How many storylines can you pack into one match? Let’s run down the ones going into Saturday’s game between Juventus and AC Milan:
- The two most successful teams in Serie A since the calendar turned to 2018 squaring off against each other.
- Juventus looking to carry momentum into Tuesday’s titanic clash with Real Madrid in the first leg of the Champions League quarterfinals.
- Juventus being presented with a huge opportunity to extend their lead over Napoli after the Partenopei drew with Sassuolo earlier in the day.
- The return of Juan Cuadrado to the active roster after more than three months out after undergoing surgery for a sports hernia.
- Juventus were looking to break their own record of 979 Serie A minutes without conceding a goal, which they had set two years before.
- Oh, and the return of Leonardo Bonucci to the Allianz Stadium.
That’s a lot to cover — and all of them ended up having an effect on Juve’s 3-1.
Bonucci’s return was what everyone was talking about. After seven years in black and white, the defender made the move to Milan after his relationship with the club fractured over the course of the 2016-17 season. He missed the first meeting between the two clubs in October while serving a suspension for violent conduct, so not only was it his first game back at the Allianz Stadium, it was his first game against Juve, period.
Juve and Milan had indeed been the most successful teams in Serie A since the new year. They were the only two teams in Serie A not to have lost in the league, and going 9-1-0 and 8-1-0, respectively. Juve hadn’t allowed a league goal in that time while scoring 19, while Milan had scored 17 and conceded only five.
With a few injuries to deal with and the international break just over, Massimiliano Allegri had a lot to deal with. Mario Mandzukic had bruised his thigh in training on Friday and was held out as a precaution with an eye toward Madrid. Alex Sandro was also being rested after suffering a minor strain on international duty with Brazil, and Federico Bernardeschi was still a long-term absentee, despite encouraging news about his potential return. Douglas Costa and Mattia De Sciglio were both on the bench after being heavily used on the international break, but Giorgio Chiellini recovered from a minor knock in Italy camp to make the starting lineup.
That lineup was a surprise appearance of the 3-5-2, with Chiellini joining Andrea Barzagli and Medhi Benatia in front of Gianluigi Buffon. Stephan Lichtsteiner and Kwadwo Asamoah served as wing-backs, bookending the trio of Sami Khedira, Blaise Matuidi, and Miralem Pjanic. Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala partnered up top.
Gennaro Gattuso came into his first game against Juventus as a manager with the 4-3-3 formation he’s been using for much of his tenure. Gianluigi Donnarumma manned the goal, with Davide Calabria, Alessio Romagnoli, Bonucci, and Ricardo Rodriguez in front of him. Franck Kessie, Lucas Biglia, and Giacomo Bonaventura formed the midfield trio, and the trident attack consisted of Suso, Andre Silva, and Hakan Calhanoglu.
After some early back-and-forth exchanges, Donnarumma became the first of the two keepers to be called into action after Milan turned the ball over and Higuain was given enough room to turn and unleash a shot from distance that the youngster parried away.
He could do nothing, however, two minutes later. Pjanic played a simple pass to Dybala, who was in the middle of the park 25 yards out. Both center-backs sagged expecting a run through the middle of the box, leaving Dybala a huge circle of space. The Argentinian wonder dispensed with any dribbling and simply turned and fired. Unlike Higuain’s rocket, this one took a wicked bounce in front of Donnarumma and bounced over his outstretched hands to give Juve a lead after only eight minutes.
To their credit, Milan responded well, and the Rossoneri could well have had an equalizer twice within eight minutes of Dybala’s opener. The first chance came in the 14th minute, when a neat interplay between Calabria and Kessie down the right-hand side saw Andre Silva head way over. Two minutes later it was Calhanoglu who provided an even better ball for the Portuguese, but he headed wide from point-blank range while fighting in the air with Matuidi, who came close to making a dangerous mistake by raising his arms above his head but managed to pull them clear just in time.
Milan continued to take the lion’s share of possession. Juve didn’t press on defense, and in particular let Donnarumma have all kinds of time with the ball at his feet despite his weakness at passing the ball under pressure. More worrisome was the bianconeri’s continued inability to get out of their own end. They were unable to string passes together to play themselves out, and had to resort to long clearances that would inevitably come back the other way.
The good news was Milan hadn’t made much in the way of danger with all that possession, until the 28th minute when Calabria rolled the ball across the face of goal. No one on either side attacked it, and as it passed the far post Lichtsteiner elected to put the ball behind for a corner rather than risk trying to take possession and turn with Silva closing in on him from behind. That decision was probably the right one, but it ended up hurting regardless, as Calhanoglu’s ensuing delivery found Bonucci — it had to be him, didn’t it? — who took advantage of some poor marking from Barzagli and Chiellini to stick his head between them and slam the ball home to tie the score at 1-1. It didn’t help that Bonucci, motivated by the boos he heard from the stands, went against his original plan and burst into his trademark celebration before sliding down in front of Milan’s traveling fans.
The goal emboldened the former Juve icon, and three minutes later he blasted over from way out. Juve managed a rare opportunity moments later when Higuain got into a good position but had his shot blocked by Bonucci.
The Milan captain stayed in the thick of the action as the half got to its end stages. Twice Juve claimed handballs in the box by their former teammates, but both were turned by referee Paolo Mazzoleni. The first, in the 41st minute, came after a cross by Higuain bounced off his heel and up onto his hand, and the ref rightfully ruled the handball incidental. The second, on the ensuing corner, saw Mazzoleni actually go to the VAR screen, but he ruled, again correctly, that Bonucci had only touched the ball after being fouled.
Allegri, no doubt conscious of what was at stake in the title race, was uncharacteristically aggressive with his substitutions and sent Douglas Costa on at halftime, at the expense of Lichtsteiner. The change didn’t exactly see the team come out blazing in the second half, but it would pay huge dividends later on.
Juve managed to get the ball into a decent position four minutes in, but Higuain didn’t have the space to turn and he had to pass the ball back out. Milan eventually nicked the ball and sent it back the other way, but Suso’s shot from the wing came right at Buffon, who made an easy save.
Five minutes later Milan nearly took the lead, as a giveaway by Asamoah was quickly played toward Juve’s goal. It wound up with Calhanoglu, who fired a pile driver of a shot that nearly broke the crossbar in half. The rebound caromed out to Suso, and the Spaniard faced up Chiellini and tried to fire near post, only to find Buffon ready to punch his shot away. Calhanoglu started sniffing the goal, and in the 57th fired another long one, this time easily dealt with by Buffon.
On the other end Juve was barely mustering a threat. Their efforts at attacking were summed up on the hour mark, when Asamoah made a nifty move to keep possession right on the end line only to unleash an absolutely terrible cross.
Right after that Allegri played his second card, and Storyline No. 4 came into play. Matuidi made way for Cuadrado, who made his first appearance since before Christmas. His appearance heralded a formation change. Costa, who had essentially been serving as a like-for-like swap for Lichtsteiner, swung around to the left and the team assumed a 4-4-2 shape.
That change sprung Costa, who got to work against Calabria. The 21-year-old has tons of promise, but he couldn’t handle the Brazilian, who began getting down the attacking left with impunity. His end product didn’t show up right away — his first cross after switching sides flew out for a Milan throw — but it would come soon enough.
Juve pressed to regain the lead, and came close on a set piece that landed neatly in front of Chiellini before being cleared by Calabria. Not long after Biglia fouled Pjanic on the left-hand side. It was in range for the Bosnian, but his struggles on direct free kicks continued and he couldn’t get the ball to come back down and it sailed over the bar.
It looked like Juve had their second with 15 minutes left when Higuain was sent through, but he was flagged for offside and Donnarumma made a circus save on him to boot.
Rodrigo Bentancur came into the game here, and showed great hustle when he lost the ball, but then proceeded to chase down five separate Milan players to regain possession from Calhanoglu. That proved to be the beginning of the game’s decisive move.
The ball matriculated to the left and Costa, who juked Calabria out of his shoes and slotted the ball to Khedira. The German has endured a ton of criticism in the last few months and hadn’t been particularly good in this game, but he was sublime in this moment, lofting an excellent cross to the far post that was met with a powerful header by an onrushing Cuadrado, who buried the ball into the net while Donnarumma went to the opposite post.
Gattuso threw on Patrick Cutrone with his last change, but the 2-1 lead seemed safe from the moment the ball hit the net. But Khedira sealed things beyond doubt three minutes from time when he took a superb layoff from Dybala and buried a first-time shot at the near post while Donnarumma committed to defending the far.
After three minutes of stoppage time, Mazzoleni let loose the final blast on his whistle, and Juve had regained the points they had lost before the international break, pushing their lead to four.
GIANLUIGI BUFFON - 8. Lost in the 3-1 scoreline is the fact that Milan could have run away with this game if not for a couple of really good saves from Gigi, specifically on Suso after Calhanoglu hit the bar.
ANDREA BARZAGLI - 5.5. Overpowered far too easily on Bonucci’s goal and looked slow when the ball came fast down his flank. Fortunately Milan focused most of their attacks through Suso on the other end.
MEDHI BENATIA - 7. Led the team in clearances with five and in completion percentage with a 96.1 mark. It’ll be interesting to see who takes his place on Tuesday.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 6.5. Had some fault on Bonucci’s goal as well, but recovered to have a pretty good game. Intercepted four passes.
STEPHAN LICHTSTEINER - 5. Completed only nine of 18 passes. Looked off pace all game long.
SAMI KHEDIRA - 7.5. For 79 minutes had another rough game, but exploded in the last 11. His cross to Cuadrado was inch-perfect, and his goal was equally well taken. If we can have that Sami for Tuesday, that’d be great.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 6.5. Had the assist on Dybala’s goal but wasn’t really able to impose himself in midfield as Milan took control of possession. Saw another free kick in a great position go begging.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 5.5. Didn’t really do much going forward and didn’t do a ton of ball-winning today either. His 89.5 percent pass completion is less impressive when you realize he only attempted 19 of them in 60 minutes.
KWADWO ASAHMOAH - 5. Probably his worst game of the season. Gave the ball away a ton and his attempts at crossing were just awful.
PAULO DYBALA - 9. His first goal was a peach, bouncing the ball in front of Donnarumma to leave him no chance. He didn’t have a ton of touches in dangerous places after that but was always on-hand to try to drive the ball out of the Juve half, and teed up Khedira with a neat layoff. Four key passes overall.
GONZALO HIGUAIN - 6. Worked hard but only managed 23 touches. Could have started the game with a bang if it wasn’t for Donnarumma but never really threatened goal after that. Needed better service.
DOUGLAS COSTA - 7.5. With eight dribbles in 45 minutes, Costa was heavily involved in both goals. Made Calabria look silly in the lead-up to Cuadrado’s goal and set up Dybala’s assist with another good run.
JUAN CUADRADO - 7. He’s got a knack for showing up at that back post. Great, great run in from the right on that side, and he didn’t try to do anything fancy with the header, just pure power. His renewed presence will be a huge boon to Juve’s forward depth, which has been seriously taxed the last few months.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - NR. His effort regaining the ball from his own giveaway triggered the go-ahead goal. He could be a big factor on Tuesday.
Max Allegri was obviously trying to balance the need to go full-bore in the title race with the desire to keep people rested for Real Madrid. Pjanic and Benatia, both suspended for the first leg of the quarterfinal, were obviously locks to play today. The 3-5-2 was a bit of a surprise, and was obviously meant to compensate for the lack of Mandzukic and to give Costa a rest after a busy international break.
If I were Max, I’d be using a lot of the next few training sessions to get the midfield passing worked out. This midfield has been having problems all year passing the ball out of their own half, and today it was more of the same. Milan held the edge in possession at the end of the first half, mainly because Juve couldn’t string together anything in midfield when they gained possession in their own half.
Playing the kind of deep defensive line that we saw today, as well as various points during the round of 16 against Tottenham Hotspur, will be suicide against Real Madrid. Allegri has to make sure Juve can escape their own half, otherwise Tuesday will look a lot closer to the second half of the final in Cardiff than the first.
Tuesday is easily the biggest games of the year. It’s going to be a heavyweight fight against Real Madrid, but Juventus has never lost a two-legged tie against the Spanish giants. They’ll hope to take advantage of having the first leg at home, as they did three years ago when they knocked Real out at the semifinal stage to reach the showpiece in Berlin.
Sandwiched in between the Madrid games will be a trip to Benevento. After the dismal game at SPAL two weeks ago we know anything can happen, but with Napoli still scuffling with only one win in four games, beating Le Streghe will be vital as they look to at least keep the margin at four.
The stretch run is here, folks. Hold on for the ride.