Juventus headed into Saturday night’s match with Inter Milan at the end of their most brutal stretch of the season. In the span of eight days, they had played a road game against then-league leaders Napoli, then traveled to Greece for their final Champions League group stage match against Olympiacos needing to win in order to guarantee their place in the round of 16.
Their win over Napoli last Friday enabled Inter to jump the Partenopei into first place, meaning that Juve were playing the league leaders in consecutive matches. Their bitter rivals started the day two points ahead of Juve, meaning that, pending Napoli’s Sunday evening clash with Fiorentina, the Bianconeri would find themselves in a familiar place with a win — top of the league.
Despite playing their third game in just over a week against a team with no European commitments, Juve thoroughly dominated the Nerazzurri. They didn’t even allow them a shot, on target or off, until early in the second half. Mauro Icardi, the current leader in the race for capocannoniere and notorious for scoring against Juve, touched the ball only 10 times before he was hauled off four minutes from the end. Even Massimiliano Allegri was impressed by how well the team played.
But despite their dominance, there was one major issue: they couldn’t score. Samir Handanovic made eight saves, several of them spectacular, and Juve couldn’t make their 19-6 advantage in shots count for anything. At the end of the day, this game has to be looked at as two points dropped, rather than one gained, especially in a home game against a title rival.
Allegri changed things up tactically for this testy affair. With Gianluigi Buffon’s calf still an issue, Wojciech Szczsney again deputized in goal. Ahead of him Allegri assembled a 4-3-3. Mattia De Sciglio started on the right flank, with Medhi Benatia and Giorgio Chiellini in the center and birthday boy Kwadwo Asamoah on the left. The midfield trio was composed of Sami Khedira, Blaise Matuidi, and Miralem Pjanic, with the latter taking on a regista role. The attacking trident was made up of Juan Cuadrado, Gonzalo Higuain, and Mario Mandzukic. Significantly, the on-form Douglas Costa, and the out-of-form Paulo Dybala, started the game on the bench.
Inter formed up in the 4-2-3-1 that has become their standard under Luciano Spalletti. Samir Handanovic took the goal, with Danilo D’Ambrosio, Milan Skriniar, Joao Miranda, and Davide Santon protecting him. Pass master Borja Valero and Matias Vecino made up the midfield pivot, while Ivan Perisic, Marcelo Brozovic, and Antonio Candreva supported Icardi up front.
The energy was palpable as the game started, and both teams pressed each other hard when the other was in possession. Inter started the game holding on to possession, but were finding it difficult to get into a rhythm with a man always in their face to deny the pass.
Juve had benefitted from early goals against both Napoli and Olympiacos and very nearly made it so again in the 9th minute, when Cuadrado’s cross took the barest of deflections and found Mandzukic on the back post. The Croatian hit man volleyed the ball his near post but was denied by an excellent Handanovic save. The ball bounced right back to him and he flicked it past the Slovenian with a diving header, but Miranda scrambled back to clear it off the line.
Just before the quarter-hour mark Pjanic put a long free kick well wide, while on the other end Chiellini made an excellent sliding interception as Brozovic attempted to slip Vecino through on goal. Brozovic continued to be Inter’s most dangerous player of the night when his cross/shot was palmed down on the goalline and then immediately claimed by Szczsney. It looked a lot nervier than it actually was, and Inter looked far more dangerous on 29 minutes when Asamoah tried a sliding challenge on the flank and whiffed it, but Chiellini got into position on the near post to deny any cross from developing.
Juve got back to testing Handanovic in the 37th minute when Matuidi found Khedira with a chest pass, but the angled shot didn’t have enough power to beat the Inter goalie. Higuain was booked for dissent shortly thereafter after being called offside, the Perisic went into the book for bringing down Cuadrado.
Khedira had another shot blocked before Juve’s best chance yet came on the stroke of halftime. Cuadrado, who was having a fantastic game, curled in a beauty of a cross and Mandzukic rose over D’Ambrosio to win the header, only to see it thump the crossbar.
The second half was almost all Juve. Pjanic had an early shot charged down after Inter defended a cross, then in the 52nd minute Cuadrado floated a ball to the box that found Mandzukic, but his touch was off and he couldn’t control it and the ball trickled into Handanovic’s hands. On the other end Inter finally managed their first shot of the night, but the bouncer went right to Szczsney.
Two minutes later Higuain wasted a chance when he tried to dribble the ball into the box but ran into a wall instead. Had he shot earlier he may have had a goal, but as it was the ball rebounded to Mandzukic, whose shot was again smothered by a low Handanovic save.
Some nerves popped up in the 56th when Icardi got the ball in Juve’s box and tried to dribble himself into shooting position. A sliding Benatia denied him, but Inter screamed furiously for a handball. Replays showed the ball ricocheting off of Benatia’s body and onto his hand, and referee Paulo Valeri wasn’t even stopped by the VAR referee.
There were more nervy moments for Handanovic on the hour mark as Cuadrado received a return ball from Higuain, only to see it headed away — by which me mean right at his own goal — by Perisic, forcing the keeper to palm it over the bar. Mandzukic got on the end of the ensuing corner, but with now power and it was easily saved.
Juve kept up the pressure, but the opening goal remained missing. In the 64th minute they ran a set play off a free kick from the right side, rolling him the ball at the top of the box, but he sent the ball into orbit. In the 68th Handanovic came out for a cross from Asamoah but collided with Miranda, leaving the goal gaping for Khedira, who flashed the ball wide.
The match was screaming for a game-changing substitution, but no one was warming up. Asamoah hit a wicked dipping shot from distance in the 71st minute that send Handanovic into another desperate save.
Five minutes later the sub finally arrived. Dybala entered for Khedira, shifting the side back into the 4-2-3-1, with the formation modulating to a straight 4-4-2 when Inter was in possession. Juve continued to dominate possession, barely letting Inter have a moment to breathe before someone was in his face. In the 82nd minute, they had another glorious opportunity when he chested down another gorgeous cross only to slip and fall before he could shoot.
Inter showed another bit of life five minutes from time, when Matuidi was mugged in the attacking third. The ball eventually came to Brozovic, who fired wide.
The last bit of attack for either side was a deflected header by Dybala. He had done his best, but hadn’t been supported by any other attacking moves from the bench. After three minutes of stoppage time, during which Vecino really should have been sent off for climbing on a prone Benatia’s leg, the game ended. Juve’s record streak of scoring in consecutive games, which dated back to 2015 against Genoa, was over, and the status quo was maintained, even though Juve kept the upper hand in the match throughout.
WOJCIECH SZCZSNEY - 6. Didn’t really have to do much of anything today. Juve keepers are somewhat used to not being needed much, but certainly don’t expect it to be so against a team like Inter.
MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - 7. Quietly growing in confidence and form. Didn’t venture out in the attack much, but that was clearly by design. He tied for second on the team in tackles with four and didn’t let anything dangerous happen on his wing.
MEDHI BENAITA - 7. The improvement continues. He continually hounded Perisic whenever he was in the vicinity and generally didn’t let anything through — although that ball off his hand looked mighty close to being a penalty, even if it really wasn’t.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 7. That fantastic interception early was the highlight of his night. led the team with five clearances, adding a pair of tackles and a pair of interceptions. Simply cancelled Icardi out at the top.
KWADWO ASAMOAH - 6.5. A little sloppier than his linemates and limited in his ability to cross. The birthday boy still had a good game overall.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 8. One of his best games in a Juve shirt. Was absolutely everywhere, regaining possession and helping set up attacks with three key passes. Some good work.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 6.5. Looks a little wasted in the regista position he was in today. He’s always at his best farther up the field than as a deep-lying player, but still managed a trio of key passes and a 90% pass completion rate.
SAMI KHEDIRA - 6.5. Another guy who buzzed around and regained possession often. Could’ve (should’ve?) put Juve into the lead when Handanovic left the goal open.
JUAN CUADRADO - 9. Immense down the right hand side. Gave Davide Santon fits until the Inter full-back finally hacked him down — and injured himself in the process. His crossing was exquisite and he led the team with four key passes.
GONZALO HIGUAIN - 5.5. The only Juve player that actually played badly today, Higuain was not at his best. He didn’t get much service until the second half, but he’s still dribbling far too long and getting dispossessed because of it. His passing got really sloppy as the game wore on.
MARIO MANDZUKIC - 8. This would be a lot higher if one of those balls had just gone in. Mandzukic was everywhere on Saturday. He put five of six shots on target, led the team with five tackles, made two clearances and one interception. Unlucky to have Handanovic and Miranda beat him early in the first half and the crossbar right before the break.
PAULO DYBALA - NR. Came on for the last 15 minutes to run at a tired defense but wasn’t given the ball enough to do much in the way of damage.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - NR. Not a lot for him to do in the last five minutes plus stoppage time.
This game was a rare case of a manager getting everything right while simultaneously getting everything wrong.
In terms of his starting lineup, Allegri nailed it. Combining a 4-3-3 with a vicious early press knocked Inter off their rhythm, and they were never able to get Perisic or Icardi involved. A lot of people decry using Mandzukic as a winger as a crime against nature, but in this game it was absolutely the right decision. He lorded over D’Ambrosio in the air to take full advantage of Cuadrado’s crosses.
Where Allegri failed, in a major way, was his use of his bench. Paulo Dybala should have been on 10 minutes earlier than he actually was, and Douglas Costa, Juve’s best attacker in recent weeks, never even sniffed getting into the game. Nor did Federico Bernardeschi, who scored in a cameo appearance in midweek. When he did make a second change it was Bentancur for Pjanic, and was ok I guess for Bentancur to be getting big games like this, but Claudio Marchisio does, in fact, still exist, and his play tends to make the double pivot in the 4-2-3-1 work better. Allegri had his foot on Spalletti’s throat for much of the second half, but didn’t make the necessary changes to take advantage of it.
As said before, this game was really one Juve should have won. While it is encouraging that the defense came up with its third complete sheet on the bounce, especially against one of Italy’s most prolific teams, to drop points after playing that way in a home game hurts. We can only hope that those points don’t come back to haunt us at season’s end.
After three games in eight days, Juve now have eight days to rest before another flurry of activity. A trip to Bologna starts things off on Sunday, then they begin Coppa Italia play midweek by facing Genoa. Then another big came comes up on the docket when Roma travels to Turin. With a game in hand thanks to a postponed match earlier this year, beating Roma will be critical in keeping them off Juve’s backs while still trying to advance on the two teams in front of them.