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Keys to beating Inter in the Coppa Italia final

A piece of silverware to salvage the season is possible — but Juve is going to have to get it right.

FC Internazionale v Juventus - Serie A Photo by Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images

A week from now, Juventus will take the field in what will be the last meaningful game of the season: the Coppa Italia final against Inter Milan.

The Bianconeri will be the decided underdogs heading into the contest. Inter have six points on Juve this season and still have a shot at defending their title (barf) should AC Milan slip up at some point in the last three rounds. Inter also have the edge in head-to-head meetings this year, being unbeaten in the three that they’ve played.

Those three games have all been relatively close, however. In their first meeting at San Siro, Juve were thoroughly outplayed, but didn’t let Inter put them away and managed to pull even on a late penalty. Their next meeting was at the Supercoppa Italiana in January, a game that was played to a dead heat only to see a mistake by Alex Sandro at the literal last second gift the Nerazzurri a 2-1 win. A month ago Inter visited the Allianz and saw Juve play an uncharacteristically aggressive game, but ran out 1-0 winners thanks to a somewhat dodgy penalty call—and several equally dodgy no-calls on the other end.

Juve will come into this game as underdogs, and rightfully so, but those head-to-head results show that Juve can indeed win this game — if they get things right.

And what does getting things right entail? Glad you asked, Timmy. There are some very definable keys to this game for the Old Lady, and we’re going to run them down here.

Starting ... now.

Make the goalkeeper work

In his prime, Samir Handanovic was one of Serie A’s — and perhaps the world’s — best goalkeepers. There were a few individual seasons where he was probably the best performer in that year. He’ll go down as a legend at Inter, and rightfully so.

But he’s 37 now, and isn’t aging as gracefully as some of his contemporaries. Over the last two seasons some tremors have crept into his game. That was plain to see in April, when Handanovic made several mistakes that could have been far more serious had Juve managed to make him pay for them. It’s clear that he’s in the end stage of his career. Inter has flatly acknowledged this by agreeing to a deal with free-agent-to-be keeper Andre Onana, currently at Ajax.

But Onana won’t arrive until the summer, which means that Handanovic will be between the sticks for Inter next Wednesday night — at least if he’s healthy. While he played against Udinese over the weekend, he missed Inter’s rescheduled game with Bologna last week with an abdominal injury. Let’s check in on how his backup, Ionut Radu, was doing in his absence.

... YIKES.

Whichever keeper winds up playing, there is a serious concern in goal for Inter right now. Juve have to make the most of that by putting as many shots on target as possible.

That has unfortunately been a dicey proposition of late. Juve have been racking up shots overall at a much better rate than they were earlier in the season, but not nearly enough of them have been quality attempts. Look no further than the last game between these two teams for proof of that. The eye test saw a Juve team that was far better than they had been for much of the year, but the stats behind that performance told a different story. Despite outshooting Inter 22-5, only four of those shots were on frame, a serious letoff for a clearly struggling Handanovic. Juve has seen similarly wide gaps between shots and shots on target in recent games against Bologna and Venezia. In the latter match, Juve put only four of 17 shots on target, only one of those four came from open play, and all of them were taken by defenders.

This trend is going to need to change if Massimiliano Allegri is to avoid Juve’s first trophyless season since 2010-11. Their opponents are shaky at best in goal, and if they’re to pull off an upset they’re going to have to take advantage of that and make the keeper work as much as possible.

Neutralize Brozovic

One of the keys to Juve’s first few games against Inter this season — as well as last season — was a man who isn’t on the team anymore.

Dejan Kulusevski was much maligned during his time at Juve. He never lived up to his potential (although he’s now showing it in spades up in London), but my erstwhile large adult son played critical roles in several Derby d’Italias over the last few years by taking on the thankless task of man-marking Marcelo Brozovic.

Brozovic is the straw that stirs Inter’s drink. without his presence at the base of their midfield, their flow tends to fall apart, and he’s been absent for some of their poorer results this year. Only Milan Skriniar has a higher pass completion rate, and he averages a key pass a game, in addition to being a defensive rock, averaging 2.3 tackles and 1.1 interceptions per match, both team highs.

Brozovic is the key to Inter’s midfield, and neutralizing him as much as possible is a major step toward beating them. The question becomes how to do that now that Kulusevski, who had done the job quite well during Andrea Pirlo’s tenure and the first part of Allegri’s, is gone. Last month Allegri seems to have compensated with a team-wide press, which seemed to work quite well, seeing as how Inter only had five shots and only hit the target from the penalty spot. Allegri should be thinking of cooking up a similar plan on Wednesday, or if not something that will similarly keep Brozovic penned in and unable to orchestrate.

Minimize mistakes

You’d think this goes without saying, but after the Supercoppa it bears repeating. Had Alex Sandro not had a brain fart with literal seconds left, that game goes to penalties and who knows what might have happened.

Inter is a difficult enough team to beat as it is. Gifting them opportunities to beat you yourself is a recipe for disaster. Juve have to come into this game focused and refrain from any gift-giving until the post-game jersey swap. Otherwise they could get punished very quickly.

Be as healthy as possible

What this essentially means is pray to whatever holy thing you ascribe to that Juan Cuadrado manages to get healthy enough to play in this game. All the other injured players, like Weston McKennie and Manuel Locatelli, are pretty much locks to miss the rest of the season at this point. Cuadrado is the only difference-maker who could make a return for this match, and to put it bluntly he’s going to be badly needed. Cuadrado is one of the team’s most consistent sources of offense, and while they’ve muddled past Sassuolo and Venezia without him, you can be forgiven for being far less bullish about their chances against Inter with Federico Bernardeschi starting out on the right. Having Cuadrado healthy drives the chances for success up tremendously.

A corollary to this is making sure the guys who are healthy stay that way. With the top four locked up, Friday’s game against Genoa is completely meaningless, and it’s not a bad idea to dip into the U23 side and give a few guys a breather. The second team is playing in the Serie C promotion playoffs right now after finishing eighth in their girone this season, but their purpose is ultimately to serve the first team, and if that means bringing a few guys up to give guys like Danilo a breather before the biggest remaining game on the schedule, it has to be done. A major injury could be a complete game-changer, and it has to be avoided.