They hype over Juventus’ meeting with AC Milan on Wednesday night wasn’t overstated. Even this early in the season, the trip to the San Siro was a make-or-break moment for the Bianconeri. Down 10 points in the standings going into their first head-to-head meeting with the league leaders, even their game in hand probably wouldn’t have made much of a difference if they had lost. Even at this early juncture, this was an out-and-out must-win scenario if the nine-time defending champions wanted any chance to make it 10.
The loss of their two starting wingbacks to COVID-19 diagnoses in the 48 hours before the game certainly didn’t bode well. But Milan was having problems of their own. The early-morning exclusion of Ante Rebic and Rade Krunic to their own positive COVID tests only exacerbated a depth problem that Milan’s long unbeaten run — which had run itself to 27 rounds dating back to before the lockdown — had been covering up. Injuries, suspensions, and the virus ruled out eight players that would’ve been in serious consideration for Stefano Pioli’s starting XI and left him with only one first-team midfielder.
Both teams were depleted, but Juve were quite a bit less depleted, and that ended up being a decisive factor. In spite of all the missing stars, this was an amazingly compelling game from start to finish, putting itself above even the laughably terrible performance by referee Massimiliano Irrati, whose incompetence affected both teams equally but was ultimately made irrelevant by the players on the field. But it was that depth advantage, along with being far more clinical with their opportunities — highlighted by Federico Chisea — that gave Juventus a massive 3-1 victory that, coupled with losses by Napoli and Inter earlier in the day, vaulted the Old Lady back into the top four and firmly reinserted them into the title race.
In addition to Juan Cuadrado and Alex Sandro, Andrea Pirlo was still missing Alvaro Morata to a thigh injury. He sent out his usual 3-5-2/4-4-2 hybrid lineup, with Wojciech Szczesny at its base and Danilo, Leonardo Bonucci, and Matthijs de Ligt defending him. Chiesa started on the right, while Gianluca Frabotta took a surprise start on the left. Adrien Rabiot, who hadn’t played in weeks after the confusion over the status of his suspension after the Napoli appeal, started in midfield alongside Rodrigo Bentancur and Aaron Ramsey. Paulo Dybala shook off an illness of his own to start up front with Cristiano Ronaldo.
Pioli needed to decide what to do with the second midfield spot in his 4-2-3-1 after Krunic was ruled out in the morning. After weighing his options, he ultimately opted to play Davide Calabria, a fullback, out of position in midfield rather than drop Hakan Calhanoglu back, leaving Brahim Diaz on the bench as his only major card to play later on. Gianluigi Donnarumma started in goal, with Diogo Dalot, Simon Kjaer, Alessio Romagnoli, and Theo Hernandez screening him. Franck Kessie joined Calabria in the midfield, with Samu Castillejo, Calhanoglu, and Jens Petter Hauge forming a bank of three behind the red-hot Rafael Leao.
Milan came out clearly understanding the opportunity that the game was presenting them. Along with burying Juve, a win would’ve extended their lead at the top of the table to four points over their city rivals. They came out quickly, and they attempted four shots in the first seven minutes. Two of those were aided by serious mistakes on the part of Bentancur, in particular the second, when he tried to nonchalantly flick the ball to the outside while in his own box but whiffed, allowing Castillejo to jump on the loose ball and find the target at the near post, but Szczesny pushed it away.
Frabotta had a couple good early runs, and had Donnarumma concerned when he got to a loose ball and fired over from a tight angle. But for the most part Juve were on the back foot for the first quarter of an hour. That started to change just after that milestone on the clock, when a bunch of head tennis after a corner led to Chiesa chesting the ball down and ripping a half-volley off the upper part of the goalpost. That moment turned the momentum, and two minutes later Chiesa had the opener when he fed Dybala on the inside and continued his run. Dybala’s first touch looked heavy, but he recovered quickly and flicked an outrageous back-heel directly into Chiesa’s path. The winger/wingback ran past Hernandez and slammed it home first-time to the far post.
Chiesa took the bit between his teeth and ran with it after the goal. He immediately spun Hernandez around and crossed low for Ronaldo, whose shot was blocked by Romagnoli. After Leao came close on a Milan counter, he made another tremendous run through the box, forcing Donnarumma to parry a powerful shot that would’ve been a second if he’d put it to either side of him.
But Milan aren’t leaders for nothing, and they started to get themselves back into the game. The momentum turned again when a terrible cross-field pass by Ramsey was intercepted by Leao, who forced Szczesny into an excellent save. Calhanoglu led Milan’s effort to get level, forcing Szczesny into a pair of saves and serving as the driving creative force as Milan forced Juve into their own half.
That equalizer came four minutes before the break, but it came with immense controversy. The whole move started when Calhanoglu barged Rabiot over from behind as the Frenchman received a layoff in midfield from Dybala and prepared to run with the ball. It was about as clear as any foul could possibly be but Irrati, who was right on top of the play, inexplicably waved play on. Two passes sent Leao down the left wing, and Bonucci was left between a rock and a hard place with Hernandez running in support and couldn’t close him down. Leao rolled the ball across the top of the box to an unmarked Calabria, who side-footed the ball precisely into the top corner. It was an admittedly beautiful finish — it just should never have been allowed to happen in the first place. Daniele Orsato in the VAR room made no move to intervene, and the goal stood. The teams went into the locker rooms level, albeit with Pirlo and several other Juve players and coaches yelling in Irrati’s face as they went.
Buoyed by the equalizer, Milan came out of the break hot, and Szczesny had to make a really difficult save only three minutes in, parrying a dipping shot by Dalot that skipped off the grass just in front of him. But the hosts slowly started to lose steam, and Juve began to see some chances. Ramsey had his second huge miss in as many games in the 56th minute when he latched on to a cross at the back post but missed the target entirely from point blank range. But he was spared his blushes six minutes later when Dybala and Chiesa combined again, with the former whipping a pass to the latter, who took one touch to get the barest of space and ripped a left-footed shot past Donnarumma to regain the lead.
Pirlo had had Dejan Kulusevski and Weston McKennie ready to come into the game just before the goal, and they came on for Dybala and Chiesa before the kickoff. Pioli sent Diaz on five minutes later, and his team should’ve gotten a shot in the arm with 20 minutes to go when Bentancur, who had already been booked for a professional foul earlier in the half, wiped out Castillejo with a late slide tackle. It absolutely deserved another booking, but Irrati didn’t make a move. He did brandish a card at Danilo minutes later after he made an excellent (and legal) tackle to stop Hernandez cold in the middle of the field, showing the world plainly just how terrible an official he actually is. In between the two incidents Juve almost put the game on ice when Ronaldo played a delicious pass into the left channel for McKennie, who blasted in from a deep midfield run and was denied by a one-handed save from Donnarumma.
But the American’s first trip to the San Siro would end in a triumph. It started with Rabiot riding a challenge and sending the ball out wide to Kulusevski, who drifted inward and drove to the byline. The Swede made Romagnoli look silly as he turned him inside out as he headed for the corner of the six-yard box. The run sucked Kjaer in toward the ball, leaving a huge open space that Kulusevski flicked the ball into with the outside of his boot as he went to ground. McKennie dashed past Dalot and swept it home to make it 3-1.
The paucity of options for Pioli really began to tell as the game entered its final stages. Of the four players he introduced in the final 10 minutes, only one was over 20 years old, and two of them were defenders. The closest Milan came to setting up a grandstand finish came in stoppage time, when Daniel Maldini (teenage son of Paolo) charged downfield but caught a case of hero syndrome and tried to go it himself instead of passing it to Diaz, who would’ve had a clear shot on goal. A minute later Diaz went down in the box under a tackle from Rabiot, who clearly made contact with the Spaniard as he went for the ball. It would’ve been a soft penalty, but it was giveable — but Irrati made one last mistake and waved play on, cementing the scoreline and sending Juve back to Turin on the upswing.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 8. Made a string of really excellent saves in the latter part of the first half as Milan started clicking in. Without him Milan could have buried that magical Chiesa opener before the break. I would’ve made this grade this even higher if he hadn’t made a few questionable decisions in passing at points, including one where he hit the ball right off Castillejo that could’ve gone anywhere but thankfully went out for a goal kick.
DANLIO - 7. An absolute rock. His four tackles were more than anyone on either team, and he helped keep Theo Hernandez relatively quiet for most of the night.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 7.5. What a time for him to come up with his best game of the year. He made five clearances and didn’t make any of the mental mistakes that have been peppering his game all year. He even threw a key pass into the equation.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 8. Two tackles and two key passes from the back, de Ligt did a ton of work off the ball as well and shackled a player in Leao that had been in really great form.
FEDERICO CHIESA - 8.5. Truly his coming out party in a Juve shirt. Both of his goals were absolutely gorgeous, and he could’ve had a hat trick if he converted either one of his two other excellent opportunities. Hernandez is more of an offensive fullback, but he’s still one of the better left backs out there and Chiesa repeatedly made him look silly.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 6.5. Completed 95.9 percent of his passes and led the team in dribbles with four. His energy in the press and his burst on the ball is something the team was missing while he was out.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 5. He finished the Udinese game really strong, but this was a really bad game. He gave the ball up in his own half twice in the first seven minutes, including one in his own box, and he was incredibly lucky not to be sent off when he wiped out Castillejo with 20 minutes left. He’s having an up-and-mostly-down year so far.
AARON RAMSEY - 5.5. Only completed 81.7 percent of his passes and had yet another egregious miss from point-blank rage. He also gifted the ball to Leao in the first half and was lucky to be bailed out by Szczesny.
GIANLUCA FRABOTTA - 6. Showed some real flashes early, and while he didn’t put the same kind of stamp on the game that Chiesa did, he was eminently competent in a situation that a lot of people probably didn’t want to see him in. Led the team with two interceptions and, unlike late in the Udinese game, never looked overmatched defensively.
PAULO DYBALA - 7. He wasn’t dropping quite as deep as he has been, and that allowed him to pull a few more strings closer to goal. That showed with two assists and three key passes overall, including that outstanding flick for Chiesa for the first goal.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 6.5. He was absent for some stretches, but still made three key passes, one of which very nearly became an assist when he put McKennie into the channel with a fantastic ball. McKennie was so far from where the ball ended up that him playing that ball bordered on ESP. He wasn’t so heavily involved in getting the ball on frame, but the fact that Juve was able to win this game without him hulking up is a great sign.
WESTON McKENNIE - 7. Brought some defensive solidity and put both of his shots on frame, one of which was obviously a goal.
DEJAN KULUSEVSKI - 7. That assist was really pretty, and he recorded three dribbles in only 28 minutes of work. He was able to bomb forward with the ball the way he did at Parma as opposed to try to build up with it, which completely suited his game as it currently is.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 6. Played very well defensively on the right, racking up a tackle, an interception, and two clearances in 17 minutes. He didn’t try to do anything flashy—he just thumped it out when it needed to get out.
ARTHUR - 6. Helped run the midfield as the team saw out the lead.
MERIH DEMIRAL - NR. Made a couple of good plays on the right side of the defense to prevent a grandstand finish, including blocking a shot.
Was this Pirlo’s ideal football?
Save for one period before the opening goal, probably not. But in a game that was often going end-to-end and required some periods of intense defending, Juve held for the most part. They were perhaps a little lucky that Milan wasn’t quite as clinical as they were on the other end, but Pirlo showed he can be pragmatic when he needs to be and go with the flow of the game to get a result.
It was a little surprising to see Ramsey on the field instead of McKennie, and going in I assumed that Danilo would take one of the wingback spots and Chiesa play on the other side, but the trust he showed in Frabotta turned out not to be misplaced, as the youngster played quite well, and using the quicker Danilo to help Chiesa deal with Hernandez on the right as opposed to Demiral was a great call. His in-game moves were also spot-on. I’d been clamoring for Kulusevski and his ability on the counterattack early in the second half, and he turned out to be key to killing the game off, while McKennie added the solidity the midfield needed to keep Milan from getting back in again.
We’re still in Stupid Hyperdrive Schedule mode for the rest of January. Next up is a home game against Sassuolo on Sunday, then Juve jumps into the Coppa Italia pool with a game against Genoa. After that come two big guns — a return to San Siro to face Inter and then the Supercoppa against Napoli.