It’s been a weird week. Wednesday’s match, the second leg of the Coppa Italia semifinal, was supposed to be the second of back-to-back games against Atalanta for Juventus. It ended up being a stand-alone affair after Sunday’s match was postponed due to heavy snow.
The unexpected cancellation gave the Bianconeri a bit more time to rest up for this tie, which they entered 1-0 up on aggregate after Gonzalo Higuain’s goal in a fog-bound Bergamo. They didn’t seem to have much in the way of extra energy on this night, but that may have been by design. With away games against Lazio and Tottenham Hotspur on the docket in the next seven days, it seemed clear that for the most part Massimiliano Allegri was content to let Atalanta play, pay special attention to Papu Gomez, and try to get through this game with the minimum expenditure of energy possible.
They managed to do that, posting a scrappy 1-0 win to claim a 2-0 aggregate victory.
Allergi picked almost the exact same 4-3-3 lineup that would have played on Sunday. Gianluigi Buffon started in goal, protected by Stephan Lichtsteiner, Giorgio Chiellini, Medhi Benatia — the lone change at the expense of Daniele Rugani — and Kwadwo Asamoah. The midfield trio was made up of Claudio Marchisio, Miralem Pjanic, and Blaise Matuidi. With injury still limiting the choices, Alex Sandro again played as an attacker on the left, with Douglas Costa on the right and Mario Mandzukic in the middle deputizing for Higuain, who is still yet to train after injuring his ankle in the Derby della Mole two weeks ago.
Gian Piero Gasperini, on the other hand, made wholesale changes to the lineup he would have fielded over the weekend. Rather than the B squad on that team sheet, the big guns were brought out. Etrit Berisha manned the goal in a 3-5-2, with Andrea Masiello, Gianluca Mancini, and Juve loanee Mattia Caldera in front of him. Bryan Cristante, Marten De Roon, and Remo Freuler manned the middle of the park, bookended by Hans Hateboer and another Juve property, Leonardo Spinazzola. Josip Ilicic joined forces with Gomez at the front.
Atalanta was on the front foot for most of the first half. That being said, they didn’t exactly create a lot of clear-cut chances. Gomez curled one over less than three minutes in after Stephan Lichtsteiner gave the ball away, and in the 12th minute he latched onto a cross from Ilicic but was only able to glance it toward goal at full stretch, resulting in an easy save for Buffon.
The half’s very best chance actually fell to Juve in the 35th minute, when Mandzukic took down a peach of a pass and dribbled past two defenders in the box and tried to power the ball over Berisha’s shoulder. It was a little bit too low and the Albania international didn’t save it as much as exist as the ball hit him in the chest.
But beyond that one chance, the majority of the half saw Atalanta hold the ball and Juve try to run on the break rather than build possession. Their passing was consequently sloppy as heck, often failing to control the first touch and losing possession back to Gasperini’s men. It was a little too similar to the Tottenham game two weeks ago—although Atalanta wasn’t able to create nearly as many dangerous chances with all their possession apart from Gomez’s opportunities, as well as a late passage that saw Freuler get clean through only to be denied by a last-ditch block by Chiellini.
The second half saw an improvement in that regard. Atalanta still had the lion’s share of possession, but Juve was better at maintaining possession when they did get it, pinning La Dea back for stretches.
But it still almost came to pieces in the 65th minute. It’s hard to say whether it was Benatia’s poor pass or Buffon’s poor positioning that was more to blame—probably a good blend of both. But the latter, who was miles off his line, may have been that far out because he was expecting a better delivery from his teammate. Whatever happened, Gomez got the ball and launched an audacious chip over a stranded Buffon from 35 yards out towards a wide open goal. But the Atalanta captain put too much spin on the ball and it almost immediately began to bend — until it thumped off the post.
Two minutes later the woodwork turned on Juve, Costa shimmying free at the top of the box and clanging his shot off the crossbar.
Not long after the game was decided when Rizzo shoved Matuidi to the ground in the penalty area, prompting referee Michael Fabbri to point immediately to the spot. There has been some controversy stirred up over the call but I can’t imagine why. It looked pretty open-and-shut — Matuidi would have been in the air attacking Lichtsteiner’s cross if Rizzo hadn’t pushed him in the back. With none of the regular penalty takers on the field, Pjanic stepped up and fired the ball down the middle to break the deadlock.
Apart from giving Juve some wiggle room for the last 15 minutes, the goal also removed the prospect of extra time—a huge boon given the fact that Juve’s next opponent, Lazio, had to endure an extra session later in the day.
The rest of the contest was academic. Paulo Dybala and Andera Barzagli checked in, shifting the formation to a 3-5-2. Dybala clearly wanted to make an impact, and in the 85th minute got a little overeager, getting in Matuidi’s way as he tried to maneuver for some room to play the ball. After four minutes of stoppage time, Fabbri blew his whistle for the last time, sending Juve to a fourth straight Coppa Italia final.
GIANLUIGI BUFFON - 5.5. Made the saves he needed to make quite easily, but goodness, Gigi, where the heck were you in the 65th minute? He doesn’t bear all the blame given the poor giveaway by Benatia, but he really shouldn’t have been that far out.
STEPHAN LICHTSTEINER - 6. Not huge going forward, but generally good defending and his cross led to the penalty call — go figure.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 8. Immense at the back. He racked up five tackles, seven interceptions, seven clearances, and that critical block on Freuler at the end of the half. Got a somewhat harsh booking in a mutual challenge with Caldera, which means he’ll be suspended for the final due to yellow accumulation.
MEDHI BENATIA - 6. Completed 92.3 percent of his passes, but that giveaway that led to the open-goal situation was ghastly. At his best it’s hard to tell whether Benatia or Chiellini is doing better, but today he was the clear second man.
KWADWO ASAMOAH - 7. Has really stepped up this year as Sandro has scuffled, and was invaluable again today. He completed 90.6 percent of his passes, including four of five long balls. Also had a block and teamed well with Sanrdo and Chiellini on multiple occasions.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 6. The team really missed his industry and ball-winning when he was out. With a little more seasoning to get him into game shape he’ll pick up right where he left off.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 6. Not the guy we’re used to the last two days. Completed only 80 percent of his passes and didn’t do anything to threaten with the ball at his feet. He may need a game or two to rest himself.
CLAUDIO MARCHISIO - 7. Played a good game before being withdrawn close to the hour. Completed 93.3 percent of his passes, was denied on a good angled shot by Berisha, and had his nose in some dangerous moves. Let’s see him a little more.
DOUGLAS COSTA - 6.5. Kinda quiet in the first half but grew into the game in the second. His dribbling abilities combined with his pace are just insane, and he nearly broke the crossbar with that shot in the 67th minute.
MARIO MANDZUKIC - 7. Who led the team in key passes on Wednesday? That would be Mr. No Good, whose tally of four made the only man in a Juve shirt who had more than one. He was impressive in the air, winning five aerial duels, and seemed to make up his mind quicker than Higuain usually does in the middle.
ALEX SANDRO - 6. Tracked back well to assist in defense on the left side, making three tackles despite his more advanced position. He seems to like being freed from the usual defensive responsibilities of the left-back spot.
SAMI KHEDIRA - 6. Brought some accurate passing, including the release ball that led to the penalty. Didn’t put a stamp on the game otherwise.
PAULO DYBALA - NR. I honestly thought he’d be stretched out a little more, but defending the lead was obviously the bigger priority. Looks a little overeager to get back on the scoresheet. It will come.
ANDREA BARZAGLI - NR. Brought in for the last few minutes to shore up the back.
***BONUS LOANEE RATINGS***
MATTIA CALDERA - 6. Positioned himself well, posting three interceptions and making four clearances. He was the lynchpin to a defense that tied Juve’s attack down for the most part. It’s gonna be fun to see him in a Juve shirt next year.
LEONARDO SPINAZZOLA - 5.5. Didn’t really pose a huge threat on the left side going forward. Defended pretty well when he had to, but the ball that ended up deciding the game came from his side of the field. He’s gonna be really good, but wasn’t at his most dynamic today.
It’s impressive how easily Allegri has been able to keep the team humming despite the injury crisis up front. The team has been stripped of its depth in the forward position, but moving Sandro up front has been effective. It remains to be seen whether or not the 4-3-3 will be the best formation once Dybala and Higuain return to the starting XI full time—it may be that a 4-3-2-1 could be better.
Allegri may have played a dangerous game in letting Atalanta play while trying to expend as little energy as possible. Had the game stayed 0-0 and Atalanta managed to poke in a late goal to even up the aggregate, the team would have had to play an extra 30 minutes at what might be the absolute worst time to do so. Fortunately, the re-introduction of Matuidi helped the midfield tremendously. More importantly, they held the ball better in the second half, letting the pressure off the defense a little. Still, it would have been nice to see him go for a goal early to settle things down rather than simply defend the first-leg lead.
The next week is huge. Saturday Juve must keep pace with Napoli against Lazio. Simone Inzaghi’s team has already beaten Juve twice this year, once in the Supercoppa Italiana and once in October at the Allianz Stadium in come-from-behind fashion.
Fortunately, the road to revenge at the Stadio Olimpico might be a bit easier. Unlike Juve, Lazio was forced into extra time in their Coppa semifinal against AC Milan. They lost that game after a wrenching shootout that saw Thomas Strakosha stop the first two penalties he saw, but Gianluigi Donnarumma match him before Luiz Felipe skied his shot and Alessio Romagnoli buried Milan’s seventh penalty to set up a rematch of the 2015-16 final.
The physical and mental toll a game like that is great, especially for a team like Lazio, which doesn’t have a ton of depth to it, especially behind guys like Ciro Immobile. Juve may finally have them right where they want them.
After that, the decisive second leg of the UEFA Champions League round of 16 tie against Tottenham will be played in London. Spurs have a slight advantage in away goals after the 2-2 first-leg draw, but this will be a different game with some important players returning to the pitch for Allegri.
It’s not a stretch to say that in the next seven days, we may know a lot about what Juve’s ultimate fate will be this season in the other two competitions they’re in.