When Juventus and Inter last met right before the international break, tensions ramped up toward the end of the game and a fracas broke out, resulting in post-match red cards for Danilo D’Ambrosio and Leandro Paredes.
For much of Tuesday night’s meeting in the first leg of the Coppa Italia semifinal, the ill will seemed to be a bit more bottled up. Indeed, everything seemed to be a bit more bottled up. The match was cagey as hell, with little in the way of fireworks of any kind, especially for the majority of the second half.
But then match finally exploded into life in the last seven minutes. A well-taken goal by Juan Cuadrado gave Juve the late lead and, it seemed, all of the momentum heading into the second leg later this month. But, a profoundly stupid mistake by Bremer only 20 seconds from time gifted Inter the chance to equalize from the spot. Romelu Lukaku duly dispatched the penalty, but his celebration sparked a fracas, and in the end both Cuadrado and Lukaku saw yellow cards, the latter of which being the Belgian’s second of the day. Cuadrado continued the argument with Samir Handanovic after the final whistle, and the usually mild-mannered keeper eventually lost it as well, resulting in both players getting straight reds.
It was a chaotic end to a match that had seriously lacked pizzaz. As much as the late confrontations will be the headline, it must be noted how seriously disappointing the 1-1 result on the scoreboard is. The penalty was the definition of “unforced error,” and it leaves everything to play for when the second leg comes around in three weeks when they could — should — have gone in with a lead that they could manage. That’s in part because the team slid into some of its uglier habits, and partly because they couldn’t quite seal the deal on the offensive end when they could have.
Massimiliano Allegri was in a situation that he’s not often used to: he had almost the entire team available for selection. The only two players that were totally unavailable were Paul Pogba and Leonardo Bonucci, while Alex Sandro and Federico Chiesa returned to the bench but weren’t fit to start. Allegri sent out the 3-5-1-1 that has become the standard this year. Mattia Perin made his usual Coppa start, screened by the defensive trio of Federico Gatti, Bremer, and Danilo. Cuadrado and Filip Kostic manned the wings around the midfield of Nicolo Fagioli, Manuel Locatelli, and Adrien Rabiot. Angel Di Maria floated as usual behind Dusan Vlahovic.
Simone Inzaghi came into the game with his job reportedly on the line. His Inter had lost three consecutive games, and most in the Italian media presumed that this was the first of three games that would determine whether or not he would be sacked. He was missing two major pieces in Hakan Calhanoglu and Milan Skriniar. He deployed his usual 3-5-2. Samir Handanovic, who had been relegated to No. 2 this year behind Andre Onana, got the start, with D’Ambrosio, Francesco Acerbi, and Alessandro Bastoni arrayed in front of him in defense. Nicolo Barella, Marcelo Brozovic, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan made up the midfield, with Matteo Darmian and Federico Dimarco bracketing them. Edin Dzeko partnered Lautaro Martinez in attack.
Juve very nearly delivered the breakthrough with their first attack of the game, when Rabiot and Locatelli swarmed Mkhitaryan at midfield and got the ball forward to Vlahovic, who left it off for Di Maria. The Argentine made a great move to turn Bastoni around before pulling the ball back across the grain, only to be tipped around the post by the very last digit on Handanovic’s finger.
Juve kept up some pressure early, but Inter slowly started to take control of possession, although there was very little end product for both teams. A good cross by Bastoni was headed over by Martinez, then the Inter center-back made a fantastic last-ditch tackle to keep Danilo from getting on the end of a flicked-on corner.
Inter didn’t create any true danger until the 33rd minute, when Dzeko laid the ball back to Mkhitaryan, who squared it to an open Brozovic at the top of the box. The midfielder stroked it through a crowd of three defenders, but Perin managed to see it and got down quickly to parry it away.
Four minutes later, Juve nearly responded when Fagioli sent a great cross into the box, but Vlahovic couldn’t do more with his header than put the ball straight at Handanovic. Inter had a pair of chances right at the end of the half, but Bremer made a huge block on Dimarco at the near post, then D’Ambrosio put a free header over the bar.
Juve had another excellent chance right at the beginning of the second half. Again it was Fagioli who provided the ball into the box, and Vlahovic drifted toward the far post to get his head too it. Unfortunately, he was leaning back and got just a tad too far under it, sending it whizzing over the bar.
As the second period went on, Inter definitely kept more control of possession, though Juve’s defense didn’t let them do anything with it. Mkhitaryan came closest when faked out Locatelli in the box and then pushed the ball just wide of the post. Both teams started trying to change things up, with Allegri sending on Chiesa and Fabio Miretti just after the hour mark and Inzaghi responding a few minutes later with Lukaku and Robin Gosens. Still, both teams remained sloppy and neither one could create a headline chance until the 78th minute, when Cuadrado slipped a ball in to Arkadiusz Milik only to see the Poland international turn the ball wide with half the net begging him to score.
But the breakthrough finally came five minutes later thanks to one of Juve’s oldest warhorses. As Juve built up play on the left side, Cuadrado was left increasingly alone on the right. By the time Rabiot put a cross in that flew just over attacker and defender alike, he was completely alone behind the play. Latching on to the errant ball, he settled himself and drilled it past Handanovic, while Bastoni’s desperate lunge on the line only served to hasten the ball on its way into the net. It was exactly the kind of goal Cuadrado has made his career scoring, and Juve, finally, had the lead.
But they couldn’t hold it.
Inter desperately looked for an equalizer, and when Lukaku was stopped with a point-blank block by Locatelli just before stoppage time, it looked like their chances at finding one were slim. Then, just as it looked like the three added minutes would go by uneventfully, Bremer had a monumental brain fart and left his arm hanging out as he tried to adjust to a header across by substitute Denzel Dumfries. Referee Davide Massa properly pointed to the spot, and after a brief VAR check to see whether or not Dumfries had fouled Kostic (debatable, but probably not), Lukaku lined up the penalty. Perin did all he could to hold his ground, but leaned too far to his left as Lukaku’s slow run-up unfolded, and the Belgian duly stroked it home.
It was here that the crazy started.
Lukaku had been booked in the 80th minute after a really cynical tackle on Gatti, and was reportedly on the end of monkey noises from the Curva Sud in the aftermath. After scoring, Lukaku directed his celebration directly at the ultras in the Curva. He’s well within his right to do so — especially if racial abuse was a catalyst — but he perhaps took things too far, continuing to shout and gesture at the stands until well after his teammates had started trying to get him away. He must have carried something a step too far, because eventually Massa brandished a second yellow card. Several Juve players were agitated, Cuadrado most of all, and he saw a booking as well that put him over the tournament’s suspension threshold.
When the craziness finally ended the ball was put back into play for a few seconds before Massa blew the final whistle, but the bad blood didn’t end there. Cuadrado remained irate and started berating Handanovic, who eventually snapped himself, and the ensuing fracas saw both players send off post-whistle. The ill will even started spilling into the tunnel. Bad feelings are common in this fixture, and with the second leg waiting, the intensity level looks to be high with a trip to the final at stake.
MATTIA PERIN - 7. Made an excellent save in the first half to deny Brozovic, and most everything else was routine except for the penalty.
FEDERICO GATTI - 6.5. Stood firm in his position all game long, and got rather adventurous charging into the attack when he sensed the opportunity. He continues his good spell of form.
BREMER - 5. Ruined an otherwise excellent day with a simply stupid mistake at the end of the game to give away the penalty. He knows better.
DANILO - 7. His usual effective self. He completed 93 percent of his passes, won five of eight duels on the ground, and registered three interceptions. A typically excellent day.
JUAN CUADRADO - 6. Successful in all three of his dribble attempts, and he took the opportunity he was given with aplomb. He should’ve kept himself on a more even keel at the end, because he would’ve missed the second leg either way through his booking or his red card, and he may have left himself open to a longer suspension.
NICOLO FAGIOLI - 6.5. Sent in two beautiful crosses for Vlahovic that counted for his two key passes. He was the only really creative force in the midfield Tuesday night.
MANUEL LOCATELLI - 6. Finished with 88 percent completion and a key pass, and had a late block that looked for a moment like it would be critical until a few minutes later. Also picked up a pair each of interceptions and clearances on the defensive end.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 6. Excelled defensively and really neutralized Barella, who has often been a thorn in Juve’s side. But his moves forward weren’t as authoritative, though he did produce the ball that put Juve into the lead.
FILIP KOSTIC - 5.5. Had a key pass but only attempted three crosses, none of which found their mark. He completed 96 percent of his passes, but only attempted 24 of them in a full game.
ANGEL DI MARIA - 5. Nearly broke through with an excellent shot early on in the game, but really disappeared after that.
DUSAN VLAHOVIC - 5. Fell out of the game too much, although he came close to scoring with his header early in the second half. His chances are far between, he has to take them.
FEDERICO CHIESA - 5. Didn’t get the opportunity to make any real waves in his time on the field. Frankly, he looked a little timid at times, like he’s a little too afraid of his knee.
FABIO MIRETTI - 5.5. Couldn’t get much going forward but was stalwart enough defensively.
ARKADIUSZ MILIK - 5. Only touched the ball four times, but one of them was a really rough miss.
In the two league wins against Inter, I’ve given Allegri some praise for setting the team up not just to defend, but to defend proactively. If you’re going to play the defensive tactics Allegri favors, it’s the only way to be successful.
Unfortunately, Juve fell back a little too much into a more passive defensive posture in this game, at least once Inter got the ball out of their defensive third. As a result they couldn’t generate the kind of short-field runs that made them so dangerous in the two prior fixtures. Apart from Di Maria’s early chance, Inter were able to get relatively deep into the defense without being molested.
To the credit of the defense, they were unable to do much with all that possession, but playing in a system that needs to turn defense into attack, Allegri has to make sure that that defense comes on the front foot and not the back.
The second leg will be on April 26 in Milan. The away goals has (thank God) been removed from the semifinal this year, so the job is simple: win at San Siro, much like they did last month. It’s worth noting that Juve have played Inter at this stage of the Coppa Italia five times before this one and never lost the tie.
Next on the docket is another tricky matchup at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome, taking on Lazio and a thundering herd of their fans in a key top-of-the-table clash.