“Fino alla fine is not a slogan, it’s a way of life.”
That was part of a tweet from Claudio Marchisio after Juventus lost 1-0 to Napoli last week. Il Principino turned out to be incredibly prescient. His teammates needed almost every last moment to flip the script in an incredible Derby d’Italia, turning the game from an embarrassing, potentially title-forfeiting collapse against a 10-man Inter team to a 3-2 dramatic victory.
It was Juan Cuadrado who set the miracle in motion, taking a simple pass from substitute Paulo Dybala and charging toward the byline. It looked like he had run down a blind alley — another one of those Juan moments. But he put a ball across that took a wicked deflection off Milan Skriniar. This time the Slovakian wasn’t so lucky, and the ball spun into the net to tie the score at 2-2.
Two minutes later Dybala stood over a free kick about 35 yards away and to the left. He sent in a peach of a delivery for Gonzalo Higuain, who peeled himself away from his marker, Miranda — the self-proclaimed best center back in the league — and easily headed the ball against the grain and into the net.
Inter had little with which to pick up the pieces — Luciano Spalletti had removed Mauro Icardi for an extra defender with six minutes left. Yann Karmoh was sent on in a desperate attempt to give the hosts some attacking life, and Ivan Perisic managed to lose Cuadrado on the far post in the last minute of stoppage time, but he headed Joao Cancelo’s delivery wide.
When referee Daniele Orsato blew his whistle, Juve had taken an immense step toward securing another Scudetto.
The narrative going into Saturday’s derby was that last week’s loss had turned momentum of the title race firmly in Napoli’s favor. After all, the Partenopei’s win had
secured the S cudetto put Napoli into first place — seriously guys, overreaction much? Juve’s lead may have been cut to a single point, but they still had full control over their own destiny, and Napoli’s run-in was not as easy as many made it out to be. Of course, the best way to win the title is to take 12 points and give the opponents no openings. Beating Inter would be the first step, and have the added bonus of doing serious damage to their arch rivals’ efforts to return to the Champions League.
After Sunday’s lackluster showing, Massimiliano Allegri decided to take a risk and go all-out with his team selection. The fact that Cuadrado was in the starting XI was not in and of itself a surprise, but that he was playing right back certainly was. He joined another surprise starter, Daniele Rugani, along with Andrea Barzagli and Alex Sandro to make up the defense in front of Gianluigi Buffon. The traditional trio of Blaise Matuidi, Miralem Pjanic, and Sami Khedira manned the midfield, and Douglas Costa, Higuain, and Mario Mandzukic made up the attacking trident to form a 4-3-3.
Spalletti countered with the 4-2-3-1 that he has used at Inter all season. Samir Handanovic manned the goal. Cancelo, Skriniar, Joao Miranda, and Danilo D’Ambrosio made up the defense in front of him. Marcelo Brozovic and Matias Vecino formed the double pivot midfield. Antonio Candreva, Rafinha, and Ivan Perisic formed the line behind striker Mauro Icardi.
Against Napoli, Juve was pinned back from the get-go and looked like they had no fight left in them. Having gotten a full week off between games for the first time in almost a month, Juve came out looking far more energized. They pushed the ball ahead early, and earned a quick corner in the fourth minute. They took it short, and Pjanic’s eventual cross was a good one for Khedira, but D’Ambrosio managed to get in front of it and head away. Seconds later, Cuadrado tripped Perisic on the attacking wing and earned the game’s first booking.
A bit of back-and-fourth ensued. Juve had some good ideas in buildup but were a tiny bit off with their execution, while on the other end they picked up where they left off in the goalless draw the two teams played out in December and totally sealed off supply to Icardi.
It was the 13th minute when the first real opportunity of the game arrived. The Inter defense switched off and allowed Mandzukic to get free at the back post. The big Croatian tried to center Cuadrado’s pass with his head, but Matiudi couldn’t react fast enough to turn it in and it bounced off his leg. It still headed toward goal and forced Skriniar to thrash it clear for a corner. The ensuing corner was headed clear, but Juve kept the ball in the attacking third and cycled the ball back to Cuadrado, whose cross slipped past everyone in the box and to Costa, who had leaked out the back side unmarked. He controlled it and avoided a flailing Candreva to fire in to open the scoring. Handanovic hadn’t even moved, apparently expecting an offside call, but it didn’t come, even after a quick check between referee Orsato and VAR official Paolo Valeri over the radio.
Shortly after the restart, the game changed dramatically. As Mandzukic went after a loose ball, Vecino came up from behind and stomped down on his leg. Mandzukic went down in a heap, a four inch gash opened on his leg. Orsato initially gave Vecino a yellow card, but Valeri called down to Orsato and he jogged over to the sideline to check the replay footage. He took a very quick look before returning and changing his decision, handing the Uruguayan a straight red. Mandzukic was treated for a good four to five minutes before somehow soldiering on.
Pjanic hit the ensuing free kick well but couldn’t get it to bend down and it flew over the crossbar. A minute later the midfielder barked at Orsato after he called a foul on Higuain on Juve’s right wing, earning himself a yellow card that would factor into some major contention later in the match.
Costa cut inside and fired over in the 24th minute, and a minute later Perisic registered Inter’s first shot when he flew one well over the bar. After the goal kick Higuain picked up the ball in midfield and tried to pull off a long-distance dribble, but eventually got dispossessed as he persisted rather than passing the ball. The Argentine then handled a good delivery from Sandro as he tried to settle.
Inter hadn’t gotten themselves into any decent positions to this point, but in the 29th minute Candreva took a speculative effort from long distance that Buffon had to slap the ball away. Skriniar fouled Rugani on the ensuing free kick to end the threat.
Mandzukic was trying to work through his injury but was clearly struggling. Cancelo had danced around him in a rare Inter attack not long after Vecino was sent off, and in the 32nd minute Higuain tried to put him through after a good Cuadrado interception. On a good leg he would have been clean through, but this time he couldn’t beat his defender to the ball.
As halftime loomed, everyone was waiting for the second goal that would all but put the game away. But Higuain, who was quite possibly dueling with his opposite number, Icardi, for a spot on the Argentine World Cup team, certainly didn’t look like the man who would provide it. In the 35th minute he received a good ball from Sandro after the Brazilian made a good run down the left. He had Khedira open to his right but instead opted to force his way through the center, again getting dispossessed. Four minutes later he took too long to decide what he was doing to and couldn’t get his shot away.
An amusing moment came against a few minutes later, when Candreva tripped Mandzukic then took offense that he would have the gall to fall when getting kicked. The two went head to head for a moment, while everyone watching on television imagined just how badly the Inter man would come out if the two men actually came to blows.
Miranda beat Matuidi for a good Sandro cross with four minutes left before the half, and the Frenchman then headed over from Costa on the short corner that followed. Barzagli then got booked for blasting Icardi a few yards from the top of the Juve box just before stoppage time. Orsato had added six minutes because of the injury to Mandzukic and the VAR consultation on Vecino’s red. Brozovic took the free kick but hit it off the wall, and Rugani cleared the ensuing corner. With a minute left in added time Matuidi looked like he’d finally doubled the lead, after a ball into the box bled past Skriniar, but he had been well offside and the goal was quickly disallowed after another radio-only VAR check. There were also questions as to whether or not Skriniar had fouled Higuain, but that was never looked at, and Juve went into the half up 1-0.
It looked like Juve had the game at their feet. They were up a man and had thoroughly dominated most of the first half. A little effort, another goal or two, and they would be able to canter to the finish.
Why has it never gone that way this season?
Juve came out of the gate for the second half totally flat. They backed off, and Inter started getting the lion’s share of possession. After Mandzukic earned a yellow card for a foul on the left side, Cancelo put in an excellent delivery that was met by Icardi, who for some reason was being marked by Higuain, who lost track of his countryman. The Juve killer struck again, heading home an equalizer and turning the script on its head just seven minutes into the half.
A major point of contention came five minutes later when Pjanic went for a ball and absolutely leveled Rafinha. Orsato was standing a yard away and staring directly at the two, but declined to show the Bosnian a second yellow card. He did pull out his book seconds later, to penalize D’Ambrosio for dissent. It was very much a dodged bullet, because the play really did deserve a booking. The extra man would eventually pay — but not before the collective blood pressure of Juventus fans everywhere skyrocketed.
Knowing what failure to win meant, Allegri changed tactics to pursue a win. Paulo Dybala came on for Khedira in the 61st minute, changing to a 4-2-3-1 formation with Costa on the right wing and Mandzukic on the left. Two minutes later Higuain was put clear by a sensational ball from Sandro and jinked his way past Handanovic, He was at an acute angle, but the goal was gaping and he somehow managed to pull it wide — a shocking miss.
Two minutes after that Inter took a shocking lead. Perisic and Cuadrado faced each other up on the left side, and both of them ended up going to ground. Perisic recovered quicker and got right back on the ball, cutting in. He made a deft fake, causing Rugani to pull up to block a cross that didn’t come until a second later. The ball fizzed off Barzagli’s shin and into the back of Buffon’s net.
Federico Bernardeschi was immediately introduced for the struggling Mandzukic, switching Costa to the left. In the 71st minute, Costa slalomed down his new side, but Handanovic saved his near-post shot. Three minutes later, Cuadrado was taken down by Brozovic on the right side, in prime territory for a Dybala free kick. The No. 10 decided to fire one to the far post rather than curl to the near. It wasn’t the best of shots but it surprised Handanovic, who only just managed to get his arm up to parry the shot over the bar.
With less than 15 minutes to go Skriniar barely avoided an own goal after putting a ball from Costa over the bar. Candreva and Icardi then went on a run down the field and nearly connected for a third goal, despite having four defenders around them. It looked like Juventus was completely spitting the bit. No attack had any teeth. If you hadn’t seen the first half, you wouldn’t have known which team was playing with 10 men. When Higuain blasted over in the 84th minute, a lot of fans probably assumed the game was done.
But fino alla fine is not just a slogan — and, in the last four minutes of the game, the men in black and white proved just that.
GIANLUIGI BUFFON - 6. Made a good save against Candreva’s early shot, and the rest of what he had to deal with was fairly tame. Not at fault on either goal.
JUAN CUADRADO - 8.5. Did very well in an unfamiliar role. Put in a lot of early crosses, including the one that turned into an assist on Costa’s goal. The own goal he forced was reminiscent of Milos Krasic’s similar shot against Lazio seven years ago — but is loaded with so much more meaning. Also had three tackles, four clearances, and two interceptions. Could maybe have recovered quick when Inter went ahead, but that’s the extent of the quibbling.
ANDREA BARZAGLI - 5. Continues to show his age every time he plays. Did do fairly well to seal off Icardi early but didn’t make a tackle in the entire match, and the own goal obviously drags his rating down.
DANIELE RUGANI - 6. The better of the two center backs. Could have done better to close down Perisic on the own goal, but tied for the team lead with four clearances.
ALEX SANDRO - 6. Probably one of his best games of the year. He wasn’t 100 percent precise but presented far more danger on the left than he usually does and tied for the team lead in tackles.
SAMI KHEDIRA - 5.5. Afforded extra room after Vecino was sent off, he did very well in the first half, putting the ball in good places and getting into good positions in the box. Faded in the second half and was replaced by Dybala.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 5.5. Really lucky not to be sent off. The only think I can think of is that Orsato had a think at halftime and decided that his first yellow had been too harsh. Made two key passes but utterly failed to control the game in the second half, especially galling given the man advantage. He’s rapidly failing as a regista. Will be suspended next week for yellow card accumulation.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 5.5. Completed 95.2 percent of his passes, but wasn’t the ball-winning force he usually is in midfield, allowing Inter to overwhelm he and his teammates in the middle for a good portion of the second half.
DOUGLAS COSTA - 7. Excellent goal, and was denied by Handanovic near post in the second half. Was a little imprecise at times, but was enough to pull Inter’s defense around.
GONZALO HIGUAIN - 6. Had an absolutely horrible game until scoring the winner. That missed sitter would have haunted Juventini for years.
MARIO MANDZUKIC - 5.5. How he played on that gash in his leg I have no idea. It clearly affected him afterward. Should have been taken off earlier.
PAULO DYBALA - 7. Denied a goal by a great Handanovic save, but got the “assist” on the own goal that tied the game and then a real one with a fantastic dead ball delivery on the winner. His confidence is like a pendulum, so maybe this will put him on the upswing for the final three games.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 6. Caused some nuisance on the right but still shaking off the injury rust.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - NR. Only had 10 minutes to play but his tenacity in regaining the ball set up the foul that led to the winning goal. Continues to impress in limited time, but may get to start against Bologna with Pjanic suspended.
Putting Cuadrado at right back in such a huge game was a major gamble for Allegri. It was a boom-or-bust move — either he would add an enormous attacking impetus to the right side of the attack or he would be abused by Perisic and potentially cost Juve the title.
The result was resoundingly the former, and he played a really good defensive game too. It may be worth wondering whether he would have performed the same way if Vecino had not been sent off, but he was clearly the best player on the field today, and deserves all the praise he can get.
What I have to wonder is what in the heck he said to his players at halftime, because the team straight-up turned off after the break. That kind of thing can’t happen again with Napoli continually breathing down their necks. He’s obviously of a similar opinion — he was sent off after Higuain’s goal for running onto the field to get his players to refocus on the game — but he’s got to come up with a way to keep the team engaged over 90 minutes.
I would really like to know what the reaction was to this game in the Napoli locker room. Going from thinking they had the chance to go ahead to having to simply try to keep up in the space of two minutes must be demoralizing, and they aren’t going to have an easy task visiting a Fiorentina team that has designs on the Europa League — as well as the spirit of Davide Astori lifting them up.
Next up for Juve is a home date against Bologna. The week off will no doubt be a valuable chance to rest, because after that is a midweek tilt with AC Milan to decide the fate of the Coppa Italia.