With a record-setting eighth straight scudetto sewn up, it was worth wondering just how high Juventus’ motivation levels would be over the last five games of the season. With two derbies and four games that could impact the race for Italy’s European qualification slots, the team could chose to play these games hard or to simply play out the string without much effort.
In the first half of the second Derby d’Italia of the year, it looked very much like the decision was the latter. Inter played them off the field at the San Siro in that first period, taking an early lead on a screamer by Radja Nainggolan and coming close to extending that advantage on several occasions. By the time the teams went in for the break, it looked like the home side was going to gain a victory in the rivalry for the first time since 2016 and some meager claim to bragging rights for a team that hasn’t gotten its hands on a trophy since 2011.
But, Juve managed to rebound to a degree in the second half, and an equally impressive strike by Cristiano Ronaldo restored parity on the scoreboard. Both teams had chances to pull out a victory, but neither managed to get the ball back into the net, and Saturday night’s Derby d’Italia ended in a 1-1 draw that left the chasing pack with an opening to close in on Serie A’s third-place spot.
Massimiliano Allegri had limited choices coming into the game. Paulo Dybala, Mario Mandzukic, Douglas Costa, Sami Khedira, and Rodrigo Bentancur were all missing, leaving Allegri with only three healthy midfielders and only one first-team option off the bench in attack. The good news was the return of Giorgio Chiellini from the calf injury that left him a spectator in both ends of the Champions League quarterfinals against Ajax.
Faced with this crunch, Allergi’s formation seemed a little amorphous at times, but it started as what looked like a 4-3-3. Wojciech Szczesny took his usual space in goal, protected by Joao Cancelo, Leonardo Bonucci, Chiellini, and Alex Sandro. All three healthy center mids — Miralem Pjanic, Blaise Matuidi, and Emre Can — started, with Juan Cuadrado, Ronaldo, and Federico Bernardeschi attacking up front.
That shape, however, wouldn’t stay the same for long.
Inter’s Luciano Spalletti kept to his standard 4-2-3-1 formation. New team captain Samir Handanovic tended goal with Danilo D’Ambrosio, Stefan De Vrij, Milan Skriniar, and old friend Kwadwo Asamoah in front of him. Marcelo Brozovic and Matias Vecino formed the double pivot in midfield, with Matteo Politano, Nainggolan, and Ivan Perisic playing behind
Pond Scum Mauro Icardi at the tip of the spear.
The San Siro crowd chose to poke fun at Juve’s elimination at the hands of the Dutch side with their tifo — a gesture that was kinda pathetic given how long it’s been since the Nerazzurri have come close to that stage themselves.It was actually Juventus who took the first attempt of the night within seconds, when Bonucci stepped forward to intercept a poor clearance by D’Ambrosio, then surged forward and, afforded tons of space, let fly, but the shot was right at Handanovic who easily held it.
It would be the last time in a while that Juve had a serious chance at a goal.
Inter started pouring forward, forcing a few early corners. The second of those set pieces produced the opening goal in the seventh minute. Bonucci’s header on the delivery only went as far as Politano, who scooped it to his right. Nainggolan met it with an incredible volley. It had pace and a hell of a lot of swerve, but it’s worth saying that Szczesny looked to have it lined up but only got one wrist to it as opposed to two hands. Regardless, it was a fantastic strike.
Chiellini immediately tried to answer with a half-volley of his own, but his shot sailed off target. Two minutes later, Icardi burst down the left channel and fired at an acute angle, but Szczesny recovered from his mistake and made an impressive fingertip save over the bar. The ensuing corner was taken short and De Vrij found himself free for a downward header, but Szczesny got down to parry and then leaped on top of the loose ball while Sandro did an excellent job preventing Vecino from attacking the rebound.
The first big exhale for Inter came in the 18th minute when Ronaldo found Bernardeschi in space, but is powerful left-footed shot just soared over the bar.
Inter continued to press the issue, with Juve trying to open things up on the counter with little success. Skriniar sprang Icardi down the right side with a long ball just before the half-hour mark but his cross was blocked, and on the ensuing corner the ball pinged around until it found Icardi, whose shot from close in was blocked by Matuidi before Chiellini managed to poke it over the byline.
It was around the half-hour that Juve started to look like getting back into the game a little bit. Ronaldo’s first shot of the game came just after that mark, a rising shot that went over, but not by much. Cancelo also went over from distance, and while they couldn’t carve out much in the way of chances in the half’s end stages, they did stabilize the defensive end. The end of the half was also defined by an increase in chippiness, and referee Luca Banti stepped in to take control, handing out three yellow cards in the five minutes before halftime, two to Juve players and one to the home side. It started looking likely that the game would end with less than 22 players on the field, but the flurry of bookings had the desired effect, and things were less ornery after the break.
The second half saw a definite uptick in the team’s form. Three minutes in Juve had a big shout for a penalty when Cuadrado went down after tangling with Skriniar while trying to get into position for a return pass from Bernardeschi. Banti decided that he had gone down too easily, and waved for play to continue.
Sandro was removed from the game only a minute later, met immediately on the sidelines by a member of the training staff. Leonardo Spinazzola immediately made an impact, rolling a good pass into the box, only for Ronaldo to whiff at the ball. At the other end Perisic came dangerously close to doubling the lead in the 57th minute when he fired from distance after a short free kick routine, but his shot hit the outside of the net.
The hour mark saw the introduction of Moise Kean and a great opportunity for Ronaldo, whose shot from close in couldn’t get past De Vrij, who didn’t block it as much as got hit by it. But a minute later he got his team back into it, receiving a delightful back-heel from Pjanic on the back end of a one-two and firing in a low, left-footed rocket that was in the net before Handanovic had the chance to turn around.
The teams jockeyed for position for the next few minutes before exchanging opportunities again. Juve’s came with some luck, when Asamoah nearly chested a ball past his own keeper, while Inter’s was better deserved, playing a one-two with Icardi in the box before being stoned by Szczesny, who again fingertipped it over the bar.
Juve saw a pair of chances come as the game closed in on the 80th minute. The first, in the 78th, saw Pjanic volley a good Spinazzola cross through a crowd, but Handanovic got down well and smothered it. It was Can’s turn next, latching on to a layoff and firing just over from the edge of the penalty area. Inter revved back up a minuet after that, with substitute Joao Mario forcing Szczesny to parry a powerful shot at the near post with his first touch of the game.
The substitutes were busy, as Lautaro Martinez sent one wide and then the debuting Matheus Pereira used his first touch for a ridiculous back-heel feed to Spinazzola, whose cross into the box was headed out for a corner. Kean was denied a tap-in by Handanovic claiming a cross from the left side, then Ronaldo nearly created the winner in the final minute of normal time with a low cross from the right, but D’Ambrosio just got his foot in front of Pereira, flipping the ball off the 21-year-old’s chest to get a goal kick.
Three minutes of stoppage time passed uneventfully, and when Banti blew his whistle, the spoils were shared, and Inter were left to sweat the results in the rest of the round as AC Milan (Sunday against Torino) and Atalanta (Monday against Udinese) look to close to within three points of third.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 7. I really feel like he might have done better on Nainggolan’s opener, but he picked himself up well and made some excellent saves to keep Juve in the game.
JOAO CANCELO - 6. Second on the team with five clearances, but wasn’t the consistent threat on the overlap that he was earlier in the season.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 6. Pretty solid from the back, and connected on six of eight long balls.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 6.5. Seven clearances in his return from injury. The back line looked more solid overall with him back.
ALEX SANDRO - 5.5. A pair of tackles and three clearances to go along with a key pass going forward, but on the whole didn’t look nearly as dangerous as Spinazzola, who replaced him.
EMRE CAN - 6.5. Good winning the ball in the middle of the park and very nearly scored a winner on a screamer that went just over.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 6. Had a really neat assist with the back-heel, but also gave the ball away in bad spots more than once. This game really looked like a great example of the fact that Pjanic might be better farther up the field with fewer defensive responsibilities.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 5.5. Only attempted 16 passes on the night, and wasn’t his usual self in midfield as a ball-winner. A rare off game for the Frenchman.
JUAN CUADRADO - 6. Led the team with two key passes but also made a few typical Juan decisions when things could have gone better.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 7. You don’t think of shots as low as his goal as screamers too often, but this one certainly qualified. Came really close to providing a winner later on but for some good defending from D’Ambrosio.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 5.5. Just missed equalizing in the first half, but didn’t set much up and didn’t have the room to flow in the strike pair that ended up being employed at the end of the game.
LEONARDO SPINAZZOLA - 7. Made a bunch of really dangerous situations with crosses. We’ll see if he has to play the rest of the year.
MOISE KEAN - 5. Got absolutely no service but was in good positions.
MATHEUS PEREIRA - NR. Made a slick first touch and almost capped off his debut with a winning goal in the Derby d’Italia.
It’s hard to make sense of what Allegri was going for in this game because the formation and tactics seemed to change regularly. The 4-3-3 that was announced morphed into a couple of different systems as the game went on.
This is a symptom of a different problem, which is that Allegri’s constant changing of formations over the years has deprived the team of a real identity. Juve hasn’t had a real identity in two years, since the 4-2-3-1 “Five Star” formation became the default two years ago — and even that only emerged halfway through the season. Allegri doesn’t really have an identity himself — he lets the players he has dictate what he does tactically.
It hasn’t always been that way. For his first two years it was clear that he’d been pining for a long-term trequartista to play a 4-3-1-2. But as the front office continually failed to get him the players he wanted, he started to mold his system around what he had on hand. That was taken to the extreme this year when Ronaldo arrived and the team essentially became reliant on moments of individual brilliance rather than team play. If Allegri were to play to the strengths of one player, it would neuter other talented men on the roster. This can’t continue. There needs to be more synergy between manager and front office in order to allow Allegri to play a better system — if he’s truly going to be around next year.
Another day, another derby — the Derby della Mole comes up next on Friday, with Torino clinging to the possibility of a European place. They won’t go quietly.