Bergamo has been a strange place for Juventus in recent years. Juve haven’t lost against Atalanta since a Coppa Italia defeat in November 2004, and hasn’t dropped a league game to them since February 2002, but in the last three seasons the Stadio Atleti Azzurri d’Italia has been the site of some of Juve’s toughest games. Each of the last two trips in the league ended in 2-2 draws that featured Juve blowing a lead. In an extra visit last year for the first leg of the Coppa Italia semifinal, the field was so obscured by fog that it was nearly impossible to see the Bianconeri escape with a 1-0 win.
Coming to La Dea’s house was no simpler this time around. Reduced by injuries and illness, Juve continued a string of less-than-inspired performances, and couldn’t expand on an Atalanta own goal in the second minute. Rodrigo Bentancur’s first red card as a Juventus player made matters even more complex, and it took Cristiano Ronaldo — making his first substitute appearance in more than five years — to spur the 10-man champions to yet another 2-2 draw that, thanks to later events at the San Siro, was still enough for Juve to actually extend their lead over Napoli to nine points.
Massimiliano Allegri had a ridiculously short roster to work with coming into the contest. Andrea Barzagli, Joao Cancelo, Federico Bernardeschi, and Juan Cuadrado were all on the trainer’s table, and Blaise Matuidi wasn’t even on the bench after coming down with a fever. Determined to let Ronaldo and Miralem Pjanic rest, Allegri had limited options. Wojciech Szczesny took up his place in goal, with Mattia De Sciglio, Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini, and Alex Sandro screening him. Rodrigo Bentancur was joined in midfield by Emre Can and Sami Khedira, who made only his second start since he first injured himself in September. Mario Mandzukic led the line along with Douglas Costa and Paulo Dybala. It was nominally a 4-3-3, although Dybala had license to roam into the center and create from there.
Gian Piero Gasperini was having some depth problems of his own. Two of his first-choice center backs were serving suspensions after seeing red over the weekend against Genoa, forcing him to dig deep into his bench, while key midfielder Marten De Roon was injured. The 3-4-1-2 that stood in front of goalkeeper Etrit Berisha was therefore slightly understrength. Berat Djimsiti joined Andrea Masiello and Gianluca Mancini in the back three. Hans Hateboer and Timothy Castagne served as the wing-backs around midfielders Mario Pasalic and Remo Freuler. The ever-dynamic Alejandro Gomez sat in the hole behind Josip Ilicic and the red-hot Duvan Zapata, who had come into the game having scored six times in his last four games.
Juve got off to an absolute dream start when a cross from Sandro was deflected and bounced awkwardly to Djimsiti, who took an awkward hack at it and sliced it into his own net, giving the visitors the lead with less than two minutes on the clock. The lead was very nearly doubled three minutes later when Bentancur took a feed from Dybala and fired a shot from the top of the penalty arc that forced Berisha to fingertip it onto the crossbar.
Juve looked like they would press their advantage, but after the first 10 minutes the momentum began to gradually but noticeably shift toward their hosts. There were warning signs even before that when Bonucci gave away a pass deep in his own territory, leading to a Zapata miss, but Atalanta managed a few decent counterattacks, one of which was interrupted by Bentancur when he took down a charging Ilicic, earning the Uruguayan a yellow card.
Even as Atalanta clawed their way back into the game, Juve was creating chances, with Chiellini headed a cross off a short corner wide that he may have been better off leaving to Mandzukic. But in the 24th minute the game turned about as quickly as Zapata did after receiving a simple pass from Papu Gomez. Bonucci had gotten in far too close as the pass came in, and the Colombia international showed both touch the touch to round him and then the power to hold him off as he powered forward. Bonucci ended up on his rear end, and there was little the stranded Szczesny could do against his fierce left-footed finish.
After the goal the momentum that had been turning swung solidly into Atalanta’s control. Juve spent the rest of the half defending the odd free kick and getting the ball out of their box. Costa almost regained the lead after a decent run down the left, but hit the side netting from an acute angle. The beginning of the second half saw an even more concentrated effort from the home side, and the opening moments of the period saw Juve again defending hard before an incident at the other end of the pitch sent them into emergency mode.
It came as Juve put up its first sustained attack of the half. Atalanta was trying to get the ball clear but a succession of midfielders kept the ball penned in. Bentancur tried to do the same as Castagne tried to run the ball to safety and tangled with him at the top of the penalty area referee Luca Banti blew his whistle for a foul. He was instantly surrounded by Atalanta players, all baying for a second yellow. Bentancur had stepped on the Belgian’s foot as he tried to make the tackle, but there really wasn’t a ton in it. It can certainly be said that it was a challenge Bentancur should have known better than to make while playing with a caution, and when Banti did indeed pull out a second card after a good minute of appeals from what at one point looked like all 10 of Atalanta’s outfield players, the young prodigy was off for the first time in a Juve shirt. It was a dismissal that was valid, but a bit soft.
Atalanta exploited their advantage within minutes. After Szczesny came out to make a brave save against the onrushing Castagne, Can was somehow left marking Zapata on the ensuing corner and lost him in the scrum. The striker nodded home for one of the easiest headers he’ll probably ever score in his career.
Allegri swiftly moved to introduce what few pieces he had on his bench that could make a difference into play. Pjanic, who had been preparing to enter the game since Bentancur was sent off, came on before play restarted, and with 25 minutes to go Ronaldo showed up at the touchline, entering the game as a sub in a league game for the first time since May 2013, when Jose Mourinho called him off the bench in a game against Espanyol.
With a potentially season-defining victory in their grasp, Atalanta perhaps played it a little too safe. It almost looked like Ronaldo’s presence on the field intimidated them, because Gasperini’s charges began to fall deep into their own half far too early in the game. De Sciglio looked to have a low cross headed right for the feet of Mandzukic but some desperate defending kept it away from the striker. But the Croatian did get to a corner kick from Pjanic in the 78th minute, heading the ball back into the middle on a bounce at the absolute perfect height for Ronaldo to head it home to tie the score.
The remaining 13 minutes were an exciting and rather open affair. Gasperini went for broke and introduced 20-year-old Musa Barrow for Masiello, and Szczesny was called into action twice in the final nine minutes of normal time. Ronaldo nearly found Mandzukic with a cross in the box, and as stoppage time began Bonucci thought he had won the game when he put a free kick into the net, but he was miles offside when Sanrdo flicked the delivery back toward the far post.
When Banti finally blew his whistle, yet another weird game had reached its conclusion, and Juve had managed to poke and prod a definitively sub-par day into a point — a point that turned out to be very useful indeed when Inter pulled out a last-minute victory over Napoli at the San Siro several hours later, stretching Juve’s lead at the top of the table to nine points.
WOJCEICH SZCZESNY - 8. On alert all day. With the exception of Zapata’s goals none of the shots that found the target were particularly challenging save a late Gomez effort that he dove for and held, but he dealt with pretty much every cross that came his way and kept things from unravelling.
MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - 6.5. Made three tackles, two interceptions, and blocked a pair of shots. Shut down most attacks on his side before they really became dangerous.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 3. It’s not just the goal, which made him look like the pre-Conte version of himself that ended up being the scapegoat of the disastrous 2010-11 season. He was shaky from the get-go, mishitting passes and at one point late in the game nearly whiffing on a header inside his own box that had to be cleaned up by his teammates. Did the Juventus front office really give up Mattia Caldara for this s#&%?
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 7. Played really well considering how many times he had to clean up his partner’s messes. Not a ton in the counting stat department but was a rock when he needed to be.
ALEX SANDRO - 7. I said last week that it looked like signing his new contract had removed a major distraction, and he’s looked more like the 2016-17 version of himself in the last five days than at any other point in the last year and a half. Made five tackles, two interceptions, two clearances, and looked incisive going up the left side before the circumstances of the game required him to focus more on defending.
SAMI KHEDIRA - 4. At one point I had to compel myself to actively look for Khedira on the screen to make sure he was still there. Yes, he’d come into the game only having played 97 minutes in 3 1⁄2 months, but when a midfielder only touches the ball 28 times in 65 minutes, there is something wrong. He could maybe have mitigated that by making his shots count, but he skewed both of them well off target.
EMRE CAN - 6. Puts a different spin on Pjanic’s role in the team. He was actually huge defensively, sharing the team lead in tackles with Sandro and making three interceptions and two clearances. It was unfortunate that he let Zapata get away from him on that corner, but it was equally strange that he was even marking Zapata to begin with.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 4. I still think that the second yellow was soft, but you have to know not to make that kind of challenge when you’re carrying a card. Experience will mitigate that in the future, but one also wonders if fatigue played a role in his decision-making — going into Wednesday he’d started and finished 13 of Juve’s last 14 games in all competitions.
PAULO DYBALA - 6.5. With Pjanic starting the game on the bench, a lot of the playmaking had to come from Dybala, and he did well to do so until the game turned against Juve. He led the team with four key passes and also drew six fouls, several of which were helpful in breaking up sustained spells of Atalanta possession. Those panicking over his lack of goals this season need to look deeper and appreciate how he’s adding an element of playmaking into his game.
MARIO MANDZUKIC - 6.5. The assist he gave Ronaldo really was quite beautiful. He bounced a header off the ground to the perfect height for his teammate in spite of the fact that two defenders and one of his own teammates were all battling in the air for the ball in front of him. Throw in two key passes and the fact that he won twice as many aerial duels as anyone on the pitch, and his lack of shots due to poor service can largely be forgiven.
DOUGLAS COSTA - 5.5. Didn’t see his usual spark. Most of his runs seemed lethargic and rambling rather than the laser-focused attacks we see at his best.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 6.5. Was a badly-needed stabilizing influence on the midfield once Bentancur was lost.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 7. Textbook poaching on the corner for the equalizer. His very presence on the field seemed to push Atalanta back into a shell.
What is it with this team and early-game leads? It’s been like this for two years now and no matter how much Allegri seems to rail at the team over it, nothing changes. They can’t capitalize on the advantage, and eventually someone falls asleep and the lead is gone. Halftime didn’t help, either — before Bentancur saw red Atalanta had clearly been the hotter of the two teams coming out of the gate. If Allegri can’t keep the team from playing down to their competition, we could see problems down the line.
That being said, he did everything he possibly could once his team went down a man, and he did it promptly, which is not something that is said about him very often this year. Having another option off his bench would have been helpful, but he used what he had, used them in the right spots, and came out with what could turn out to be a big point. If there were any niggles I’d have with his setup it’s that leaving Dybala in the middle as a straight trequartista rather than as a nominal winger might be the better way to go with him. He did his best work today when he drifted into the middle of the field—out wide he seems a little lost.
Only one game to go before the winter break, at home to Sampdoria. It’s a 6:30 a.m. Eastern kickoff, so put on a pot of coffee and hunker down for the show. After that it’s two weeks off before going back into action on Jan. 12 for the Coppa Italia Round of 16 against Bologna.