Just ... yuck.
That’s pretty much the only way to sum up the way the first leg of the Coppa Italia semifinals against AC Milan went on Thursday.
Coming off a large-scale egg-laying in Saturday’s 2-1 loss to Hellas Verona, the Bianconeri were certainly hoping for a more satisfying result as they walked into the San Siro. Milan had perhaps crashed even harder the next day, coughing up a 2-0 halftime lead to drop the Derby della Madonnina 4-2. Both teams certainly had redemption on their mind as Paolo Valeri blew the opening whistle.
Only one of them could say they got it. Unfortunately it wasn’t Juventus. Like Saturday’s trip to Verona, Juve had the majority of the possession. And like Saturday, their opponents created by far the best chances to score. But Juve had two strokes of luck on Thursday. The first was the play of Gianluigi Buffon, which kept the team in the game when it could have gotten away from them very early. The second was a late VAR check that awarded them a very late penalty kick for handball — one that will be dissected for days by the media but was consistent with how they have been called in Italy all year long.
The game ended in a 1-1 draw that left everything to play for in the second leg — and left even more questions for Juventus than when they started.
Maurizio Sarri kept the 4-3-3 formation that had been used the last two games, but made a number of changes. The Coppa Italia is traditionally the domain of the No. 2 goalkeeper, and Buffon took up his place in goal accordingly. Mattia De Sciglio got his first start of 2020 at right back, with Matthijs de Ligt, Leonardo Bonucci, and Alex Sandro joining him in the back line. The midfield saw two changes from the weekend, with Aaron Ramsey and Blaise Matuidi joining Miralem Pjanic. Juan Cuadrado was bumped up to the right wing, combining with Cristiano Ronaldo on the left to bookend Paulo Dybala as a false 9.
Milan’s Stefano Pioli sent out a strong lineup that took a 4-4-1-1 shape. Gianluigi Donnarumma started in goal, with Davide Calabria, Simon Kjaer, Alessio Romagnoli, and Theo Hernandez arrayed in front of him. The midfield bank was made up of Samu Castillejo, Ismael Bennacer, Franck Kessie, and Ante Rebic. Hakan Calhanoglu played in the hole, just behind Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who was facing Juventus for the first time since he left Milan for Paris Saint-Germain in 2012.
Milan broke out of the gates fast. Ibrahimovic nodded a header over within 60 seconds of kickoff, and less than a minute late Kessie thumped a powerful shot from the top of the box wide of the target. The found the target for the first time in the fifth minute, this one a powerful shot from Rebic that went right at Buffon, who parried it away.
Juve, meanwhile, were far less threatening. Their passing was a little faster than it was over the weekend, but they still couldn’t create chances with their possession. When they did get into decent spots, they tended to slow down at the critical moment, or hit the ground in expectation of a foul. Ramsey went down far too easily in the box and was lucky to escape a booking for his trouble, and in the 10th minute Cuadrado simply stopped playing on the right wing expecting a whistle, allowing Hernandez to trigger a counterattack that was only extinguished by an excellent hooked challenge by de Ligt. A minute later the Frenchman was at it again, easily dribbling by Cuadrado and lofting the ball into the box, where a cheeky back-heel attempt by Ibrahimovic slipped just wide.
On the other end, Juve continued struggling. The first phases of the game were perfectly summed up in the 19th minute when Ramsey took a shot at goal that hit Dybala, wasting a clever dribble by Ronaldo and garnering an offside call against Dybala to boot.
Buffon was called into action again in the 22nd minute by an unlikely source: Calabria, who took a feed from Kessie 18 yards out and let loose a screamer that Buffon flew to palm over the crossbar. Six minutes later, de Ligt rolled a dangerous pass across his own defensive third that put Sandro in a world of trouble, eventually allowing Calhanoglu to set up Rebic for another shot that Buffon managed to stop.
A minute later Ibrahimovic went up in an aerial duel with de Ligt and whacked the young Dutchman across the face. That earned him a yellow card, putting him over the tournament’s suspension threshold. He’ll miss the second leg next month.
Donnarumma was finally tested in the 36th minute, and he acquitted himself well, getting down to get a single hand to a hard low shot from Cuadrado. There wasn’t any preventing a rebound, and the ball popped out and sat tantalizingly in the six-yard box. But no Juve players were there to latch on, the ball was cleared away.
Juve put a clamp on possession in the latter stages of the half, but Donnarumma was not given a further test. Just before halftime Kessie was lucky to get away with popping Cuadrado in the face with an elbow off the ball, another misstep in what was becoming a rough game for referee Valeri, who didn’t do well by either side at times.
Milan once again came out of the locker room firing after the break, and Buffon had to make a big save within two minutes, making himself big to deny Rebic after a good flick on from Ibrahimovic. The game started becoming a bit more ragged as the half wore on, but right around the hour mark Milan created a series of chances that eventually secured the opener. First came Ibrahimovic, who fired a shot off a feed from Rebic that Buffon managed to tip around the post, then the veteran keeper scrambled to get a deflected Hernandez shot to safety.
The breakthrough finally came from Rebic, who ghosted behind De Sciglio — who until this point had been having an excellent game defensively — and met a cross from Castilljeo with a volley. It wasn’t well struck by any means, but he used De Sciglio as a view block, and the unsighted Buffon couldn’t get over in time.
Sarri acted immediately, replacing an ineffective Ramsey with Rodrigo Bentancur. His team should have gotten the chance to get even almost immediately when Rebic elbowed Cuadrado in the face in the penalty area while they were both chasing after a ball. He added Gonzalo Higuain to the mix eight minutes after the goal, with De Sciglio giving way and Cuadrado moving to right back. In between those two changes Castillejo got himself booked, ruling him out for the second leg as well. Also out for the second leg will be Hernandez. He had already confirmed that in the first half, when he’d been booked for dissent, but with 18 minutes to go he made an unnecessary and late tackle on Dybala, earning a second yellow and giving Juve a major lifeline.
Not that there was much done with it. For much of the next 15 minutes Juve tried to pick up the pace and crashed into the Milan defense again and again to no avail. Six minutes from time Cuadrado turned a nice wiggle on the right into a good feed to Dybala. He put the Argentine right into his favorite spot in the right channel, but instead of trying one of those curlers that we’ve all come to love he tried to go to the near post and pulled it wide.
With less than two minutes to go before stoppage time, the lifeline finally came. Ronaldo had gone after a cross from Bentancur with a bicycle kick. It would have been a sensational attempt had it gotten far, but Calabria was in the way. So was his arm - an arm that was held far out from his torso. Valeri didn’t call it at first, but was buzzed by the VAR and went over for a look. There has been a lot of disagreement on this call from fans and media, but I personally think they got it right. I’m not a fan of the idea that a handball needs to be “intentional” — if you’re making yourself unnaturally bigger with your arm then you should get penalized. Valeri decided Calabria had done just that, attacking regardless of whether or not he had his back turned to the ball. It was a penalty, and totally consistent with how handball incidents have been called in Italy all year long. Ronaldo stepped up to take the shot as usual, and he stroked the ball straight down the middle to tie the score.
Neither side managed to do anything with the six minutes of stoppage time, and the tie reached its halfway point with a goal apiece and a lot of doing to do in the second leg.
GIANLUIGI BUFFON - 8.5. He could maybe — maybe — have held on to one or two of the shots he saved rather than parrying them away, but San Gigi stood on his head in this game. Without him and the 10 saves he made, Milan would have put this game to bed quite early.
MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - 5. For an hour, De Sciglio was one of Juve’s best players on the field. With Milan sending a lot of their attack down his side, he led the team with five tackles and made his flank secure. Then the goal happened, and it’s anyone’s guess what was going through his mind as he completely lost Rebic.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 6. Generally defended well and made one really excellent intervention in the first half to snuff out a coutnerattack, but he also made a dangerous pass or two in his own half.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 6. Made seven clearances and made no glaring mistakes. It wasn’t quite the duels that Giorgio Chiellini had with Ibrahimovic, but he did enough for the most part.
ALEX SANDRO - 5.5. Should’ve done better to close Castillejo and make that cross a little more difficult. Wasn’t exactly a force going forward and for the most part had his side covered beside the goal.
AARON RAMSEY - 4.5. Unnecessarily threw himself to the ground a couple of times and did barely anything in midfield before being replaced by Bentancur, who immediately looked more purposeful and dynamic.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 5.5. He completed 97.1 percent of his passes, but still struggled to make an impact with a man marker on him. Both center backs attempted more passes than he did. At least he actually registered a key pass today.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 5.5. Fantastic as a ball-winner, registering four tackles, but he was hardly a factor going forward and his touch continues to be downright brutal at times.
JUAN CUADRADO - 5.5. Made some head-scratching decisions and lost the ball a lot. He also flopped a bit, at one point simply stopping expecting a whistle and letting Hernandez to start a counterattack. That said, he was also came closer than anyone else on the team to scoring from open play with his shot in the first half.
PAULO DYBALA - 6.5. Man did he work his tail off. He registered five key passes and was constantly looking to find some way to connect the lines and kick-start the attack. Led the team with six dribbles and drew eight fouls, but his own shooting left something to be desired.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 6. Buried the clutch penalty but wasn’t as effective from open play, not testing Donnarumma and failing to set any teammates up for the most part either.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 6. Made three tackles, an interception, and two clearances in 28 minutes of work, also threw in a key pass and sent in the cross that eventually caused the penalty incident at the end. Juve looked more dangerous the minute he got into midfield.
GONZALO HIGUAIN - 4.5. Didn’t do much of anything, failing to get off a shot and completing less than 60 percent of his passes.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 5.5. Completed all his passes but nothing was really that incisive.
As Danny mentioned in his initial reaction, this game goes to show how thin things have gotten up front right now. With Douglas Costa out until March and Federico Bernardeschi also sidelined, there wasn’t much of anything Sarri could do in-game to change things other than add some dynamism to the midfield and get Higuain in up front. It’s also hard to tell whether using Dybala as a false 9 was a test to see if he wanted to do it in the future, or just because it was the best way to get certain guys a little bit of rest.
The continued struggles of this team are really starting to get worrisome. Two-and-a-half weeks ago it looked like things were starting to really click in for Juve. Now it looks like it’s all fallen apart. Even Sarri is admitting that the team has stalled out. He was relentlessly positive in his post-game press conference — sometimes absurdly so. His praise of Aaron Ramsey was completely divorced from reality. And while I suppose it was some measure of improvement compared to the weekend’s faceplant, Sarri needs to figure out a way to get some sort of threat out of all this possession — and soon. It’s two weeks to crunch time.
Thursday’s result made for a very interesting second leg on March 4. Obviously, if either team wins the game outright, they’ll go through to the final. A goalless draw will put Juve through on away goals. A 1-1 draw will trigger extra time and penalties, while any scoring draw above that would put Milan through on away goals. (Side note: isn’t it time we get rid of the away goals rule?)
The next fixture on the list is a home game against second-bottom Brescia. Given everything that’s happened over the last few weeks you can’t assume that any game will be a gimme, but of all the teams that Juve could get to play in their current state, this might be the best matchup they could get. If they manage to handle the relegation strugglers, it could be a useful confidence booster. Oh, and they get to get another firsthand look at Sandro Tonali before the battle for his services ramps up this summer.