The signs that the cycle is well and truly over have been cropping up all season. They were the culmination of a few years worth of bad decisions from management. It was inevitable, of course, for Juventus to eventually fall off the pedestal they’ve occupied for years. But that didn’t make it any more jarring when the curtain finally came down with utter finality.
Sunday’s 3-0 loss to AC Milan was the nadir of a long, slow decline, an unacceptable performance in what had turned into the most important game of the season up to this point. With a serious advantage in the race for the top four on the line, neither team played particularly well, and until Milan scored their second goal in the 78th minute it wouldn’t have been a stretch to have said that a draw would’ve been the fairest result given the performances. Then the bottom dropped out, and defensive breakdowns saw Milan score their last two goals within four minutes of each other, while Juve never once looked like they were capable — or sometimes even interested — in responding.
The victory not only dropped Juve into fifth place in the Serie A table, a point behind Napoli, but flipped the tiebreaker into Milan’s favor as well, meaning Juve are on the wrong end of the tiebreaker with all three of the teams they’re battling for a top four slot. As things stand now, Juve will need an immense regroup, coupled with some help in the form of a breakdown above them, to qualify (conditionally, at least, given the status of the Super League fallout) for the Champions League.
For what was essentially the first time all season, Andrea Pirlo had a full squad at his disposal going into the game. With everyone available, he moved back to his more hybridized 4-4-2/3-5-2 scheme. Wojciech Szczesny started in goal, with Juan Cuadrado, Matthijs de Ligt, Giorgio Chiellini, and Alex Sandro arrayed in front of him. Weston McKennie, Rodrigo Bentancur, Adrien Rabiot, and a returning Federico Chiesa made up the midfield, with Cristiano Ronaldo and Alvaro Morata up front.
Stefano Pioli was missing only Samu Castillejo, who was suspended for yellow card accumulation. Gianluigi Donnarumma, whose contract status has been front-page news for the last several weeks, started in goal behind Pioli’s usual 4-2-3-1. Davide Calabria, Simon Kjaer, Fikayo Tomori, and Theo Hernandez made up the back four, with Franck Kessie and Ismael Bennacer making up the double pivot in midfield. Alexis Saelemaekers, Hakan Calhanoglu, and and Brahim Diaz were arrayed behind Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who had missed the first game the two teams had played in January.
For the first seven to 10 minutes of the game, it looked like Juventus might rise to the occasion. They held possession and gained a couple of corners, one of which turned a half-decent chance when de Ligt volleyed a flicked-on corner toward goal only to be turned away by a block from Hernandez, who was very much the worse for wear after being hit by the powerful strike. In the 14th minute Rabiot was fed into the left channel by a good through ball, but Tomori was covering him tightly and blocked the shot.
After the 15-minute mark, Milan started getting themselves forward a little more, and in the 18th minute a smart passing move up the middle gave Diaz an opportunity in the box, but Sandro faced him up well and forced him to fire over. The Spaniard got his next effort on frame three minutes later, but it was right at Szczesny.
No one on either team (with he possible exception of de Ligt at the back for Juve) was really covering himself in glory, but both keepers would have particularly rough moments in the first half. Donnarumma came out nearly 40 yards when he had two defenders in position to try to deal with a through ball for Ronaldo and got lucky that the ball didn’t end up falling to a Juve player. On the half hour, he was even luckier after he flapped at a corner kick and missed it completely, only for Chiellini to glance the free header wide with the net gaping.
Bentancur made a good interception in the 33rd minute and charged down the field before hesitating as he got into the box, allowing Kjaer to step up to block his shot. In the 37th Milan had their best chance to that point, with Hernandez blasting up the left side and outrunning both Cuadrado and McKennie. He spotted Ibrahimovic at the back post and crossed it, only for Sandro to come tracking back with an absolutely perfect defensive header to clear for a corner. Hernandez was back at it just before stoppage time began, but his cross was deflected by de Ligt, and Szczesny readjusted himself to claim it.
But the first half had a final, gut-punch of a twist to run before the teams went into the locker room. It came in the first minute of stoppage time on a Milan corner. Szczesny came of his line to meet it, but went for a punch instead of a catch. That punch only went as far as Diaz, who rode a challenge from Cuadrado and cut inside in the box. For a reason known only to him and the Lord, Szczesny stayed at the top of his six-yard box, and when Diaz unleashed a perfect shot to the far top corner, the only potential intervention was Chiellini, whose desperate jump wasn’t able to connect for a block. There was a VAR check to make sure Diaz hadn’t handled the ball in the box, but the goal stood, and Juve went into the half a goal down at the worst possible time.
Juve did look like they had a response in store when they opened the half with their first shot on target, an excellent move through the middle that saw Morata set up a streaking Bentancur with a back-heel, but Donnarumma got down to parry the first-time shot. But it was little more than a tease — it would be the only shot Juve would put on target the entire game.
Instead Juve’s possession turned sterile, with nothing happening in midfield and the attack reduced to crosses being pumped in from the wings, only for Kjaer and Tomori to clear them back out immediately. Milan didn’t exactly look like world-beaters either, but they were clearly the more dangerous team. They had a chance to put the game away just before the hour when Chiellini made a silly mistake and threw his arm out as he tried to block another Diaz shot. Referee Paolo Valeri didn’t catch it in real time, but it was plain to see, and a quick VAR corrected the mistake. But Kessie, who had scored his last seven penalties, made a lazy run-up and fired one to his right that was the perfect height for Szczesny to parry away. It was the second time in three years that Szczesny had denied Milan from the spot.
The Juves of the past would have taken that shift in momentum and turned the game around. This Juve is so poorly constructed that they simply couldn’t muster up any response. It didn’t help that Pirlo watched the team flail and flounder without doing much of anything. In a game that was begging for changes, he ended up being the second of the two coaches to make a substitution, although that was partly because Ibrahimovic had to limp off with a knee injury. Pirlo, on the other had, made no attempt to lift a finger toward his bench until the 67the minute. Paulo Dybala, the biggest attacking threat on the bench, waited even longer.
Too long, as it turned out. Just before the Argentine was about to be introduced, substitute Ante Rebic received a simple pass with a light-year of space in either direction, and the Croatian unleashed a gorgeous 25-yard shot that flew in in the extreme upper 90. Four minutes later, Tomori got a way from everyone and headed in a free kick from Calhanoglu to provide the final margin of victory.
A consolation would have at least seen the head-to-head record tied, sending a tie to overall goal difference, which Juve has an edge over Milan on even after this result. Dybala got himself into a good shooting position twice, in the last few minutes, resulting in yet another block by Kjaer on the first one and a clipped shot just wide on the second. But nothing was coming to save Juve this time, and when Valeri blew his whistle, they were staring a season without the Champions League in the face.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 5. What he was doing on that first goal is really beyond comprehension. He did gain some measure of redemption when he saved the penalty, so a 5 seemed like the most appropriate grade.
JUAN CUADRADO - 5.5. He made six key passes, which frankly was a surprise because I didn’t realize Juve had created enough chances for the whole team to combine for six. He sent a ton of crosses into the area but few of them did much, and his set piece delivery was pretty poor as well, often not making it past the first man.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 6. A team high in both tackles and clearances (three each) and one of the few guys on the team to be able to say he was worth his jersey today.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 4.5. Committed a blatant handball for a penalty that Szczesny bailed him out on, and was outjumped by Tomori for the final goal. One of the first times ever that he’s sort of looked his age.
ALEX SANDRO - 6. Made a fantastic defensive header in the first half and generally held his own defensively all night long, and had a header off a corner blocked.
WESTON McKENNIE - 5. He just isn’t the same player since that hip injury. He pushed up a little more forward early, but he just wasn’t as effective as he was early in the year. Did make three interceptions, but he needs to do more. Perhaps the summer off will heal him up and get him right.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 5.5. Got Juve’s only shot on target, but only completed 84.1 percent of his passes and couldn’t create any issues for the Milan defense.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 5.5. Showed a flash or two in attack and had a good shooting opportunity charged down early, but his 93.9 pass completion didn’t do much to create anything in midfield.
FEDERICO CHIESA - 4. The rust showed after his layoff, and he didn’t come up with anything on the left side. Juve will need him to click in over the last three games.
ALVARO MORATA - 4. With the exception of a nice back-heel to set up the shot Bentancur had saved, he did little and less up front. No holdup, no buildup, nothing.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 4. Not much of anything up front either. Neither of his two (!) shots hit the target, and he did little to create for his teammates either. A barometer of how little he was involved: he only had five more touches than Szczesny.
DEJAN KULUSEVSKI - 5. Got one key pass but couldn’t provide anything with a spark on the outside.
PAULO DYBALA - NR. Came on way too late, but he had more shots in 12 minutes than anyone in the starting XI.
Early in the season, Andrea Pirlo had a few games where he turned things around with a well-judged and timed substitution. He’s been a little more gun-shy about his changes in the last few weeks, which was partly down to the availability of his players, but in a game he had to have when it was clear that things weren’t working, for him to wait so long to make any changes — and then to only make two of them when he had a fully stocked bench — was unacceptable.
Why was Arthur not put into the game? Surely his presence on the bench meant he was healthy enough to play at least a little bit. Yes, he’s made some boneheaded mistakes in recent appearances, but he could’ve shown Milan’s midfield a little bit of a change of pace. The fact that Dybala was sitting on the bench for almost the entire game and then turned in arguably the best shift out of anyone in black and white in his 12 minutes on the field is maddening. Pirlo may have put one of his best XIs on the field to start — with perhaps the exception of leaving Danilo out — but his in-game reaction was poor judgement at best and a complete freeze-up at worst. With the Champions League hanging by a thread, Pirlo’s job is hanging by an even thinner one, and this time his performance was abjectly bad.
Juve are in fifth place, a point behind Napoli in fourth. They travel to Sassuolo on Wednesday, then host Inter on Saturday. Then the Coppa Italia final pokes up before the season finale against Bologna.