It turns out the real Juve has been hiding somewhere all along!
After slogging through two-and-a-half months of winning ugly, the Bianconeri finally turned in a truly complete performance on Saturday. It was also a statement win, going into a chock-full San Siro and beating an AC Milan team that spend hundreds of millions of Euros this summer as a signal of intent to return to their former glory. While we were deprived of the storyline of Leonardo Bonucci’s reunion with Juve after the center back was suspended for violent conduct last week against Genoa, there were still enough things going for this match that the atmosphere was crackling with anticipation as kickoff approached.
For a big game, Massimiliano Allegri stuck mostly to his standard starting XI in a 4-2-3-1. Gianluigi Buffon was back in goal after resting midweek against SPAL. Stephan Lichtsteiner took his place at right back and was joined by Kwadwo Asamoah on the left, spelling Alex Sandro. One of the biggest pieces of news when the teams came out was the participation of Daniele Rugani, who was finally entrusted with a high-profile game as Giorgio Chiellini’s partner in the center of defense. Miralem Pjanic and Sami Khedira took their customary places in midfield. Juan Cuadrado manned the right wing and Mario Mandzukic returned from a one-game suspension to take his spot on the left. Paulo Dybala played in the hole behind Gonzalo Higuain.
Milan coach Vincenzo Montella had finally gotten a win to take his team off the schnide, but chose to tinker with his lineup to welcome the champions. He lined up in a 3-4-2-1, with Ricardo Rodriguez, Alessio Romagnoli, and Cristian Zapata as the back three in front of Gianluigi Donnarumma. Franck Kessie and Lucas Biglia manned the middle. The wing-back positions went to stand-in captain Ignazio Abate and converted striker Fabio Borini. Hakan Calhanoglu and Suso slotted in behind Nikola Kalinic as the prima punta.
For the first 10 minutes of the game, Milan took the initiative. They pressed high and regained the ball quickly whenever a Juve player managed to get onto it. Cuadrado nearly started the game off with a disaster when he attempted a back pass deep in his own territory that went inches from being intercepted. A few minutes later Pjanic did give the ball away to Calhanoglu, but his attempt to feed Kalinic only resulted in a scuffed shot by the Croatian.
For the most part, Juve soaked up the pressure with aplomb. Rugani broke up several passes, and it was clear that the game plan on defense was to not allow Suso to work his way free on the left. Mandzukic and Asamoah combined to this for great effect all game long, with occasional support from Chiellini as well.
The momentum began to turn about 12 minutes in, when Mandzukic was fouled near the corner of the Milan penalty area. Pjanic’s free kick deflected off the wall but still went tantalizingly close to going in, bouncing off the stanchion behind the goal. Juve started providing some dangerous balls but no real end product. Kalinic got his head to an Abate cross on the other end, but Rugani put him off well enough for him to pop the ball over the bar. Half a minute later Dybala put Juve’s first shot on target, taking a square pass from Cuadrado and firing right at Donnarumma from 25 yards.
To call the game a back-and-forth affair would only be partially accurate, because there weren’t a ton of clear-cut chances for either team. But on 23 minutes, that changed.
The move started with Pjanic, who threaded a neat pass in to Dybala. He tapped a pass forward to Higuain. Romagnoli had him so closely marked that Higuain hit him in the shin with his follow-through, but an exquisite first touch gave him just enough room to slam his shot past Donnarumma for his 100th Serie A goal to make it 1-0.
Milan earned a quick chance to equalize when Borini muscled his way past Cuadrado in the box and fizzed a cross into the six-yard box, but Kalinic somehow failed to latch on to it.
Most of Juve’s meaningful attacks came from the left side, which was good, because Cuadrado was having another one of his so-so games. His search for new and inventive ways to lose possession uncovered a gem in the 29th minute: he tripped over the ball.
Juve was totally bottling up Milan in the middle of the field, forcing them to try to pump crosses in from the wings. They managed to get one into a good position in the 31st minute, but Chiellini managed to flick it away, although he flirted dangerously with an own goal in the process. Five minutes later Asamoah took the ball from Biglia but was dispossessed quickly, giving Suso the opportunity to snap in a shot that went right to Buffon.
Just as it looked like Juve was headed to the locker room with the lead, disaster nearly struck in stoppage time. Rodriguez got forward and uncorked a long ball that was flicked on by Calhanoglu. The pass put Kalinic 1-on-1 with Buffon, but somehow Kalinic managed to hit the underside of the bar. Calhanoglu had an open net as he pounced on the rebound, but Rugani reacted instantly and put himself between the Turk and the goal, blocking his header with his chest.
The second half retained the back-and-forth character of the first. Juve forced a pair of early corners, while on the other end some more group defense continued to keep Suso quiet. Kalinic got the ball at the top of the box in the 54th minute, but some excellent positioning from Rugani kept him from being able to turn toward goal. On the other side Dybala put a pair of shots over, the latter wasting a good combination between Mandzukic, Khedira, and Higuain.
Montella made a double substitution just after the hour in an effort to pull back into the game, but within moments the game had been put out of reach.
It was the 63rd minute when Asamoah drove up from left back. A quick dribble past Borini put him into space, and he passed into the middle. Dybala dummied the ball for his fellow Argentine, and Higuain again cleared enough space with a single touch before firing low off the near post to double the lead.
Milan now had a mountain to climb, but nearly made a game of it again the exact same way they had the first time, with Borini firing in a cross and Kalinic again arriving late for it. A few minutes later he was once again confronted by Rugani and not allowed to get himself into a shooting position.
The final 20 minutes of the game was a simple matter of seeing things out. Dybala nearly put icing on the cake with 11 minutes left when a set play off a corner set him up for a laser of a volley from outside the box, but he sent it right at Donnarumma.
After 10 more uneventful minutes and four minutes of stoppage time, the match was over.
GIANLUIGI BUFFON - 7. Barely called upon to actually stop a shot, and the ones he did face were incredibly tame. Milan never managed to get anything set up through the middle, a testament to Buffon’s ability to marshal his defense.
STEPHAN LICHTSTEINER - 6. An improvement on his awful performance at SPAL. Solid enough defensively, while most of the meaningful offensive buildup came from the other side of the field.
DANIELE RUGAIN - 8. Finally trusted to play in a big game, and boy did he deliver. Typically didn’t have a ton of counting stats, but his positional play was phenomenal, constantly denying Kalinic the ability to get into the a spot where he could shoot. That block at the end of the first half was exquisite, immediately anticipating where Calhanoglu would be when the ball came off the bar and getting in front of his header to preserve the lead.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 7. Eight clearances to go along with four interceptions and a lone tackle. A block of granite that helped totally seal off the middle of the field.
KWADWO ASAMOAH - 7. Easily his best game of the year. His assist was excellent and he ran like crazy, regaining the ball all the time on the left, though he sometimes lacked the control to retain it once he did.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 6. Made a pair of key passes, including in the lead-up to the opener but otherwise wasn’t a huge figure going forward. Did make four interceptions
SAMI KHEDIRA - 6. Very quiet in midfield. Only made 26 passes all game. Did his job in defense.
JUAN CUADRADO - 6. Didn’t get much to do as the major attacks seemed to come down the left. Did make two key passes and completed 93 percent of his passes, but didn’t directly contribute to the most dangerous moves.
PAULO DYBALA - 7. Fired in a couple of zingers that were right at Donnarumma — put them to either side and he could have gotten on the scoresheet. Assisted the first goal with a simple pass — but did you notice it was with his right foot?
MARIO MANDZUKIC - 7. Didn’t register a shot, but made a fantastic defensive contribution, combining with Asamoah to totally bottle Suso, the most dangerous player Milan had on the field. Three interceptions, four clearances, and numerous instances where he badgered Milan players into mistakes.
GONZALO HIGUAIN - 9. Two exquisitely taken goals. Higuain is at his best when he is playing one-touch football, and that’s exactly what he did on Saturday. Held the ball up well and didn’t take off and run with the ball. Held up when necessary but made the right passes, and his finishing was clinical as hell.
ANDREA BARZAGLI - 6. Solid as a right-back in relief of Lichtsteiner an helped nail down the win.
ALEX SANDRO - NR. Made Borini look silly late in the game but wasn’t able to find anyone with his cross. Picked up where Asamoah left off on Suso.
BLAISE MATUIDI - NR. Brought a little oomph to the midfield for the final 10 minutes plus.
Not a ton to talk about with Allegri today. The team went out and played. Asamoah can be hit or miss when relieving Sandro on the left, which could have made that move risky, but it paid off and will keep Sandro rested for Tuesday’s huge Champions League game with Sporting.
This game was Juve’s first clean sheet since Sept. 27 against Olympiacos. It’s good to see the team back on track and the defense looking organized again. Here’s hoping that’s a trend.
Only two more games until the international break. On Tuesday, Juve travels to Lisbon for a massive game against Sporting. The first tiebreaker in Europe is head-to-head record, so getting any result on Tuesday will give Juve the tiebreaker. A victory would guarantee their passage, a draw would mean Juve would need at least one win out of the final two games against Barcleona and Olympiacos.
After that, Serie A newcomers Benevento drop by the Allianz Stadium — a game that it is entirely possible could be won by the Primavera. It will be a nice way to ease into the break — perhaps in better form than they’ve been in so far this season.