One of the things about Juventus’ eight-year-long string of scudetti that I really only just thought about in the last week or so is the fact that of those eight titles, not one of them went down to the last day of the season. Each of them were clinched with at least one game to spare — giving the team and its fans the opportunity to celebrate in style at the last home game of the season.
It’s also allowed the team to arrange for the sendoffs that its legends have deserved. Alessandro Del Piero, whose time with Juve came to an end with the first title in the string, was the first of these legends to get such treatment. Last year, Gianluigi Buffon took a similar lap of honor around the Allianz Stadium the day the team raised the trophy skyward. A year to the day from that moving moment, it was Andrea Barzagli’s turn to take his turn under the spotlight.
Barzagli was perhaps the most understated of the icons of Juve’s era of dominance. That even comes down to his arrival in January 2011 when he was bought from Wolfsburg for a mere €300,000. He helped stabilize Juve’s back line in the turbulent year that was Gigi Del Neri’s tenure, and when Antonio Conte turned to the 3-5-2 midway through the 2011-12 season, he helped form one of the greatest defensive units we’ve seen in Europe this century. Now, at 38 years old and with his powers having been on the wane for several years, Il Muro — The Wall — would hang up his boots.
Emotions were high at the Allianz, and not just because the team was anticipating saluting its legend. After the news that the club and coach Massimiliano Allegri would be parting ways broke on Friday, it was clear there would be two goodbyes on this night.
But it wasn’t all just fun and games in Turin. Unlike many of the other trophy nights scattered amongst the streak, Juve’s opponents were coming in with something to play for. Atalanta had entered the day in fourth place, and they knew that if they got out of Turin with at least a point, they would control their own destiny in their quest to qualify for the Champions League for the first time in their history. There was no reason to think they’d be cowed by their hosts — besides the fact that Juve has looked listless since clinching the title nearly a month ago, La Dea were one of only two teams in Italy that hadn’t lost to the Old Lady this year. Indeed the last time they met Atalanta had played Juve off the field at the Stadio Atleti Azzurri d’Italia, eliminating them from the Coppa Italia at the quarterfinal stage.
Allegri chose a 4-3-3 formation for his last dance at the Allianz. Wojciech Szczesny took his customary place in goal. Barzagli was given the captain’s armband and partnered with Leonardo Bonucci for a final time in the back (since Giorgio Chiellini was out with a calf injury), and the two were bookended by Joao Cancelo and Alex Sandro in the fullback spots. Emre Can, Miralem Pjanic, and Blaise Matuidi made up the midfield, while Cristiano Ronaldo and Juan Cuadrado flanked Paulo Dybala up front.
Gian Piero Gasperini — who over the last week has seen his name come up in relation to the vacancies at both Juve and, more seriously, Roma, sent out his usual 3-4-1-2 lineup. Pierluigi Gollini took the starting keeper’s gloves. With Rafael Toloi injured and Jose Luis Palomino suspended, Gasperini shuffled his defense a bit, dropping Hans Hateboer into the back three along with Berat Djimsiti and Andrea Masiello. Timothy Castagne and Robin Gosens served as the wing-backs, with Marten De Roon and Remo Freuler forming the midfield pivot. The league’s best attack formed up front: Duvan Zapata and Josip Ilicic forming a strike pair just ahead of Papu Gomez.
The party should have gotten started inside of a minute after Cancelo fed Cuadrado on a through ball past Masiello. His cross was scuffed by Can right into the path of Ronaldo, who somehow hoisted his shot well into the stands despite being alone from 10 yards.
Atalanta’s powerful attack wouldn’t be held in check for too long either, and in the seventh minute a nice buildup move ended with Zapata teeing up Freuler on a one-two just inside the penalty area, but the Swiss midfielder’s shot was at a good height for Szczesny and the keeper met it with a strong parry for a corner. The ensuing set piece saw the ball ricochet off Cuadrado, forcing Szczesny to make a reaction save. Hateboer pounced on the rebound but got under it from point-blank range and shaved a coat of paint off the crossbar.
The chances looked to be coming fast in the early going, and five minutes later Ronaldo shook himself free and got a shot away, but it was far too close to Gollini and he made an easy stop.
From that point on Juve had the better of possession, but Atalanta had it far better in terms of chances. Ilicic hit the wall with a free kick that was well within his range, then the visitors forced a pair of corners, the first of which prompted a VAR review to see whether a handball should be assessed. It looked to have hit the arms of both Barzagli and Sandro, but had taken close-range deflections just beforehand, and referee Gianluca Rocchi came back from the video monitor confirming his initial ruling of another corner kick.
Just before the half hour Zapata nearly had the opener, beating Barzagli for pace in the box and firing a spinner past Szczesny that curved just wide of the post. But, in the 33rd minute, Juve’s defensive issues on set pieces again rose up to haunt them. Masiello wasn’t picked up on a near-post delivery, and he flicked it across the face of goal to Ilicic, who had an easy tap-in after overpowering the marking of Pjanic.
Juve managed a quick attempt at a response when Dybala and Pjanic worked an intricate set of passes with each other down the left side, but the latter’s attempt at a finish was so high it was worth wondering if he was aiming at the Mole rather than the goal. Moments later a cross from Castagne hit both Zapata and Barzagli, forcing Szczesny to dive to his left to poke it away from his post. At the other end Dybala got onto his left foot just above the right channel and hit one of those curlers he loves, but it was a bit too high.
Rocchi ended the half the way only he could, blowing the whistle just as Cuadrado was about to send in a cross from the right side. It prompted a furious reaction from the Bianconeri, with Ronaldo being booked for his dissent as they headed to the locker room.
Federico Bernardeschi was sent on at the half, taking the place of Sandro, who had been booked and was running the risk of a second. That move caused a shuffle in the back, with Cuadrado moving back to the right back spot and Cancelo swinging to the left. Juve looked better as the second period began, and Ronaldo was given another ball on a plate six minutes in. He had to volley it, but there was no one to challenge him and he should have done better than to send it well wide.
The mometum of the game was slowly turning, against Atalanta, but at the hour mark that was momentarily forgotten as Barzagli’s number came up in red on the fourth official’s board. Every Juve player came to greet him as he came off, and as he approached the sideline the tears he had been holding back burst forward. Every one of his teammates converged on him as he checked out, wrapping him in a many-armed hug, before he approached Allegri. The two men embraced hard, Barzagli burying his face in his coach’s shoulder. Once he came back up, he was treated to the same lap of honor that Del Piero and Buffon had been afforded, high-fiving fans and having all manner of scarves thrown around his neck. It was a well deserved tribute to a legendary figure.
Back on the field, Atalanta was increasingly under siege. The man who had replaced Barzagli had been a surprise: Mario Mandzukic, who most people had thought was done for the season with a knee injury, made his first appearance since the first leg of the quarterfinal against Ajax, and we were quickly reacquainted with just how important he can be when he’s at full strength. Can, in the meantime, dropped back into the center-back spot vacated by Barzagli. Bernardeschi got himself into good shooting position but took one touch too many and had his shot blocked. Dybala then airmailed an effort after a corner was nodded out in his direction. Atalanta tried to hit on the counter but was increasingly limited to simply running back to defend after losing the ball. Ilicic did manage one breakout, but Matuidi fouled him and his shot was first deflected by the wall, then tipped over the bar by Szczesny.
Mandzukic’s impact in the box had clearly been missed. He was a focal point for balls into the box. He knocked them down in good areas, but it almost looked as though the rest of the team had to get used to his presence again, because most of the time there was no one to take advantage of these balls.
But with 10 minutes left, the Mandzubeast showed popped up with a big-time strike. A deep cross by Cuadrado came into the far post and Mandzukic stretched for it at the byline. Mandzukic was probably trying to tap the ball across for Ronaldo with the outside of his boot, but ended up hitting it closer to goal, where it went through Gollini’s legs and snuck inside the far post.
Zapata immediately tried to respond but was met with a good save by Szczesny, then Bernardeschi tried his luck from a good distance away, skipping it just in front of Gollini, who made a good save down to his right.
De Roon had a final chance for Atalanta just into stoppage time after Szczesny made a mistake with a back pass, but missed his shot wide. Juve penned Atalanta back again, but Bernardeschi made an awkward challenge on substitute Musa Barrow trying to keep possession, and Rocchi reached for his red card without hesitation. It left Juve down a man for the last minute, but after Mario Pasalic’s shot was blocked by Dybala, Rocchi blew the game dead. Atalanta had the result they needed to keep control of their Champions League destiny, and Juve could go into the night’s trophy presentation at least having avoided defeat.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 7. Made a couple of really good stops, especially in the first half. Almost cost the team with a mistake at the end, but besides that didn’t put a foot wrong.
JOAO CANCELO - 6. Didn’t make the kind of mistakes in defense that have punctuated the second half of his season, and he made a couple of nice passes going forward, and had a good-looking shot twist wide in the second half.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 6. Did pretty well in the back, but was inaccurate with his signature long passes.
ANDREA BARZAGLI - 5.5. Had some problems with the power and pace of Zapata. It was an emotional night as everyone said goodbye, but it was also clear why we had to.
ALEX SANDRO - 5. Didn’t contribute a whole lot going forward, and came pretty close to getting himself a second booking, hence the decision to pull him. Did have one really great play that could have sent him off if it went south, but he played it perfectly.
EMRE CAN - 6. Had a really rough first half, giving up possession a few times, but he played pretty well when he dropped back to center-back for the last half-hour, keeping watch on Zapata better than Barzagli was able to. He ended things with two tackles, two interceptions, and three clearances.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 6.5. Led the team with five tackles and completed 90.5 percent of his passes, including two key passes and 80 percent of his long balls.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 6. Didn’t misplace a single pass, and did well to keep possession in midfield, especially in the second half.
JUAN CUADRADO - 6.5. Wasn’t good at all in the first half, but broke out when he was moved back to right-back in the second half. Had six key passes and the assist with 10 minutes left was inch-perfect.
PAULO DYBALA - 5.5. Got fouled a ton but wasn’t able to zero in on the target with any of his four shots. Worked hard but it wasn’t his best game.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 5. Had a sitter in the first minute that he ballooned into the stands, and he never managed to get into gear.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 5.5. Made some dangerous runs and had a potential winner smartly saved by Gollini. Ruined things a bit with that straight red, ending his season.
MARIO MANDZUKIC - 8. Dangerous from the start, knocking balls into great areas only for there to be no teammates to pounce on his service. His goal is worth a point and a half or so all on its own—how that one went in defied physics.
MOISE KEAN - NR. Managed an interception in his six minutes on the field but only got to touch it three times.
It’s ironic that in a season that saw so many people frustrated with him about his negativity, Max Allegri’s final home game showed most of his best qualities as a manager. He made a quick move at halftime to put an attacker on the field, then continued to make attack-minded changes throughout the game. He exploited the versatility of his players to keep his team dangerous, and by the end of the game had Ronaldo, Dybala, Bernardeschi, Mandzukic, Cuadrado, and Moise Kean on the field at the same time. It was a vintage outing of Good Max.
If only it had come sooner.
In the long run, moving on from him is probably the right move. For the most part the team doesn’t seem like it’s been responding to him this season. Every cycle ends, and it’s clear that Allegri’s was coming to a close. But it was nice to see just a little of the Max whose “mad experiment” turned the team’s attack loose two years ago come out one night to say goodbye.
The season ends next week with a road game against Sampdoria.