While most of the football world's attention was fixed on the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu and El Clásico on Saturday, Italian football fans worldwide were anticipating another one of the "most iconic fixtures in world football," Juventus versus Milan.
There's no doubt that this fixture has lost some of its luster in recent seasons — primarily due to the staggering drop in quality of the Rossoneri. However, this season's first meeting of the two most successful Italian clubs in history had garnered some high expectations. After major changes in the summer, and poor sporting starts to the season, both teams had seemed to turn things around and were on an upward trajectory. The home team had finally put back to back league wins together, after victories at home in the Derby della Mole and away to Empoli. The visitors, Milan, were undefeated in four - three of those being wins. They now sat in seventh and sixth respectively, now within touching distance of the leaders and Champions League places.
In addition to the feeling that both giants were finally starting to get things together there was another angle to the narrative of this meeting. Gianluigi Buffon was celebrating the 20th anniversary of his spectacular Serie A debut, when he kept a clean sheet against — you guessed it — Milan. On the other side, a newcomer who is being touted as a possible heir to Superman's throne, 16-year-old Gianluigi Donnarumma was guarding the nets for the Milanese. The youngest goalkeeper ever in Serie A, Milan's recent good results have coincided with the inclusion of the other Gigi into the starting eleven by Rossoneri coach Sinisa Mihajlovic. He was responsible for their first clean sheet of the season a few weeks ago against Chievo.
Juventus had won their last five meetings against the Rossoneri in Serie A and were aiming to keep that streak alive.
The early stages of the match consisted of both teams feeling each other out, and very few chances, with Milan particularly not being very adventurous. The first real chance in earnest fell to Claudio Marchisio, who picked up a pass from Stephan Lichtsteiner, and unleashed a strong left footed drive on goal, which Donnarumma had to get low to save. A minute later, Milan did create a good opportunity up the other end, when a well-flighted cross by Giacomo Bonaventura was met by Alessio Cerci — who got in behind the Juve defence. Curiously, though, rather than go for goal, Cerci headed the ball across the goal towards no one in a red and black shirt. A glorious chance wasted for the visitors. Brazilian playmaker Hernanes had a couple decent chances late in the half; the first, a left footed shot over the bar after some nice footwork at the top of the box, and the second, a free kick that was deflected and forced Donnarumma into a flying save.
A fairly dull first half, with very few moments of real quality. Juventus coach Max Allegri decided to make a change at the half, taking off the ineffective Hernanes and bringing on Leonardo Bonucci, switching the formation to a 3-5-2.
There was an early scare in the second half, as Riccardo Montolivo chipped into the box for M'Baye Niang, who rose above Stefano Sturaro to head across the box for the onrushing Bonaventura, then apparently taken out by Bonucci. It seemed a sure fire penalty and red card for the man who had been on the field for around sixty seconds! However, the referee blew the whistle for a foul on Sturaro by Niang; on the replay it did look like the young French forward did forearm Sturaro in the back.
Juventus were much better in the second half. Paul Pogba, who had another decent game, tested Donnarumma from long range with a swerving, dipping shot. Juve had their tails up, and Pogba was instrumental in the breakthrough goal. Pogba played a scoop pass along the left channel for Alex Sandro to run onto, and the Brazilian crossed first time into the box for Paulo Dybala. The Argentine controlled on his chest before unleashing a left footed (what else) volley past Donnarumma in the Milan goal! It was a beautiful team move and nothing less than Juve had deserved.
Sixty seconds later, Dybala had another left footed shot, this time from outside the box, but this one was saved by Donnarumma. From here, the Bianconeri sought to control the rest of the match to the end, as Milan were offering very little in the way of a threat. Alex Sandro, who had arguably his best game in a Juve shirt, did some good work on the left again. He crossed into the middle for the awaiting Mario Mandzukic, but the Croatian ballooned over from six yards out! Buffon had to make his first save in second half stoppage time, when Cerci shot on goal from outside the box.
In the end, a fairly comfortable win for Juve, despite not playing particularly well.
Buffon 7.5 Celebrated the twentieth anniversary of his Serie A debut with a clean sheet against the same team he debuted against - also with a clean sheet then. I'm sure he would have enjoyed that.
Lichtsteiner 7.5 Like much of the team he gave a solid, if unspectacular, performance. Dealt with the threat of Niang well.
Barzagli 7.5 Was rendered effectively redundant due to the ineffectiveness of Milan's attackers. Other than his charge forward and shot in the second half, he didn't do much. An easy evening for Barza. No complaints here.
Chiellini 7.5 Other than a forced foul when beaten on the turn by Carlos Bacca early in the game, like Barzagli there was little for him to do. Again, no complaints.
Evra n/a Picked up an injury early in the first half and was forced off. Hopefully nothing serious; his experience will be useful midweek against Manchester City.
Sturaro 7 Great defensive display, breaking up many plays; terrible going forward, with many misplaced passes and bad crosses.
Marchisio 8 Along with Alex Sandro, probably the standout performer in this game. He had the most touches, unsurprisingly, and controlled the midfield with ease.
Pogba 7.5 He looked more like the Pogba of old with his performance against Milan. There's still a way to go to get back to where he was, but the signs are encouraging. Played a key part in the goal as well.
Hernanes 5.5 Created one opportunity for himself in the first half, but none of note for anyone else, which considering he was the trequartista is pretty damning. Deservedly hooked at half time.
Dybala 9 Overall, looked very lively and scored a great goal! That's six for the season, he must be the undoubted starter up front now. Still waiting to see the Morata-Dybala partnership given more of a run, but for now I guess we have to put up with Allegri's rotation. Sigh.
Mandzukic 6 Disappointing, as has been his Juve career to date. His miss in the ninetieth minute said it all.
Alex Sandro 8 Possibly his best performance since joining, the Brazilian owned the left flank. Aided in part by Milan's lack of any kind of consistent attacking threat, Sandro got forward well and often, while still doing his defensive duties when called on. Brilliant assist on the Dybala goal.
Bonucci 7.5 Came on at half time for the disappointing Hernanes. Almost gave away a penalty and got sent off within seconds of coming on, but other than that scare, like the rest of the defence had pretty much nothing to do.
Morata n/a Came on late to give Dybala a rest. Didn't do too much. He did have this fun bit before the match though.
Allegri 8 Made a key change in ditching the trequartista route and switching to a 3-5-2, which turned the game in Juve's favour. Like his team, a solid but not great performance.
THINGS I THINK I THINK
- Milan - Despite all the money the Rossoneri have spent this summer, there is not a lot of quality there. They are still a poor side, with an almost jaw-dropping lack of creativity. Yes, their main creative mind Jérémy Ménez is still out injured, but you would have thought given their largesse a creative midfielder would have been on their shopping list, no?
- Hernanes - Early days, but it seems like the Merda may have finally gotten one over on us in the transfer market. When even the man that signed you reluctantly admits that you weren't the first choice player that they were hoping to sign, you know things are bad. Other than his set piece deliveries, which have been just okay, he has been useless for the most part. He's slow and therefore slows plays down often, his passing is inconsistent and he often makes bad decisions. And let's not forget his bone-headedness which cost us against 'Gladbach, when were on the up and could have possibly come back to win. Other than the game against Manchester City, it's hard to remember a good game for Hernanes. The trequartista position clearly isn't suiting him. Maybe moving him deeper, as a regista or part of the midfield three, may be an answer.
- Mandzukic - In my opinion, even more disappointing that Hernanes has been the form of Mario Mandzukic. The big Croat came in with a big reputation and is a proven winner, having been a key member of Bayern München's treble winning team in 2013. However, he has looked nothing close to that player. I'll give him his credit, he does work very hard pressing and harrying defenders, as is his usual modus operandi. However, his overall play just needs so much work. His touches are so poor and he can't even seem to strike the ball cleanly. His two league goals are a poor return given the opportunities he's had and his overall reputation. Where is the Super Mario of Wolfsburg, Bayern and Atletico fame?
- Morata - After being shunted out wide for the last few games, the Spaniard was shunted to the bench for this game. Whether this was just Allegri's rotation in play or Allegri not being happy with Alvaro, there should be no doubt now that Morata and Dybala should be allowed to play themselves into being the undisputed starting pair up front. They are the only two that have looked good and been in form at any point this season. Come on Allegri, stop messing around and do it.Do it.
- Momentum - It wasn't pretty, but it was fairly comfortable, and now that's three wins from our last three games. Regardless of the sometimes disjointed performances, these wins are priceless right now. We've gone from the second half of the table to sixth place in just three weeks! Forza!