Sometimes it happens in football that a club which is among the most successful ones in history goes through a phase of such low that they cannot be recognized. The wheels of time don’t stand still and the changes of generations are unforgiving, and those still remembering the AC Milan teams that were always the favorites for titles, both domestically and in Europe, are getting few.
Juventus welcomed the Rossoneri to the Allianz Stadium in Turin on Sunday evening, to do battle in the 12th round of this season’s Serie A campaign, from the second place in the table with two points less than Inter Milan. But a win would see them reclaim the top, charging towards what would be their ninth consecutive title should they win it. On the other hand, Milan were in 13th, with 13 points from previous 11 games and already on their second manager of the season.
Nonetheless, a clash between Juventus and Milan is still a clash between two of three clubs that have won the most Serie A titles, Inter being level with their city rivals.
Juventus boss Maurizio Sarri was worried about the availability of Cristiano Ronaldo for this clash, but the former Real Madrid star expectedly recovered from a knee problem he had picked up midweek. The same goes for centre-back Matthijs de Ligt, with the Dutch youngster back from an ankle problem. Giorgio Chellini was, however, out.
Wojciech Szczesny was in goal. Leonardo Bonucci and Matthijs de Ligt were the centre-back partnership, with Juan Cuadrado as the right-back and Alex Sandro as the left. Miralem Pjanic anchored the diamond midfield, with Rodrigo Bentancur and Blaise Matuidi in the box-to-box roles. Federico Bernardeschi was in the No. 10 role, behind the attacking partnership of Gonzalo Higuain and Ronaldo.
Stefano Pioli in the away dugout was without winger Samu Castillejo, but lucky for him, Suso was back in contention.
Gianluigi Donnarumma stood between the posts. Alessio Romagnoli and Leo Duarte formed the heart of defence, with Theo Hernandez on the left and Andrea Conti on the right. Ismael Bennacer was there to provide the protection for the back line, with Rade Krunic and Lucas Paqueta in advanced positions. Striker Krzysztof Piatek was flanked by Suso and Hakan Calhanoglu.
The First Half
The visitors tried to catch the hosts off guard with some quick, direct play early on, but to no result, and Juventus soon took control of the possession. But there were no real chances at either end until the 14th minute.
Then Ronaldo set Higuain up with a cunning pass into the six yards, but Donnarumma managed to deny the Argentine from a tight angle. Juventus followed that up with consecutive corners and tried to increase the pressure, but the Rossoneri soon broke free and in the 17th minute, Piatek wasted a great chance as he headed a pin-point cross by Suso wide of the target.
Basically, Milan were keen to show the Serie A champions that they could hit them hard at any moment and they took initiative away from the home side for a few minutes after that chance. They pressed high and made it difficult for the players in black-and-white to get the ball across the halfway line, and though it didn’t last long, they managed to completely disrupt Juventus’ usual game and even came very close to a lead again in the 25th minute, when Szczesny made a very difficult save to deny Paqueta’s header.
It was mostly an evenly matched contest in the first half, with Juventus having the ball more and winning space gradually, while the Rossoneri took a much quicker approach and often managed to get from back to front within a few seconds. There were still no clear-cut chances, with both sides occasionally resorted to long-range shooting, but neither Bernardeschi nor Hernandez at the other end managed to hit the target around the half-hour mark. Defences were mostly fully focused and made no mistakes.
It was interesting to note that Ronaldo mostly went wide to the right, leaving the central attacking position to Higuain, while the space on the left was often left for Sandro and Matuidi to try and exploit. In the 42nd minute, Matuidi got the better of Conti on the left and had both Ronaldo and Higuain in the box, but his cross went nowhere near the two forwards. In the next attack Ronaldo tried his luck from 30 yards, but Donnarumma was alert.
Two minutes later, Milan hit back down their right as Paqueta combined nicely with Suso and Conti, but Conti’s squared ball found no-one but Hernandez far from the goal. Nonetheless, the left-back let one fly and burned the palms of Szczesny. Piatek managed to do the same in the last moments of the half from a tight angle, but no more.
The Second Half
After the break, the game went on much in the same way, but in the 52nd minute, Juventus could have really done more than they did as Higuain took advantage of a stolen ball and charged down the left. He involved Bernardeschi who was coming in through the middle, but although there were options on both sides, Bernarderschi fired one far from the target. Matuidi came much closer soon afterwards, but his shot from the edge of the box went just wide of the far post.
In the 55th minute, Ronaldo was replaced by Paolo Dybala. Though the Portuguese had problems with his knee ahead of the game, he didn’t seem happy with the decision of the head coach as he walked off the pitch.
The game was now being played much quicker. The ball went very lively from one end to the other, and in the 58th minute Milan had a great chance. Calhanoglu employed Piatek on the right with a lovely through pass and the Polish striker hit it hard, low and on target, but Szczesny made an excellent save.
On the hour-mark, Pioli withdrew Krunic who was already on a yellow card and was potentially getting close to a second. Giacomo Bonaventura came on, at the same time as Douglas Costa who replaced Bernardeschi for Juventus.
As the game went on, the Rossoneri were growing in confidence, while the home side’s frustration started to show. Sarri’s men simply weren’t finding a way to cause danger for Donnarumma, and being obviously considered favorites before the match, they didn’t like it. Even when they did create something, like when Matuidi was allowed to shoot freely from 15 yards unmarked in the 66th minute, they couldn’t hit the target. Right after that, Pioli made his second move of the game by replacing Piatek with Rafael Leao.
Dybala was trying to make a difference since he came on. Whenever the ball came his way he looked lively, but those moments seemed far apart. Sarri’s last substitution was a forced one – Matuidi got hit in the chest and made way for Adrien Rabiot with 20 minutes to go.
The introduction of Leao gave the visitors a new dimension in attack. The Portuguese is much faster than Piatek and he often pulled out wide, looking to burst down the byline and leave the space in the middle open for the other attacking players to run into, but Juventus’ back line is far too experienced to be fooled by such a trick.
In the 75th minute, Calhanoglu won a free-kick over 30 yards out and took it himself. It was a rocket, but it went too close to Szczesny. Milan could also have done more straight after when Rabiot’s loose pass got intercepted by Bonaventura, but Bonaventura’s pass for Leao was too strong. And then – they got punished.
It’s one of the main qualities of this Old Lady team that they can seem lame for an entire game, and then score when least expected. Higuain found Dybala with a good pass and Dybala pulled away from Romagnoli as he entered the box, and slotted past Donnarumma from just inside the box.
The goal seemed to give Juventus players a big morale boost. Costa, Dybala and Higuain suddenly looked like dancing with the ball and the Rossoneri had a lot of trouble adjusting to this change of step. At the other end, Calhanoglu burned the palms of Szczesny a few more times from range, but the rest of his team just weren’t on the same wavelength.
Nonetheless, Pioli’s men had nothing to lose in the final minutes. Midfielder Paqueta left the pitch to make way for winger Ante Rebic and Milan attacked. In the 87th minute, Leao pulled a low cross back across the six yards and a scramble ensued, but Juventus survived.
Milan were now taking huge risks all the time with both fullbacks practically playing as wingers. Their passing had to be inch-perfect because any interception would have meant terrible danger for Donnarumma, and it created a lot of pressure on Bennacer. Sensing this, Juventus employed high pressing in the last minute and won the ball high up, but Higuain ruined the moment with a powerful blast over the bar.
The visitors tried to make something happen in the four minutes of stoppage time, but nothing worked. In the end, Dybala almost made it two as he charged alone at Romagnoli and Duarte, but Donnarumma saved his shot.
The outcome of the game is probably a bit harsh on the Rossoneri. They matched Juventus on every point for the largest part of the 90 minutes, and even looked more dangerous going forward. However, the Bianconeri did what great teams do in such games – they found a way to win.
When Sarri pulled Ronaldo out it seemed the moment would cause endless discussion, but now, given that the man who replaced the five-time Ballon d’Or winner scored the goal that settled the game, it’s questionable if Ronaldo himself will care, let alone anyone else.
As for Milan, they can potentially look at this game as a blueprint for the rest of the season. Against any other team, it would have probably ended quite differently, but Juventus are simply too strong at the moment.
JUVENTUS: Szczesny 7.5, Bonucci 7, De Ligt 7, Cuadrado 7, Sandro 7, Pjanic 6.5, Bentancur 7, Matuidi 7.5 (70′ Rabiot 5.5), Bernardeschi 6 (61′ Costa 7), Higuain 7.5, Ronaldo 7 (55′ Dybala 8).
AC MILAN: Donnarumma 7.5, Romagnoli 7, Duarte 7, Hernandez 7, Conti 7, Bennacer 7.5, Krunic 7 (61′ Bonaventura 6.5), Paqueta 6.5 (85′ Rebic N/A), Suso 7, Calhanoglu 7.5, Piatek 7 (66′ Leao 7).
GOAL: Dybala 77′.
YELLOW CARDS: Krunic 40′, Bennacer 45′, Cuadrado 56′, Hernandez 89′, Calhanoglu 90′, Suso 90′.
REFEREE: Fabio Maresca.
DATE & VENUE: November 10, 2019, Allianz Stadium, Turin.
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