For much of Gian Piero Gasperini’s tenure at Atalanta, and especially during their spurt of success in the last few years, they have given Juventus all sorts of fits. Since Gasperini first joined La Dea in 2016, Juve have only beaten them in league play three times. Only one of those wins came in the Gewiss Stadium.
Juve’s struggles have come as their dominant stretch hit its downswing, while Atalanta’s most successful period in club history swung in the opposite direction, although it’s also fair to wonder whether some karmic retribution in play after former president Andrea Agnelli’s crack a few years ago about no one wanting to watch the Bergamo outfit play in the Champions League.
The team Juve was going to play in Sunday afternoon’s lunchtime tilt was different from the squad the likes of Papu Gomez and Josip Ilicic led to such meteoric heights, but they were still plenty dangerous, and knew that with a win they would catapult themselves into the thick of the race for the top four. Juve, meanwhile, came into a third consecutive game with an opportunity to leapfrog Lazio into second place and maintain their cushion over the rest of the chasing pack.
It was an intense game. Both teams clearly knew what was at stake, and both tried desperately to win. In the end, it was depth that told. Atalanta, in the midst of an injury crisis not unlike what Juventus had dealt with just before the World Cup break, were tired, and the one player that they had available to affect the game off the bench was unfortunately injured less than 20 minutes after he came on. Juve, on the other hand, had an almost full squad on hand, and was able to introduce the likes of Dusan Vlahovic, Federico Chiesa, and Paul Pogba to face those tired legs.
That depth allowed Juventus to keep things tight at the back as they protected an early second half lead, though they needed some luck to go their way to keep their lead intact before sealing things on the last kick of the game for a 2-0 win. It was a massive victory that secured the team’s spot in the standings and set them up with some momentum going into Thursday’s Europa League semifinal against Sevilla.
Massimiliano Allegri was only missing the unfortunate Mattia De Sciglio and the suspended Leandro Paredes, as well as the eternally recovering Kaio Jorge. He lined the team up in the 3-5-1-1 that has become the standard, for better or worse. Wojciech Szczesny started in goal. Daniele Rugani was given a surprising start in the back three along with Danilo and Alex Sandro. Juan Cuadrado started at the right wing-back spot, while the left side was given to Samuel Iling-Junior, who was finally entrusted with a start after an impressive debut season. Nicolo Fagioli, Manuel Locatelli, and Adrien Rabiot started in midfield, while Angel Di Maria started in the hole behind Arkadiusz Milik.
Gasperini came into the game with only five first-team outfield players available on his bench. Among the missing were top scorer Ademola Lookman, 20-year-old Rasmus Hojland, stalwart defender Jose Luis Palomino, Hans Hateboer, and Matteo Ruggieri. The coach came out swinging with the players he did have, though, lining up in the 3-4-2-1 that made him famous. Marco Sportiello started in goal behind the back three of Berat Djimsiti, Rafael Tolói, and Atalanta’s other young sensation, 19-year-old Giorgio Scalvini. Davide Zappacosta and Joakim Maehle manned the wings, bracketing the double pivot of Éderson and Marten de Roon. Mario Pasalic and Teun Koopmeiners supported Duvan Zapata in the attack.
Juve started the game pressing hard, but it was still Atalanta that created the first few shooting opportunities of the match. The most serious of these came off a mistake in distribution by Szczesny, whose long ball out of the box was intercepted immediately and sent to Koopmeiners, who ended up rushing his shot with Locatelli flying toward him and fired over from 25 yards.
That was emblematic of the pattern that would emerge throughout the entire match. Atalanta would control most of the possession, but very little of that possession turned into really dangerous shots. Instead, the home team was often forced to settle for low-percentage shots from outside the box like the one Koopmeiners took, leaving little for Szczesny to do except watch the ball fly wide of his posts and over his crossbar.
That isn’t to say La Dea produced no danger whatsoever. In the 14th minute, a lightning-quick counter saw Zapata set Pasalic just outside the area, but the Croatia international hit his shot well over.
Juve got in on the fun after 20 minutes and nearly pounced on a mistake themselves when Koopmeiners took what might’ve been his only bad touch of the game, gifting the ball to Di Maria on a back pass. The Argentine cut across the boundary of the 18-yard box and unleashed one of his trademark curlers, but it whistled just wide of the far post, De Roon having done just enough to put him off. Less than a minute later, Cuadrado sent in a good cross, but Milik got tangled up with Rabiot, who was also going up for the ball, and only managed to head it wide.
Atalanta’s best chance of the half came in the 25th minute, when Scalvini rose over Iling to get his head to a corner kick and thumped it off the upright. They continued pushing, but still failed to do anything to worry Szczesny. It wasn’t until stoppage time that they fashioned a genuinely threatening look, but a good setup by Zapata and Koopmeiners was wasted when Pasalic ballooned the shot over from the penalty spot. The players headed into the locker room having combined for 18 shots, but none of them had been on target.
Neither manager made any changes at the break, but Jeremie Boga came on for Éderson after only five minutes had elapsed in the second half, an indication that Gasperini had either seen something to change or his player was asking to come off. Boga was perhaps the one player on the bench who could meaningful change to the way the game was played from Atalanta’s point of view, but before he could get himself settled into the match, he found himself and his teammates chasing it.
The move that led to the opener was started and finished by Iling-Junior. The 19-year-old took a perfect angle and tackled the ball off Zappacosta deep into Atalanta’s side of the field. He drifted inside just enough to keep Tolói away from the run of Rabiot, who he fed down the left side of the box. Rabiot’s cross for Milik at the far post was touched away by Maehle, but only as far as the young Englishman, who slammed the ball into the roof of the net from 6 yards for his first goal as a senior player.
Gasperini immediately responded by throwing on his only other attacker, Luis Muriel. But his attempts to alter things further were dashed only five minutes later. The tackle in question was a completely clean one, with Rabiot hitting Boga on the follow-through. Referee Daniele Doveri saw this occur and decided to hell with the fact that soccer is in fact a contact sport, booking Rabiot for winning the ball. It’s the kind of call that, frankly, infuriates me, and it is not justified by the fact that Boga got his foot caught under Rabiot, causing an injury severe enough to force him to be helped off the field, to be replaced by Brandon Soppy, a wing-back, in a move that burned Gasperini’s last sub window as well as severely reducing his attacking threat.
Allegri had introduced Vlahovic and Pogba at the same time, and the latter posed an immediate threat when he tried to volley an excellent floated ball from Di Maria, but he didn’t catch it right and hit it easily to Sportiello. The hosts, meanwhile, continued firing in hopeful long-range shots that either easily missed their targets or were blocked. The exception came with 15 minutes to go when Sandro conceded a dangerous free kick about 25 yards from goal. Atalanta tried the exact same routine that got Danilo the equalizer in the 3-3 draw these teams played out in January, with the ball being quickly laid off for someone—in this case Koopmeiners, to wail on. The shot had tons of power and a bit of swerve, but ultimately was a little too central and Szczesny was able to get down to beat it away.
Maehle had a half-volley slide just wide after a clearance from a corner kick was sent back the way it came, then Pogba went from range after slithering through the midfield on a solo run, but he hit it softly at Sportiello, showing that he clearly wasn’t 100 percent yet. Vlahovic really should’ve sealed the game as they reached the 90th minute, but botched an attempt to go one-on-on with the keeper. Atalanta responded by hitting their second post of the day, this time through Zappacosta, though Szczesny may have had it covered regardless.
Doveri added five minutes of stoppage time, but the first of those minutes was taken up by an incident after a foul on Vlahovic, in which the Serbian apparently insisted that the racial abuse that had been raining down on him for 10 minutes from the Atalanta ultras be included in the match report. One more minute of stoppage time was warranted, but Doveri ended up playing a full three, which definitely was not. The extra time ended up being put to good use at the very end when Chiesa tore down the field on the counter and slid the ball to Vlahovic, who measured up the ball and hit an a absolutely gorgeous shot into the upper 90. Vlahovic quickly shushed the abusive crowd, earning a yellow card from Doveri, who quickly blew for time after the ball was put back into play, ending the game and putting Juve on a track for the top four as Sevilla loomed.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 7. Had very little to do but was highly alert when called upon by Koopmeiners; shot, and controlled his box well on crosses.
DANILO - 8. After two consecutive rough games, he came out and balled. His stats were insane: four tackles, three interceptions, five clearances, and a pair of blocked shots while completing 92.3 percent of his passes. He’s become the most reliable player on the team.
DANIELE RUGANI - 7. Led the team with six clearances and completely put one of the best strikers in the league in Duvan Zapata in his pocket. All that coming in to start this one relatively clold.
ALEX SANDRO - 7. A preposterous seven tackles and four clearances, making a clean sweep of high grades for the Juventus back line.
JUAN CUADRADO - 6. Completed 94 percent of his passes and laid in a particjularly good cross in the first half that Milik couldn’t quite get on target. He also led the team in dribbles with four. He’s not what he used to be but he’s at least not completely mucking things up on the flank, either.
NICOLO FAGIOLI - 5.5. Bit of a passenger in midfield. He’s never been a volume passer out of his position, but he’s usually made up for it with quality in what he did get and this time he just never ended up in a position to do much of anything with the ball.
MANUEL LOCATELLI - 6.5. A big performance on the defensive end for Loca, making two tackles, one interception, three clearances, and blocking a team-high three shots (out of 10 total for the team). He even had a key pass at the other end. Very good day overall.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 6. Three tackles and three interceptions to go along with a key pass, and a big role in the winning goal. The yellow card he got for tackling Boga was absolutely preposterous. You might as well not even defend anymore if that’s what we’re calling not only a foul but a booking.
SAMUEL ILING-JUNIOR - 8. In his first start with the senior team, he shone brightly. Apart from his goal, which was well-taken, he racked up five tackles and a key pass. Absolutely has to get more minutes by the end of the year.
ANGEL DI MARIA - 6. Hit two key passes, completed three dribbles, and had the one shot that was very close to bend in at the back post. A helpful shift.
ARKADIUSZ MILIK - 5.5. Put in a hard shift, but like Fagioli wasn’t in position to do much and when he was, he wasn’t able to put the ball on frame.
DUSAN VLAHOVIC - 7. That goal was an absolute banger, and made up for the missed one-on-one a few minutes before. Dude even had a tackle.
PAUL POGBA - 6. Not quite the brightness we saw in his performance on Wednesday against Lecce, but he still showed some signs of the old Paul. He’s not hitting balls on goal quite right, but that should come as he gets his feet under him.
FEDERICO CHIESA - NR. Assisted Vlahovic’s goal but was more often back helping out the defense.
FILIP KOSTIC - NR. Made a pair of clearances in six minutes of work as he held down the wing-back spot late.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: I’m disappointed that Max Allegri didn’t push for the second goal in this game.
He was in an excellent position to do so given the state of his opponents. This is an Atalanta team that has been dealing with an injury crisis for a while now. Gasperini had few options, and the necessity of replacing Boga exhausted his substitution windows by the 65th minute. Atalanta were running relatively low on fuel while Allegri had a deep bench with some high-quality players that could have gone out and torched the tired legs of their opponents.
This game could have been done and dusted a lot sooner than the eighth minute of stoppage time had Allegri sensed the weakness and acted on it as opposed to turtling up like usual after taking the lead. Instead, Allegri left himself vulnerable to having everything undone in the blink of an eye, as could have happened with both Koopmeiners’ shot off the free kick and Zappacosta’s crack off the post. The best coaches recognize their opponents’ weaknesses and exploit them. For all his prior achievements, Allegri seems to have either lost the ability to do this, or simply doesn’t care to in favor of his preferred corto musso method of play.
That lack of flexibility is a stark contrast to what he’s did in his earlier seasons with the club, and is another sign that we’re simply not dealing with the same man in the dugout anymore.
The Europa League semifinal starts on Thursday when Sevilla arrives at the J Stadium for the first leg. Juve and Sevilla met in the group stage in consecutive Champions Leagues in 2015-16 and ‘16-17, with Juve winning two games and Sevilla one, along with a draw. One win and the draw came at home.
A weekend date hosting Cremonese then looms as the final run-in in the league starts, before traveling out to Seville to complete the semifinal tie.