We’re so used to seeing Juventus games devolve into slow slogs. Either the Bianconeri continually assail a defensive wall thrown up by a technically inferior opponent, or they wage a desperate rearguard action against a team of arguably comparable skill that they’ve failed to put away.
But once in a while, we get what we saw in Sunday’s 2-0 win against AC Milan: a wildly entertaining game that saw boundless energy and emotion, several periods of end-to-end play, a penalty given and saved, and at the end a breaking of the emotional dam that saw an old friend lose himself in frustration. It was a really fun game to watch, one that lived up to the high pedigree of these two storied teams.
Of course, the big pregame storyline was the first meeting between the teams since Leonardo Bonucci had rejoined Juve after his yearlong jaunt in Milan and Gonzalo Higuain went the other way in a necessary cost-cutting measure following the acquisition of Cristiano Ronaldo. That storyline ended up only being half-realized. Bonucci was left on the bench by Massimiliano Allegri. The player denied reports that he had asked to be dropped from the lineup to avoid similar insults to those he received this past April when he came back to Allianz Stadium in Milan colors, and Allegri maintained in his post-match press conference that he was due rest anyway and that avoiding such rancor was coincidental. Higuain, on the other hand, led the line against his old teammates. He had a history of having dream nights against old teams — he scored four times against Napoli in a Juve shirt — but this night gradually devolved into a nightmare.
Allergi instead went to Medhi Benatia in his 4-3-3, joining Joao Cancelo, Giorgio Chiellini, and Alex Sanrdo in the back four. After calls for his benching following his shaky performance against Manchester United, Wojciech Szczesny remained behind the quartet in goal. The now-familiar trio of Rodrigo Bentancur, Miralem Pjanic, and Blaise Matuidi manned the midfield. Mario Mandzukic got his first start in almost four weeks up front, joining Ronaldo and Paulo Dybala in the shape-shifting trident attack that has become the norm as the season progressed.
Gattuso was dealing with a rash of injuries and deployed his forces in a 4-4-2. Gianluigi Donnarumma took his place in goal, protected by Ignazio Abate, Alessio Romagnoli, Cristian Zapata, and Ricardo Rodriguez. Franck Kessie and Tiemoue Bakayoko played in central midfield, bracketed by Suso and a hobbled Hakan Calhanoglu. Higuain’s parter up top was Samu Castillejo.
The opening minutes of the game were a mad rush of energy. Dybala received a gift from Bakayoko in midfield early, but met a wall of three defenders and couldn’t get himself past. Ronaldo took the game’s first shot on six minutes, but his long-range effort flew into the crowd. But two minutes later, Juve landed the game’s first punch.
Alex Sandro was the provider, sending in a perfect cross to the far post, where Mandzukic abused Rodriguez in the air and send a powerful header into the net on a bounce. It was the fifth of the year for the big Croatian, and Juve had the 1-0 lead.
Of course, early 1-0 leads have never exactly been safe for Juventus over the years. Mandzukic was nearly given the opportunity for his second after only three minutes, but it was Romagnoli marking him this time as opposed to a fullback, and headed the ball behind.
It took Milan some time to respond. Szczesny wasn’t called into action until the 19th minute, when he easily claimed a cross/shot. Mandzukic hit the target yet again in the 26th minute, but his header from a long range and tight angle was easy for Donnarumma to claim. The young Italy No. 1 then did well to hold a deflected effort from Dybala, while Szczesny easily denied a long-range effort from Suso.
Higuain had been denied service for much of the first half, but his night began to take a turn for the worse five minutes before the half. Suso had broken down the right side on a counterattack and tried to find Higuain in the center. The Argentine tried to control and slip through the defense with his lead foot, but the ball hit the outstretched arm of Benatia. Referee Paolo Mazzoleni was in a bad position to see it at first, but the VAR officials called him down to the screen for a look, and when he came back he gave the kick. Frankly, I’m glad it was — it was a clear penalty and I’d rather have seen it given than hear another week’s worth of conspiracy theories.
It was inevitable that Higuain would take the ball for the penalty. Whether it was advisable is a different question. How many times must Higuain and Szczesny have faced each other from the spot in training last year? That familiarity must have paid dividends for the Pole, because he guessed correctly when Higuain sent a daisy-cutter to the keeper’s right, sprawled for it, and got enough of his hand to it to push it against the post.
Halftime came with Juve in the lead and nominally in control of proceedings, although sometimes it didn’t look it. Their passing wasn’t exactly crisp, losing the ball multiple times, especially when attempting longer, cross-field efforts. The door was still open, as it had been on Wednesday, and so many other times this season, for Milan to get their noses back in.
Ronaldo nearly gave them that insurance goal 10 minutes into the second half, but scuffed his shot after a beautiful long ball had released Sandro on the left. Donnarumma got to it easily but still almost spilled it into the path of Dybala, only to gather it back in. The book on the youngster is still to pepper him with shots and see where the rebounds go—something to keep in mind for later.
Dybala was next to knock on the door, taking a free kick on the right side with a ton of swerve that would have had Donnarumma beat had it not smacked into the outside of the post.
Just after the hour mark, Patrick Cutrone was introduced for Castillejo, and that changed some things. For a good 10 minutes Milan seized control of the match. Benatia had to make a great effort to block a Higuain cross from a dangerous spot, then Pipita fired wide from distance. The Moroccan then made an even better intervention further upfield after Sandro dribbled too much under pressure, preventing a square ball from releasing Higuain into a run down the middle.
Allegri finally made a change with 16 minutes left, although the introduction of Sami Khedira for Pjanic probably elicited groans from a good portion of the Juventini around the world. Milan went for it with a double sub, with Fabio Borini and Diego Laxalt coming in to give Milan more push down the wings. They nearly made the opportunity to equalize from the wide positions, but Chiellini made one of those interventions that only he comes up with, sliding to force Suso to stretch his play a little bit further, then raising his leg up from the ground to block the cross out for a corner kick.
Milan was doing enough to make a lot of people really nervous about the possibility of another late equalizer, but in the 81st minute Juve’s Portuguese contingent sealed the win. Laxalt’s attempt at a clearance from his own left flank only made it as far as Cancelo, who charged down the wing and unleashed a shot from wide that Donnarumma could only palm into the path of Ronaldo, who made no mistake smashing the ball into the net from seven yards.
The drama wasn’t over, however. Two minutes after the clincher, Higuain and Benatia came together as Benatia tried to run in to keep the ball in Milan’s half of the field. Higuain contorted himself to bring the defender down, bringing out a yellow card from Mazzoleni. The frustration from an unsuccessful night got to Higuain and he exploded at the referee. Whatever he said was enough for Mazzoleni to reach into his other pocket and brandish a straight red without even bothering to lift the yellow one a second time. Higuain lost it. He got into Mazzoleni’s face to argue while players from both teams tried to hold him back. Higuain almost came totally unglued on several occasions when the likes of Ronaldo and Chiellini tried to calm him and he shoved them away, but in the end he was finally brought to the sideline in tears.
With 10 men any hope of a late comeback was dashed, and after three minutes of stoppages Mazzoleni’s final whistle saw Juve keep their six-point advantage on Napoli at the top of the table.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 8. That was a special save on Higuain, and an overall fantastic performance that showed a lot of mental toughness coming off his sloppy final minutes against Manchester United.
JOAO CANCELO - 8. Marauded down the right side, connected on two of his five crosses and was obviously instrumental in the second goal.
MEDHI BENATIA - 6.5. Had a good day overall, but I can’t go higher here because of that handball. It was really egregious.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 6. That block he made on Suso’s cross was pretty, but he was surprisingly anonymous today otherwise, not registering a tackle or an interception and only one clearance. Also made some really sloppy passes that put the team in some weird spots.
ALEX SANDRO - 8. Up and down the left side pretty much at will. His cross for the opener was inch-perfect, and he made three other key passes as well as two tackles.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 8. Completed 91.7 percent of his passes and racked up a pair of tackles. He would constantly be found regaining possession to keep the ball in the Milan half. This kid is so good now and he’s only going to get better.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 6. Completed a lot of passes, but wasn’t as incisive as he has been for much of the season. Led the team in tackles but didn’t have his usual high-level game.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 6. Standard fare for him — lots of running and ball-winning. Made some threatening runs down the left channel that were never met with service.
PAULO DYBALA - 6. Not a day he imposed himself, although that free kick was a thing of beauty.
MARIO MANDZUKIC - 8. Heck of a way to make a comeback. His goal was perfectly taken, and in the second half he consistently dropped back to defend when Juve was under pressure.
CRISTIANO RONLDO - 7. Hit the target with three of five, but only the goal really had any venom to it. Was hot to the ball when he needed to be at the end.
SAMI KHEDIRA - 6. Added solidity in the midfield for a tiring Pjanic.
DOUGLAS COSTA - NR. In to harass a tiring defense at the end of the contest.
Extreme kudos to Max Allegri for going with Bentancur. In games like this Khedira has almost always been the guy who gets the nod, but in this game Allegri had the confidence to send the youngster into the hostile environment of the San Siro. It’s entirely possible that he simply decided that Khedira didn’t have the legs to start two games in a row after a long spell out — he only lasted an hour on Wednesday — but I hope this is a sign of things to come when it comes to the Uruguayan. He’s going to be so, so good, and deserves to be starting over Khedira at this point.
It’s very interesting how the forward line has evolved as the season has gone on. With Mandzukic out the roles up front became far less defined, with Ronaldo, Dybala, and whoever else they were with roaming all over the field and finding whatever space was advantageous at the time. In this game that continued. Mandzukic wasn’t simply a striker, but floated to each wing at times. That worked wonders on the goal — it allowed him to match up on a fullback, which is always a huge mismatch.
What’s interesting is that even Allegri in his post-match press conference essentially confirmed that there are no defined positions up front: “When Mandzukic, Ronaldo, and Dybala are in attack, naturally it’s going to be a little less ordered up there, but at the same time it also makes us less predictable for the opposition.”
It does make you wonder whether the away Derby della Mole with Torino last season, which saw Higuain give way early due to injury and Allegri complete the majority of the game with Costa, Sandro, and Federico Bernardeschi up top. There was no clear reference point and Torino’s defense was really at a loss for who to key in on. Allergi looks to be doing the same thing now, not giving defenses a point at which they can set their defense. This involves a lot of running up front and a lot of familiarity between the players, but if they settle into it, this could be really deadly.
It’s the last international break of the week, so a good number of players will be spreading out across the world to play for their countries, while those who remain will have a good rest. Juve’s next matchup will be on the road against SPAL on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.