About 25 minutes or so into the first leg of Juventus’ Coppa Italia semifinal tie with Atalanta, I was trying to figure out whether I was watching a soccer game or a playthrough of Silent Hill.
For the first half of the game, it was practically impossible for the TV viewer to see the far side of the field. Players suddenly emerged from the fog that blanketed Bergamo, abruptly changing your perception of whatever you thought was happening out on the field. Atalanta players in particular, in their dark kits, had a habit of coming out of nowhere. Things improved as the game went on, but it could be disconcerting to watch at times.
But the conditions obviously had no impact on the game at field level, as there was never any indications that anyone couldn’t see what was going on. Well, except for Blaise Matuidi, who had two fantastic chances to double the lead after Gonzalo Higuain’s well-taken opener 150 seconds into the game only to blaze over.
But the game was highlighted by the return of captain Gianluigi Buffon, who had been forced to the stands for almost two months with a calf injury. Playing in his first Coppa Italia match since 2012, Super Gigi’s first cap as a 40-year-old saw him make a pair of decisive interventions (more on that later) as his team kept yet another clean sheet to head into the second leg with a crucial away goal and a lead to protect at their fortress home.
How did this fog-bound contest unfold?
Here are five talking points from the first-leg win.
THE CAPTAIN RETURNS
Buffon’s return came after he was feted by Italian media over the weekend for his birthday. It was his first game as a 40-year-old, his first Coppa Italia match since December 2012 and his first in any competition since beating Napoli on Dec. 1.
So, of course, the very first thing he does in this game is save a penalty.
Of course it is.
Buffon looked like he hadn’t missed a beat. He even gave us a vintage “What the $*#@ are you doing Gigi?!?!” moment when distributing from the back, just to prove to us all that it was him. But between that penalty save versus Papu Gomez and charging down a Josip Ilicic at the near post two minutes from time, Gigi was as decisive as ever on Tuesday. It really was like he had never missed any time at all. This layoff may even do him good, keeping him a tiny bit fresher for the rest of the year.
The king has returned. Long live the king.
Many write off the Coppa as a throwaway tournament, and in a sense, they’re right. The tournament as an institution is a mild joke. Even mid-table teams use it as a chance to rotate their squad, and the top teams in Serie A can make it to the final having only played four games.
But when it gets to this point of the competition, rotation gives way to the hunt for silverware, and you see a lot more starters being played over the two legs.
That went for both teams on Tuesday.
Atalanta coach Gian Piero Gasperini was forced to replace the injured Leonardo Spinazzola and rested center back Mattia Caldera, but the rest of his starting XI was essentially full-strength. Massimiliano Allegri was much the same, starting what was essentially the A-squad. Even Buffon, who has traditionally ceded the Coppa to his backup over the last six years or so, got in there as a way to return him to the fold.
That does leave a question as to how Allegri intends to rotate the squad going forward, given the fact that the Bianconeri are going to be playing two games a week from now until the middle of March. Perhaps he’s earmarked Sunday’s home game against a struggling Sassuolo team as a time to get people some rest. It’ll be interesting to see how he manages playing time, especially for guys like Giorgio Chiellini, as the month progresses.
HIGUAIN HEATING UP
Gonzalo Higuain’s season has been marked by extreme streakiness. After struggling at the start of the season, he finally earned a two-game benching that jump-started him for a few games before falling back to earth. From late October to the first game in December, he dominated, scoring seven times in seven games, but has only scored three times since.
Saturday saw him find the net for the first time in six games, and he scored a peach of a goal two-and-a-half minutes into this one, jinking past Andrea Masiello to curl past Etrit Berisha.
He barely missed a second a while later when he curled a laser just over the bar, and helped set up a few chances that the midfield simply missed. It was a good game for Pipita, but Allegri needs to take care not to drive him into the ground in terms of his workload. An underrated failing in the transfer campaign this year was the inability to find a direct backup to Higuain. With Mario Mandzukic needed in other positions because of the injury to Juan Cuadrado (and in need of rest himself), Allergi will have to pace his forwards, lest they end up looking like the spent forces they were at the end of the season last year.
Besides the penalty, Atalanta didn’t create a whole lot of danger. When they did look threatening, it tended to coincide with some really baffling giveaways by Juve.
Medhi Benatia didn’t play badly, but this was easily his worst game in a couple of months, and he was lucky that a bad giveaway early on didn’t hurt the team. But it wasn’t just him: Alex Sandro, Mattia De Sciglio, Sami Khedira and even Miralem Pjanic were guilty of giving the ball away in their own half at points in this game, but the defense was able to scramble back to prevent La Dea from making any real shooting opportunities.
The lack of precision also showed up top, particularly in the form of Matuidi, who somehow missed a pair of excellent opportunities to double Juve’s lead and really put Atalanta in a bind for the tie. The Bianconeri have lacked a clinical edge ever since returning from the international break, missing multiple opportunities against Genoa a week and a half ago. With Tottenham Hotspur looming, the team is going to need to tweak the sights in front of goal.
Juventus has three of its most promising prospects on loan at Atalanta, but none of them saw action on Tuesday.
Spinazzola missed the game due to injury. Caldera was one of the few starters Gasperini rested — although that might not be the worst thing in the world, because we’ve seen him keep Higuain in his pocket in head-to-head matchups, especially at the Atleti Azzurri d’Italia. Winger Riccardo Orsolini has been criminally underused by Atalanta this season and may end up going elsewhere for playing time and was once again an unused substitute in this match.
Consequently, we didn’t get much in the way of an idea of what the future might look like out of this match. There are still two more games against Atalanta before the year is out, and we’ll certainly get a better look at some of these young guys soon before we see them in black and white in the years to come.