We were hoping that after Friday’s relatively dull return from the COVID-19 shutdown that Juventus would maybe take things up a notch in the Coppa Italia final against Napoli. With some rust knocked off, there was hope that the team would look a little sharper, and that maybe a goal or two would come out with a trophy on the line.
Well, that didn’t go quite as hoped.
The game that played out was very much a copy of Friday’s semifinal against AC Milan. Juve came out of the gates hot, but didn’t manage to score in that initial push, and as the game wore on they were unable to break down a well-organized opponent who played hard and hardly ever allowed an opening. Napoli ended up having more sting in their tail than Milan did, and it took some late heroics from Gianluigi Buffon to even get to 90 minutes in a scoreless tie.
With the rules changed to help keep player workload down in the condensed schedule of the restart, the game went straight to penalties — and Juve made a mess of things. Paulo Dybala, usually so reliable from the penalty spot, had the team’s first kick saved, and Danilo followed him up by skying his shot way over the bar. Buffon, for all his heroics, he couldn’t come up lucky in the lottery of penalties, and the Partenopei potted all four of their shots, winning the shootout 4-2 for their sixth Coppa Italia title.
There was a lot of history coming into this tie, both short and long term. The teams had split their Serie A games, with Juve winning a 4-3 epic on the second day of the season and Napoli responding with a 2-1 win in Naples in January. Going deeper into the history of the competition itself, Juve and Napoli’s history is rather extensive. Wednesday was the 12th time the two of them matched up in the Coppa Italia, with Juve having won six of the previous 11. They last played each other in the semifinals of the 2016-17 season, with Juve winning 5-4 on aggregate. The only other time they matched up in a final was in 2011-12, which Napoli won 2-0 in Juve’s first competitive loss under Antonio Conte.
Maurizio Sarri was expected to make a few changes in Juve’s 4-3-3 setup, but didn’t end up making them all of them. Buffon remained in goal for the Coppa. Juan Cuadrado replaced Danilo in the starting lineup at right back, joining Matthijs de Ligt, Leonardo Bonucci, and Alex Sandro on the back line. Sami Khedira was expected to start in place of Miralem Pjanic in midfield, but — wait for it — suffered a muscular injury in training Tuesday, so the midfield remained the trio of Rodrigo Bentancur, Pjanic, and Blaise Matuidi. Douglas Costa, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Paulo Dybala once again teamed up as the attacking trident.
Napoli manager Gennaro Gattuso mirrored Sarri’s 4-3-3. David Ospina, Gattuso’s preferred goalkeeper since taking over for Carlo Ancelotti midseason, was suspended for yellow card accumulation, so Alex Meret took up the gloves. He was screened by Giovanni Di Lorenzo, Kalidou Koulibaly, Nicola Maksimovic, and Mario Rui. Fabian Ruiz returned from a minor knock that forced him out of Saturday’s game, joining Diego Demme and Pitor Zielinski in midfield. Jose Callejon, Dires Mertens, and Lorenzo Insigne formed the tip of the spear.
Like Friday, Juve burst out of the gate, pressing hard, and forcing Napoli into an early error that nearly cost them dearly. The pressure forced Callejon into a terrible pass at the edge of his own penalty area, and Dybala pounced on the ball. He immediately slipped Ronaldo into the left channel and the Portuguese fired off a good shot to the far post that Meret did well to get down and parry. Costa and Bentancur couldn’t manage to get off any shots off the rebound, and Napoli dodged a major bullet early on.
Just as they did on Saturday against Inter, Napoli was perfectly happy ceding possession to Juve in the early phases of the game. They played an incredibly compact defensive game, giving Juve few avenues to get through to Meret’s goal. On the other hand, they couldn’t generate the same kind of danger on the counterattack that they had against Inter. It took 15 minutes for either team to register another shot, this one a drive by Bentancur from outside the box that went right at the keeper.
Napoli’s first chance came three minutes later when Bentancur was called for a foul on what looked like a fair tackle 30 yards from the Juve goal and slightly to the left. Insigne’s free kick was pretty excellent, but swerved a bit too much and hit the post — although it looked like Buffon had it covered had it stayed on target.
The game continued to stay on its rhythm, with Juve monopolizing possession but not able to push through. Ronaldo and his incredible heading ability up front offered an alternative form of attack, but Juve couldn’t take advantage of that, making a habit of badly overhitting any crosses all game long.
The last few minutes of the first half saw a flurry of action. A Napoli foray into the Juve half ended in a dispossession, and the ball was sent swiftly back down the field, and Dybala looked like he had set Ronaldo up for an easy one-on-one goal, but Meret read the play perfectly and flew off his line, smothering the ball just as Ronaldo arrived. Two minutes later Demme made a foray up the field and got the benefit of a good bounce off Sandro to send himself down the right channel. He put in a low shot from the corner of the six-yard box and Buffon made an excellent kick save. He then flew to parry a long-range drive from Insigne after the ensuing corner was headed back out to the winger.
The game dragged coming out of the second half. Neither team registered a shot on target in the first 20 minutes. Indeed, the most notable moment of that opening phase of the second period came in the 54th minute. Juve went on a strong counter, but Ronaldo picked out the wrong option, leaving the ball off for Bentancur to blast over rather than finding Dybala in the box. But the thing that left the biggest impression on that passage of play was Sandro, whose defense had started the move, who lay crumpled in a heap in the Juve half. He’d been fully extended when the man he was defending fell and landed on him. It had all the visuals of a grotesque injury, but Sandro was back on the field quickly and finished out the game — a serious bullet dodged.
Juve continued to have more possession, but Meret’s goal remained relatively unthreatened. Dybala bent a ball over in the 63rd minute, and then Bonucci hit a long shot that went right at the young keeper. Napoli hadn’t presented much threat at all since the restart, but the introduction of Arkadiusz Milik gave them a little more oomph, and he wasted a good passing move in the 72nd minute on a nice ball in. Sarri, meanwhile started shuffling players around the board, first introducing Danilo in place of Costa and moving Cuadrado forward, then introducing Federico Bernardeschi for Pjanic and playing him as a mezz’ala, with Bentancur moving to the regista spot.
Napoli continued to cede possession, but they were now posing most of the threat. Substitute Matteo Politano got on the end of a cross with eight minutes to go but could only head it right at Buffon. Juve got a last jab in with two minutes to go, with Sandro sending a nice through ball into the box for Dybala, but Maksimovic blocked it out for a corner. The ensuing set piece saw Sarri’s last sub, Aaron Ramsey, fire the ball into the stands.
Referee Daniele Doveri tacked on three minutes of stoppage time, and in the second of those three minutes Bernardeschi made a really stupid mistake. Trying to buy time and a lane to clear the ball on the right flank, he dribbled it over the end line under minimal pressure, gifting Napoli a corner. On the set piece the defense left Maksimovic completely alone. He hit a powerful downward header and probably thought he’d won the game. What he didn’t count on was Gigi Buffon doing what Gigi Buffon do. Buffon got down to parry the ball, and then when Elif Elmas stabbed point blank to finish it off, snapped a hand out and tipped the ball onto the post.
The whistle blew shortly thereafter, and the teams retreated to their bench to prepare for the shootout. With and excellent penalty taker in Pjanic off the field, Juve would have to put someone else into the lineup, but how Danilo managed to end up on the list — second on the list, no less — is still a mystery. Ronaldo was, as is his wont, held back for the fifth round. The first man on the list, Dybala, had been Juve’s primary penalty taker for years and still handles them when Ronaldo isn’t on the field. He’s exactly the guy you want to start things off — unfortunately he didn’t have it on this night. His shot was to the right but about hip-high, and Meret guessed right for an easy parry.
After Insigne rolled one in after Buffon twitched at the last minute, Danilo stepped up. Maybe he thought he wouldn’t be shooting down 1-0, maybe he hadn’t wanted to shoot at all and was given his marching orders when no one else volunteered. Something was obviously going through his mind, because he took a lot of time on a short run-up, and finally unleashed a shot that will probably require help from SpaceX in order to retrieve.
Buffon guessed correctly on the next shot, but Politano put so much power on it that he couldn’t keep it out despite getting hands to it, giving Napoli a commanding 2-0 lead. Bonucci finally got Juve on the board, getting one in off the bottom of the crossbar, but Maksimovic sent a powerful shot right up the middle with Buffon going to the shooter’s left. Ramsey kept things alive momentarily, but Milik ended proceedings when he stroked a shot in to the right as Buffon dove in the opposite direction, giving Napoli their third Coppa title in the last nine years and giving Sarri a lot of questions.
GIANLUIGI BUFFON - 8.5. It wouldn’t have even gotten to penalties had it not been for him. He generally kept the team in shape and made a bunch of great saves. That double at the end of the match was vintage Buffon. A 42-year-old keeper isn’t supposed to be able to make those stops. Gigi saves.
JUAN CUADRADO - 7. Perhaps the best outfield player on the field for Juve. Led the team with four key passes and also defended very well. He also contributed one of the few accurate crosses Juve put in all night long. Had a little less to give when he was shuttled forward, but that was probably because he was gassed and maybe a little banged up.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 6.5. Led the team with three tackles and did a very good job limiting the danger of Napoli’s counterattack play in the game’s early phases. He’s settled back in nicely.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 7. Handled things well at the back and made a couple of good long passes that his teammates unfortunately weren’t able to do anything else with. Picked up Juve’s first penalty make with a strike that had very little margin of error.
ALEX SANDRO - 6. Defended very well, leading the back line in tackles, interceptions, and clearances. His grade is dragged down by the fact that his crossing was abysmal, although he did put in a smart through ball to Dybala late.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 5.5. Juve lost this game because the midfield couldn’t get it done. Bentancur is usually the exception to that rule, but he wasn’t his usual dynamic self on Wednesday.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 5.5. Led the team with four interceptions but couldn’t put his stamp on the game and didn’t come up with any incisive passing. He’s not suited for the regista spot in this system.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 5. A quiet day for the Frenchman, who looked uncharacteristically tired. Given the fact that he was one of the COVID-19 positives on the team, that’s probably to be expected given the general physical condition of the players after this layoff. He was barely a factor.
PAULO DYBALA - 5. I am astonished that Dybala, who was seemingly the hardest hit among Juve’s COVID-19 positives, has played 90 minutes in both games on the return. A lot of that probably has to do with the fact that Gonzalo Higuain is still laid up with a muscle injury, but if that continues to be a thing it may be time to look at the U-23 team and see who can make a few cameos, because he looked gassed Wednesday night.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 4.5. Apart from that first chance on the Callejon mistake in the fifth minute — one that he probably should have put away — he was man-marked out of existence by Koulibaly.
DOUGLAS COSTA - 5. Shared the team lead in dribbles (Dybala and Cuadrado also had three) but didn’t have enough space to use his talents effectively, and his energy started flagging later on.
DANILO - 3. Deserves some plaudits for some good defensive efforts, but only completed 85 percent of his passes in 25 minutes ... and there was that penalty.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI -3.5. This is partly unfair to him because he was shuttled from position to position — really his Juve career in microcosm — but the two most memorable images of him on the night were him throwing himself to the ground in the box when he could have kept possession and that god-awful dribble over the line to concede the late corner.
AARON RAMSEY - NR. Didn’t have much time to make an impact, but did hit his penalty.
Maurizio Sarri isn’t going to get out of many fans’ doghouse with this one. Why Danilo was taking a penalty, let alone in that spot on the list, is something that will probably never become public knowledge. It’s a difficult decision to justify. It also brings some question to the decision to sub Pjanic off. While he wasn’t playing particularly well, replacing him with an out-of-position Bernardeschi did little to help the midfield, and he’s an excellent penalty taker in his own right who may have been able to keep the shootout closer shooting in Danilo’s spot.
It’s also worth taking a look at the way Sarri has been managing games. Constant high pressing has always been a hallmark of his game, but with his players’ fitness levels essentially being the equivalent of what you see at the first preseason friendly, it makes you wonder whether it wouldn’t be a good idea for Sarri to be a little more selective when it comes to that press. In both of the games we’ve seen so far coming out of the suspension of play, Juve have come out of the gates hard and then faded before halftime. Sarri’s system demands a lot of energy at the best of times. The problem is, these players don’t have that kind of energy yet. Not after such a long layoff. Sarri needs to find some kind of balance getting the players match fit and playing to earn maximum points. That’s far easier said than done, but he’s got to do something, because the margin for error when Serie A resumes is razor thin, and losing points because the team fades at halftime isn’t going to be acceptable.
With the Coppa Italia over, Serie A is now next on the docket for the next six weeks. It starts on Monday with a trip to Bologna, then Lecce visits Turin on Friday.