For the second straight week, Juventus came into their scheduled game in position to jump multiple positions in the table and, while no longer in control of their destiny, to at least keep themselves alive in the race for a Champions League place for the season’s final weekend.
For the second straight week, Juventus couldn’t summon the mental fortitude to take advantage of that situation.
In a game that the schedule makers certainly had hoped would be a lot more intense than it turned out to be when the fixture list was released last summer, Juve bettered AC Milan for the vast majority of the first half, only to see their opponents score with their first genuine chance of the game right before halftime.
The second half was an exercise in playing out the string. It was clear that Juve’s players were mentally shot, while Milan, who needed only a point from the game to ensure their participation in next year’s Champions League, knew better than to take any unnecessary risks. Both teams combined for only two shots on target in the second half. Entertainment it was not, but as the 1-0 loss ended, it confirmed that for the first time since 2011-12 Juventus would not play Champions League football.
Massimiliano Allegri was without Nicolo Fagioli as well as Dusan Vlahovic, who was left off the squad with a muscle injury shortly before announcements were made. Joining them in the unavailable list were Mattia De Sciglio, Paul Pogba, and Kaio Jorge, as well as Matias Soule, who is with Argentina at the U-20 World Cup. Allegri made several changes to the lineup that belly-flopped against Empoli on Monday, starting first and foremost with the formation — which, for him, was surprisingly offensive-minded. Wojciech Szczesny started behind what proved to be a 3-4-1-2 formation. Federico Gatti, Bremer, and Danilo formed the back three. Juan Cuadrado and Filip Kostic were the wing-backs, bracketing the double pivot of Adrien Rabiot and Manuel Locatelli. Angel Di Maria floated behind the front two of Federico Chiesa and Moise Kean.
Stefano Pioli was without Ismael Bennacer and Sergino Dest, along with the perpetually injured Zlatan Ibrahimovic. He sent out his usual 4-2-3-1, formation, with Mike Maignan in goal behind the back four of Davide Calabria, Malick Thaiw, Fikayo Tomori, and Theo Hernández. Rade Krunic and Sandro Tonali were in midfield. Juinor Messias, Brahim Diaz, and Rafael Leao supported Olivier Giroud in the attacking line.
The first phases of the game looked relatively even. Both teams probed a bit, with neither one getting themselves into position to make the final killer pass. Krunic registered the game’s first shot for Milan with a near-post header on a corner kick that he sent wide, then three minutes later Messias got a shot away from the channel but could only curl the ball straight into Szczesny’s gut for a straightforward save.
Maignan got his first test a few minutes later when Cuadrado took a pass from Danilo, settled it, and sent a long-distance shot skittering over the turf that the French keeper was able to parry away as it bounced up in front of him. Ten minutes later, it’s arguable that Juventus should have taken the lead after Kean made a great dribbling run through the channel before pulling the ball back. Kostic was alone in the box in perfect position to slam it home, but Di Maria came flying in from behind him and tried to hit a volley at full stretch that went flying well over the bar.
Soon after a neat passing move put Chiesa into the box, but he had a difficult angle and fired over as well. Kean tested Maignan on the turn from the edge of the box just after the half-hour, but it didn’t have the power to be anything more than routine for one of Serie A’s best keepers.
While no means besieging the Milan goal, Juve were still the ones creating more and better chances as the half wore on. But in the absence of some actual goals, all that advantage can be gone in an instant — and so it proved with five minutes left before the break.
Giroud was the man who would break the deadlock, taking an early cross from Calabria and, leaning ever so slightly behind himself, placed a header across the grain and just past the outstretched hand of Szczesny. The placement of the cross was perfect, in just the right spot for Giroud to get his head to the ball while simultaneously being impossible for Gatti marking him to attack it. It was a gut punch of a goal very much against the run of play, and it sent Juve into the half looking to figure out a way to regain the momentum.
Unfortunately the answer to that question never materialized.
Juve never looked like they had a plan to break the Milan defense down for the two goals they needed to keep their hope of a place in the top four alive. The only time they put the ball on target in the half came in the 55th minute, when Rabiot loaded up from distance, but his shot lacked power and Maignan’s save was routine.
Allegri’s attempts to shift things via substitution were odd, to say the least, sending on Arkadiusz Milik and Leandro Paredes for Di Maria and Kostic, creating a weird look that didn’t really have a wing-back on the field on the left side. Samuel Iling-Junior, perhaps the most dynamic attacking force available to Allegri on the bench, wasn’t sent into the action until there were just under 20 minutes to go — just after Juve lucked out when Giroud made the wrong decision and missed the run of Diaz, who would’ve been 1-on-1 with Szczesny, on a counter. Instead he passed to Alexis Saelemaekers, who still had a good effort on goal that was denied by an excellent kick-save from the Poland international.
As the game was played out, Rabiot fought his way inside Hernandez for a header but pushed it wide, then in stoppages a corner kick set Danilo up for a volley inside the six-yard box, but the shot hit Pierre Kalulu, who had no idea he was even in its path, proving once and for all that it simply wasn’t to be Juve’s night.
Another 90 seconds or so were bled off the clock, and the game — and Juve’s string of Champions League appearances that had reached 11 years — came to an end.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 7. Made a really great save against Saelemaekers to keep what hope Juve had of getting back into things alive. Performed all of his duties with the quality we’ve come to expect from him.
FEDERICO GATTI - 6. He was the marker on Giroud’s goal, but Calabria’s cross had been put into a position where his marking wouldn’t have mattered one way or the other. But he had a very good game overall and helped keep Leao quiet, at one point keeping up with him enough to tackle the ball cleanly away from just behind him.
BREMER - 6. Kept Giroud relatively quiet — the goal had been the French striker’s first touch in the penalty area on the night — and dealt well with any midfield runners, especially Tonali, who was particularly adventurous in the first half.
DANILO - 7. Another day, another really good performance by Danilo, who had two tackles, three interceptions, three clearances, and a blocked shot today, to go along with a pair of key passes on the other end.
JUAN CUADRADO - 6. Had a key pass and was the only Juve player to truly test Maignan in goal. But the biggest part of his night was his defensive effort on Leao, which, in tandem with Gatti, kept him almost completely quiet the entire night. In the process racked up a game-high five tackles and added in two clearances.
MANUEL LOCATELLI - 6. Played slightly more forward than he has for the majority of the season, and it paid dividends with a pair of key passes, while his dogged defending helped Juve regain possession many a time in the first half.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 6. Wasn’t quite so effective in the middle of the park, attacking with aggression but sometimes without control. He did have three tackles in midfield, helping to keep Tonali from pulling strings and forcing the young Italian farther forward in search of touches.
FILIP KOSTIC - 5.5. Didn’t get involved enough up front, especially in the second half before he was removed. Did have some bad luck when Di Maria took what was almost a certain goal away from him.
ANGEL DI MARIA - 5. He was credited with two key passes, but the mark he made on this game was more about being in the way than anything else. That includes his egregious mistake to go for a Hollywood shot instead of noticing a perfectly-placed Kostic behind him. Also interfered with Kean when he intercepted a a bad back in the Braves’ box.
FEDERICO CHIESA - 5.5. Lively when he tried to be, he was keyed in on the entire game and unfortunately didn’t get a ton of unobstructed looks. Had four shots total, most of which were blocked, and none of which tested Maignan. Predictably, had to drift out wide for his best moments.
MOISE KEAN - 6. Extremely active in the first half. He played well with his back to goal and tested the keeper with a shot on the turn in the middle of the first. Tailed off in the second half as his service dried up.
ARKADIUSZ MILIK - 5. Only touched the ball six times and didn’t get a single shot away.
LEANDRO PAREDES - 5.5. His presence allowed Locatelli to push up, and he produced two key passes in just under half an hour. Still, he wasn’t able to come up with anything truly incisive.
SAMUEL ILING-JUNIOR - 5.5. Brought some energy to the left side, but didn’t focus that energy into an end product. Showed some of his rawness in this one.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - NR. On at the end of the game after Bremer asked for a sub for some sort of muscle injury.
This is a team that’s completely checked out. The mental and physical toll of a really long season can certainly drain a roster’s batteries, and the off-field shenanigans surrounding the team can’t have helped.
But the fact of the matter is that this is a team that still has things to play for, and when that’s the case, it’s up to the manager to make sure they are mentally ready for the remaining schedule. On Sunday, that absolutely didn’t happen. With the exception of a couple of guys (Gatti comes to mind) this team has simply shut down. Considering the fact that they actually had a response the first time all the off-field business came down on their heads, that’s an indication to me that Allegri simply doesn’t have the same command of this locker room anymore.
When it comes to the game itself, Allegri made some decisions that were head-scratchers. The player mix he sent out looked on paper like a 3-4-3, but Chiesa and Di Maria were both roving so much — and often ending up on the same side — that it was clear they weren’t playing as wingers. Allegri’s insistence on putting players into whatever position he damn well pleases is well known, but it’s particularly frustrating when Allegri so obviously resists doing so even when has the exact combination of players on the field to do so. It felt a little like the end stages of Giampiero Ventura’s ill-fated spell as coach of the Italian national team, when it felt like he was excluding Lorenzo Insigne simply out of spite for the journalists that had called for his presence in the team.
His substitutions were also very strange, especially his first batch of two, as it put a set of players on the field that simply didn’t go in all the right places on the field. Replacing Kostic with Paredes essentially left the team without a wing-back on the left side, and the fact that Iling-Junior came onto the field as late as he did when the team was flagging and needed the energy he can provide was mystifying.
Overall, Juve still don’t look at all like they have an idea of how to break a defense down and how to play as a unit — and now they’ve checked out mentally. All of that is ultimately on Allegri to fix, and if he’s trying to do so, it isn’t having an effect. His effect on this locker room is so minimal that replacing him is really the only option at this point.
Only one game remains on the schedule, an away tilt against Udinese. Juve are, in fact, locked in to a European spot right now. Inter’s win in the Coppa Italia in midweek shifted Italy’s Europa League and Conference League spots down one, and Juve are six points ahead of Torino in seventh, so they’ll be in Europe’s newest competition regardless of what happens in Udine.
They can, however, drive themselves up into one of the Europa League spots if they win and either Roma or Atalanta drop points. After that, whether or not they play in Europe is up to UEFA, and to a certain extent the team themselves — but that’s another story.