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Mental meltdown sees Juve fall to Milan

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Juve switched off after taking a 2-0 lead and wasted an opportunity.

AC Milan v Juventus - Serie A
Same.
Photo by Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images

It was shades of 2013 at the San Siro this week.

Oct. 20, 2013, specifically. On that day at the Stadio Artemio Franchi, Juventus took a 2-0 lead, only to lose the plot and see Fiorentina score four times in 14 minutes to win the game 4-2.

It was deja vu all over again against AC Milan 6 12 years later.

The Bianconeri staked themselves to a 2-0 lead thanks to a pair of great goals in the first eight minutes of the second half, but almost immediately switched off. A VAR-assisted penalty shocked the team back into life, and then the defense crumbled, allowing Milan to walk through the middle of the defense and take the lead, all in the space of five minutes. A fourth goal followed with 10 minutes left after a baffling Alex Sandro mistake, giving the game an eerily similar feel to that game in Florence.

It was an unexplainable collapse, one that will inspire hand-wringing and hair-tearing amongst the Juve faithful. In reality it’s probably not worth all that. After the improvements in the team over the two games leading into Tuesday’s collapse — and, indeed, the first 55 minutes or so of Tuesday’s collapse — there was bound to be a speed bump. The last 28 minutes of the Milan game was it. The collapse obscured some real positives, including a couple really nice sequences of one-touch passing and the sudden and unexpected rise of Adrien Rabiot in midfield.

Still, the result is the most important thing, and the score was a 4-2 to Milan. It definitely counts as a wasted opportunity, as Juve might’ve been able to kill off the title race after Lazio was upset by Lecce earlier in the day. But Juventus still has full control over their destiny as they head into the teeth of the restart’s schedule on Saturday.

Maurizio Sarri was forced into making changes to his 4-3-3 setup after Matthijs de Ligt and Paulo Dybala were suspended for yellow card accumulation. Wojciech Szczesny sat at the base of the formation. With Merih Demiral still not recovered from his knee injury and Giorgio Chiellini only fit for the bench, Daniele Rugani joined Leonardo Bonucci in central defense, bookended by Juan Cuadrado and Danilo. The midfield was once again made up of Rodrigo Bentancur, Miralem Pjanic, and Rabiot, while Federico Bernardeschi and Cristiano Ronaldo flanked Gonzalo Higuain up front.

Stefano Pioli is in a difficult position at Milan. His replacement at Milan has supposedly been lined up for months, but he still has the controls for now, and he had two arrows in his quiver that he was missing last month when these teams played in the Coppa Italia. He set the team up in a 4-3-2-1 shape. Gianluigi Donnarumma started in goal, screened by Andrea Conti, Andrea Romagnoli, Simon Kjaer, and Theo Hernandez. Alexis Saelemaekers, Ismael Bennacer, and Franck Kessie played in midfield, while Lucas Paqueta and Ante Rebic backed up the living encyclopedia entry for arrogance Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

The opening stages of the game were even and cagey. Saelemaekers registered the game’s first shot eight minutes in, a tame effort that Szczesny smothered easily. Two minutes later Juve came inches from a breakthrough when Federico Bernardeschi sent a beautiful free kick to the back post, but Bonucci couldn’t get the touch it needed to finish. Three minutes after that Ronaldo tried to shape a shot into the far post from the left, but a touch from Conti prevented it from taking the necessary curl and carried it past the post.

Milan was generating a little more danger than they did in the opening stages of the Coppa game, but not that much. Szczesny had to deal with two more shots, neither of which had any venom behind them. Juve, meanwhile, didn’t force Donnarumma into action but certainly had him worried behind his defense once or twice. In the 38th minute a neat passing move ended put Danilo into good shooting position. The Brazilian loaded up and unleashed a powerful shot that Kjaer blocked...with his face. The Dane went down in a heap for a second, but eventually picked himself up and carried on, and Milan had another close call on the ensuing corner when Ronaldo’s flick on deflected off Ibrahimovic and looped over.

Juve finally did force Donnarumma into some work in first-half stoppage time when Higuain was sent through the middle, but he didn’t have his feet under him and couldn’t get any power on the shot.

Power, though, was in abundant supply three minutes after the restart when Rabiot pulled out a stunning solo goal to open his account in black and white. He carried the ball three-quarters of the length of the field, nutmegging Hernandez at the midfield stripe along the way. He drove diagonally all the way to the top of the penalty arc before unleashing a powerful shot against the grain of his dribble that no goalkeeper would have stopped.

AC Milan v Juventus - Serie A Photo by Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images

Six minutes later the lead doubled when Cuadrado launched a long pass from his own half for Ronaldo to chase. Romagnoli and Kjaer both went up for the ball but only succeeded in jumping into each other, giving Ronaldo free reign to latch on to it on a half-volley and rifle it past a stranded keeper.

It looked like the game — and the title race — were well on their way to being over. That’s probably why things started falling apart.

Juve quickly began to look like their minds were on Saturday’s game against Atalanta, and Milan started to push forward. They got a break just before the hour mark when Rebic met a cross from Hernandez with a header. The ball went wide, but Rebic threw up his hands, looking for a handball call from Marco Guida. He did so vociferously enough to earn a yellow card. But the VAR officials called down and Guida ran over to the monitor for a look. Rebic had been right—his header had deflected off the back of Bonucci’s arm, which was away from his body. Guida returned and gave the penalty, and Ibrahimovic converted it to put Milan back in the game.

Things spiraled quickly.

The equalizer was just four minutes away, and came courtesy of Kessie, who gave a simple pass to substitute Hakan Calhanoglu and then walked through the middle of the Juventus defense, receiving the return pass via a touch from Rebic. Bonucci’s defense was terrible, overrunning the ball and leaving the midfielder with a clear opening to shoot. Danilo got in at the last second and tried to block it, but only provided a deflection as the ball sailed through the middle of the goal.

The collapse was complete in a minute. Ronaldo lost the ball in midfield and triggered a counter. Rebic had been fouled by Rugani, but Guida played advantage when Rafael Leao, just on for Saelemaekers, ran on to the loose ball. Rugani tried to retreat and forced the Portuguese a little wide, but couldn’t prevent a shot. It even took a little bit of a deflection, and squeezed in past Szczesny at the near post.

AC Milan v Juventus - Serie A Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images

Sarri finally reacted after the goal, making a triple sub to introduce Douglas Costa up top and switch the midfield around with Blaise Matuidi and Aaron Ramsey, but Milan firmly had the momentum now. Szczesny had to make a kick save to deny Rebic when Cuadrado lost the ball and triggered a counter.

Juve nearly clawed back in with 12 minutes left when Rugani, looking for redemption, got on the end of a corner kick and sent in a good header that Donnarumma had to drop to the ground to scoop away. Three minutes later, though, the door was slammed shut when Alex Sandro, who was on for Cuadrado and making his first appearance since suffering an injury in the Coppa Italia final, tried to switch field in his own half but instead sent the ball straight to Giacomo Bonaventura, who easily slipped the ball to Rebic, who emphatically slammed home to provide the final margin.

Bentancur just missed making a grandstand finish with three minutes to go when he just missed putting one over the bar, and Szczesny needed another save to keep the scoreline from looking worse, and when Guida blew his whistle it was all over, and the collapse of the year was complete.

LE PAGELLE

WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 5.5. A little weak on Leao’s goal — yes it took a deflection but you can’t be beaten near post like that. He didn’t do a good job keeping the defense together, it was run over by Milan again and again.

JUAN CUADRADO - 5.5. Made a really nice pass for Ronaldo’s goal but also got uncharacteristically roasted defensively a couple of times, including being on the receiving end of a nutmeg from Calhanoglu on the equalizer. He looked a little tired.

DANIELE RUGANI - 5. Actually had a good first half but faded in the second. Rough defending on Leao’s goal, but I can’t be too hard on him given it was his first time on a field in earnest since February.

LEONARDO BONUCCI - 5. Weak defending on the equalizer, and he mistimed that great ball from Bernardeschi early. It’s becoming clear that he’s not really the leader of this defensive line but the supporting guy, whether it’s de Ligt or Chiellini partnering him.

DANILO - 6. Pretty solid on the left side, and might’ve had a goal were it not for Simon Kjaer’s gourd. Kessie’s equalizer went in off his leg, but it wasn’t his fault, he was making a last-ditch attempt to clean up everyone else’s mess. He was probably the least offensive of Juve’s defenders today.

RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 7.5. Buzzed around like his usual self, leading the team with three tackles and he took out a key pass as well. He continues to put in yeoman’s work.

MIRALEM PJANIC - 7. Made more key passes than anyone else on the field bar one. He’s started playing better since the Barcelona deal became official, and was only seven touches behind the usual leader Cuadrado when he was pulled from the game.

ADRIEN RABIOT - 8. A brilliant solo goal capping a week that has turned him from a pariah to a revelation. He added two tackles and an interception on the defensive end and completed 90.1 percent of his passes. If he keeps playing like this he’ll have a lot of people changing their minds.

FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 6.5. A nice day on the right. He tied with Pjanic for the lead in key passes and a couple of good deliveries from dead ball situations. Also added in a pair of interceptions on the defensive end.

GONZALO HIGUAIN - 5.5. Didn’t get much in the way of service, only snapping off two shots. Gave an effort but just didn’t have a lot material to work with.

CRISTIANO RONALDO - 6.5. Scored a nice goal but also lost the ball that triggered the counter that led to the winner, and didn’t find the target with any of his other shots. Ironically, it might have come to the point that his partnership with Dybala is something he needs.

SUBS

DOUGLAS COSTA - 5. The momentum of the game blunted his ability to affect it. By the time he came on Juve wasn’t able to mount much in the way of serious attacks.

BLAISE MATUIDI - 5. Didn’t really make much in the way of an impact going forward when put on. Considering how much he spots Rabiot in terms of technical ability it was a weird sub.

AARON RAMSEY - 3. Absolutely nothing from him. Actively hurt a couple of attacking moves.

ALEX SANDRO - NR. This would’ve been around Ramsey’s grade if he’d been on the field long enough. What he was thinking with that ball across the field I have absolutely no idea.

SIMONE MURATORE - NR. On at the very end of the game for ... reasons?

MANAGER ANALYSIS

If there’s one thing about Maurizio Sarri that is a definitive improvement from Massimiliano Allegri has been how he’s handled substitutions. He’s been far more proactive than Max ever was about making a change when it needed to be made.

That’s why I was surprised at how Sarri handled this game. There were warning signs before Milan’s first goal that the team had lost focus, but Sarri didn’t make any move until things were out of hand. When he did, he made a triple switch much akin to what he had done in the first game of the restart, and once again the drastic move scrambled the chemistry in the midfield and ceded even more momentum to Milan. Had he made a smaller move sooner—Costa perhaps, coming on to push the momentum against a Milan team that was going to have to take more risks down 2-0 — he might’ve been able to forestall the mental break the team suffered.

All in all, I tend to agree with his post-game analysis that analyzing this collapse is useless. It was a collapse. Take the lump and move on.

LOOKING AHEAD

Serie A is the same as it was before — Juve are up seven points on Lazio and still firmly in control of their own destiny, but they have their two biggest games coming up in their next three rounds.

Saturday’s game with Atalanta—the game that probably started creeping into the players’ mind as things fell apart—is next on the agenda. Juve came from behind to beat them 3-1 in Bergamo earlier this season. After that comes a trip to Sassuolo, and then (and then) and gentlemen and then...it’s the Lazio game, the game that could end the title race or throw it all back open again.