After Wednesday’s Coppa Italia final against Atalanta, Giorgio Chiellini told reporters of a conversation he’d had with Gianluigi Buffon over a pre-game lunch. “For the first time in 10 years,” he said, “Juventus went into an Italian final and were not the favorites. It felt a bit strange.”
That’s probably how most Juventini felt after going into the game at the Mapei Stadium in Reggio Emilia.
Juve were wobbling their way home in a tough run-in and no longer held their Champions League destiny in their own hands. Atalanta had just confirmed their status in Europe’s premier tournament for a third year running, and were running roughshod over their competition. In the six games since their late 1-0 win over Juve in Bergamo, Gian Piero Gasperini’s men had won four and drawn two, outscoring their opponents 18-7. Juve had also won four of six since, but also suffered an embarrassing loss against AC Milan and a bad draw against Fiorentina, to say nothing of the fact that they’d had to pull a win out of the fire late against Udinese in that stretch as well. They hadn’t kept a clean sheet since a 3-0 win over Spezia on March 2.
All that, plus the general struggles Juve have had against Atalanta over the last three or four years, didn’t look like much in the way of optimism would be had for the Bianconeri. The more optimistic amongst us were likely a little more downcast after a first half where Atalanta were borderline dominant, despite Juve taking the lead against the run of play. But coming out of the break with the game tied at 1-1, something rather unexpected happened: Juve played an utterly dominant second half, allowing Atalanta only three shots and coming through with the winner with 15 minutes to go. It was the kind of football Andrea Pirlo had talked about playing all season, but that we saw precious little of as the season wore on. The 2-1 victory sealed a consolation prize for the team after a disappointing season and saw Buffon — and possibly a few more — off with one more trophy in Juventus colors.
Pirlo’s formation was as usual listed as a 4-4-2, although a lot of his hybridization into 3-5-2 was evident, especially in the second half. As is customary, the No. 2 keeper started, giving Buffon what is almost certainly his last game for Juventus, for realsies this time. (No, I just have something in my eye. Shut up!) Alex Sandro was suspended and Leonardo Bonucci was a late addition to the injury list, necessitating a slight shuffle in defense, which was made up of Juan Cuadrado, Matthijs de Ligt, Giorgio Chiellini, and Danilo. Weston McKennie, Rodrigo Bentancur, Adrien Rabiot, and Federico Chiesa made up the midfield bank, while Dejan Kulusevski got another surprise start up front alongside Cristiano Ronaldo.
Gasperini went with his tried and true 3-4-1-2 formation. Pierluigi Gollini was the goalkeeper, screened by the trio of Rafael Toloi, Cristian Romero, and Jose Luis Palomino. The dangerous pair of Hans Hateboer and Roben Gosens patrolled the flanks, with Marten De Roon and Remo Freuler create the double pivot in midfield. Matteo Pessina stood in the hole behind Duvan Zapata and Ruslan Malinovskyi.
Atalanta started this game at maximum warp. Within three minutes Zapata had created the game’s first big chance when he rounded de Ligt at the end line and fired in a low cross. Palomino was bombing forward and got to the ball first. His shot had Buffon moving the wrong way, but he stuck out his legs and fended the ball away. Barely another 60 seconds had gone by when Zapata had an opportunity for himself, bringing a ball down from Gosens and holding off Chiellini to turn and fire wide of the near post.
Juve looked to be set up to counterattack the way they had been in Bergamo a month ago. They got downfield a time or two early, but couldn’t find the final product to test Gollini in goal. Kulusevski came the closest in the seventh minute when he barreled down the right channel on the break, but he had to defenders in front of him and no shooting lane, so he tried to center the ball only to see it intercepted.
Both teams had early penalty shouts, with Juve screaming for a VAR check after Chiesa went after a ball and might’ve taken a bit of a kick from Romero, while at the other end a giveaway by McKennie led to a one-two between Pessina and Zapata, but the Italian midfielder was met by Rabiot in the box and the Frenchman delivered an excellent challenge that a somewhat biased Gasperini bemoaned as a clear penalty after the match.
Ronaldo delivered the latest installment of Wall Time after being taken down outside the left corner of the box, while Freuler came close to opening the scoring with a cross-goal effort from an acute angle that crept past the far post.
Atalanta were clearly the better team through the first half hour, but it was Juve that suddenly took the lead. The move started with a thunderous but fair challenge from Cuadrado on Gosens. A short bout of head tennis ended with McKennie heading into Kulusevski’s path. Romero stopped Ronaldo as he tried to take Kulusevski’s pass into the box, but he didn’t get it clear and the ball bounced off a fallen Ronaldo and fell kindly for McKennie, who teed up Kulusevski in the right channel. The Swede took a first time shot that took an outrageous bend as it nestled into the net with Gollini completely helpless to stop it.
Atalanta responded, and Hateboer forced Buffon into a save on a header within four minutes. They continued to swarm forward, and eventually their pressure paid when Rabiot was pressed off the ball far too easily by Freuler. The Swiss quickly moved the ball along the right to Hateboer, who found Malinovskyi trailing the play unmarked. He absolutely crushed the shot from the top of the box, giving Buffon no opportunity to stop it. Hateboer nearly created another goal in less than two minutes, but Danilo got down to sweep his low cross away from Zapata.
Atalanta had clearly been the team on top in the first half, but in a turnaround Chiellini likened to the 2017 Champions League final, but this time in the good way. Juve came out a different team, pressing with the same ferocity that their opponents had done in the first half and completely shifting the game’s momentum. McKennie headed wide just three minutes in, and 10 minutes later Chiesa took the ball to the byline and put it across low. Kulusevski was at the near post and stabbed it toward the goal, but Gollini got down to keep it out.
Chiesa had a golden opportunity two minutes later, taking a gorgeous back-heel from Ronaldo but smacked it into the far post with the goal gaping at him. After Ronaldo was able to turn and fire a tame shot at Gollini, Gasperini had seen enough and made some adjustments, sending on Luis Muriel and Mario Pasalic to try to regain the impetus.
But five minutes later, Juve had the second goal that their second-half performance so richly deserved. It was Chiesa who was the start and the finish, ironically while Paulo Dybala was standing at the halfway line ready to replace him. McKennie had launched a cross over everyone in the box, but Chiesa alertly stepped in front of Hateboer on the far side and retained possession. He circled around and then cut hard inside, dishing the ball to Kulusevski and then continuing his run. Toloi was ball-watching and could only watch the winger burst past him and receive a fantastic return pass, putting him one-on-one with Gollini and firing the ball through his legs and Juventus into the lead.
Gasperini had to respond again, and he sent out his last big card in Josip Ilicic, who immediately caused trouble up front and laid one off for Muriel, who skied his shot well over the bar. Pirlo responded by sending on Bonucci, who was apparently well enough to play from the bench, to solidify the back line for the last few minutes. Desperation and frustration began to break through for Atalanta, and after De Roon was called for a foul on Danilo near the Juventus box the Dutchman was booked for dissent and Toloi, who had been replaced earlier by Berat Djimsiti, was shown a red card on the bench. Juve had chances to put the game away in stoppages, with Cuadrado making a long run only to turn away and Danilo forcing a save out of Gollini after cutting inside, but when a last desperate ball over the top went over Zapata’s head and bounced — fittingly — into Buffon’s hands. The game was over, and it was time to celebrate.
GIANLUIGI BUFFON - 8. Made a couple of really good saves in the first half and kept the defense tight in the second half. A fitting end to his second tenure at Juve. Grazie, San Gigi.
JUAN CUADRADO - 6.5. Sagged off of Gosens too much in the first half, putting the team in unnecessary danger, but corrected that in the second half and ended up racking up three tackles, two interceptions, and a block on defense with three key passes going forward.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 6. Got beaten a couple of times early by Zapata. Finished with three tackles and three interceptions, along with an important block of a Romero shot that he paid the price for getting stepped on.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 7. Made two interceptions and four clearance, including a couple of thumpers late on that kept Atalanta from coming close to the goal. It’s a bounce-back after some shaky performances lately, and a fitting end to his Juve tenure if this season is indeed it for him.
DANILO - 7. Kept Hateboer quiet for all but a few minutes at the end of the first half, and ended things with three tackles and a pair of clearances.
WESTON McKENNIE - 6. Got the assist on the opener and recorded four tackles overall, although he could’ve been less wasteful on a few more attacks. Still, the tactics from today started letting his best qualities shine through again.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 6. Only completed 80 percent of his passes but was prodigious winning the ball back, racking up four tackles and four interceptions.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 5.5. Also had a low pass completion rate (82 percent) and was directly responsible for Atalanta’s goal, first in losing the ball and then in failing to track Malinovskyi after he picked himself back up.
FEDERICO CHIESA - 7.5. Quiet in the fist half but exploded in the second. Frankly his miss early in the half was borderline egregious, but he made up for it with an excellent finish and becoming the second generation of Chiesa to win the Coppa Italia. Bonus fact: both he and his father have won the Coppa as a teammate of Gianluigi Buffon.
DEJAN KULUSEVSKI - 8. His best day as a Juve player by light-years. His goal was the kind of absolutely exquisite curler that made him so desirable on the transfer market last year, and his assist to Chiesa was just as gorgeous. Overall he had four key passes and was accurate on two of his three crosses. More of this Kulu please.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 6.5. Active at the front of the formation, and had Chiesa scored at his first opportunity that pass would’ve been talked about for days. Ultimately he didn’t get himself many good shooting lanes, but his intensity all day was a welcome thing.
PAULO DYBALA - 5.5. Kinda just there up front after Juve took the lead again, but made a few good passes and helped Juve see the game out.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - NR. Surprising to see him, as the reports — and his own manager — had made it sound like he was completely unavailable. But he was an important part of the defense in the last few minutes, making a big headed clearance and an interception.
That second half was Pirlo’s football through and through. In his post-match press conference, he explained how he changed things, telling Cuadrado to push things with Gosens and McKennie to push the center backs. That maximized the American in ways that haven’t been seen since his mid-season heyday, and overall sealed Atalanta’s attack while they searched for the goal that would regain his lead.
Pirlo should also be commended for the way he saw the game out. The move to insert Bonucci was a page right out of his old coach’s book, looking very much like Max Allergi’s use of Andrea Barzagli late in games in the 2014-15 season. Bonucci turned the formation into a more straight 3-5-2, and he made a couple of interventions that were key to keeping the lead intact. He may well have outcoached Gasperini, which is not something anyone was expecting they’d be saying as the teams walked out onto the field today.
There’s just one more game left on the schedule, on Sunday at Bologna. Juve must win to have any chance at a Champions League spot, and need either Napoli or AC Milan to drop points against Hellas Verona and Atalanta, respectively.