Wednesday’s Coppa Italia quarterfinal had trap game written all over it. With the usual Italian tendency to rotate in this competition combined with an opponent in SPAL that had a lot of Serie A experience despite having been relegated last season provided the perfect set of circumstances for Juventus to fumble the game away the way they almost managed to against Genoa in the last round of this competition.
While I will make the rather un-Juve-like admission that had something indeed gone wrong I wouldn’t necessarily have cried too many tears over it, the young lineup that Andrea Pirlo trotted out for the fixture made sure that no such surprises were forthcoming. The game had an ease to it from the off, and by halftime Pirlo felt secure enough to start sending on even more Under-23 and academy products for their debuts. The end result was a routine 4-0 victory over SPAL, securing a date in the semifinals with Inter and a chance for redemption after being utterly dominated by the Nerazzuri 10 days ago.
Pirlo made 10 changes from the victory against Bologna on Sunday, keeping his 3-5-2/4-4-2 hybrid in place. A heavy dose of the lineup’s experience came in the form of Gianluigi Buffon, playing on the day before his 43rd birthday and taking on the captain’s armband for the first time since he returned to the team last season. The back three was all 22 or younger, with Radu Dragusin, Merih Demiral, and Matthijs de Ligt taking up their stations. Federico Bernardeschi was the only holdover from Sunday, starting on the right wing-back spot opposite Gianluca Frabotta. Highly regarded 19-year-old prospect Nicolo Fagioli started in midfield alongside Aaron Ramsey and Adrien Rabiot. Cristiano Ronaldo was left off the squad list entirely for the match, leaving Alvaro Morata and Dejan Kulusevski as the strike pair.
SPAL coach Pasquale Mariano had the services of a couple of Serie A veterans in his team — including goalkeeper Etrit Berisha, who had seen extensive playing time with Lazio and Atalanta both domestically and in the Europa League. He played behind a 3-4-2-1 setup, with Francesco Vicari, Luca Ranieri, and Memeh Caleb Okoli protecting Berisha. Lorenzo Dickmann and Leonardo Sernicola were the wing-backs around a double pivot of Salvatore Esposito and Simone Missiroli. Demba Sack and Enrico Brignola backed up the ageless Sergio Floccari up front.
SPAL was playing with house money, and while they mainly looked to hit on the counter, they also took a few short spells of possession early on. Still, it was the hosts who had control of things, and it was Morata who created the first opportunity, slipping between a pair of defenders and firing a drive to the far post that Berisha had to parry behind. Floccari showed SPAL had their knives sharpened when he took advantage of some spotty control by Kulusevski to get a shot in, which flew over.
The sequence that opened the scoring started in the 14th minute, when Rabiot made one of those long bombing runs through the midfield. He got himself into the right channel but seemed to have played himself into a dead end, and went down under a challenge by Vicari. Referee Ivano Pezzuto initially booked Rabiot for diving, but the VAR buzzed down and called him to the monitor. The Frenchman may have been looking for the contact, but one reverse angle showed that Vicari had indeed gotten a decent chunk of his knee, and Pezzuto reversed his decision and awarded the penalty. Morata stood over the spot and made a slow, stuttering run up. Berisha held his ground well, but finally had to decide where to go and moved to the shooter’s left, and Morata cooly slammed home his penalty the other way.
Five minutes later, Seck got in a ground-skimmer that had no power and was easily smothered by Buffon. It would turn out to be SPAL’s only shot on target the entire match. Juve, meanwhile, were giving Berisha a workout on the other end. He managed to deny Kulusevski, and watched Ramsey volley a ball into the side netting, but he had no chance when Juve doubled their lead in the 33rd minute. Kulusevski was the driving force. He latched on to an errant back pass that had deflected off of Morata and drove his way into the box. He had Ranieri going to ground not once but twice to little effect, then got around on his left foot and laid the ball back toward the middle of the box. Fagioli was closest and began to chase after it, but soon sensed that Frabotta was charging in and left the ball to the wingback. Frabotta loaded up and hit a first-time rocket that deflected off Esposito’s heel, giving Berisha no chance to react as it nestled into the net.
In the last round Juve had gone up 2-0 in the first half against Genoa and let them back into the match before halftime. With the exception of a single mistake minutes after the second goal when Demiral fell down and gifted Floccari a shooting opportunity, they didn’t make that mistake. There was a moment of concern four minutes from the break when Bernardeschi went down grabbing at his leg under no contact. He hit the deck again a few seconds later and clearly needed to come off. To his credit he soldiered on until the whistle blew, swapping places with Kulusevski up top and trying to occupy as much space as possible while staying relatively out of the way.
With the 2-0 lead, Pirlo elected to go deeper into his bench, sending on Alessandro Di Pardo for his first team debut. SPAL came out of the gates on a mini tear for two or three minutes, but Juve clamped down and once again Berisha became very busy. He was forced into four saves in the first 15 minutes of the second half. Morata came off just after the hour mark, bitterly complaining to the referee for doing nothing after he was spiked in the ankle during the scrum of a corner, badly enough to draw a good amount of blood. He was replaced by Federico Chiesa, who was joined on the field by Alex Sandro, making his first appearance since his positive COVID-19 test two weeks ago.
Chiesa had been on the field for 12 minutes when he helped seal the deal. Substitute defender Nenad Tomovic made a horrific error under Chiesa’s pressure and he pounced on it, facing up the scrambling Tomovic until Kulusevski came up in support. The Swede had a ton of space to exploit, Chiesa’s pass was perfect, and Kulusevski hit a right-footed shot behind the dive of Berisha and into the net.
With the game firmly in hand, Pirlo handed out yet another debut, this time Cosimo Marco Da Graca. Chiesa just missed putting his name on the scoresheet when he took a long diagonal pass and couldn’t quite get the last bend on the shot. Da Graca was lively up top, hitting a half-volley in stoppage time that forced yet another save from Berisha, and he looked like he had the opportunity to get another chance when his own shot was blocked back to him, but before he could react Chiesa took it off his toe and walked it past Berisha and into the net for Juve’s fourth of the night. The final whistle blew just as SPAL kicked off, and Juventus were into the semifinal with redemption on their minds.
GIANLUIGI BUFFON - 6. He had very little to do but marshaled the team well as always. And frankly, it gave me joy to see him wearing the captain’s armband again.
RADU DRAGUSIN - 6. Had a couple of duels with Seck on the right side and came out of them far the better. He had the odd weird touch but overall very good.
MERIH DEMIRAL - 6. Got a little lucky that Floccari didn’t take advantage of his one major mistake, but overall kept things tight and started showing a little more of a cerebral side to his game reading.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 7. Fantastic way to get back into the swing of things after his time out. Dealt out a couple of bone-crunching tackles when a message needed to sent, and didn’t let anything past him.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 5.5. Another day of getting into decent positions but not really getting all that much end product with his ball at his feet. He’s become a big part of the depth out wide, though, and hopefully his ankle injury isn’t too big a deal.
NICOLO FAGIOLI - 7. This kid has been hyped in the youth system since Max Allegri was around, and he showed why Wednesday night. He played with a ton of energy, his technique and decision making were excellent, and his instincts in letting Kulusevski’s layoff run to Frabotta were fantastic. He oozed potential . Here’s hoping that Juve will develop that potential.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 6.5. Played with a ton of energy and won the ball back in midfield multiple times. The penalty he got was a little soft but still valid, and came off the end of a fantastic run.
AARON RAMSEY - 5. One of the few people who was pretty abysmal. He just didn’t make a substantive contribution, gave the ball away a few times, and just didn’t play to the level of everyone else on the field.
GIANLUCA FRABOTTA - 7. Goodness me, that goal was hit hard. He’s been taking those shots for a while now, and one finally came off. Also played well on his side defensively.
DEJAN KULUSEVSKI - 8. A goal and an assist, both of which were excellently taken, and he tested Berisha several more times. He’s settling into this new role up top and is providing excellent depth.
ALVARO MORATA - 7.5. His work rate was insane, and he took his penalty cooly and calmly. His dirty work would let Kulusevski do some of his marauding.
ALESSANDRO DI PARDO - 6. Perfectly adequate on the right side, keeping things safe defensively and moving up to support the attack when the opportunity presented itself.
FEDERICO CHIESA - 8. Taking the ball off Da Graca to take the goal himself was a weird flex on his own teammate, but he played with energy from the minute he got onto the field and made problems for the SPAL defense with his pace and technique. His part in the third goal was excellent.
ALEX SANDRO - 6. Got his feet wet after his illness and made a couple of really good defensive plays down the left.
COSIMO MARCO DA GRACA - NR. He took his opportunity and impressed, coming close to scoring on his debut.
WESTON McKENNIE - NR. On to spell Fagioli late on after the youngster reached the end of his rope.
There wasn’t really anything fancy going on here. Pirlo rotated heavily, which was expected and necessary given the craziness of the current schedule. SPAL never really put up much of a fight, and by the time the halftime whistle blew he was in a position to start moving even further down the depth chart to give some players an opportunity and, most importantly, rest his bigger players. Given the road ahead, that rest will be invaluable.
The fact that the semifinals are two-legged affairs is always inconvenient, but in this season’s condensed schedule it’s downright awful. Juve will face Inter in the two legs over the next two weeks, starting with the first leg in Milan on Tuesday and then the return a week later at the Allianz.
That now makes the schedule for the next three weeks an absolutely brutal stretch of games, starting with the trip to Sampdoria on Saturday. After that comes Inter (away), Roma (home), Inter (home), Napoli (away), and then Porto in the Champions League (away).