My goodness, where to begin with this game?
Sunday’s matchup between Juventus and a struggling AC Milan team was one of the ugliest that the Bianconeri have played all season. Simple passes were mishit to lose possession, creativity was at a premium, and everything in general was ... blah.
Overall, Milan may have been the better team over the 90 minutes at the Allianz Stadium. They certainly created more quality scoring chances. Wojciech Szczesny was about as busy as he’s been in the two years since he took over as the primary starter in goal, making multiple high-level saves to keep the game goalless as it entered the latter stages. As the clock ticked toward full time, it was clear that this was going to be one of those games that was won by whichever team managed to conjure up a moment of magic.
Enter Paulo Dybala.
Starting from the bench for a second straight game, Dybala once again came in off the bench in place of Cristiano Ronaldo. This time, it was him who came up with that magical moment, jinking his way up the right channel before delivering a clinical finish with his right foot (!!) to put Juve ahead late. There were some nervy moments in the 13 minutes (plus stoppage time)_that remained, and Szczesny was called up yet again to preserve the 1-0 lead, but Juve were able to hold out for the three points and put themselves back atop the Serie A standings going into the final international break of 2019.
Maurizio Sarri had almost a full squad at his disposal for the contest. Ronaldo and Matthijs de Ligt passed game-time fitness tests to make the starting XI — although quite how the former managed to do so became less and less clear as the game went on. Szczensy took his place behind Sarri’s 4-3-1-2 formation, with Juan Cuadrado, Leonardo Bonucci, de Ligt, and Alex Sandro screening him in defense. Rodrigo Bentancur started in midfield alongside Miralem Pjanic and Blaise Matuidi. Federico Bernardeschi was again tasked with playing the trequartista role, sitting behind Ronaldo and Gonzalo Higuain.
Milan came into the game already on their second coach of the season and only five points from the relegation zone. Stefano Pioli had toyed with the idea of a three-man defense going in, but ultimately decided on a 4-3-3 formation. Gianluigi Donnarumma was the starter in goal, with Andrea Conti, Andrea Romagnoli, Leo Duarte, and Theo Hernandez in front of him. Rade Krunic, Ismael Bennacer, and Lucas Paqueta formed the midfield, while Suso and Hakan Calhanoglu bookended the scuffling Krzysztof Piatek on the front line.
A year ago, the first game between these two teams was a barnburner from start to finish, but this year things started out turgid. Neither team was particularly sharp, with Juve in particular misplacing passes all over the field. It wasn’t until the 14th minute that the game’s first shot was registered. It was Higuain, playing against his old team, for his old old team — yeah ... Pipita’s last year-and-a-half or so has been strange — who took a diagonal ball from Ronaldo in the right channel and fired low from a tight angle. He shinned it, but it was still in an awkward position for Donnarumma, who managed a kick-save with his trailing leg to force a corner.
Three minutes later, Milan had their first big chance. Piatek, who had been so fantastic last year, has been misfiring hard this year, and on this occasion he again missed in a big way, getting separation from Bonucci and meeting Suso’s cross for a free header—but skewed it way wide. His fellow January signing from last year, Paqueta, came far closer in the 25th minute when he headed a pullback from Conti toward the top corner of Szczesny’s goal, but the keeper flew up and made the first of many excellent saves on the night, tipping the ball over the bar.
The overall quality of the game wasn’t improving. Juve was giving the ball away on what looked like simple passes, and were reliant on individual moments of excellence to get any chances, like when Higuain made a rather excellent steal upfield and turned a cross in, unfortunately unable to find anyone to latch on. But the rest of the first half was pretty much a whole lot of nothing until very late on, when Hernandez got onto a loose ball and fired a 35-yard belter that Szczesny got down to parry away. The Pole’s job wasn’t done yet, as Piatek drove into the box on a quick counter in first-half stoppage time and fired at the near post, producing a parry from his countryman.
The second half started about as drearily as the first, and it remained so for pretty much the entire game save for flurries of activity. The first of those came eight minutes into the period from a most unlikely source: the right foot of Blaise Matuidi. The move started with Bernardeschi, who provided an entry pass that Higuain flicked backwards, leaving it on a plate for the Frenchman, who went for a far post curler with his weaker foot that came tantalizingly close to bending into the net.
It was just after this that the game’s two big storylines were provided, with the introduction of Dybala at the expense of Ronaldo. The Portuguese had looked terrible all night, and was clearly less than healthy, but it was still a surprise to see Ronaldo removed before the hour mark. Ronaldo, for his part, looked upset at his removal, barely shaking hands with Dybala and hardly acknowledging Sarri before walking directly down the tunnel to the locker room.
Piatek managed to get away from his markers and unleash another shot just after Dybala’s introduction, but Szczesny made another excellent save. Sarri sent on even more offensive firepower in the form of Douglas Costa shortly thereafter, but the only offense Juve managed to muster was a weak shot on the break from Dybala that was easy for Donnarumma to gather.
Szczesny at this point deserved the full-on superhero cape. He parried away a low free kick from Calhanoglu with 15 minutes left, then jumped off his line to stop a counter after a bad giveaway by substitute Adrien Rabiot.
But Milan’s inability to beat Szczesny finally bit them in the rear moments later. The move was made up of a couple of neat one-touch passes, starting with Costa, whose feed to Dybala was immediately moved back out slightly to Pjanic. The Bosnian took one touch to settle, then found Higuain, who fluidly snapped the ball back to Dybala. Romagnoli clearly expected Dybala to try to shoot early with his left foot, but the Argentine easily slipped through his attempt to stop him and then hit a right-footed effort across goal that buried itself into the net. It was his seventh goal against Milan in Serie A competition, the most he’s had against any opponent.
The run-in wasn’t as simple as it could have been. Szczesny had to make a save on practically Milan’s first move after the goal, scrambling to block a 25-yard effort from Calhanoglu, then flying to deny the Turk again with seven minutes to go. The outfield players also had to be alert, with Rabiot digging out a cross on the second ball after a corner a split-second before Romagnoli would have been able to make up for his defensive error with a tap-in.
As the time ticked off, Higuain and Dybala both had chances to end the game, the former missing high from close in when a loose ball teed him up perfectly, the latter by again suckering Romagnoli into overplaying his left foot before driving past him and using his right, this time denied by a one-handed save by Donnarumma. That effort proved to be the game’s final kick, as the final whistle came as soon as the Bianconeri put the ball back in play on the ensuing corner.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 9. Made seven saves, most of them of at least above-average difficulty, and absolutely dominated the penalty area. Without him, Juve would’ve been two or three down.
JUAN CUADRADO - 6.5. Made a team-high four interceptions and and a pair of key passes, while mostly keeping his side locked down. Was a little bit reined in after getting a nonsense yellow by Fabio Maresca.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 6. Had more clearances than anyone else on either team team (6) but his marking was a little lax, particularly on that Piatek header.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 6.5. One of his better games. Hardly put a foot wrong. Not a ton of counting stats, but that was because he tended to be in the right places to avoid needed to rack them up. And no talk about his arms!
ALEX SANDRO - 6. Three interceptions on the left flank along with a key pass on the attacking end. Kept Suso mostly under wraps.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 6.5. A powerhouse defensively, with a game-high six tackles to go along with three interceptions and two clearances. He didn’t have the same impact on the offensive end, but he was vital in winning the ball back on numerous occasions.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 6. Not at his metronomic best in possession, but he did make five tackles. Needs to take a little bit more command of things if slogs like this are to be avoided.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 6. Came really close to opening the scoring twice, and worked hard in midfield before leaving with what looked like a fairly serious rib injury.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 5. Came close on one shot but wasn’t very productive besides. He wasn’t able to do too much in the way of supplying the strikers with quality service, and just doesn’t seem to be settling well into a central role.
GONZALO HIGUAIN - 8. How hard did this guy work? Made four key passes and notched the assist with an excellent first-time ball. That’s in addition to making four tackles and continually tracking back to make life difficult for Milan while they tried to recycle the ball. Did he steal a little bit of Mario Mandzukic’s soul Sunday night?
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 4.5. Easily his worst outing as a Juventus player. Gave the ball up on simple touches, didn’t keep moves going, and generally looked a step behind everyone else. He’s clearly not healthy, and it raises questions as to why he was even playing in the first place. If the reports that he left the stadium before the game was over are true and he wasn’t going directly to a doctor or physical therapist, he’s got some ‘splainin’ to do.
PAULO DYBALA - 7. What a gorgeous goal, and with his right foot, too! If he suddenly starts using that a little more, he’ll be even more dangerous
DOUGLAS COSTA - 6. Added a little pace and impetus, but wasn’t as decisive as he was in midweek.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 5. Made a couple of interceptions on defense but also some really rough giveaways. If Matuidi misses serious time he could be in for some serious work.
Isn’t it wonderful when a manager sees something not working and goes about changing it immediately? One of the biggest differences we’ve seen between Sarri this year and Massimiliano Allegri last year is how quickly he will pull the trigger on using a substitution if he sees the need. A year ago, Douglas Costa would have had maybe 15 minutes to work on the field, perhaps less. On Sunday, he got a full half hour, and while he didn’t end up having the impact he had in Moscow, Dybala, who got even more time in place of Ronaldo, did. It’s a welcome sight to see.
What wasn’t, however, was how bad Ronaldo was, and in this Sarri is slightly complicit. Ronaldo has been far below his usual standard for going on two weeks now, and if this injury he’s dealing with is truly hampering him to this extent then he has no business on the field. His ability to change a game on a dime is going to be extremely important when Juve get to the business end of the season in March and April, and playing him against a struggling team like Milan when he’s not 100 percent healthy is irresponsible. It’s entirely possible that Ronaldo wanted to get in there—he is notoriously difficult to get to set and rest—but this is a situation where a coaching staff needs to protect a player from himself. If this knee is still bothering him after the international break, he needs to sit until it’s right.
It’s everyone’s favorite time of the month! Internationals! YAY!
On the other side of the break, though, there be dragons. A trip to Bergamo to face Atalanta looms. The Gewiss Arena, complete with a brand-new curva as it undergoes its three-year-long facelift, has not been a kind place to Juventus over Gian Piero Gasperini’s tenure in charge of La Dea. Juve has been held to 2-2 draws in each of their last three Serie A games there, and were cracked upside the head in the Coppa Italia quarterfinal this past January, crashing out of the competition 3-0. With only a one-point lead on Inter headed into the next round of games, this contest could be critically important.