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No Ronaldo needed: Chiesa, Kulusevski & McKennie spearhead the Juve youth revolution

The Old Lady topped league-leading AC Milan without needing a big performance from CR7.

AC Milan v Juventus - Italian Serie A Photo by Mattia Ozbot/Soccrates/Getty Images

Juventus didn’t win the Scudetto when the Bianconeri thumped Milan at the San Siro on Wednesday night, but they certainly didn’t lose it. Behind two goals from Federico Chiesa provided by two assists from Paulo Dybala, plus a Dejan Kulusevski helper to Weston McKennie, the good guys clawed three points back from both league leaders and now sit seven points behind the top with a game in hand.

I wrote on Christmas Day that Andrea Pirlo’s side are going to lose the Scudetto. I hope I’m wrong — as I wrote on that day. But more than just hoping I’m wrong, I hope that what happened when Juve beat the Rossoneri is how I’m wrong.

The Old Lady didn’t need a magical night from 35-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo, and she didn’t need defensive wizardry from Leonardo Bonucci or Giorgio Chiellini. Instead, the recently acquired 23-year-old Chiesa bagged a brace and the American scored yet again in a big-time moment. (I mean seriously: he’s scored goals against Torino in the derby, Barcelona in the Champions League, and Milan in a pivotal matchup.)

The best version of me being wrong is that I’m just partially right — maybe the hegemony of the Old Lady goes, but the hegemony of the Young Lady arrives. Transfers of power can be difficult for some (*cough cough cough*); let’s hope Juventus make it happen smoothly.

The changing of the guard AKA let the lads have fun

Man, Chiesa is a freaking maniac, and I will stan all day long for it. I tweeted about a month into the season that he’s kind of like the Italian Juan Cuadrado, and I think that’s still a pretty accurate assessment, but when he is disciplined and contained within his responsibilities he is absolutely unplayable.

Both his goals were struck with such ruthless provision, the first with his right foot and the second with his left. That fact alone — his ability to use both feet — is incredibly valuable. As we’ve seen for some time now, for whatever reason he does appear to play significantly better when lined up on the right side of the pitch, but that doesn’t mean he lacks the ability to cut inside.

Chiesa is a demon to the opposition. When he’s in form, he’s a bundle of contained energy that shreds the right flank up and down leaving nothing but a smoldering pile of ashes (in this case, Theo Hernandez) in his wake.

Of course, little Federico wasn’t the only youth standout. McKennie and Kulusevski made substitute appearances that were much more than just cameos. The run that the Swede made, sliding past a very good center back in Alessio Romagnoli, then just squibbing the ball to the feet of the Texan for the goal, was a thing of beauty.

I’m not sure how many readers here are familiar with basketball, but for my money Kulusevski is kind of the soccer version of James Harden: everything he does is so offbeat, so seemingly awkward, but there’s an undeniable grace to it all the same. He makes opponents think in a way they’re not used to, because he plays in a way that they’re not used to. The assist run was also yet another example of a player going to the opposite side of his strong foot; Romagnoli committed to stopping Kulu from going left, and that’s exactly what Dejan wanted.

And oh yeah: Matthijs de Ligt is 21 years old.

Don’t worry: there’s plenty to worry about

There is still a very, very real possibility that Juventus lose the Scudetto. I hate to rain on the parade.

Winning against Milan was satisfying and promising, but there are a hell of a lot of games left, including more against Milan and Inter, and if Pirlo doesn’t start figuring out how to earn all three points against the lower-tier sides in this league then the Scudetto will be there for the taking by someone else.

The most worrying thing to me about the Milan game is the same thing that has really worried me, and a lot of us, I think, for a long time: for long, long stretches of the game, there’s just a chasm of space in front of the back line, a chasm that, in this case, led to 20 shots (eight on target) for Milan.

Sure, some of those shots were more than speculative, but if it weren’t for Wojciech Szczęsny being amazing, a couple of dumb decisions by Milan players in the final third, and a non-call on an Adrien Rabiot foul in the box, the home side might’ve scored more than a single goal (which, granted, happened because of a missed foul on the other end).

Pirlo has discovered that McKennie is most effective near the opposition’s penalty box; I think that’s right and the move has worked extraordinarily well. Still, though, that leaves a player known for winning the ball on the other side of that gap in front of the center backs, and with so many other players bombing forward in the attack, this team gets exposed all too often.

I have no idea what the solution is. I can say somewhat definitively at this point, though, what the solution is not: Rodrigo Bentancur. After a decent game against Udinese, it was another dud for the Uruguayan. Whatever the midfield solution is, there needs to be something that happens, because the issue is going to result in goals for better teams than Milan — and make no mistake, if Juve are serious about competing in the Champions League, there are going to be a number of better teams standing in their way.

Is Paulo Dybala ... back?

I think we should get one of those electric dog collars and strap it around Dybala’s ankle so that if he drifts too far away from goal he gets a light little zap that sends him back to the final third. That sounds like a viable solution, right?

But seriously: if he would stay in the attacking area, that would be great. Papu Gomez he is not. But Juve’s No. 10, as we know, is very good, and the two assists he provided against Milan were provided from the final third. In the first one, in particular, Dybala positioned himself very well at the top of the box, nestling into a little pocket of space and giving himself the right angle to help connect the give-and-go for the Chiesa goal.

It’s true that in the second assist Dybala was making a run up from the midfield, but he still received the ball in the final third before splashing it over to Chiesa. La Joya was almost caught a little too far back when Juve transitioned to the attack. Stay up there, buddy!

One last word: when Pirlo took off Chiesa and Dybala, who had arguably been Juve’s two most dynamic offensive players up until that point, I thought he was mad. It turns out how he was not mad; he was a genius. The injection that Kulusevski and McKennie gave the Bianconeri was precisely what his side needed, and it led to another goal.

As fun as this win was, the train simply chugs on: the Old Lady faces two tough opponents on back-to-back Sundays — Sassuolo and Inter — with a Genoa Coppa sandwich wedged in the middle.

Wielding this level of talent from young players, and seeing this kind of performance against a league leader, makes me feel a lot better than I have been. There are issues and problems, and there are always going to be at least some issues and problems, but against Milan, Juve showed how critical depth is. Let’s hope these youngsters keep getting better, because if they do then maybe the trophy stays in Turin even longer.