Calcio is back.
It’s difficult to explain just how happy I am to type those words.
Soccer, and sport in general, is still very much unimportant in the grand scheme of things. The coronavirus pandemic is still very much in progress. Some parts of the world, especially in the southern hemisphere, are only just feeling its touch, while in other places, like the United States, mismanagement has allowed it to continue to rage. That’s to say nothing of the possibility of a second wave in countries like Italy that are only beginning to pick up the pieces.
But as I said in our last podcast, the wonderful thing about sports is that it’s something you can give yourself over to it entirely, even though it doesn’t mean all that much in the grand scheme of things. And after the last three months we’ve had, I’m pretty sure we’ve all needed something to talk about that isn’t the grand scheme of things.
It wasn’t a pretty piece of football. It was never going to be after such an unprecedented, huge layoff. But it was life sports and it was Juventus, and this tiny bit of normalcy was a wonderful thing to bask in for two hours.
In a vacuum, the circumstances were rather ridiculous. After a three-month layoff, Juventus and AC Milan were tasked with jumping right into the second leg of their Coppa Italia semifinal tie, which ended 1-1 on Feb. 13. With an incredibly congested fixture list on the horizon, no extra time would be played if the aggregate ended in a flat-footed tie, and the teams were allowed five substitutions rather than the usual three — something that would eventually come close to biting Juve in the rear. In the end, though, a scoreless draw ensured that that 3-month-old away goal would be enough to carry the Bianconeri to Wednesday’s final, where they’ll play either Inter or Napoli.
Milan was coming into the game swimming against the current of history. They hadn’t eliminated Juventus from the Coppa Italia since 1985. Juve had won eight of the 13 games they’ve played in the tournament since then, and the first-leg draw was the first time Milan had avoided defeat against Juve in 10 tries. To add to that, they were missing three key players. Samu Castillejo and Theo Hernandez were suspended for yellow card accumulation and a red card in the first leg, respectively, while Zlatan Ibrahimovic was out with a muscle injury (and would have been suspended for yellow cards regardless).
Maurizio Sarri approached the game with his usual 4-3-3 formation. As per usual in the Coppa the second goalkeeper played, giving Gianluigi Buffon the starter’s gloves. Buffon was screened by Danilo, Matthijs de Ligt, Leonardo Bonucci, and Alex Sandro. The surprise selection came in the midfield. Miralem Pjanic wasn’t expected to start after a run of bad form before the shutdown saw him benched for the game against Inter. Rodrigo Bentancur, who was expected to start in the regista position, instead played as a box-to-box man to his right, with Blaise Matuidi on the other side. Douglas Costa, Paulo Dybala, and Cristiano Ronaldo formed the trident.
Without some of his most important players, Stefano Pioli had to shuffle things around to put the Rossoneri onto the field, eventually settling into a 4-2-3-1 shape. Gianluigi Donnarumma took his usual place in goal, with Andrea Conti, Simon Kjaer, Andrea Romagnoli, and Davide Calabria in front of him. Franck Kessie and Ismael Bennacer formed the double pivot, with Lucas Paqueta, Giacomo Bonaventura, and Hakan Calhanoglu banked behind striker Ante Rebic.
Given how long the layoff has been, it was rather surprising that Juventus jumped so hard down their opponents’ throats. They were on the front foot the moment the ball was kicked, and nearly took the lead 75 seconds from the start when Sandro danced all the way down to the byline and pulled back for Costa, whose shot flashed across the far post.
A few minutes later, Dybala was crunched by Romagnoli in free kick range. He picked himself up to take it himself and just missed clearing the wall, earning a corner instead. He earned another corner eight minutes later, and what came out of that turned out to be the key incident in the game.
The delivery came in to the far post. Ronaldo tried to take it down, and as Conti turned to try to get into position to defend, he hit the ball with his arm. It’s an important distinction, because he did move his arm in its direction and deflect it. Loud appeals were made for a penalty, and after a few minutes referee Daniele Orsato took the advice of the VAR officials and went to have a look. It didn’t take him long to come back to call for a penalty.
Except things didn’t quite go as they normally do when Ronaldo steps up to the penalty spot. His shot was low and to his left — and thumped into the post. Donnarumma got the tiniest of touches to it, which statistically gives him a penalty save, but it was probably so tiny that it didn’t do much to actually affect the path of the ball. It was simply a rare miss.
But that wasn’t the end of this sequence. Milan’s defense rushed to clear the ball, and it looked as though Danilo was going to get to it first to head it back into the mixer. That was when Rebic arrived. Perhaps the striker had watched the recent ESPN documentary about Bruce Lee, because he certainly channeled the legendary actor when he leaped into the air and planted his studs into Danilo’s chest. Orsato had his yellow card out of his pocket instantly, but before he could brandish it his attention was diverted by the fourth official. A brief consultation saw him switch to the red. Milan would be down a man for 73 minutes.
Given the way the game had been up to that point it felt like a Juventus goal was only a matter of time. Unfortunately, here is where the pre-shutdown Juventus started showing through. There was a ton of great buildup play, but the final touch was still lacking. The closest they came to scoring before halftime came in the 31st minute, when Matuidi stabbed an excellent cross from Danilo toward goal only to have Donnarumma parry it over the bar. Ronaldo, who was looking anything but his astronomical self, tried to curl one with his left foot eight minutes later, but hit it right at the keeper.
Milan had finally managed to break into Juve territory from time to time, and three minutes before the break had a penalty shout of their own when Bonucci made contact with Kjaer as he went up to try to head a free kick. There was definitely a shove, but the appeals were waved away because Kjaer was offside.
The visitors looked a little bit more comfortable after the break and had what might’ve been their best chance of the night three minutes into the half when Bonaventura broke down the right side and crossed for Calhanoglu, whose diving header went wide.
Juve still held the upper hand in these opening stages. In the 53rd minute, Romagnoli had to make a last-ditch sliding challenge to keep Ronaldo from latching on to a through ball in a great position, and a few more corner kicks came close to producing the opener. The home team was still very much in control.
At least they were until the hour mark. That was when Sarri took advantage of the extra substitutions to make a big change. A triple substitution was made, with Sami Khedira, Adrien Rabiot, and Federico Bernardeschi coming on for Pjanic, Matuidi, and Costa. That drastic change ended up being a mistake. Combined with the predictable drop in energy after three months without games, the change killed the team’s coherence. Passes started getting sloppier, and Milan was allowed a chance back into the game. Juve still had their chances, and both Romagnoli and Kjaer were required to make a couple of very good defensive headers to deny Ronaldo and de Ligt access to free headers, and Dybala was denied by a good save with 10 minutes to go.
But Milan were able to claw themselves a foothold and try to rally for the goal they need. In the 79th minute Kjaer headed a corner wide, but in spite of Juve’s dropoff that’s about as good as they ended up getting. Neither team looked like doing much of anything in the last phases of the game, though Sandro nearly put Juve through with something more than a whimper, but Donnarumma pulled another good reaction save to keep his sheet clean even as his team fell out of the competition.
GIANLUIGI BUFFON - NR. It’s really hard to rate a keeper when the other team doesn’t manage a shot on target. He wrangled the defense well enough, but even in that department there wasn’t much for him to do because there were eight or nine guys in the opposing half for long stretches of the game.
DANILO - 7. I highlighted this matchup in Episode 6 of The Old Lady Speaks, and Danilo certainly got the better of it. He was up and down the field, had more tackles (4) than any other defender, completed half of his cross attempts, and kicked in a pair of key passes. A few inches off the Matuidi shot in the first half, and he would’ve had an assist. He’s pulled a few games like this since arriving in Turin, let’s see if he can do it consistently.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 7. Often hung back to allow Bonucci to go forward and help orchestrate. Would’ve had an easy goal in the second half had it not been for some good defending. Didn’t let anyone get by him.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 7. Spent a lot of his time up in the Milan half to lend his passing skills to the attack. Defended well when he needed to, making a pair of clearances, but misfired on a couple of decent corner kick chances.
ALEX SANDRO - 7.5. Very nearly set up a goal in the first minute and a half, and was flying around the left side all night. He notched three key passes and nearly put a cherry on the game with a strong strike at the end.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 8. Regardless of where he plays in midfield, he’s just a stud. He was everywhere on Friday, leading the team in tackles with five, completing 94.1 percent of his passes and notching three key passes. He’s going to be the keystone of this midfield for a long time.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 6. It wasn’t a quantum leap, but it was still better than what he’d done before the stoppage. He made three key passes and was accurate on three of four attempted crosses. He’s still suffering a little in defense from the regista spot, but maybe he an build on this.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 6. Nearly opened the scoring in the first half, and chipped in a pair of tackles and a key pass before being withdrawn on the hour. His usual steady work.
DOUGLAS COSTA - 7. It’s wonderful to watch him when he’s healthy. He repeatedly wrecked Conti on the attacking left, supplying two key passes and leading the team in dribbles. If he stays healthy — and that’s been an if the last two years—he’s gonna be a huge factor in the title race.
PAULO DYBALA - 7.5. I am quite frankly astonished that he played 90 minutes after he admitted earlier in the week that he’s still not feeling 100 percent healthy after fighting off COVID-19. He was really good, though, leading the team with five key passes and finding the target with two of six shots. He roamed freely between the middle and the right side, and connected the midfield and forward lines well.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 5. He wasn’t very good. His shooting was wayward, and when he did find the target (two of nine) they were fairly easy for Donnarumma to handle. He was dispossessed at least once trying to dance his way through two defenders ... and then there’s the miss. Donnarumma’s touch didn’t do much, he just hocked it.
SAMI KHEDIRA - 5. I’m not entirely sure what purpose was served by putting him on the field. His two most notable moments were getting booked on a ludicrously unnecessary challenge and being too slow to get to a nicely placed through ball.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 5. Dispossessed a little too easily a few times, and he scuffed a shot in a really good position late in the game.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 5.5. Made a few nice runs and executed a nice bit of holdup play in the corner during stoppage time. He completed three dribbles and made a key pass. Not quite as dynamic as Costa but it’s good seeing him playing on the wing again.
JUAN CUADRADO - NR. Drove forward a couple of times late after his introduction and caused a couple of problems.
Sarri got a little too excited over the extra substitutions he was afforded. That’s not me making assumptions, cause he said it himself. “I made a stupid mistake. I got swept up in the enthusiasm of having five substitutions, but making three at once was a big risk and at that moment we lost our hold on the game”
There’s really no better way to say it. Sarri’s triple sub totally disrupted the team’s rhythm and allowed Milan to carve out a foothold in the game. Against a team like Milan, who are on the wrong end of the talent gulf against Juve even when they’re not missing three significant performers, that mistake isn’t necessarily fatal. On Wednesday against Napoli or Inter — or on July 20 against Lazio — the margin of error isn’t going to be that wide. Sarri tends to slot in like-for-like with his subs rather than changing the system, and that can be effective with the right moves, but these weren’t the right moves. Rabiot and Khedira significantly weakened the midfield, while Bernardeschi played well enough he doesn’t have the same qualities as Costa, who was very effective. Sarri will need to use the five-sub rule in order to keep the team sound physically, but he’s going to have to figure out how to handle it better.
The Coppa final — Juve’s fifth in six years — will be on Wednesday, against either Inter or Napoli. Napoli currently leads that tie after winning 1-0 at the San Siro in February. Inter must win in order to have any chance. If they win 1-0 they will force a shootout, if they win by a score of 2-1 or more they’ll go through on away goals. Any draw or loss will see Napoli take the tie.
After that, Juve get back into Serie A action on Monday, June 22, in an away game against Bologna.