Inter came into the second leg of the Coppa Italia semifinal on Tuesday needing to score at least two goals to overcome Juventus’ 2-1 aggregate lead.
The did not score two goals.
They scored zero goals.
Juventus put on a defensive clinic at the Allianz Stadium. They completely sealed off Inter’s attack despite the Nerazzurri having their two best players back from suspension. Inter caused the odd nervy moment and outshot Juve 21-12, but only put three of those shots on target and had nearly half of them blocked. Juve’s defense bent, but never broke. They could’ve even put the tie away once or twice at the other end in the second half, but Samir Handanovic was equal to Cristiano Ronaldo and kept him out twice with some good saves. It kept Inter in the game, but they couldn’t break through Juve’s resolute back line, and the game ended in a goalless draw, putting Juve into their second straight Coppa Italia final and their fifth in six years.
Andrea Pirlo signaled his intentions with his team selection. While his usual setup is a hybrid between a 3-5-2 and a 4-4-2, the squad he sent out at the start was a straight 4-4-2. Gianluigi Buffon sat at the base, with Danilo, Merih Demiral, Matthijs de Ligt, and Alex Sandro protecting him. Juan Cuadrado, Adrien Rabiot, Rodrigo Bentancur, and Federico Bernardeschi lined up in midfield, with Ronaldo being joined by Dejan Kulusevski up front, who filled in for Alvaro Morata after the latter was struck with a stomach bug. Seven of the players in the starting XI were facing suspension for the final if they were to get booked.
Antonio Conte had Lukaku and Hakimi back, but was missing Arturo Vidal and Alexis Sanchez, who were after they were booked in the first leg. The typical Conte 3-5-2 grew out from Handanovic at the root, with Alessandro Bastoni, Stefan De Vrij, and Milan Skriniar making up the back three. Hakimi joined Matteo Darmian at the wing-back spots, bracketing the midfield trio of Christian Eriksen, Marcelo Brozovic, and Nicolo Barella. Lukaku was joined by Lautaro Martinez up front.
Juventus took the game’s opening kickoff and proceeded to put on an impressive passing display, keeping possession almost constantly for the game’s first nine minutes. They didn’t threaten the goal with it, but they clearly didn’t intend to. The passing was very deliberate, used to take time while taking care to avoid allowing Inter to take to the counter the way they did during last month’s league loss at the San Siro. The one time they did make a misstep and gave the ball away in their own half, Inter were unable to make them pay, Eriksen slipping and falling on the wet turf as Barella’s pass arrived.
Inter caused their first real problems in the 10th minute, when Barella found Hakimi streaking down the right side. Sandro couldn’t catch up and had to let him by. The wingback cut a low cross back from the byline. Demiral dug it out, but the clearance went only as far as Martinez, who controlled and loaded up for a shot. As he swung his foot forward, he hit the foot of Bernardeschi, who had been trying to close him down, instead of the ball. Everyone connected with Inter screamed for a penalty. Conte at one point had to be held back by the fourth official. But referee Maurizio Mariani was perfectly positioned behind the play and made the correct call.
Inter was able to get down the field a little bit more as the game went on, but Juve was still maintaining 68 percent of the possession by the 20th minute, although they still failed to create much in the way of scoring opportunities. In the 24th minute, Hakimi got past Sandro, and the Brazilian’s attempt to recover only managed to take the Inter man out with a slide tackle just above the corner of the penalty area. It earned him a booking, ruling him out for the final, but surprisingly he was the only player on the team to be booked, a supreme display of discipline. The ensuing free kick saw the game’s first real close call, as Eriksen’s free kick snuck over Demiral’s head and hit Lukaku in the midriff and flew past the post. The passage may have ended up for nothing anyway, as the ball came very close to his hand as well.
Two minutes later, Eriksen had a shot of his own, but it was blocked and Martinez massively mishit his own effort when the ball bounced to him, seeing yet another block before it was cleared behind for a corner. It wasn’t until the 33rd minute that either side actually put a shot on target, when Brozovic took advantage of a lot of space to hit a long-range effort that went right to Buffon.
Inter were beginning to take over possession, but Juve managed a small patch at the end of the half, with Ronaldo two blocked shots sandwiched around a kick save by Handanovic at the near post after a shot from the left channel. The teams went into the locker rooms after a testy first half, but with Juve still very much holding the line defensively.
The second half’s story was simple: Inter attacked, Juve tried to counter. One of those counterattacks should’ve come to more four minutes in, when Bentancur needed a better pass to find Kulusevski, who was in space in the right channel. On the other end, Hakimi tried to chip a ball into the far corner in what would’ve been a repeat of the gorgeous goal he scored against Roma right after Christmas, but he put this one too high and it flew over.
Conte would usually send on Sanchez at a point like this, but with him unavailable his first move was to introduce Ivan Perisic for Darmian, adding more attacking impetus to the wings. Right after the Croatian came on, Bentancur made a mistake near the box that almost let Eriksen set up an opener, but Buffon came out and stopped Martinez, who fouled the keeper on his follow-through to bail the midfielder out.
Juve’s main attacking threat was — who else? — Ronaldo, who was inaccurate on one counterattack before a Sandro interception allowed Weston McKennie to set Ronaldo up, but the Portuguese couldn’t get the ball past Handanovic. The Slovenian was on the spot a few minutes later, when Ronaldo took a cross-field pass from Cuadrado, skipped between Skriniar and Barella. He anticipated where Ronaldo was going and dove to parry another well-struck shot, leaving Ronaldo bewildered.
Over the last 20 minutes, Inter kept on pushing, but the force of that push felt like it was waning as time ticked away and the feeling grew that two goals was too much of a task. Multiple shots were blocked, including at least four in a six-minute span from the 74th to the 80th. Any morale Inter had left probably took a significant hit when Pirlo went to his bench and sent on Giorgio Chiellini. He immediately tangled with Luakaku, drawing a foul in the box on an aerial duel.
Inter’s last real chance came with five minutes to go, when Lukaku took down a defensive header on a corner and held the ball up with his back to goal until substitute Stefano Sensi got into position for a pass, but yet another block snuffed out the shot, and after five more minutes, plus four more minutes of stoppage time, the Bianconeri had done their job and sent themselves to the final.
GIANLUIGI BUFFON - 8. High marks for keeping the defense organized in the face of a team that needed to score goals. He commanded the box very well, dealing with most crosses and loose balls that got in range, and what shots did go on target were easily dealt with.
DANILO - 7. Really solid on the right flank, not letting anything get by him via that route.
MERIH DEMIRAL - 8.5. I really wish the stat sites covered the Coppa Italia in depth, because I want to see an official count of how many shots he blocked. Suffice it to say it was a lot. He was always in the right spot and didn’t let anything past him when he was faced up.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 8. He blocked slightly fewer shots than Demiral, but was still immense in the back. In the absence of Chiellini, he was tasked with focusing on Lukaku, and he did it excellently, nullifying him and forcing the rest of the team to take the shots.
ALEX SANDRO - 5.5. He was beaten by Hakimi a bunch of times, especially in the first half. That’s not in and of itself meritorious of a lower grade — so far this season no one has found a way to hold him in check — but it’s how he got beat that gets to me. Several times he gravitated toward the ball and left Hakimi, giving him a head start on a run and forcing him to have to recover.
JUAN CUADRADO - 6. Worked really hard to keep the right side secure, and made one or two good passes on the other end that made some trouble. He was exhausted when he finally came off.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 6. Made a couple mistakes and could’ve made some better passes, but in the context of Pirlo’s strategy he did well to defend, making tackles and disrupting passing lanes.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 6.5. A second straight good game. Kept a lot of passes out of the box and ran a few good counterattacks.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 5.5. The usual game for him these days, getting into decent positions but not doing much when the ball came out his way. Did pretty well defensively before he was pulled.
DEJAN KULUSEVSKI - 5.5. Ran his heart out, but wasn’t on point going forward and could’ve done better when involved in the counterattack.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 6. Was denied by a couple of really good saves by Handanovic. He misfired on one or two other counterattacks, but for the most part Handanovic was just really good.
WESTON McKENNIE - 6. Made a bunch of good tackles and provided Ronaldo with what might’ve been Juve’s best opportunity just after he came on.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - NR. Seriously, how demoralizing must it be to need two goals in 10 minutes and see Giorgio Chiellini getting ready to check into the match. He helped lock things down in the final minutes.
FEDERICO CHIESA - NR. On to provide a last bit of energy (and maybe draw a free kick or two).
Andrea Pirlo continues to do his best impression of Massimiliano Allegri, as he’s taken to the defensive, using his team’s excellent crop of center backs to absorb pressure and neutralize his opponent’s attack. He didn’t even need to focus too much on the counterattacking aspect in this one, as a goal wasn’t even necessary to advance.
Maybe we’re just not as used to a coach being so flexible watching the intransigence of Maurizio Sarri last season, but Pirlo has taken a sharp turn from the kind of game that we know he espouses in the last week to confront the specific situation at hand. The fact that he was able to do so while giving some important players at least a partial rest was another big achievement. After all the criticism he got while he had to use competitive games to experiment and figure out how the team fit together, I think it’s time to start thinking that maybe Pirlo’s getting a handle on this coaching thing.
Juventus will move on to the Coppa Italia final in May, which will be against either Atalanta or Napoli — ironically the two teams that have knocked Juve out of the competition in the last two seasons. The two teams played a goalless draw in the first leg, so it’s all to play for in the second leg on Wednesday.
The next game on the schedule is a trip to Napoli, who will be going into the game without their top two center backs because of COVID-19 (Kalidou Koulibaly) and an ankle injury (Kostas Manolas), respectively. Then, Juve end a grueling stretch of fixtures with the first leg of the Champions League Round of 16 at Porto.