas Leiva combines a holding midfielder's defensive presence with passing accuracy (86% completion rate), and Luis Alberto and Sergej Milinković-Savić dominate the ball in transition. They can overload whatever areas of the field opponents leave vulnerable, and they create much better shots than their opponents.
Simple? Yes. But when you've got Ciro Immobile (27 goals in 26 league matches), a master creator like Alberto (12 assists) and a squad of physical, smart players, it can work. Playing a modern style is great, but playing your style really, really well can make up a lot of ground.
Following a discouraging start to the campaign -- their first eight matches included two losses and three draws -- Inzaghi began to get Lazzari more involved on the right, and Leiva began to play more of a ball-control role in the middle. The ball control helped the defense; after allowing five combined goals in back-to-back draws against Bologna and Atalanta, the Biancocelesti have allowed more than one goal in a match just twice since.
Juve have more stars, but Lazio's identity -- and the 30-year-old Immobile's continued development into one of the best goal scorers in the world -- has made them a legitimate challenger.
OK, so this might be a real race. What's the schedule like?
The two teams' schedules are pretty similar down the stretch. Both are scheduled to play fourth-place Atalanta and ninth-place AC Milan, and Lazio's still got eighth-place Hellas Verona as well. On the final matchday, Lazio are to play at sixth-place Napoli while Juve get fifth-place Roma. Both sides have plenty of tricky matchups ahead.
Most importantly, the two are scheduled to play head-to-head on July 20 in Turin. It is a revenge opportunity for the champs, who got outscored 6-2 by Lazio in the two December contests. The two teams' styles meshed into a cautious battle of philosophy: Juve tried to move the ball through the middle, while Lazio preferred to advance the ball down the wings and launch crosses into the box.
Indeed, Juve's first goal came from a pass into the box from central midfield, and four of Lazio's six goals came from crosses sent into the mixer. Juve forced ultra-dangerous turnovers deep in Lazio territory, nearly scoring off of one in the first match and finding goal in the second. Once Plan A dried up for Juve, however, so did most of the scoring opportunities, and in both matches, Lazio put away wins with counterattacking goals. Felipe Caicedo put in a rebound off of a counter in the fifth minute of injury time on Dec. 7, and after a foul just outside the box on a counter in the Supercoppa, Danilo Cataldi knocked in a free kick in the fourth minute of injury time.
Scoring drought aside, Juventus remain the more proven commodity, and that likely makes them the safest bet in this race. But Lazio were superior for a five-month stretch, and they could remain so.
Bill, it's time to pick a winner. Who is claiming the Scudetto for 2019-20?
Juventus remain the more proven commodity -- despite the tight points margin, after all, FiveThirtyEight still gives them a 74% chance at the Scudetto. They usually win, therefore they'll probably win. Still, don't count Lazio out as a fluke. They were superior for a five-month stretch, and there's at least a chance they remain so.