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Kean caps comeback to put Juventus on the precipice of its eighth straight title

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With an eye on Ajax, Juve scrape out a victory that could see them win the title as early as Sunday.

Juventus v AC Milan - Serie A Photo by Tullio M. Puglia/Getty Images

Raise your hands if you really cared what happened in Saturday’s game between Juventus and AC Milan.

Of course, it would have sucked to lose, but given the fact that the team was going into the game with a gargantuan 18-point lead and with the obvious intent of resting key players for the first leg of the UEFA Champions League quarterfinal against Ajax on Wednesday, it also wouldn’t have broken many hearts.

That said, everyone also knew that a win would put the Bianconeri on the precipice of their eighth consecutive Serie A title, and with the potential of a deep Champions League run in the offing, locking up the title as soon as possible would seem like a good idea. After Napoli’s shocking midweek loss, Juve’s magic number was down to six points. Any combination of Juve gaining points and Napoli losing points that added up to that number meant that the Scudetto would be mathematically clinched.

As it happened, we got the best of both worlds. While this was certainly not the supremely entertaining contest that the first league meeting between the two teams was, it had enough moments for everyone to talk about, and by the final whistle Juve had managed to wrangle a 2-1 come-from-behind victory thanks to yet another goal by Moise Kean that placed them on the very edge of yet another victory, while at the same time resting players like Giorgio Chiellini and Blaise Matuidi who very much needed to kick up their heels before boarding the plane to Amsterdam.

Turin has been a house of horrors for Milan. They’ve never so much as drawn a game in the Allianz Stadium in the eight years it has been in operation. The last time they won a game in Turin was the season before it opened, when they won 1-0 at what was then simply known as the Stadio Olimpico. Massimiliano Allegri was Milan’s manager that day. The only goal was scored by Gennaro Gattuso.

The way history works out sometimes, man.

Faced with the need to rest some players and an injury list that, while not as bloated as it was in midweek, was still substantial, Allegri made some interesting lineup choices. He chose a 3-5-2 formation as he had against Cagliari, but did some rejiggering to who went where. Wojciech Szczesny took up his usual place in goal. Daniele Ruagni and Leonardo Bonucci were joined by Alex Sandro in the back three. Sandro’s usual space on the left was taken by Leonardo Spinazzola, who was joined on the right Mattia De Sciglio. Federico Bernardeschi was slotted into midfield for the second time this year, alongside Rodrigo Bentancur and Emre Can. Mario Mandzukic and Paulo Dybala partnered each other up top.

Gattuso countered his old coach with the 4-3-3 that has become standard for him this season. Gianluigi Donnarumma spent the game in the stands after suffering a muscle injury in midweek and was replaced by Pepe Reina. Davide Calabria, Alessio Romagnoli, Mateo Musacchio, and Ricardo Rodriguez formed the defensive line. Franck Kessie, Tiemoue Bakayoko, and Hakan Calhanoglu formed up in midfield, while Suso and Fabio Borini flanked Serie A wonderkind Krzysztof Piatek up front.

Piatek very nearly opened the scoring within 63 seconds, ghosting in at the far post behind Rugani and getting his head to a neat delivery by Suso but only managing to direct it wide when he really should have scored.

Juve had come out hot as well, with Spinazzola fizzing a ball in from the left within seconds of kickoff that Reina was forced to punch meekly away. Bernardeschi got in on the act too, getting down the left side and firing a ball across the face of the goal, but too far in front of De Sciglio.

Eight minutes in Allegri had yet another injury problem on his hands. Can had gone in to try to gain the ball from Kessie in midfield but slid in and went in awkwardly on his ankle. He stayed down for a good minute while Juve ran an entire attack at the other end, and play wasn’t stopped until the ball started coming back the other way. He was attended by the training staff, but was clearly struggling, and in the 25th minute he made way for Sami Khedira, who made his first appearance since having surgery for a heart arrhythmia in February.

Juventus v AC Milan - Serie A Photo by Tullio M. Puglia/Getty Images

The game chugged along rather boringly until some controversy sparked it to life. It came when Calhanoglu got down the right side and sent in a cross. Sandro slid to block it, but the ball hit him on the upper arm, which was unfortunately outstretched. Milan screamed for a penalty, and quite frankly they deserved it — Sandro’s arm was in an unnatural position, and it looked as though he knew that it was in a bad spot and was trying to pull it back in to himself as it hit him. It’s the kind of penalty that we’ve seen given all year in Serie A — heck, Medhi Benatia got called for something similar in the reverse fixture against Milan at the San Siro.

Fabbri, however, disagreed. He took forever before finally going to take a look at the VAR screen, but even then declined to give the penalty, much to the frustration of Gattuso’s men.

But, just two minutes later, Milan broke open the scoring. Bonucci was responsible for conceding it, making a terrible pass to Bentancur that Bakayoko jumped before he slipped it in to Piatek. That left the striker one-on-one with Szczesny, who had little time to get out to close the angle, and his international teammate swept it past him to give Milan the lead. Given the wonkiness of Fabbri’s penalty call, it almost felt like justice being served—and maybe dropped the intensity of the garment-rending headlines about Juventus and officiating a bit.

Juve very nearly sent the game into halftime even when Mandzukic connected with a crazy bicycle kick after Khedira flicked on a Bernardeschi cross. It brought back memories of his goal in the Champions League final two years ago, but Reina was able to reach up and make a really good save. Dybala then found the target twice, but Reina made relatively simple saves to keep his team up going into the break.

Juve were nearly gifted a chance at an equalizer five minutes into the second period when Reina spilled a cross from Sandro, who had pushed up the field, but he recovered the ball before a lurking attacker could pounce. The ball zipped down the other end and Piatek hit a powerful first-time shot off a square from Calabria, but Szczesny was equal to it and parried it around the post for a corner.

Milan looked like they were solidly regaining the initiative when they made a critical error just shy of the hour mark. Bonucci’s passing was the positive this time, delivering a fantastic ball downfield that found Dybala, who was in a hole between Calabria and Musacchio. The striker pushed down the channel toward the byline, and Musacchio challenged for the ball and spun Dybala to the ground. It was a needless challenge for Musacchio, who already had Dybala sealed off from turning to cross. Instead, he garnered himself a yellow card and gave Juve the chance to equalize from the spot — and equalize they did, with Dybala firing the penalty straight down the middle for his first goal since Feb, 24.

Juventus v AC Milan - Serie A Photo by Tullio M. Puglia/Getty Images

Allegri immediately put his foot on the gas, sending Miralem Pjanic on before the match restarted. He withdrew Spinazzola, which prompted a switch to a 4-3-3, with Sandro kicking back to the back four and Bernardeschi moving forward to the left wing. Five minutes later he withdrew Dybala, who had struggled despite his goal, and put on Kean, the hottest player in Europe, to search for the winner.

Chances started coming for both teams. Bentancur couldn’t manage to get a shot past his defender after Mandzukic knocked a cross into his path, then Piatek got in another good run on the other end, but Rugani managed to prevent him from cutting inside and he couldn’t get the shot away. Then Kean blazed over from point-blank range after a flick on from a corner hit Mandzukic and set up perfectly for him.

As the game entered its end phase, it was clear that Juve were starting to finally gain a real foothold. Khedira missed a header from a free kick, then Sandro fizzed one just wide of the far post after a short corner. Kean had another chance when Bernardeschi slipped him in, but he was also blocked.

But five minutes later, the teenager again proved decisive. Pjanic was also crucial in the equalizer, sniffing out a pass from Calabira before slipping a pass into the right channel. Kean controlled it with a perfect touch, then fired a perfect shot across Reina and in at the far post. It was the fifth straight game he’d scored in for club and country.

Gattuso threw on Patrick Cutrone to try to get some kind of result, and just before stoppage time the sub teed up Calhanoglu, who fired a shot into a crowd of three defenders. Bentancur got the block in, then Szczesny smothered the Turkey international’s followup while Milan players screamed for a hand ball that hadn’t actually happened. Stoppage time went by uneventfully, and Juve found themselves on the brink of yet another title, while Milan’s grip on a top-four slot became far more tenuous.

LE PAGELLE

WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 7. Wasn’t at all responsible for Milan’s goal and made a great save at the beginning of the second half. Controlled the area well and didn’t allow any rebounds to get free.

DANIELE RUGANI - 6. Recovered from his early mistake marking Piatek to have a pretty good match. Intercepted two interceptions and made three clearances, and helped clean up one or two of Bonucci’s messses.

LEONARDO BONUCCI - 5. Terrible on the pass that led to Milan’s goal. He led the team in clearances and made the pass that led to the equalizing penalty, but his mistakes were glaring.

ALEX SANDRO - 6. Very nearly won the game with a late header. For his first time playing in a back three, he did an impressive job before being shuttled back to the left flank for the last half hour, although he didn’t do all that much in attack.

MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - 6. Adequate job on the right, tacking on a key pass to his usual good defense.

EMRE CAN - NR. Was looking like he could affect the game before turning his ankle. Hopefully he won’t be out for long.

RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 5.5. Second on the team with four clearances in defense, but really didn’t contribute much of all going forward. He completed his passes at a high percentage, but didn’t really do a whole ton with them.

FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 5.5. He needs the space of the wing to really be at his best. Playing in midfield really puts him in a bind. He threw in a key pass but did a little too much thinking on the ball.

LEONARDO SPINAZZOLA - 5. I had to remind myself that he was playing from time to time. Easily the most anonymous of his performances in a Juve shirt.

PAULO DYBALA - 5.5. Even with his goal, he was poor today. Couldn’t connect the lines or create anything on his own. It’s especially disappointing considering he was deployed in his best position.

MARIO MANDZUKIC - 7. Had the most key passes of anyone in the starting XI, and did a good job knocking balls down for teammates in the attacking third. Nearly had a spectacular equalizer at the end of the first half, and was back in front of his own box defending whenever he was needed, eventually being credited with a tackle, two interceptions, and two clearances.

SUBS

SAMI KHEDIRA - 6. Provided two key passes and was generally solid in midfield, although he could have done better with a header with 12 minutes to go. If Can is out for any length of time, we’ll be seeing more of him.

MIRALEM PJANIC - 8. He made four key passes in 30 minutes on the field. You could see Juve start to move away from the counterattack and more toward possession the longer he was on the field, eventually taking real initiative at the end.

MOISE KEAN - 7. The kid has ice in his veins. His goal was stone-cold clinical, a perfect finish. Give this guy the No. 9 shirt now. We don’t need to see any more.

Juventus v AC Milan - Serie A Photo by Tullio M. Puglia/Getty Images

MANAGER ANALYSIS

Max Allegri’s formations are like silly putty — he can mold them any way he wants. Saturday night was no exception. Starting with a 3-5-2, Allegri quickly moved back into a 4-3-3 to push for the win, and then shuffled his front three once Dybala was withdrawn for Kean, swapping Bernardeschi to the right side and kicking Mandzukic out to the left to accommodate Kean in his best spot in the middle.

These moves worked perfectly, eventually shifting the balance of the game just long enough for Kean to score the decider. What’s more, Allegri used both of his remaining subs right around the hour mark, as opposed to his usual M.O. this season of waiting far too long to make his changes. This time around he had Pjanic and Kean warmed up early, and he introduced both of them in quick succession as he sensed that the game’s momentum might be up for grabs. This is the kind of attitude toward game management that he had last year, and for this team to achieve its goals this year it will have to stay this way.

LOOKING AHEAD

One of my favorite terms in Italian soccer is sul divano. Literally “on the couch” — it’s how one refers to a team that wins the title because of other results while they’re not playing. Juve could in fact win the title sul divano if Napoli lose against Genoa on Sunday night. If they avoid defeat, Juve’s first chance to win the title themselves will come on Saturday against SPAL.

But before that, the Champions League returns. Juve will fly to Amsterdam for the first leg against Ajax on Wendesday. It’s crunch time.