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Ronaldo puts away Milan to secure Supercoppa

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Juve won their first Supercoppa in three years behind Ronaldo’s flicked header.

Juventus v AC Milan - Italian Supercup Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images for Lega Serie A

When Juventus first met AC Milan in November, it was one of the most entertaining matches of the season. The San Siro was electric. Big moments came with frequency. The intensity on the pitch was at 11. Even though Juve saw out their 2-0 win in relative comfort after Wojciech Szczesny denied Gonazlo Higuain from the penalty spot, the atmosphere seemed like it was on fire the entire night, and it was a joy to watch.

Wednesday’s Supercoppa Italiana against the same opposition lacked that game’s magnetism. Perhaps it was the relatively subdued atmosphere at the King Abdullah Sports City in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (We won’t get into the ethics of keeping the game in Saudi Arabia here, but just imagine a side-eye emoji.) Or perhaps the knowledge that they had just four days to rest until they resumed Serie A play on Monday. But the game never really took on the urgency of the first meeting.

There were a few similarities, though. Milan ended the game with 10 men after a nasty tackle by Franck Kessie, Cristiano Ronaldo scored — this time a flicked header following a delightful ball into the box from Miralem Pjanic — while Gianluigi Donnarumma’s hands remained stone, and Juventus again carried the victory, this time by a 1-0 scoreline that saw them secure their first trophy of the 2018-19 season.

It was obviously Juve’s seventh straight time in the Supercoppa, but they had lost their last two — a 3-2 loss to Lazio last season in a game that belied how badly Juve actually played, and a penalty shootout loss to Milan the season before. Both teams came in joint-highest winners of the competition, while Paulo Dybala entered the game looking to become the top scorer in the Supercoppa’s history.

Massimiliano Allergi made a number of changes to the lineup that beat Bologna in the Coppa Italia on Saturday. Szczesny remained in goal behind a nominal 4-3-3 formation. Joao Cancelo made his return from a knee injury at the right back position, and was joined by Leonardo Bonucci, Giorigo Chiellini, and Alex Sandro. Pjanic was the only holdover in midfield, joined by his usual partners Rodrigo Bentancur and Blaise Matuidi, who were both restored to the lineup. Ronaldo also made his return to the starting XI alongside Dybala and Douglas Costa, who took the roster spot of the injured Mario Mandzukic.

Genarro Gattuso countered with a 4-3-3 of his own. Donnarumma took his customary place in Milan’s goal, with Davide Calabria, Alessio Romagnoli, Cristian Zapata, and Ricardo Rodriguez arrayed in front of him. Hot new signing Lucas Paqueta started in midfield along with Kessie and Tiemoue Bakayoko. Hakan Calhanoglu and Samu Castillejo manned the wings, but the striker position was the cause of some drama. With a deal reuniting Higuain with Maurizio Sarri at Chelsea purportedly close, Higuain was held out of the starting lineup and replaced by Patrick Cutrone. Officially, the reason was given that he was suffering from a fever — which really wasn’t really fooling anyone and prompted ESPN commentator Mark Donaldson to lightheartedly suggest that Higuain was suffering from a case of the Blues.

Milan started the game with a lively press, but it was Juve that nearly started the game on the highest of notes when Costa cut in from the right and curled a ball just past the far post only three minutes in. The Rossoneri kept up the pressure and started hemming their opponents into their own half, but failed to create much beyond a couple of long-range shots that badly missed their marks. It was Juve that created the next biggest threat when Costa squeezed through a tiny opening and fed Cancelo, who fired a low shot that again skittered past the far post. Bakayoko was presented with a gilt-edged chance to open the scoring shortly thereafter when Szczesny completely missed his attempt to punch a way a corner, but the midfielder was so surprised to see the ball come to him that he couldn’t configure himself and Sandro poked the ball away.

Juventus v AC Milan - Italian Supercup Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images for Lega Serie A

Another Milan corner was the setup for one of Juve’s best chances of the first half, a 3-on-2 breakaway with all three of Juve’s forwards joining in. Costa, leading the charge, elected to slide the ball to Ronaldo on his right. The Portugal international chose to try to lift a ball to Dybala on the far post but didn’t execute properly, and the pass was intercepted, with the rebound being lashed into the stands behind the goal by, of all people, Chiellini.

By this point, though, Gattuso’s men had somewhat blown themselves out. Juve penned them in their own half for the last 15 minutes of the half, and came oh-so-close yet again two minutes from time, when Ronaldo took an inch-perfect Costa cross with a scissor kick into the ground that bounced over by the width of the ball.

The teams went into the locker room with Juve having outshot Milan 9-4, but Milan had found the only shot on target, a quick snapshot by Calhanoglu just before stoppage time began. Milan wasn’t carving out the best of challenges, while Juve had been in better positions a few times but hadn’t managed to trouble the error-prone Donnarumma.

During the beginning of the second half, players indulged in their base urge to hit things. Ronaldo hit the wall — again — with an early free kick, then at the other end Cutrone came as close as any Milan player came to scoring when he made a quick turn and hit a shot that evaded a soaring Szczesny but slammed into the crossbar. The young striker industriously forced Cancelo into a giveaway eight minutes later, but Chiellini came in to block his shot.

As the hour mark approached with no score, the unpalatable prospect of extra time started emerging at the edge of the frame. Fortunately, it wasn’t given the chance to sharpen into focus.

It was the 61st minute when Pjanic stood 26 yards or so from the penalty area and, unmolested by the defense, lobbed an absolutely beautiful pass to Ronaldo. He flicked a header toward goal that went through the hands of Donnarumma, who looked to be between two minds as to whether to parry or catch it. The superstar forward was so alone in the box that in real time it looked like there was no way he had held himself onside, but replays later showed that, if anything, his hand was over the line. Because the arm is not a playable part of the body, it’s not subject to the offside rule, and referee Luca Banti wasn’t even brought to the VAR screen as the replay officials were able to quickly pass the goal as legal. It was either an incredible spot by assistant referee Fabiano Preti or proof positive that the admonition to let play flow if it’s close and let VAR sort it out later is starting to really take hold on officials.

Dybala thought he had salted the game away six minutes later when he slotted past Donnarumma, but this time Preti correctly caught Matuidi offside in the buildup. La Joya wasn’t the only one who thought he had the game sealed — whoever was in charge of things started running the pyrotechnics and playing “Chelsea Dagger” over the loudspeakers ... the second time they’d done so for a disallowed goal.

With 20 minutes to go, Higuain’s fever was apparently deemed low enough to go in as a sub, replacing Castillejo. (As someone who’s been laid up sick for more than a week, could someone give me some of whatever Gonzalo was taking?) Unfortunately, his chances at making an impact dropped within minutes of his introduction when Kessie, trying to recover a ball that he lost, lunged hard into Emre Can, who had come into the game shortly after Ronaldo’s goal, with exposed cleats, hitting him in the shin and again in the ankle. Banti immediately booked the Ivorian, but as Can lay on the field getting treatment for the blow he was called to the screen by VAR official Marcelo Guida, and quickly returned brandishing a straight red. Milan captain Romagnoli protested enough to earn himself a booking, but Kessie himself walked resignedly to the locker room.

That took the wind out of Milan’s sails, and for the last 15 minutes of the game Juve essentially lived in the attacking half. Dybala got into that spot he loves in the right channel with five minutes to go, but substitute Fabio Borini got back to block his shot. Milan fans were certainly shouting for a VAR review in the 87th minute when Can went into a challenge with Gattuso’s final substitute, Andrea Conti, at the near post after a good low cross by Calhanoglu. Banti saw nothing wrong with the challenge as Can sealed Conti off from the ball, and Guida concurred, chalking one up, perhaps, to football in fact being a contact sport.

The rest of the game ran out uneventfully. Costa and Bentancur both left the field limping, hopefully due to cramping in the warm Arabian weather, and when Banti finally blew his final whistle Juve had secured their first trophy of the season.

Juventus v AC Milan - Italian Supercup Photo by Marco Rosi/Getty Images for Lega Serie A

LE PAGELLE

WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 6. Made a few mistakes that he hasn’t made this season, especially in the first half when he nearly gifted Bakayoko the opening goal. He’s been better this year.

JOAO CANCELO - 7. That’s how you make a return. A constant threat down the right side going forward and an eye-popping seven tackles, which led the team. Didn’t look like he missed a beat.

LEONARDO BONUCCI - 7. A rather good day in his first game out against the team he ran away to. Milan never managed to get the kind of service into the box that would trouble him consistently, and whatever did get into the box he managed to get on the end of, ending the day with four interceptions.

GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 7.5. Three interceptions and a whopping eight clearances for the captain in another fine outing.

ALEX SANDRO - 6.5. A formidable presence defensively, but he didn’t seem to have the final ball going forward. A lot of mishit crosses.

RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 6.5. Not a huge impact up the field but did well in the middle as he and Matuidi worked to keep possession. Completed 92 percent of his passes.

MIRALEM PJANIC - 7. A metronome while Juve tried to find openings with Milan pinned down. His assist was so pretty. So pretty.

BLAISE MATUIDI - 6.5. Kept possession well in midfield. Kessie and Bakayoko couldn’t really match him physically.

DOUGLAS COSTA - 8. Breathtaking. Rodriguez had absolutely zero chance to stop him, he simply doesn’t have the quickness. Few fullbacks in the world really do. He recorded SEVEN key passes. He could almost have won this game all by himself.

CRISTIANO RONALDO - 7. Got into some pretty good positions, and boy oh boy that run for the goal was so inch-perfect that I was certain it would be called back for offside up to the point Banti allowed the kickoff to go forward. But he also made a couple of rough passes and poor decisions. Still, he ended up being decisive.

PAULO DYBALA - 6. Connected the lines well, as usual. Made a couple of fun channel runs after Costa began taking over up front, but Milan clogged his shooting lanes before he could get the shots away.

SUBS

EMRE CAN - 6. Made a couple of good plays upfield but mostly worked to keep the ball in midfield.

FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - NR. Rushed on to the field to spell a wobbly Bentancur.

SAMI KHEDIRA - NR. Came on for a cramping Costa with moments remaining.

MANAGER ANALYSIS

Without Mandzukic, Allegri was without his normal reference point up front. The big Croatian can win aerial duels with pretty much anyone, and Allegri especially likes to use him to drift wide and attack opposing full-backs, who simply can’t match him on a jump ball.

Without his biggest aerial presence, Allegri turned to Ronaldo, who would often feed the wide players and then attack the box while looking for a return ball on the cross. Unfortunately the Milan defenders were pretty up for marking those runs, until Pjanic changed up the angle and Ronaldo was able to peel off Romagnoli. Allegri also rammed both full-backs high up the field, forcing Gattuso’s wings to support the defense and allowing Costa and Dybala to squeeze into the channels.

I have one minor quibble: Why was Miralem Pjanic taken off? Because the Supercoppa is technically a competition run by Lega Serie A, bookings counted toward Serie A discipline stats. After his first-half booking, Pjanic was taken over the suspension threshold, so why pull him instead of someone like Bentancur or Matuidi who will probably be playing on Monday? Unless the Bosnian himself tapped out, this doesn’t seem like a good move to me.

LOOKING AHEAD

Serie A play finally picks back up on Monday, as Juve begins the second leg of the season with a home date against Chievo, who they dramatically beat 3-2 on opening day. That’s followed by a week off and a trip to the Stadio Olimpico to face Lazio.