History was in the offing as Juventus took the field for the Coppa Italia final at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome on Wednesday night.
Just qualifying for this final made them the third team to reach this stage four years in a row, after Inter and Roma played each other four consecutive years from 2005-08. A victory would — barring something completely incredible happening over the last two games of the Serie A season — secure them a fourth consecutive domestic double. That would have made them the first team in Europe’s Big Five leagues (Italy, England, Spain, France, and Germany) to have achieved that feat, as well as making Max Allegri the first coach in the whole of Europe to ever do it.
Their opponents were AC Milan, who had played them tough at the Allianz Stadium in Turin several weeks ago, and carried the added emotional weight of another reunion with Leonardo Bonucci. The two had played in this fixture four times before, with Juve winning three of them, including the 2016 edition 1-0 after an Alvaro Morata winner in extra time. Extra soccer has been a trend between these two teams. All five one-off finals the two have played against each other (not counting the Supercoppa) have gone to extra time and four of them to penalties.
The Rossoneri came into the final confident from their match in Turin and supremely motivated. A win would guarantee a place in the Europa League group stage, avoiding a two-round fight to avoid finishing in seventh place and having to make their way through the preliminary rounds. It could also have stood as a turning point in the fallen giant’s rebuilding process.
But it wasn’t to be. After 55 minutes of fairly even football, Milan started making mistakes. Juve pounced, and within eight minutes had a three-goal lead. An own goal capped a second half that turned dominant, giving Juve a fitting 4-0 scoreline.
As game time approached, news broke that Allegri was making an unexpected move in his starting XI. Mario Mandzukic, who had missed the weekend’s game against Bologna after having his leg laid open by Mattias Vecino in the Derby d’Italia, was inserted into the lineup, not in the left wing position that has become his usual spot, but as the center forward, displacing Gonzalo Higuain. He formed the point of a formation that was described in many circles as a 4-3-3 but, as has often been the case this year, acted more like a 4-3-2-1 in practice.
The Coppa is almost always the domain of the backup goalkeeper for Juventus, but just as he did in the semifinals, Gianluigi Buffon took the start — his first-ever in a Coppa final for Juventus — in perhaps the clearest sign yet that this may in fact be it for him. Juan Cuadrado again started at right back, joining Andrea Barzagli, Medhi Benatia, and Kwadwo Asamoah as Buffon’s screen. The usual midfield trio of Sami Khedira, Miralem Pjanic, and Blaise Matuidi formed the next line, while Paulo Dybala and Douglas Costa flanked Mandzukic.
Milan coach Gennaro Gattuso had some injury problems to deal with, particularly in midfield, as he set up his 4-3-3. Gianluigi Donnarumma started in goal, with Davide Calabria, Alessio Romagnoli, Bonucci, and Ricardo Rodriguez in front of him. Manuel Locatelli was tabbed to play the regista position in midfield, with Giacomo Bonaventura and Franck Kessie on either side of him. Youth product Patrick Cutrone led the line, with Suso and Hakan Calhanoglu manning the wings.
The first 10 minutes of the game were a microcosm of the back-and-forth affair that it was for the first 55 minutes. Juventus got into a promising position only three minutes in when Costa slipped Sami Khedira into the left channel, but the Germany international couldn’t get any power behind his left-footed effort and it rolled harmlessly to Donnarumma. Five minutes later, Khedira gave the ball away, triggering a run down the left side that ended in a one-two between Calhanoglu and Cutrone that left the latter in acres of space in the box. The young striker would have scored had he put the ball to either side of Buffon, but instead fired straight at him. Gigi still did well to turn the shot away.
Juve settled into possession for much of the half, but were somewhat imprecise in Milan’s half of the field. Khedira was again guilty of a giveaway when he badly under-hit a pass that would have released Cuadrado into acres of space down the right, and shortly thereafter Mandzukic impressively won a two-on-one aerial battle only to put too much mustard on his pass for Khedira.
What Juve were doing was winning a lot of second balls and 50/50s, which kept the ball in the offensive half of the field. That pressure finally created a real chance in the 16th minute, when consecutive square passes from Costa to Asamoah to Dybala set up the latter for a chance, but he snatched at the one-time shot and sent it well wide.
In the 22nd minute Dybala was the man creating danger, snapping in a cross/shot that surprised Donnarumma. The teenager adjusted himself to punch it away with Mandzukic lurking at the far post. But the lack of precision continued to haunt the Bianconeri. Even Costa, who has been Juve’s best player over the last two months, was guilty of giving away possession, in this case by putting the ball a bit too far from himself after juking Calabria so badly the poor kid fell right on his rear end. Cuadrado then did one of those things he does sometimes where he gets into the box and then stops to wait for the defense to set itself up again, allowing Rodriguez to block his cross.
At the half-hour some horrific control by Matuidi in his own half allowed a quick counter by Suso, whose shot took a deflection and forced Buffon to adjust and scramble back to parry it away. The ensuing corner ended up trickling out to Bonaventura, who found a good shooting position but fired wide.
As much as Juve seemed to have the lion’s share of possession, they weren’t creating as much danger with it as Milan was with their opportunities. That was perhaps best expressed by Dybala, who took a good layoff by Mandzukic into the box but lost his balance as he set up for the shot, leading to another tame effort right into the lap of Donnarumma.
Juve’s best chance came in the 37th minute, when an early cross from Cuadrado found Mandzukic sitting in between the two center backs. But the big Croatian couldn’t get anything in the way of power on his header, and Donnarumma again made a very simple save. Two minutes later Pjanic tried a long ball but couldn’t get it past the first man. Cutrone’s block fell to Bonaventura, who charged forward and fired a shot that curled just over the bar.
There was some acrimony at the end of the first half, when Benatia brought Calhanoglu down on Milan’s right wing. It was a clear foul, but with the one minute of stoppage time done referee Antonio Damato didn’t allow time to take the free kick.
It had been a fairly even half, with Juve looking stronger in terms of quantity of possession, but Milan making the more dangerous chances. It was all to play for in the second half.
For five harrowing minutes to start the second period, Juve started showing signs of the kind of second-half fade that has touched them over the course of the season. A cross from Calabria found Bonaventura in the box within the first 60 seconds, but heading isn’t his strong suit and the shot was weak and straight at Buffon. Calhanoglu skipped a ball off the wet surface a minute later, but it was likewise easy for Buffon to claim. A terrible bit of control by Cuadrado in his own half gave Milan possession, and then the Colombian compounded his error by getting bamboozled by Bonaventura, who got into excellent position only to fire a cross straight through everyone in the box.
Two minutes later, though, the momentum turned for good. It started with a shot by Dybala, who tried to curl in after Mandzukic sent him into the channel. Donnarumma made a smart save and Romagnoli whacked it out for a corner kick.
Three minutes later Dybala unleashed a long-range pile driver that Donnarumma made an even more impressive save to turn it past the post. On the ensuing corner Benatia easily evaded Romagnoli’s efforts to mark him, flicking a free header against the grain and into the net, leaving the keeper rooted to his spot.
Milan proceeded to crumble like a cookie.
On the hour mark, Dybala again challenged Donnarumma from distance, wriggling through the midfield and firing off yet another rocket that the young keeper managed to get a flying finger to. A minute later, though, the youngster turned into the game’s ultimate goal. After receiving a cut-back pass from Cuadrado, Costa, who had been operating more on the right in the second half, tried to sneak in a curling snap shot to the near post. There was some pace on it but it was generally right at Donnarumma. The ball hit him right in the hands — and trickled past into the net to double Juve’s lead.
Gattuso went to his bench at this point, replacing Cutrone, who had last been seen in Benatia’s back pocket, with Nikola Kalinic. That ended up not turning out so well.
But first, Donnarumma again brought shame upon his dojo. It didn’t help him that Bonucci’s effort at marking Mandzukic on another corner was particularly poor, allowing the striker a free header, but what should have been a fairly easy catch clanged off his hands and landed directly at the feet of Benatia, who wholeheartedly accepted this gift to make the lead 3-0.
Milan nearly earned themselves a lifeline when Kalinic got past Cuadrado on the left to cross it. Matuidi jumped in to intercept, but fired it straight at his own net. A stranded Buffon could only watch as the ball slammed off the post and back out into play. No Milan player was on hand to attack the rebound, and what was likely Milan’s best chance of the half was put behind for a corner.
Then came Kalinic’s moment, as it were. Donnarumma’s mistakes were multiplying, and the Croatia international seemed to have caught the malaise. Defending the near post on a corner, he went up for the ball to try to head clear, only to have it skim the top of his head, redirecting it just enough to leave his diving keeper punching at nothing and twisting in midair to watch the ball fly into his net. 4-0 for the fourth straight Coppa—sounded about right.
Give Milan credit for playing hard the full 90 minutes, because shortly after the goal they forced Buffon into an excellent double save of the kind that makes you wonder if the old man does indeed have another season left in the tank. First he parried a hard long-range effort from Locatelli, then he used his legs to deny substitute Fabio Borini’s attempt to nutmeg in a consolation goal.
With 11 minutes left Dybala nearly put an exclamation mark on an excellent half when he caught Donnarumma way off his line, but his attempt at a chip from close to the center circle ended up rushed and a bit too high.
The time ticked on, and even though the fourth official’s board read two minutes of stoppage time, Damato decided to end the slaughter early, whistling for full time as the 90th minute expired. Juventus celebrated yet again. It was Claudio Marchisio, not Buffon, who ended up lifting the trophy (which hopefully wasn’t a sign of things to come this summer), as the first piece of silverware on the year officially took residence in the J Museum in Turin.
GIANLUIGI BUFFON - 8. Had to make several really good saves on the day. That double was classic. If this was his last Coppa game, he made it count.
JUAN CUADRADO - 6. Had it not been for his assist on Costa’s goal this would have been a 5. He did well going forward and provided a lot of danger, but was badly exposed defensively several times and got lucky that that Bonaventura cross early in the second half didn’t find a Milan player.
ANDREA BARZAGLI - 6. A more than passable game, and a fitting birthday present for the 37-year-old. Kept midfield runners mostly at bay while Benatia focused on Cutrone.
MEDHI BENATIA - 9. Totally neutralized Cutrone in addition to his pair of goals. Led the team in clearances with five and was co-leader in interceptions (Barzagli) with three.
KWADWO ASAMOAH - 6.5. Understated but very good on the left side, often recovering the ball to keep pressure on Milan in attack. Had one key pass for Dybala, but mostly let Costa do the attacking.
SAMI KHEDIRA - 5.5. Didn’t do much. Passing was often sloppy, and his channel runs as an additional target for crosses largely weren’t there.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 6. He’s been somewhat difficult to judge over the past few weeks. At first glance he has had a run of mediocre games and isn’t taking over the game the way we expect him to, but he made three key passes. Did a ton of damage on corners, getting an assist on Benatia’s opener and delivering the balls that eventually resulted in goals three and four.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 5. If there was a worst player on the field for Juve, here he is. Controlled the ball badly in the attacking third, consistently ending attacks. His passing was a little off too, completing only 78.1 percent of his a passes.
PAULO DYBALA - 6.5. This would’ve been higher if he’d managed a goal, but he was an absolute beast in the second half, unleashing shot after powerful shot.
DOUGLAS COSTA - 7. Celebrated his massive game against Bologna with a goal (weird as it was), three key passes and caused general mayhem.
MARIO MANDZUKIC - 6.5. Provided the kind of quick, one-touch distribution in and around the box that you don’t always get from Gonzalo Higuain. Outmuscled a lot of defenders. A goal would have been the cherry on top.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 6. Had very little to do with the score already 3-0 by the time he came on.
GONZALO HIGUAIN - NR. Given the tremendous workload he’s been dealing with this season and last, the fact that he was even on the field at all is curious. Fortunately he never had to do more than jog.
CLAUDIO MARCHISIO - NR. On for only the last few moments.
It was a bold move to start Mandzukic ahead of Higuain, but on further reflection it makes sense. Physicality is not a strong suit of Milan’s defense, and Mandzukic was able to win most of his physical battles while leaving the ball in good spots for his supporting attackers.
The use of the 4-3-2-1 continues to impress as well. One of the precursors to Juve’s Eight Minutes of Fury (trademark pending) was having Dybala and Costa switch sides of the field — something that wouldn’t have necessarily worked if they were playing a real 4-3-3. The “Christmas tree” formation should be the default next season, regardless of whether or not Paulo Dybala stays. It actually seems to bring out the best in mime-land.
With only two games left in the year, Juve need a single point from those two contests (against Roma away and an already-relegated Hellas Verona) to mathematically secure their seventh straight title.
If they do it in Rome, the Allianz is going to be rocking for the title party.