It was only 16 days ago that Juventus went into the San Siro to play Inter Milan and came out humiliated. On Tuesday, the Coppa Italia draw gave them a chance to get even when they took a return trip for the first leg of the semifinal.
For a minute, it looked like it might be a retread of that day at the San Siro when a series of rather shambolic mistakes led to Inter taking another early lead. But unlike two weeks ago, Juventus mustered a response.
It wasn’t particularly pretty, but Juve managed to come alive and take advantage of two huge Inter mistakes — the latter of which came from the last person you’d expect one from — and struck back to take the lead. In the second half, Andrea Pirlo clearly took to a more defensive posture, largely doing to Inter what they had done to Juve two weeks ago and nullifying any creative impulses they might have. There were moments of danger, largely through Juve’s own mistakes, but Inter weren’t able to take advantage of them the way Juventus did their own. Things got sloppy as the game went on, and the chippiness that the Derby d’Italia manifested itself as things went on. But as the final minutes ticked away, Juve came away with a 2-1 victory — and two huge away goals — that they’ll carry into next week’s second leg in Turin.
Pirlo made some significant changes to the side that beat Sampdoria over the weekend. His 3-5-2/4-4-2 hybrid had Gianluigi Buffon at its base, playing in his 1,100th career match as a professional. The back line was completely different, from the weekend, with Merih Demiral, Matthijs de Ligt, and Alex Sandro setting up in front of Buffon. Juan Cuadrado and Federico Bernardeschi bookended the midfield of Adrien Rabiot, Rodrigo Bentancur, and Weston McKennie. Cristiano Ronaldo made his first start of the Coppa campaign, joined by Dejan Kuluesevski up front.
Antonio Conte looked to replicate the success he had two weeks ago, but was without two key pieces in Romelu Lukaku and Achraf Hakimi, both of whom were suspended due to yellow card accumulation. Still, the 3-5-2 he deployed was very close to its full strength. Samir Handanovic started in goal behind the back line of Milan Skriniar, Stefan De Vrij, and Alessandro Bastoni. Matteo Darmian played in Hakimi’s place opposite Ashley Young, with Nicolo Barella, Marcelo Brozovic, and Arturo Vidal in midfield. Lautaro Martinez paired up with Alexis Sanchez in the absence of Lukaku.
Juventus took the initiative in terms of possession, but it was of the kind that saw a lot of probing and not a lot of danger. In the ninth minute, a cross from Sandro was headed out of the box by Skriniar. It fell to Vidal at the edge of the box, who spotted his countryman Sanchez on a solo run into the Juve half and found him with an excellent long pass. Demiral was matching him, but Sanchez, who is anything but a prima punta, produced an excellent bit of holdup play until Barella came up in support. Sandro had gone to the ball instead of covering Barella’s run, leaving him a clean run. Meanwhile, on the back side, de Ligt had trouble tracking the run of Martinez, eventually allowing him to cut in front of him as Barella put the ball into the box. Martinez hit the ball first time, but even then the shot was central and Buffon got a full hand to it but let it squirm past and trickle into the net.
It was a cacophony of errors, and the nature of the goal — another counterattack — gave the game the feeling of deja vu all over again. Juve’s slow and languid passing only reinforced that notion, only producing a wild shot that Sandro sent into orbit.
But in the 23rd minute, Inter let them back in with a mistake of their own. Bernardeschi had sent a terrible cross into the back post. No one had any chance of getting to it, but for some reason Young grabbed on to Cuadrado’s arm and dragged him to the ground. A confrontation developed in the box when Cuadrado reacted angrily to several opponents’ efforts to haul him to his feet, but the fracas may have given extra time for the VAR to buzz down to referee Giampaolo Calvarese, who, after a slight delay due to technical difficulties with the monitor, returned and pointed to the spot. Ronaldo stepped up and hit an absolutely unstoppable penalty down the middle and high into the roof of the net as Handanovic dove to his left.
Juve felt the momentum changing and upped their intensity, but things still started looking like a stalemate until Inter’s second big mistake. It came when De Vrij hit a back pass into his own end of the field. It ended up into a no-man’s land between Bastoni and Handanovic, with the latter coming well out of the box to meet it but Bastoni, perhaps thinking he wouldn’t make it in time, playing the ball. Ronaldo was on him immediately and took it away. His shot was deceptively difficult — with his left foot from an acute angle and outside the box on the left wing — and to be honest I initially thought it was going wide, but it hit the base of the post and bounced in. It was a mistake completely out of character for a keeper as good as Handanovic, but a gift gladly accepted.
Juve had one opportunity to extend the lead before the break, but Handanovic saved Bentancur’s shot from outside the box, while Vidal was booked for bringing Ronaldo down with a sliding tackle, taking him over the limit and ruling him out for the second leg.
In the second half, Pirlo clearly made the decision to back off and defend his lead. That job could have been made easier in the early phases of the period, as both Vidal and Young, who had been booked during the penalty incident, were involved in challenges that could easily have produced a second yellow for either of them. Inter had their chances to equalize, but the best of them were gifted to them rather than created on their own. One of the latter came only four minutes into the half, when Young tried to atone for the penalty when a free kick was headed into his path and he fired a shot that Buffon had to tip over the bar.
Juve nearly put things out of reach in the 55th minute when Bernardeschi took a square from Cuadrado and put a shot on frame. Handanovic had to adjust to a deflection and managed to parry it around for a corner. Two minutes later Juve nearly gave their rivals a huge gift when Bentancur took a terrible touch that Vidal pounced on and served into the box for Sanchez to go 1-on-1 with Buffon. Sanchez beat the onrushing keeper but was denied by an incredible block by Demiral, who had smartly headed straight for the goal line when he saw the giveaway. The Turkey international had actually overrun the shot, but stuck his trailing leg out behind him to deflect it past the post.
Juve calmed things down for the next 10 minutes, but Sanchez forced another good block, this time a lunging effort from De Ligt, and then a minute later Juve’s left flank completely lost track of Darmian. Sanchez emerged from a crowd of black-and-white shirts to find him in the right channel, but Buffon atoned for his earlier effort with a point-blank save, pushing it just beyond the reach of Martinez, who got a foot to the rebound but couldn’t control it.
Right after the save Pirlo made his first move of the day, sending on Danilo for Bernardeschi to shift Sandro to the wing-back spot and get a little more defensive moxie into the side. Conte countered by sending on Christian Eriksen, the hero of the quarterfinal against AC Milan, for a more creative spark in the middle of the park. The Dane was nearly the beneficiary of another Juventus mistake when a pass from Buffon out of the back missed Rabiot and he was teed up by Ivan Perisic, but he put his shot right at the keeper.
Inter continued to push for a second goal, but never got as good a chance for the remaining 12 minutes. Indeed, McKennie came closest out of anyone to scoring when he was denied by Handanovic two minutes from time. Sanchez put himself over the yellow card limit in stoppage time, removing him as an option for the second leg, and after four extra minutes the final whistle sounded, sending Juve home with the advantage.
GIANLUIGI BUFFON - 5.5. Martinez’s goal was just shy of a howler for Buffon, who has stopped more difficult shots even at his age — and indeed saved one in the second half, which is why his rating isn’t lower. I still couldn’t bring myself to go all the way up to 6 on the strength of that mistake, though.
MERIH DEMIRAL - 6. He could have done a lot better against Sanchez as he held the ball up in the run-up to the Inter goal, but that block off the line was insane, and makes up for it. Fantastic heads-up play, and he had made the exact same run to the line when Darmian had his shot denied.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 5.5. Like Buffon, he falls just shy of a higher grade on the back of a really bad mistake on the Inter goal, when he completely missed Martinez’s run. His subsequent play clawed him away from it being a truly bad game, making a couple of good blocks.
ALEX SANDRO - 5.5. Part of the defense-wide mistake on the goal when he got obsessed with the ball and completely missed Barella’s run. Adequate beyond that error, but it was pretty glaring.
JUAN CUADRADO - 6. Posed a threat going forward, even though he wasn’t at full throttle, and earned the penalty with one of those far-post runs he likes to make. Defended very well on his side.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 6. Defended well, playing especially well when Juve pressed in the first half.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 5. Defended pretty well, but some of his giveaways ... phew. Demiral bailed him out, otherwise this grade would be a lot lower.
WESTON McKENNIE - 5.5. His first meh game in quite a while. He wasn’t quite as dynamic in the middle of the park and didn’t make as much of a mark going forward, although his defense and ball-winning was pretty much on point. It did look like he might need a rest, though.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 5. Was out of position a few times defensively — where on earth was he looking when Darmian came in alone on that flank? — and his crossing from the wing was pretty atrocious. The fact that one of his worst earned Juve their penalty was the height of irony.
DEJAN KULUSEVSKI - 5. Very little impact in Tuesday’s game. Part of it was a matter of not getting a lot of service, part of it was his own tough decision making. The one time he really got a strong run into the box he dribbled too much and missed some potential support.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 7. He didn’t exactly take the game over, but his grade is upped by the exquisite quality of both finishes. His penalty was absolutely unstoppable, down the middle and into the roof of the net, and his second was at a wonky angle with his off foot and required a ton of spin to tuck itself into the back post. True class finishes.
DANILO - 6. Defended well upon coming on and even moved up the field a few times. Solidified things when he came on.
ALVARO MORATA - NR. Didn’t really get much in the way of service on the counterattack, and was a little weak in the air against Inter’s center-backs.
ARTHUR - NR. Shielded the ball well, giving Juve a couple of spells of late possession that they needed to the play the game out.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - NR. Cleared a ball out of the box seconds after he came on. Doesn’t matter how long he’s out there, he goes.
FEDERICO CHIESA - NR. On to see things out at the very end.
It’s been interesting to see Pirlo, whose early days was filled with talk of the high press, making changes to that philosophy when the situation starts calling for it. It started after the Inter loss when he dropped his high line back a little bit in order to protect his older center-backs from counterattacks, and on Tuesday he decided to eliminate the counterattack as a tactic altogether by dropping back to defend the lead in the second half. Inter still had their chances, but the majority of them came from Juve’s own mistakes as opposed to their own buildup, and there were stretches in the second half Inter looked about as devoid of ideas as Juve did two weeks ago.
This openness to change things and be pragmatic in the moment is a big thing to watch in Pirlo’s continued development as a coach. Inflexibility was Maurizio Sarri’s biggest weakness, while Masssimiliano Allegri sometimes took it too far. If Pirlo finds a medium between the extremes, the experiment with him at the helm could end up turning out better than a lot of people expected.
Juve head into the second leg with a 2-1 lead, with two precious away goals. Any draw would put Juve into the final, and even a 1-0 loss would let them in thanks to the antiquated tiebreaker. Inter need to win by two clear goals — or score at least three away goals themselves — in order to turn the aggregate over.
Before the return comes a league game against Roma, and it’ll be followed by a trip to Naples to face Napoli again. Then the Champions League resumes as Juve travel to Portugal to face Porto.