The Derby d’Italia never ceases to disappoint. Even when it ends goalless, as it did in Turin two seasons ago, there is a level of intensity to it that isn’t present in many other games.
That feeling was amplified tenfold on Sunday night in Milan. Inter were in first place, two points ahead of eight-time defending champions Juventus. They were a young, hungry team looking to reclaim a place among the Serie A elite. Oh, and it was the first Serie A game between the two squads since Antonio Conte took over the Inter bench this year.
So yeah, things were pretty intense. Probably too intense for referee Gianluca Rocchi, who despite getting some big calls correct was horrendous overall — but then again when isn’t he?
In spite of Rocchi’s performance, this was a gripping match, the kind that forces you to take a while afterwards to decompress. There was so much hype heading into this game that it was difficult to see how it would live up to it, but it did that and then some. It seemed like every touch crackled with importance and every tackle had an edge to it. After 90-plus minutes of fantastic soccer, it was another late goal by Gonazlo Higuain that silenced the San Siro, garnering a 2-1 victory for the Bianconeri on Sunday night.
The state of affairs at the end of the night is probably best described by the immortal Roger Daltrey: here comes the new boss, same as the old boss.
Maurizio Sarri — whose status as Conte’s direct successor at Chelsea as well as taking over his old job at Juve was yet another piece of the storylines that fed this match — gave everyone a surprise when his lineup came out. Most prognosticators had assumed that he would go into the game in a 4-3-1-2, pairing Higuain and Cristiano Ronaldo, with Aaron Ramsey behind them in the trequartista position. He did use that formation, but he pulled a fast one in terms of personnel, partnering Ronaldo with Paulo Dybala and giving Federico Bernardeschi his second straight start in the hole. Wojciech Szczesny took up his usual spot in goal, guarded by Juan Cuadrado, Leonardo Bonucci, Matthijs de Ligt, and Alex Sandro. Sami Khedira, Miralem Pjanic, and Blaise Matuidi took up their spots in midfield.
Conte’s famous 3-5-2 was on display on the other side of the field. Samir Handanovic, now firmly entrenched as Inter’s captain, was screened by Milan Skriniar, Stefan De Vrij, and Diego Godin, who was making his 32nd career appearance in opposition of Ronaldo. Danilo D’Ambrosio and former Juve stalwart Kwadwo Asamoah took station as wing-backs, bookending the trio of Stefano Sensi, Marcelo Brozovic, and Nicolo Barella. Romelu Lukaku returned to the lineup after missing Inter’s midweek Champions League clash with Barcelona due to injury, and parntered with Lautaro Martinez.
The game lit up quickly. In the fourth minute, Pjanic gained the ball around the midfield line and sent a long ball through to Dybala, who controlled in the left channel and then took an early shot, cracking it through the legs of Skriniar and off the fingertips of Handanovic and into the net for his first goal of the season. After everything he went through over the summer, it had to be an incredible feeling as he threw up the mask and celebrated. It was the first time this season that Inter had trailed in a Serie A game.
Five minutes later they nearly got a second via his partner. Ronaldo picked up a long ball from de Ligt on the left wing, cut inside all the way to the penalty arc, and unleashed a shot just as Sensi came sliding in to try to stop him. The effort thumped into the crossbar, probably leaving a few cracks to remember it by. The ball moved back the other way and Inter were nearly gifted a chance when a mistake by de Ligt gave them the ball back in an advanced position, but Bonucci came in with a desperate tackle to block Lukaku’s shot.
It was around this point that Juve’s fast start began to peter out, and for the next 10 minutes or so Inter enjoyed an extensive spell of possession as they began to look for the equalizer. They managed to find it in the 17th minute, after de Ligt was called for a handball in the area on a cross from Barella. In real time it had looked as though the ball had come off Martinez’s leg and then bounced onto his own arm, but closer inspection on replay showed that it had hit De Ligt’s arm first, despite the young Dutchman’s repeated insistence that he check VAR. Martinez stepped up to the spot. Szczesny’s record as a penalty-stopper since joining Juventus has been extraordinary, and he sussed out which way Martinez was going this time, too, but the penalty was too well taken and the game was level.
Juve, to their credit, immediately went back on the offensive. Dybala was poleaxed about 30 yards out from goal and got a free kick but no card. On the ensuing free kick, Ronaldo continued to employ his physics-defying strategy of trying to kick the ball through a solid human being, although he — or Pjanic, please God let Pjanic start take these — should have been afforded a second opportunity, because Lukaku blocked the ball with his arm but didn’t get called for it.
The Bianconeri continued to press to regain the lead, although they nearly gifted Martinez his second against the run of play when Bonucci intercepted a long pass but took an extra touch with it, allowing the Argentine to pick it right back and fire a shot that Szczesny flew to beat away. Juve continued to turn the screw, though, and were aided when Sensi was forced from the game with what looked like a groin injury and was replaced by Matias Vecino. Deprived of one of their primary creative outlets in midfield, Inter were constantly hounded by a high press, particularly from Dybala and Bernardeschi, and couldn’t get out of their own half. They resorted to violence, and the likes of Cuadrado and Dybala were subjected to a couple of hard fouls that Rocchi somehow determined weren’t worthy of a yellow card.
All the pressure nearly paid in the 41st minute when Ronaldo got on the end of a nice ball from Dybala and fired a hard shot that Handanovic managed to parry away. Mere moments later the Portuguese thought he had his goal, slotting past Handanovic after bursting into the right channel, but Dybala, who was again the supplier, had been a step offside in the buildup and the goal was rightly chalked off. Right on the stroke of halftime, Lukaku made another block with his arms on a shot by Pjanic that was again overlooked by Rocchi, and as the ref blew for the interval the emotions spilled over, resulting in a scuffle near the entrance to the locker rooms between Dybala and Inter backup goalkeeper, Daniele Padelli.
The second half continued then one-way traffic toward Handanovic’s goal. He was forced into a good diving save four minutes into the period after a blocked Khedira shot fell perfectly for Bernardeschi, then saw Ronaldo miss on a long shot from the left-hand side. The pressure was ramped up even more when Godin was quite suddenly replaced, clearly with some sort of injury, by 20-year-old Italy youth international Alessandro Bastoni. Juve attacked that side of the back three immediately and Khedira sent Dybala through the right channel. Handanovic came out and got just enough of the ball to prevent him from latching on clean. Dybala kept going and tried to put the ball in at an angle, but couldn’t keep it down.
While Conte had been forced to use two subs due to injuries, Sarri’s stores were still full, and he used two of them just after the hour mark, sending on Rodrigo Bentancur for Khedira and Higuain for the unimpressive Bernardeschi. The move was meant to press Juve’s advantage, but the pendulum began to swing the other way. Sandro had to make a desperate challenge to stop a mazy run from Martinez at the top of the penalty area, and then Vecino latched on to a ball that had dropped of Cuadrado’s foot and fired a shot that took a huge deflection off of de Ligt. Szczesny simply stared at it, knowing that he had no chance to recover, and got to breathe a sight of relief when it glanced off the outside of the post.
Sarri saw the game turning and with his last change summoned Emre Can from the bench to replace Dybala, an odd choice with Ramsey still available. Surprisingly, that started to settle things down, and the game began to go back and forth. Bentancur, who had been moved into the trequartista spot, was pulled down from behind by Brozovic just as he was about to shoot following a great dummy by Higuain on a Ronaldo layoff. Inexplicably, Rocchi didn’t see this obvious foul for what it was, and VAR was never consulted.
The end-to-end stuff continued, and Juve finally broke the deadlock with 10 minutes left. It was fitting, really, because the buildup to the goal was one of the first real expressions of Sarrismo that we’ve seen this season. Twenty-four passes were made, culminating in a quick exchange between Ronaldo and Bentancur, with the latter slipping Higuain through. The striker had drifted behind the inexperienced Bastoni, and his touch got him the required room to slot the ball past Handanovic before either Bastoni or Asamoah could intercede.
Inter still had time to react, and Szczesny would be called into action four minutes from time with a great save, coming off his line to deny Vecino after Barella had put him through. A minute later the Uruguayan was finally given Inter’s first yellow card of the night. Four minutes of stoppage time went up on the board, but Rocchi added an entire minute to the total after Can went down under a high boot by Asamoah — which again somehow didn’t illicit a card. But Juve had done enough, and when Rocchi finally blew his whistle, they were back where they’ve been for so long — first place.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 8. Guessed right on Martinez’s penalty, but couldn’t get to a well-executed strike. Strong in the air on crosses all night, and the save on Vecino was a game-saver. An excellent night.
JUAN CUADRADO - 6.5. Solid defensively again, although he didn’t bring the offensive punch from the flank that he has in past games. Didn’t let Asamoah become much of a threat down his side.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 7. He’s really stepped up in the absence of Chiellini. There was a shaky moment or two — particularly when Martinez picked his pocket outside his own box — but for the most part he was the one who stepped in when all hell was threatening to break loose.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 5. Better in the second half than the first, but this was another shaky outing for him. He should know better than to go in with his arm out the way he did. There will be some more hot takes about him not being worth the price Juve paid, but remember how young he is and how much of a jump in class he’s making. This will be another learning experience.
ALEX SANDRO - 6.5. A lot of the attacking went down his side, and he provided a key pass and 91.1 percent pass completion to go along with some great defending down his flank. He must be ready to drop given how much he’s had to play, but he keeps on going.
SAMI KHEDIRA - 6. Nearly got an assist when he slipped in Dybala, and his tactical awareness is always good. Things went slightly sideways when he left in the beginning, but that might have been due to something else.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 6.5. A beautiful assist to Dybala, but his pass completion was way down from where it usually is (84.3 percent) and he wasn’t able to command games as he has started to do in prior games.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 6.5. All over the place winning the ball back. Led the team with three tackles and threw in two interceptions and two key passes. His industry covers a lot of space.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 5. If we were looking at what he did in possession in a vacuum, this would be a 4 or less. Why he gets the grade he does comes from what he did out of possession, which was really important. His contribution to the high press and man-marking in midfield were keys in keeping Inter penned in when Juve had the possession advantage, and when he left the field that dynamic changed, allowing Inter some space it hadn’t had previously. I’m willing to let him find his feet in this role from an attacking standpoint if he contributes defensively the way he did on Sunday.
PAULO DYBALA - 7.5. Scored an excellent goal, combined well with Ronaldo on several occasions, and also made some important contributions to Juve’s press. The real Dybala is back.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 7.5. Made a lot of good passes and was unlucky not to come away with at least one goal. He got the “hockey assist” on the winner, and also somehow managed to notch three clearances, which tied the team high.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 7. A slide-rule pass to unlock the defense for the winner. Showed a previously-unknown versatility as he slid into the hole following Dybala’s withdrawal, and if he can start making those kinds of passes with regularity the sky is the limit.
GONZALO HIGUAIN - 8. A beautifully taken goal, and he was also credited with a pair of key passes in 29 minutes of work.
EMRE CAN - 6.5. Brought some balance back into the side after Inter got some possession in midway through the second half. Made two tackles and an interception in only about 20 minutes.
It’s hard to see where Maurizio Sarri made any mistakes against Inter on Sunday. Dybala was an unexpected starter, but scored an excellent goal and was a protagonist up top all night. Bernardeschi, as mentioned before, was a bit of a flop offensively but made a huge contribution to Juve’s pressing game. Higuain and Bentancur were obviously money subs, as was Can, much to the surprise of everyone who started wondering why on earth Ramsey would be left on the bench.
The move that led to Higuain’s winner was a peek into what this team can really do if the system manages to implant itself. Sarri has shown himself to be surprisingly flexible, using the same passing system in a different formation that fits the players he currently has available. It remains to be seen how he’ll handle the reintroduction of Douglas Costa after the Brazilian returns from injury after the international break, but right now the project seems to be pointing in the right direction.
It’s that time everyone loves: the international break is here! The new league leaders will resume play on Oct. 19 against Sinisa Mihajlovic’s Bologna.