The last two weeks have been profoundly strange to anyone who has a stake in Italy. As the coronavirus has continued to cut a swath through Italy and the rest of the world, soccer becomes insignificant. The will they/won’t they of whether or not games would be played — whether with fans, behind closed doors, or at all — began to border on the farcical as various stakeholders tried to protect their economic interests with half-measures.
As a result, Sunday’s Derby d’Italia — which not only had major implications in the title race but was supposed to mark the first time Antonio Conte had visited the Allianz Stadium as the coach of an opposing club — was played behind closed doors. It was a surreal environment. You could hear every shout of the coaches to the players and the players to each other. Moments that would have created an almighty roar were instead met with the approval or disapproval of the benches but not much else. It all seemed so out of place for such a huge fixture. But then again, maybe no more out of place than a soccer game in the midst of a deadly outbreak.
But the game did go ahead, and to the surprise of many the Juve that came out to play in front of those empty seats was the polar opposite of the team that flopped to a 1-0 loss in their last game against Lyon. The speed of the ball movement was night and day compared to that ugly evening in France, and the home side dominated long stretches of the game. They held Inter to a single shot on target the entire game, completely shackling their strike pair. Meanwhile, the team that hadn’t put a single effort on frame two weeks ago had three in the first 15 minutes, and eventually produced a pair of second-half goals to claim a 2-0 win and send Inter home without their supper for the second time this season, with their title hopes hanging by the most delicate of threads.
Maurizio Sarri surprised a few observers when his starting XI came out an hour before game time. The 4-3-3 formation was still there, but there were a couple of unexpected choices. Wojciech Szczesny took his normal place in goal, with a back four of Juan Cuadrado, Matthijs de Ligt, Leonardo Bonucci, and Alex Sandro. The change of significance came in midfield, where Sarri had decided to bench the struggling Miralem Pjanic in favor of putting Rodrigo Bentancur in the regista position, flanked by Aaron Ramsey and Blaise Matuidi. The front line also had a surprise in store, with Douglas Costa and Gonzalo Higuain joining Cristiano Ronaldo in the trident and Paulo Dybala starting the game on the bench.
Conte sent out his team in the 3-5-2 that became his trademark when he started Juve’s eight-year title streak. He got a big boost with the return of goalkeeper Samir Handanovic, who had missed a month with a broken pinky finger. Arrayed in front of him were Alessandro Bastoni, Stefan De Vrij, and Milan Skriniar. Antonio Candreva and Ashley Young started as the wing-backs, surrounding the midfield of Nicolo Barella, Marcelo Brozovic, and Matias Vecino. Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martinez joined up as the strike pair.
The opening phases of the game were characterized by intensity and openness. Vecino registered the game’s first shot inside of a minute, flying one high over Szczesny’s crossbar. Within four minutes Juve had generated their first genuine chance, with Higuain charging down the left side and putting in a cross. Costa got on the end of it and opted to volley it when he had plenty of room to take it down and take better aim. The result was a wildly skewed shot that was so badly off target it was settled at the foot of a defender on the other side of the field.
The ball continued to zip up and down the field. Inter managed to get the ball across the Juve goalmouth, but neither striker could get a touch to the ball. On the other side de Ligt beat Bastoni on a corner and forced a good parry out of Handanovic for the first save of the match. A few minutes later Ronaldo surged through the middle of the field and fired a shot right at Handanovic. The Portuguese superstar then turned provider with a neat layoff to Matuidi, whose hard diagonal shot forced an even better save than the one Handanovic pulled against de Ligt.
All this in the first 15 minutes of the game.
Candreva lined up a couple of efforts from distance, and in the 22nd minute produced a really good hit that dipped just a little too late. It wasn’t until the 34th minute that Inter’s first - and, as it would turn out, only - shot on target came off the foot of Brozovic, who was set up by some excellent holdup play by Martinez, who chested the ball into the Croatian’s path. Szczesny was up to the task, diving to his left to punch the ball away.
Juve ended the first half having had the better of the game, but with no goals to show for it. In the opening stages of the second half it looked like Inter would exact a price for that. They got the upper hand early, pressing hard and harassing Juve into some rough passing. But they failed to create much with that advantage, and 10 minutes into the second period the game turned on a dime.
It started when Higuain had a shot blocked. Matuidi fielded the loose ball and played a one-two down the left with Sandro. He pulled back from the byline and found Ronaldo in the midddle. He took one touch before realizing that Ramsey was bearing down in a much better position to take a shot. He left it for him and the Welshman poked it through De Vrij’s legs, getting a deflection on the way and sliding past Handanovic, who saw it late and had no time to react.
Too many times this season Juve has taken the lead only to concede a quick equalizer, often thanks to an avoidable error. But, on this day, they used the momentum swing and looked to step on Inter’s throat. To that end, Sarri sent out Dybala for Costa, who was making his first appearance since yet another injury. Conte matched that by sending in Christian Erikson.
In the 67th minute, Sarri’s sub proved to be the more fruitful one.
It started with a long pass from Bentancur to Dybala. The Argentine’s first touch took Young out of the play, clearing the way for Dybala to advance. He played a one-two with Ramsey, completely bamboozled Young, who had come back for a second try, and used the outside of his left boot to clip it past Handanovic, who was rooted to his spot.
The last 20 minutes or so of the game saw Inter generate only one serious threat, and that was significantly helped out by a brain fart by Mattia De Sciglio, who had come in for a cramping Alex Sandro and allowed Vecino to jump him in the defensive third on his first touch, with the Uruguayan laying off for Erikson, who fired just over.
But the latter stages of the game saw Juve effectively kill the game off while Ronaldo made a couple of attempts to get himself on the scoresheet and break the Serie A record for goals in consecutive games. He ended up coming close twice in the last minute of stoppage time, first sailing a strong shot just over and then missing with a left-footed effort from the channel that just curved away from the far post at the last second. Referee Marco Guida ended proceedings shortly thereafter, keeping Ronaldo level with Gabirel Batistuta and Fabio Quagliarella but propelling Juventus back into first place.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 8. Only had to make one save but it was a good one, and controlled his area throughout the entire game.
JUAN CUADRADO - 7. Didn’t let Young do much of anything on his flank and came up frequently to overlap with Costa. Registered three interceptions and dropped a key pass as well.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 8. Led the team with four interceptions and added a pair of tackles and completed eight of 11 long passes. Turned in a repeat performance of the opening game of Euro 2016 in pitching in to help completely nullify Lukaku.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 8. Beat Bastoni twice on corners, once forcing Handanovic into an excellent save. He helped limit Lukaku and Martinez to a combined 39 touches. Completely secure in his defending.
ALEX SANDRO - 7. Let Candreva line up a few long shots, but generally locked his area down and played well on the overlap on the left side.
AARON RAMSEY - 8.5. Picked up a poacher’s goal to open the scoring and added an assist on the second. Had three total key passes and was one of the more willing off-ball runners in the team.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 8. This team is different with him as the regista. The ball moves faster and with more creativitiy when he’s in this spot and Pjanic is on the bench. Had a team-high four key passes as well as two tackles and was everywhere on the field.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 7. A ferocious ball-winner today, often in the attacking portion of the field. Also completed 95 percent of his passes and set up Ramsey’s goal with an excellent pull-back at the byline. Made a strong case today that maybe Adrien Rabiot isn’t the one in that spot after all.
DOUGLAS COSTA - 5. Looked a little rusty in his first game in a month. Didn’t quite have that burst of pace and his deliveries into the box weren’t all that numerous or effective. Dybala out-touched him 40-36 after he replaced him. He’ll be better once he gets his feet under him.
GONZALO HIGUAIN - 5.5. Not hugely threatening up top, although he did set up Costa’s attempt early on. He did work hard defensively though, helping disrupt Inter’s midfield buildup.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 6.5. Had a couple of good opportunities go by the wayside late as his bid to break the record for consecutive games to a goal ended just shy. Made three key passes and took a total of nine shots, getting the assist on Ramsey’s opener.
PAULO DYBALA - 7.5. What a freaking goal. That was a thing of absolute beauty. He’ll be in Ashley Young’s nightmares for days. Also threw in a key pass for good measure.
MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - NR. Came on for a cramping Sandro and almost immediately let Inter back into the game with a silly mistake. His passing was a litlte wayward as well, not a particularly good outing off the bench.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - NR. Not much of note for him in the late stages, but it’s interesting that he was allowed to play the wing for the first time in months.
Managers have to make big decisions in big games, and Sarri did so in benching Miralem Pjanic.
The team has simply looked better with Bentancur at the regista position in the last few weeks, and Sarri deserves credit for recognizing that and making the right move. The use of Ramsey as a mezz’ala has also born fruit. The Welshman has done more for the team in terms of off-the-ball movement than almost anyone on the roster, and now that he’s finally getting some consistent playing time he’s playing sharper and sharper every week. He and Bentancur might be the best guys for those positions at the moment, and Sarri would do well to continue using them there.
Leaving Dybala on the bench at the start turned some heads given how well he’s played, but he turned into a fine supersub, completely wrecking the Inter back line when he started getting service. His introduction was another good move, showing Sarri’s desire to go for the jugular and not simply be content with a lone goal. If Juve combine that attitude with the play they showed today, the future can be bright.
Soooooo ... yeah.
Juve are now a point ahead of Lazio atop the standings and nine points ahead of Inter, who are third, although Inter do have a game in hand.
When that game — or any other game — will be played is the question.
Juve’s next scheduled match is on Friday against Bologna, but as the coronavirus situation deteriorates in Northern Italy, it’s looking more and more likely that that game won’t be played. As more restrictions come down to try to contain the virus’ spread, the players’ union has grown more and more vocal about suspending the league until the crisis abates. There are certainly good points on that side of the argument. Teams traveling in and out of the hot zones can increase the risk of the spread of the virus, and it’s not worth waiting until the first Serie A player tests positive to finally take action. This week’s games very nearly didn’t take place, and the union has threatened a strike if the league doesn’t take action.
In short, we have no idea when the next time Juve will play will be. Watch this space, and in the meantime, keep those who are suffering and their loved ones in your thoughts. In this situation, a game like calcio is secondary.