Napoli. AC Milan. Valencia. Those were perhaps the three most important games Juventus had played all year as they headed into one of their most anticipated of the season — the home Derby d’Italia against Inter.
Apart from their importance, those three games also had one thing in common: Mario Mandzukic scored the goal that decided the game.
The big Croatian has soared since returning to a striker’s role this year after the arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo and the departure of Gonzalo Higuain. He’s already beaten his Serie A goal total of last season, and in a game like this you just knew you’d eventually end up saying his name at a big moment in the game.
Eventually, that’s exactly what happened. Mandzukic thundered home a header just after the hour mark, and Giorgio Chiellini utterly neutralized perpetual pain in the rear Mauro Icardi, who was shackled for the second time in as many games at the Allianz Stadium. The resulting 1-0 win put Juve 14 points up on their deadly rivals as Christmas approaches.
Massimiliano Allegri was presented with the possibility of a selection crisis in midfield, but Rodrigo Bentancur overcame a back issue to be in the starting lineup, although Sami Khedira, Alex Sandro, and Andrea Barzagli missed the match do to injury. Wojciech Szczesny started in goal for Juve, with Joao Cancelo, Leonardo Bonucci, Chiellini, and Mattia De Sciglio screening him. Bentancur was joined by the now-familiar midfield lineup of Miralem Pjianic and Blaise Matuidi. Paulo Dybala slotted into the hole in the 4-3-1-2, with Mandzukic and Ronaldo rounding out the unit.
On the other side, Luciano Spalletti was dealing with the major loss of Radja Nainggolan. He sent the team out in a 4-3-3. Samir Handanovic anchored the team, with Sime Vrsaljko, Joao Miranda, Milan Skriniar, and former Juve mainstay Kwadwo Asamoah in front of him. Roberto Gagliardini got a surprise start in midfield with Marcelo Brozovic and Joao Mario, while Icardi was bookended by Matteo Politano and Ivan Perisic.
Inter had the better of the first minutes and pinned Juve back, but in the eighth minute the momentum began to turn. Dybala started a smart-looking move by tightroping the side line to keep the ball in, then continued heading upfield as the ball made its way to Ronaldo on the left. He put in an excellent ball, and Dybala ran through the channel and actually flew to get his head on to it, but the ball went just high. The Argentine then was denied by Handanovic after jumping Brozovic in the box and firing a high effort a the near post that was just tipped over.
The half assumed a back-and-forth rhythm. Perisic soon became a threat on the attacking right, and Allegri again had his fullbacks swap sides, with De Sciglio now matched on Perisic. Inter came out slightly ahead on the balance of play, and on the half-hour a great ball by Miranda found Politano on the right. His ball in was controlled by Icardi and laid into the path of Gagliardini, who beat Szczesny but couldn’t elude the goalpost. A minute later, Perisic side-footed wide after another rare miscommunication amongst the back four.
Bentancur had a fantastic shooting opportunity set up by Cancelo, but his shot, which looked like it was about to go in, was blocked by a sliding Brozovic. Chiellini got a good header to the ensuing corner kick, but Handanvoic was live to it and punched it away before Ronaldo tried to top his bicycle kick from last year but only succeeded in popping the ball up for Szczesny to claim.
Halftime came and went with Inter perhaps having had the better of the game’s chances, and in the first 10 minutes of the second half both teams nearly gave away the initiative with some sloppy play. Barely two minutes into the period some loose passing between Pjanic and Matuidi was pounced on by Politano, whose shot was blocked desperately by Bonucci. At the other end Handanovic and Miranda overplayed a few passes, allowing Juve to jump the ball in the box. A set of neat passes followed with the eventual beneficiary being Dybala, who badly scuffed the ball wide of the target.
After another period of initial Inter pressure, what adjustments Allegri had made at the half began to show. Perhaps aided by the strange substitution of Borja Valero for Politano, Juve turned the tide and began pinning Inter into their own half. Ronaldo’s boot from long distance went just over, and Bentancur nearly got on the end of a good Cancelo cross to the back post but Handanovic was alert to claim it.
But the Slovenia international wasn’t as lucky in the 66th minute, when Cancelo got to the byline on the left, crept back upfield, and uncorked a beauty of a cross. At the back post, Mandzukic had finally found the matchup he’d been looking for: one of the Inter fullbacks — in this case, specifically, Asamoah. When they find themselves in this situation with the Mandzubeast, things tend to end poorly for them. This is how the Mandzubeast do, and there was no exception this time in Asa’s case. Mandzukic completely overpowered him and lunged at the ball, driving a diving header past Handanovic and putting Juve into the lead.
Inter had to chase the game, and in the next 10 minutes introduced Keita Balde Diao and Lautaro Martinez in an attempt to provide more omph in attack. Their problem was Juve had closed up shop. Icardi was effectively erased, limited to only 19 touches all game. Chiellini beautifully squared up Keita and stood his ground through an attempted fake block the shot out for a corner.
Juve looked for a second goal — given Icardi’s track record against Juve it was safe to assume going in that at least two goals would be needed to win this one — but were rather stymied as well. Substitute Douglas Costa made an impressive mazy run into the middle, but eventually the ball was shepherded out for a corner. Ronaldo burst into the box on a one-two pass with Matuidi with four minutes left, but he was forced too far to the byline and eventually had to settle for a corner of his own.
The game marched toward its conclusion with Inter seemingly out of creative ideas to get past the resolute Chiellini, but the Nerazzurri did get one final chance halfway through the four minutes of stoppage time that were added on to the game when Cancelo’s attempt at a headed clearance ended up at Martinez’s feet, but the youngster’s first-time strike flew wide, and a few minutes later referee Massimiliano Irrati blew his whistle for the final time, ending the Derby d’Italia and confirming Juve’s supremacy in the league over almost any rival.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 8. Commanding on crosses in the penalty area, and only had one save to make on the night. Always alert to incoming danger.
JOAO CANCELO - 8. Put in some pretty balls from both sides of the field. His versatility on either flank is impressive. Did give Perisic a little too much room to operate, which saw the fullback switch again, but always a danger going forward.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 7. His block on Politano was critical in the early moments of the second half. Tried to set up some long balls but today wasn’t exactly his day for them. That block gets him an entire extra point, though.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 9. Completely nullified one of the game’s best strikers in Icardi, holding him without a shot. Made six clearances and three interceptions and was constantly in the right place at the right time. Also very nearly opened the scoring in the first half off a corner.
MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - 8. Hardly any danger came from Perisic once De Sciglio was swapped across the field to cover him more closely. MDS is turning into a miniature version of Barzagli on the flanks—nothing is getting past him at the moment.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 6.5. Not Benta’s best game, although you could clearly tell that whatever back problems he was having earlier in the week. Still almost scored if not for Brozovic, though, and turned in a pair of key passes as well.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 5.5. Pjanic’s first truly unsuccessful game in quite a while. He just seemed to be there. He completed less than 90 percent of his passes, a rarity for him, and some more loose play in his own third nearly scuppered Juve’s evening.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 6.5. Led the team with four tackles. Did very well winning the ball back and even played a few neat passes in the attacking third.
PAULO DYBALA - 7. He linked the midfield with Ronaldo and Mandzukic beautifully, providing three key passes, tied for the team lead with Cancelo. He may not be scoring as much as he did last year, but Dybala is certainly beginning to exert his influence on the game.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 6. Never really got a whole ton to do in this game, and he felt along for the ride for the first time all year.
MARIO MANDZUKIC - 8. What a header. Asamoah had absolutely no chance against his power, and if he manages to get himself on a fullback (see: Asamoah, Kwadwo and Carvajal, Dani) he’s almost automatic. Tracked back to help on defense at the end of the match, essentially playing almost as a left back. He’s so valuable to this team.
DOUGLAS COSTA - 6.5. Made a couple of good defensive interventions in his 19 minutes of game time, as well as that crazy dribble through the middle.
EMRE CAN - NR. On to replace Pjanic late and provide some more defensive punch.
Max got his setup pretty spot-on Friday night, and there’s not a whole lot to quibble with. I will say this, though: Does he think we’re in the 11980s still, when there were only two subs available per game? Allegri has stopped short of using his full compliment of substitutions, which I find perplexing to say the least. They can at least be used as time wasters, but Allegri keeps holding that last one in his pocket for...well I’m still trying to puzzle that one out.
One other note here is that again the fullbacks swapped after 20 minutes. Unlike the Fiorentina game, however, this switch was permanent, binding De Sciglio to Perisic minutes after he made a good run downfield. It looks like so long as Cancelo and MDS are on the field at the same time, Allegri will swap the two based on whether he can match up De Sciglio on their best player. It will be interesting to see how that is utilized as a tactic going forward.
The last game of the Champions League group stage is upon us as Juve take on Young Boys on Wednesday. A win is the only way to guarantee the top spot in the group, as Manchester United has the tiebreaker on head-to-head away goals if they finish level on points with Juve. That would take a Juve draw and Man U win, which would put Juve into the non-seeded box.
It doesn’t let up after that, because it’s another Derby straight away: the Derby della Mole is Saturday at the Stadio Grande Torino.