I’m gonna be straight here: The only thing I cared about with Juventus’ Coppa Italia clash with Genoa on Wednesday was that it didn’t go into extra time.
So you can imagine the odd shades of color my face turned during the last 15 minutes of normal time after Filippo Melegoni’s rocket of an equalizer nullified what had been a 2-0 lead and forced an extra 30 minutes of soccer at the Allianz Stadium. With the schedule chock full and the team depleted by injuries and positive COVID-19 tests, the last thing Juve needed was to have to go the distance against a team that is treading water two points above the drop zone — one that rotated almost its entire lineup to boot.
But, there they were, headed into the the extra period after failing to put the game away, despite coming up with so many chances in the first half that they could’ve realistically been up 4-0 or even more heading into the break. That profligacy allowed Genoa to cut the deficit before going into the locker room, then took advantage of a tiring team to tie the score on said Melegoni screamer.
But as the teams settled into the extra period, Juventus clamped down on proceedings, and just before the midpoint of extra time the winner came from one of the last places you’d expect. Under-23 call-up Hamza Rafia, a 21-year-old Tunisian midfielder, won the Coppa Italia Serie C (a knockout tournament that involves all three of the regional groups in Italy’s third tier) for the B team last season, securing them the first trophy in their history. On Wednesday, he banked the ball off a defender to put Juve up 3-2 and send them into the quarterfinals, where they will play the winner of the Sassuolo/SPAL game on Thursday.
Andrea Pirlo clearly had an eye toward Sunday’s game against Inter, because he rotated his 3-5-2/4-4-2 hybrid heavily with an eye toward resting some of his key contributors. The Coppa is always the realm of the team’s No. 2 keeper, so Gianluigi Buffon took up the gloves. After a pair of substitute appearances earlier this season, Radu Dragusin was given his first start with the senior team, joining Merih Demiral and the returning Giorgio Chiellini in defense. Highly regarded right back prospect Wesley was given his debut on the right side opposite Federico Bernardeschi, sandwiching the midfield trio of Rodrigo Bentancur, Arthur, and Manolo Portanova. Alvaro Morata and Dejan Kulusevski started up top.
When Juve beat Genoa 3-1 last month Rolando Maran was in charge, but he was dismissed a few weeks after that game in favor of Davide Ballardini, who began his fourth separate tenure in charge of the club. Ballardini countered with his own 3-5-2, but was without an enormous slate of players, and he rotated 10 of his 11 players from his last game against Bologna. Alberto Paleari started in goal behind the back three of Daniel Dumbravanu, Edoardo Goldaniga, and Mattia Bani. Paolo Ghiglione and Lennart Czyborra bookended the midfield of Melegoni, Nicolo Rovella, and Lukas Lerager, while Marko Pjaca and Gianluca Scamacca started up front. The lineup had four players with Juventus connections, between academy products (Goldaniga), loanees (Pjaca), and rumored transfers (Rovella and Scamacca).
If you blinked after kickoff, you missed Juventus taking the lead. Morata had been taken down by Lerager with a tackle that was worthy of the ongoing NFL playoffs, but referee Daniele Chiffi smartly played advantage when Chiellini ran onto the ball. The captain threaded a fantastic pass through a narrow window to find Kulusevski at the top of the box. His first touch was perfect, rolling the ball just in front of the penalty spot before he swept it into the net. Ninety seconds had passed.
Juve absolutely dominated the game’s opening phases, creating wonderful passing combinations and a bunch of chances. Wesley showed himself lively on the right side, and he forced a save out of Paleari in the ninth minute. But it was my large adult son who could have had a hat trick within 20 minutes. He had the best chance to double the lead when Arthur sent him walking through the defense for a one-on-one, but he telegraphed his intentions to get the ball onto his left foot and hit a weak shot that the keeper palmed it away. Four minutes later, Bani got into the Swede’s shooting lane for a block after he dribbled his way into a great position.
But Kulusevski was involved in Juve’s second goal in the 23rd minute. Bentancur found him with an excellent pass from just inside his own half, and he volleyed a pass right into the path of Morata in the left channel. Morata’s finish was expert, spotting Paleari cheating toward his far post and firing in the near.
Everything was looking fantastic, but then the inexperience of some of their defenders allowed Genoa back in the game. Dragusin was the main culprit, as he followed a run by Pjaca when he should have left the Croatian to the attention of Demiral and stayed with Czyborra. But he left the German wide open, and Wesley wasn’t in any place to get into a place to help. Buffon laid out and got a fingertip to the header, but it was too powerful to stop, and the lead was cut in half.
Juve responded, forcing a save and seeing a pair of goals (correctly) disallowed for offside before heading into the locker room. Pirlo replaced Bentancur, who had been booked late in the first half, for Rabiot at the break, and within five minutes Juve were knocking on the door again, this time with Morata being denied by Paleari. But three minutes later the Grifone sent a message that they weren’t dead when Pjaca made Arthur look rather foolish at the top of the box and then unleashed a powerful shot that whacked off the crossbar, prompting a stern reminder from Buffon that the game was far from over.
But as the second half continued Juve’s players started visibly tiring. Pirlo made a change in the back with 25 minutes left, sending on Leonardo Bonucci and Danilo for Chiellini and Demiral in what looked like a scheduled change, but 10 minutes later it was Wesley, who was still out there but fading fast, that got caught between defending a run by Czyborra and closing down Melegoni, whose incredible drive from 25 yards flew into the goal, despite Buffon again getting the barest of fingertips to it.
Pirlo sent on Rafia for some energy into the midfield, but Juve only created one real opportunity, and with two minutes to go before the whistle Pirlo decided the time was right to break the emergency glass and send in Cristiano Ronaldo. The forward was presented with a free kick on the left side of the box deep into stoppage time and whacked it hard over the bar, and Chiffi’s whistle soon signaled the advent of extra time.
The attitude of the visitors decidedly changed when the teams took the field after they rested. Genoa clearly dropped off, and Juve took control early. Morata was denied once again by Paleari, who then stoned Rabiot’s header off a corner seconds later.
But just before the halftime period of extra time Juve broke through. The provider was Morata, who was played down the left side of the box by Ronaldo and then popped it square toward the corner of the six yard box. Rafia actually whiffed at it on his first attempt, but stayed with it and got himself a second bite at the apple. The shot pinballed off two Genoa players before settling in the back of the net to regain the lead.
Genoa, to their credit, pushed forward one more time. Three minutes after the teams changed ends Ivan Radovanovic met a corner and headed it back against the grain, but Arthur headed the ball off the line to keep the lead there. Kulusevski had a golden opportunity to seal things in the 111th minute when he intercepted a pass deep in the Genoa end, but Paleari once again played Superman, denying him one-on-one for the second time in the game. That was the last serious opportunity at goal for either team, and when Chiffi blew his whistle, the two exhausted teams were done, and Juventus were through to the last eight.
GIANLUIGI BUFFON - 6. Didn’t have much in the way of saving to do besides the two goals, neither of which was particularly stoppable. He had a big task keeping the defense together given its inexperience and unfamiliarity with each other, but he did a relatively good job at it save for the two major lapses.
RADU DRAGUSIN - 6.5. A little shaky early, but he was making big tackles by the end of the game and brought constant energy, although his marking mistake did help Genoa pick up their first goal. This was a good outing, and I think the teenager has proven himself worthy of at the very least being able to spell some guys in the back against lower-level opponents.
MERIH DEMIRAL - 6. Strong in the middle of the back three. I would like to think the early pull was to keep him fresher for Sunday, assuming Matthijs de Ligt still isn’t out of COVID-19 protocol.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 7. Played well in the back and delivered an absolutely gorgeous assist for the opening goal. Even better was the fact that he looked to get through his entire shift in one piece.
WESLEY - 5.5. Started really strong, especially in attack, but was out of position on Genoa’s first goal (although that was a secondary mistake) and got himself caught in no man’s land on the equalizer. Still, there were a lot of flashes of potential here and Juve ought to develop him, because there might be something special here.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 5.5. His pass that started the move for Morata’s goal was fantastic, but he still wasn’t up to the standard he set last year, and he got himself booked again, making it three straight games with a caution.
ARTHUR - 6. He was a lifesaver with that goal-line clearance in extra time. Made a couple good forward passes, which was an improvement, and had a goal taken away by an offside call in the buildup. There were a few decisions that weren’t all that great, but overall this was a good shift.
MANOLO PORTANOVA - 5.5. Took a finish very well right before the break, but unfortunately was very offside when he did it. He worked really hard but wasn’t able to put a stamp on the midfield in what might be his last game at Juve before he’s sold, ironically, to Genoa in the Rovella deal.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 7. Put in a really good shift up and down the left flank, making a couple of good tackles and creating danger going forward as well. His set piece delivery was excellent all night long.
DEJAN KULUSEVSKI - 6.5. A well-taken goal and an equally excellent assist were the highlight of his night, but he could have (should have?) had a hat trick within 20 minutes. Had his finishing been more on point, Juve might’ve had the game put away long before Melegoni had anything to say about it. Still, his ability is obvious, and it’s clear that the front two is the best place for him in this set of tactics.
ALVARO MORATA - 7. He. Was. EVERYWHERE. This dude ran so much, threw himself everywhere, pressed, all the dirty work, and he also had a well-taken goal and assisted the winner. His industry is going to be a big part of what the team will need to win on Sunday.
ADRIAN RABIOT - 6.5. Was all over the midfield and made himself dangerous on set pieces in the air. After Weston McKennie he’s definitely the best-performing midfielder on the team.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 6. Put in a good performance off the bench, dropping one or two good long passes in and generally staying strong in defense.
DANILO - 6. Didn’t let anything by and was hip to any opportunity that presented itself to take the ball off a guy.
HAMZA RAFIA - 7. He was in the thick of a lot of the bigger moves after his introduction. Started one great counter with a hard (but fair) slide challenge on Rovella in his own half, and he took his opportunity with the goal in an iconic moment.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 6. His biggest impact was simply the threat he posed, but he didn’t have any shots from open play. That said, he turned himself provider multiple times and initiated the move that led to the game-winning goal.
There wasn’t all that much Pirlo could’ve done in this match. The early portions of the Coppa are always a rotation game anyway, and with the likes of McKennie, de Ligt, Paulo Dybala, Federico Chiesa, Alex Sandro, and Juan Cuadrado unavailable, there wasn’t all that much he could have done except hold Ronaldo in reserve and let the Under-23 call-ups try to prove themselves.
Choosing to put on Ronaldo with two minutes left before extra time was a little bit strange, but overall Pirlo’s in-game decisions were pretty sound. With Chiellni and Demiral both coming off injuries that cost them multiple weeks, the scheduled change at the back was the right move, and Rafia was the right player to inject into the midfield for some much-needed energy. All in all, Pirlo had limited options in this game but used them well enough to get the W.
Another immense league match looms on Sunday. Just 10 days after they beat AC Milan at San Siro, the Bianconeri head back to the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, this time for the first Derby d’Italia of the season. Inter also ended up getting pushed to extra time on Wednesday in their 2-1 win over Fiorentina, so at least they’ll be just as tired. If Juve can take their third straight win over their deadly rivals they’ll close to within one point of them in second.
After Inter is another big one, as Juve head to the Mapei Stadium in Reggio Emilia to take on Napoli in the Supercoppa Italiana. Then they finish the andata out with a home game against Bologna.