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Lackluster Juve crash out of Coppa Italia against Atalanta

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A fifth Coppa in a row was a little more than Juve do as the Bergamo curse struck again.

Atalanta BC v Juventus - Coppa Italia Photo by Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images

Bergamo.

What is it about Bergamo?

The Stadio Atleti Azzurri d’Italia has been a bogey house for Juventus the last three years. Each of those years in Serie A, Atalanta has held the Bianconeri to 2-2 draws at home, including this past December. They managed a win last year in the first leg of the Coppa Italia semifinals, a 1-0 affair that was played in fog so dense it was sometimes difficult to see the action on a TV screen, but Gian Piero Gasperini has repeatedly managed to frustrate Massimiliano Allegri’s men at home.

As well as Atalanta has been playing this season, this quarterfinal was always likely to be the most difficult game in Juve’s fifth Coppa title defense. Unfortunately, it turned into the nadir of the Bergamo curse. It was Juve’s worst display not just of this year, but of the last several years. There were mistakes all over the place, from both players and coaches. Passes flew everywhere, attacking creativity was nonexistent, and the resulting 3-0 defeat was the culmination of a few weeks of lackluster performances that finally came back to roost.

Both Allegri and Gasperini went with nearly full-strength lineups despite it being a Coppa match. Wojciech Szczesny took his place between the sticks behind a 4-3-3 formation. Mattia De Sciglio, Daniele Rugani, Giorgio Chiellini, and Alex Sandro made up the defensive screen. Sami Khedira joined Rodrigo Bentancur and Blaise Matuidi in midfield, while Cristiano Ronaldo, Paulo Dybala, and Federico Bernardeschi made up the attacking trio.

Gasperini deployed his traditional three-man defense in a 3-4-2-1 setup. Etrit Berisha manned the goal behind Rafael Toloi, Berat Djimsiti, and Jose Luis Palomino. Hans Hateboer and Timothy Castagne served as wing-backs, bracketing Marten de Roon and Remo Freuler. Josip Ilicic and Papu Gomez supported the red-hot Duvan Zapata in attack.

Within the first minute of the game, it looked like Juve might have shaken off the doldrums they were in in Rome over the weekend when Bernardeschi made a fantastic dribble down the right and tried to square it to Dybala, missing him in stride by inches. Unfortunately, 60 seconds later, the same old mistakes popped up when Sandro gave the ball away deep in his own half, allowing Ilicic to drive to the byline and cross, only for Szczesny to smother it.

Juventus continued to do exactly what they did against Lazio — struggle to break the press. Passes went wayward. Balls were held too long, inviting dispossessions. Chiellini was forced to intervene deep in the box against an onrushing Zapata, while Sandro just got a touch to a cross at the far post.

Eighteen minutes in, Atalanta started scrambling when Ilicic doubled over with an apparent groin injury. He left the field for treatment, but Gasperini’s subs started warming up. He returned to the field and tried to soldier on, but after Gomez forced Szczesny into an excellent one-handed save with a dipping shot from the top of the box he dropped to the ground again. As Gasperini prepared to replace him, it also became clear that Allegri had problems of his own — big problems. Chiellini had motioned to the bench and signaled that he needed to leave the game. That presented a real poser, considering the fact that Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli were both out with long-term injuries, and new depth signing Martin Caceres had only been back with the team for 24 hours.

It was here that Allergi made what turned out to be a serious mistake. Rather than using Caceres, who has extensive experience playing as a center back, he elected to replace Chiellini with Joao Cancelo, kicking De Sciglio into the middle as a makeshift central defender.

It took 10 minutes for Allegri to come to regret that decision — but not quite in the way you’d have thought it would. It was Cancelo, the hero of the comeback win against Lazio over the weekend, who became the goat rather quickly, holding the ball far too long and getting dispossessed by Castagne, who charged forward. Rugani was suddenly caught having to choose between closing Castagne down and covering a runner on the left side, and the Belgian had an open lane to fire past a stranded Szczesny, who came up from his dive screaming at Cancelo.

Atalanta BC v Juventus - Coppa Italia Photo by Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images

Two minutes later, La Dea doubled their lead. This time it was De Sciglio who was the culprit when he whiffed at a pass at the top of the box. A minor scramble saw Zapata emerge with the ball and pummel a finish in at the near post as Szczesny flailed in its wake. Allegri was furious at something that occurred during the buildup and was sent off after screaming at the fourth official.

Juve had chances to draw closer in the closing moments of the first half, earning free kicks in shooting range on both sides of the field. But both Ronaldo and Dybala crashed their shots into the wall.

Juve made an effort to sustain some pressure on the Atalanta goal in the early phases of the second half, with the big opportunity coming through a nice run through Bernardeschi, who got into the six-yard box and tried to pull back to Ronaldo, but it was kicked away from the winger before he was able to get a touch. Two minutes later, Rugani sent a strong header just over the bar on a corner.

But for everything Juve tried, they weren’t able to test Berisha with a shot on target until the 68th minute, when Khedira decided to remind everyone that he was still on the field when he latched on to a header at the back end of another corner and volleyed it toward the Albanian, who managed to parry it.

The introduction of Douglas Costa and Miralem Pjanic did little to turn the tide, and in the dying minutes De Sciglio gifted Zapata an exclamation point when he completely mishit a back pass. Szczesny came out to try to intervene, but the Colombian calmly rounded him and stroked home his second. Ronaldo almost saw a consolation in stoppage time, but fired Bernardeschi’s excellent ball over the goal as the final seconds ticked away.

LE PAGELLE

WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 6. Can’t be blamed for any of the goals. Did his best to keep things tight but with the slapdash nature of the defense made that nearly impossible.

MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - 4. I’m consciously giving him a higher grade than he would have otherwise gotten due to being put in such an unfamiliar position, but he was still responsible for the last two goals. It was pretty brutal to watch.

DANIELE RUGANI - 5.5. Didn’t make any glaring mistakes but was hard pressed to keep his positioning tight with such a cobbled-together back line. He might have to become a leader on the line very quickly.

GIORGIO CHIELLINI - NR. Please be OK, please be OK, please be OK. Oh, and he did a pretty good job on Zapata before he got hurt.

ALEX SANDRO - 5. Made some uncharacteristic giveaways and couldn’t get forward under the press. Made a couple of good crosses but mostly was bottled up.

SAMI KHEDIRA - 3. I had to constantly remind myself that he was on the field. His passes weren’t good and he was outpaced by pretty much everyone. A sailmaker in Bergamo.

RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 5. The playmaker’s role really isn’t his best. He needs to flank the regista and run. Better than seeing Emre Can in there though.

BLAISE MATUIDI - 4. His touch really let him down going forward, which made breaking the Atalanta press more difficult.

FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 6. Was responsible for pretty much all of Juve’s best attacking moves. One of the few players that wasn’t totally awful.

PAULO DYBALA - 4.5. Did his best to link the lines but had very little to work with. Without Mario Mandzukic demanding attention he has more defenders to deal with.

CRISTIANO RONALDO - 4. Nothing. Threw himself to the ground a few times looking for calls but he’s been getting those less and less frequently. He might need a rest.

Atalanta BC v Juventus - Coppa Italia Photo by Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images

SUBS

JOAO CANCELO - 3. How quickly the mighty fall. Horrific giveaway for the opening goal, and he did it more than once throughout the game.

DOUGLAS COSTA - 4. Had hardly any opportunity to use his speed to change the game.

MIRALEM PJANIC - 3. I expected his arrival to lift the midfield but it really did nothing of the sort. His free kick deliveries were exceedingly poor, and he couldn’t unlock anything in the run of play. At the end of the day, the team was playing so poorly he might not have made a difference one way or the other.

MANAGER ANALYSIS

Every once in a while Max Allegri has a game that blows up on his face on a tactical level. This was one of those games. Using Dybala as a false 9, already showing itself to be an ineffective idea against Lazio, again failed to deliver anything. His decision to use De Sciglio — who has never played as a center back — to cover Chiellini’s injury over Caceres, still new(ish) to the team but has extensive experience in the middle, especially in a Juve shirt, was an out and out mistake. De Sciglio looked way out of his depth. His game reading, normally quite good on the flank, was completely thrown off, and he made some pretty glaring errors as a result. Yes, putting Caceres in so soon after his official arrival would have been throwing him to the wolves, but it was probably the better option.

Another mistake was to let the over-the-hill Khedira play period. His time as a Juventus-caliber player is over. I’d have removed him over Dybala when introducing Costa, keeping another dangerous player on the field at the expense of someone who was ... there.

It’s important to note here, I think, how much different Juventus is when Mario Mandzukic isn’t in the team. His work rate, and the attention he demands in the box, help unlock things elsewhere on the pitch, especially for Dybala, who collects fewer defenders with Mandzukic on the field then he does while trying to act as a false nine the way Allegri has been deploying him lately. With Mandzukic expected back on Saturday against Parma, some things might start to improve.

LOOKING AHEAD

It’s a quick turnaround for Juve, as they head home to face Parma on Saturday. It will be the Crusaders’ first trip to the Allianz Stadium since the season they went bankrupt. That was a game most Parma fans would rather regret—they were annihilated 7-0 on the strength of a goal by Stephan Lichtsteiner and braces by Fernando Llorente, Alvaro Morata, and Carlos Tevez, who scored one of the goals of the decade for Juve in the process.

After that the Bianconeri hit the road again, this time headed for Sassuolo and a visit with up-and-coming coach Roberto De Zerbi.