One of the defining problems of Massimiliano Allergi’s second tenure at Juventus to date has been his utter lack of success against top sides.
Last year, Allegri registered four wins, six draws, and four losses against the rest of the top eight in Serie A. That record dropped to zero wins, four draws, and two losses against the three teams that finished ahead of them. That trend has continued this season, with Juve drawing twice and losing once against the teams that they’d played that finished in last year’s top eight.
Inter has been a particular problem. They played four games in all competitions against their deadly rivals, including the Supercoppa and the Coppa Italia final. They drew their first meeting, then lost the next three. The games were never blowouts. Juve led in both the Supercoppa and the Coppa final before succumbing to mistakes both on the field (Alex Sandro’s most mystifying moment as a footballer) and off (Allegri going suicidally defensive with far too much time left on the clock). Even their loss in Serie A came about thanks to an extremely contentious penalty call.
But lose they did all the same, twice having to suffer the indignity of watching Inter raise trophies as they did so.
Suffice to say, Sunday night’s game at the Allianz Stadium, the first edition of the Derby d’Italia of the 2022-23 season, was an important one in more ways than one. Beating Inter is always important, but beating Inter — even though they were having their own sputtering start to the season — would represent their first truly big win domestically since Allegri returned.
Watching the first half, one would’ve very much been forgiven for thinking that such a win wasn’t in the cards. Juve were awful simply awful. They failed to put a shot on target — the first time since such stats were maintained that they had failed to do so against Inter in league play. Meanwhile, their opponents had created a handful of excellent chances that they somehow managed to spurn, leaving the score level at the break when they really should have been up multiple goals.
Out of that gloom, Juve rose up and played a starkly different second half. Inter still had the majority of the possession, but Juve’s counterattack suddenly became far more dangerous and infinitely more clinical. Less than 10 minutes after the restart, Juve had smashed-and-grabbed their way to a lead, one that they held (thanks in part to some more suspect finishing) until sealing the deal late on, dealing their hated rivals a major blow with a 2-0 loss and propelling themselves up the table to within two points of the top four with two games left before the World Cup break.
Allegri came into the game still nursing a massive selection headache. The list of players missing out on the game was enough to need a M*A*S*H* unit. Apart from the ever-present Paul Pogba and Kaio Jorge, the list included Dusan Vlahovic, Weston McKennie, Leandro Paredes, Samuel Iling-Junior, Moise Kean, and Mattia De Sciglio. Allegri did, however, get a boost from the return of Gleison Bremer and Angel Di Maria. With the attack severely depleted, he deployed a 3-5-1-1 setup that was almost identical to the one that turned in a surprisingly positive performance midweek against Paris Saint-Germain. Wojciech Szczesny sat at the base of the formation with Danilo, Bremer, and Alex Sandro arrayed in front of him. Juan Cuadrado and Filip Kostic played as wing-backs, sandwiching the midfield of Adrien Rabiot, Manuel Locatelli, and Nicolo Fagioli, the latter of whom was making his first ever Serie A start. Fabio Miretti once again took up a supporting role in the hole behind Arkadiusz Milik.
Inter manager Simone Inzaghi wasn’t nearly in the same crisis situation as Allegri, but he was missing a few important pieces coming in. Marcelo Brozovic, who had missed nine games with a muscle injury, was back in the squad but only fit for the bench, while Romelu Lukaku and Danilo D’Ambriosio didn’t make the trip. Additionally, Alessandro Bastoni was forced to bow out due to a flu-like illness. Still, there was more than enough in the pantry to stock his usual 3-5-2. For the first time in 11 seasons, Samir Handanovic was not in goal for Inter in a league game against Juventus, giving way to his replacement Andre Onana. Francesco Acerbi replaced Bastoni in the back three, joining Milan Skriniar and Stefan De Vrij. Denzel Dumfries and Federico Dimarco bracketed the midfield trio of Nicolo Barella, Hakan Calhanoglu, and Henrikh Mikhitaryan. Edin Dzeko and Lautaro Martinez joined forces up front.
Inter rocketed out of the gates. Within three minutes of the start of play Dimarco got on the wrong side of Cuadrado to get onto a long diagonal ball and cut inside for a shot, only to hit his own teammate. Two minutes later Dzeko headed a Dimarco cross down to tee up Martinez from 14 yards, but he had to pull wide with Fagioli in the way.
Inter continued to press their advantage, looking fully like the superior team they’ve been the last two seasons in this rivalry. In the 10th minute Calhanoglu stole the ball from Miretti and unleashed a long bolt of a shot that bounced just in front of Szczesny, but he blocked it and then smothered the mini-rebound with no trouble.
Juve had been decidedly on the back foot, and the only time they really gave Onana a reason to breathe heavier came in the 19th minute, when Bremer gained the ball in midfield and then continued to bomb forward. Kostic sent in a cross to the back post that the Brazilian defender chased after and met with a flying volley that crashed into the side netting.
Inter continued to boss things, and by the end of the half had two golden chances to take the lead before the end of the half. In the 26th minute, Martinez flicked a corner on to Dzeko, who had a free header but somehow pushed the ball just over the upper corner with Szczesny stranded. Three minutes from the break, Mkhitaryan launched an excellent long ball in the direction of Barella and Dumfries. Thanks to a missed assignment somewhere, the two Inter players ended up two-on-one with Sandro, but when Barella volleyed the ball back across for Dumfries the wing-back caught it as it was bouncing up and skied the ball over with Szczesny again completely stranded.
Juve were overwhelmingly lucky not to be down multiple goals going into the half. It looked like we were in for more of the same when Calhanoglu shimmied free of Miretti after latching onto the clearance off a corner and hit a wicked dipping shot that Szczesny had to tip onto the bar. Juve continued to show little impetus in the attack, at one point prompting Matteo Bonetti on the Paramount+ broadcast to remark how mystifying it was that Juve so often play in scoreless games like they were protecting a lead.
Within moments of Bonetti saying that, Juve conceded yet another corner kick.
A minute later, almost absurdly, Juve had the lead.
The clearance of the corner headed out in the direction of Kostic. The Serbia international used his body superbly to shield off Barella and took off downfield. Barella never had a chance of catching up with him, and the wing-back slipped a low cross along the ground to Rabiot, who had run into the left channel completely unmarked. The midfielder opened himself up and struck the ball with the inside of his right foot, slicing it past a despairing Onana and nestling it into the net at the far post. Where Inter had been wasteful, Juve had been clinical, scoring with their very first shot on target to take an improbable lead.
Inter continued to keep the most possession, but Juve became a much more dangerous team after the goal. Just after the hour mark, they thought they’d gotten the breathing room they needed when Danilo overcame the physical attentions of De Vrij and met a Kostic corner, lifting a leg and shinning the ball into the net.
As the celebrations died down and the players took up positions to resume the match, a sudden announcement came that a VAR review was in progress, followed by the additional detail that it was looking for an attacking handball. Eventually, a close viewing of the replay showed that the ball had grazed the fingertips of Danilo’s right hand after it hit his shin. That arm had been locked inside De Vrij’s as they had jostled each other, and he had no way to remove his arm from the path of the ball. The Dutch defender was essentially holding his arm in the way. Unfortunately, the attacking handball rule is as absolute as it is asinine: if the ball touches a hand in any way on its way into the net, the goal is ruled out. There is no room a referee to apply common sense in these situations, and even Daniele Doveri looked sheepish as he explained the ruling to the Juventus players.
Inter had been given a massive reprieve, and 15 minutes later they should have equalized. Rabiot came a hair’s breadth from going from hero to goat when he made his only mistake of the match — a horrific back pass that was easily intercepted by Joaquin Correa. The substitute then played Martinez into the right channel in what was practically a 1-on-1 with Szczesny. The Argentine even sent the keeper the wrong way as he tried to go near post, but his shot was too straight and the big Poland international made a phenomenal kick save to keep Juve ahead.
By this point, Federico Chiesa had come on to replace Milik, his first Serie A action since blowing out his knee in January. The move created a highly unorthodox front line, and initially it looked like a bad decision. Without a big player to target with a long outlet clearance, Juve had to rely on passing their way into a counterattack, leading the players who could trigger such an attack — specifically Kostic and Chiesa — to drop deep waiting for the ball to come to them. That gave Inter the ability to seal Juve into their own half, as there was often literally no one there to receive the ball when Juve was forced to clear long.
One of the few times in the early part of this phase of the game that Juve did get out of their half saw Kostic nearly put the cherry on top of a phenomenal performance, getting a diagonal switch from Fagioli and hitting a thunderous shot from the left side of the box that Onana somehow got just enough on to push it onto the goalpost.
With nine minutes left, Inzaghi made a triple change, including the introduction of Brozovic as his best option. Inter desperately pressed their search for an equalizer, but were continually thwarted by the combination of Danilo and Bremer, who seemed to be everywhere in the box hoofing balls away from the attackers. One of those defensive interventions by the latter triggered another excellent counter, with Di Maria carrying the ball forward and feeding Kostic into the left channel. Chiesa and Di Maria were present in the middle of the box as targets, but both were covered. So the winger went with Door Number 3, threading the ball through the gathered defenders to Fagioli, who had trailed the run and was left completely unmarked in the opposite channel after Robin Gosens moved to double team Chiesa. The German tried to make about-face to defend the new threat, but could only deflect Fagioli’s powerful shot, leaving Onana flying in the wrong direction as the ball ripped into the back of the net.
It was Fagioli’s second straight league game with a goal and his first at the Allianz.
Chiesa was looking for icing on the cake when he got behind the defense on another counter two minutes later, but his shot was saved and he was flagged offside anyway. Juve managed the game perfectly the rest of the way, and not even six minutes of stoppage time could give Inter the chance for even a consolation, leaving Juve victorious, finally, against their deadly rivals and vaulting up the table to threaten the top four.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 7. The kick-save on Martinez with 15 minutes left was absolutely critical, and he was quick to any balls in the air that he could claim. An assertive and highly effective performance for someone who had been starting to draw criticism again.
DANILO - 8. He was everywhere in defense, often out-jumping the likes of Dzeko and constantly popping up in the box to get things clear. He registered a whopping eight clearances and also blocked a shot. He earned the captain’s armband he took over.
BREMER - 8. An absolutely huge day, all the more impressive considering that a lot of us thought he would be forced off at halftime after tweaking his knee chasing a long ball over the top. He registered two tackles, three interceptions, and five clearances, several of which triggered some highly effective counterattacks. Oh, and he very nearly scored a goal-of-the-year candidate with a flying kick that Liu Kang would’ve appreciated.
ALEX SANDRO - 6. Not as flashy as his defensive partners but still very effective. Made very few mistakes and was often in the right position to keep Inter’s attackers away from dangerous spots. He seems far better suited for a back three as opposed to a fullback/wingback role at this point.
JUAN CUADRADO - 5.5. He was just kinda ... there. He didn’t make any major mistakes, nor did he stand out with a major contribution. Most of Juve’s major moves came from the other side of the field.
NICOLO FAGIOLI - 8. His goal was only the icing on the cake. Fagioli registered two key passes, intercepted two passes in midfield, and was constantly in the right place at the right time, moving the ball instantly to keep attacks moving. This is the kind of thing he showed while he was capable of on loan at Cremonese last year. Juve have another star in the making here and need to let him shine.
MANUEL LOCATELLI - 6. Another good performance to layer on top of his excellent midweek outing. He kept the ball moving and was a rock defensively. Playing alongside other ball-players like Fagioli and Miretti are making him better.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 8.5. Rabiot was absolutely everywhere. His goal was exquisite, he added a key pass to go with it, and had six tackles on the defensive end, along with an interception and a clearance. If this isn’t his best performance for Juve, the list of what beats it is small indeed.
FILIP KOSTIC - 8. Far and away his best performance in a Juve shirt. He dominated the left side in the second half, constantly bombing forward and putting in excellent crosses. His assist to Rabiot was excellent, and the one to Fagioli was even better, spotting him on the back side through a whole load of traffic. He should’ve had a third but for idiot rules.
FABIO MIRETTI - 6. He’s still not at his best in this trequartista spot, with little to no support to push the ball like he loves to do. Still, he popped out the occasional bit of skill, like a delicious pass for Cuadrado midway through the first half. He’s still a little naive marking skilled and wily players like Calhanoglu, but that will come with experience.
ARKADIUSZ MILIK - 5.5. He ran his ass off, but he only touched the ball nine times in 72 minutes. That’s partly a product of Juve’s awful first half and partly a product of the way the game flowed, which saw trailing midfielders in much better position to take shots than he did, as he was often ganged up on by multiple defenders.
FEDERICO CHIESA - 6. Lively at the top and, more importantly, looked confident as all hell, which is a great indication that he has real confidence in his knee.
ANGEL DI MARIA - NR. Triggered the counter that ended in Fagioli’s goal. Now, stay healthy.
Allegri’s hands were tied by who he had available, so there isn’t a whole lot to criticize about how he set the team up to start. Indeed, he actually does deserve some praise for the way he set up the defense — namely, the exclusion of Leonardo Bonucci, who simply doesn’t have it anymore and needs to be used sparingly. His back three was unorthodox on paper with two converted full-backs occupying spots, but with Bremer at its spine it worked.
If there is one thing that I would really critique, it was the way he handled the Chiesa/Milik substitution in the last 20 minutes. With Milik off the field, Juve lost the reference point they could’ve had to keep hold of any long-distance clearances, and there was a brief period when Inter were threatening to completely seal Juve into a full-on siege because there simply wasn’t anyone there to corral long balls. Juve eventually figured out how to get out of that with passing, but it was a serious risk that invited a period of sustained pressure.
Of course, it’s possible — even probable — that he simply had no choice and that Milik was gassed. But if he indicated he could’ve gone 90, I would’ve let him do it, simply because without his skillset the risk was quite high that Inter could’ve made the last 10 minutes permanent one-way traffic.
Juve have two more games on tap before the league breaks for the World Cup. On Thursday, a trip to the Veneto to face Hellas Verona. Then Juve comes back home and welcomes former coach Maurizio Sarri and his surging Lazio side.