It was billed as a potential banana skin for Juventus, a match against a Milan side that hadn’t lost in Serie A since before Christmas, and won eight of their last 10 matches. The game was given further significance when Napoli stuttered away to a Sassuolo side that had accrued seven points from their last 30 earlier in the evening. A Bianconeri victory could stretch their marginal two-point lead. And win they did.
The scoreline somewhat flattered the reigning champions, as for large portions of this match Milan were the better side. As we have seen so many times during this era of Juve dominance, the game was won from the bench. Max Allegri making pivotal changes that would alter the course of the match, his opposite number Rino Gattuso didn’t, and it would come back to bite him.
Following Paulo Dybala’s 18th goal of the season, Milan forced their way back into the game, and worked the better openings. You have to admire the confidence that Gattuso has instilled in Hakan Calhanoglu in recent months. After going through an arduous settling in period under Vincenzo Montella, the Turkey international has produced some sparkling displays since the turn of the year.
Indeed, Andre Silva, another maligned big summer signing, really should’ve equalised from Calhanoglu’s marvelously inviting cross in the 15th minute, but the Portuguese striker, who had nipped behind Blaise Matuidi, couldn’t direct his header towards goal and instead hit the side netting. It would prove costly.
And then, it had to be him, didn’t it? Of all the people to score the Milan equaliser, it had to be the six-time champion, former member of the BBC, on his first appearance back. Leonardo Bonucci ironically stealing a march on both Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli to head home from Calhanoglu’s fine delivery, it was a familiar sight to Juve fans, as was the celebration, albeit one that felt quite peculiar in Rossoneri colours.
Bonucci was quizzed on why he celebrated against the club that transformed him from a promising but error prone defender into one of the finest in the world, to which the defender retorted that he only did so due to the less than appreciative reception he received from the Juve fans.
How different the game could’ve been just after half time had Calhanoglu’s rasping long range shot cannoned into the net rather than back into play. For the game was swinging in Juve’s favour. Allegri had brought on Douglas Costa at half time, replacing Stephan Lichtsteiner, and the Brazilian’s footwork, difficult to defend against at the best of times, was troubling Milan.
Douglas Costa was involved in Juve’s second, dancing away from Davide Calabria on the left hand side, the winger fed a pass to Sami Khedira, who delivered a textbook cross for Juan Cuadrado to score in his first appearance of the year.
Khedira has incurred the wrath of Juve fans as of late, with many arguing his effectiveness during games, yet this, and his eventual goal, was a reminder that while he can disappear for chunks – quite large chunks it must be admitted – of games, he has that unnerving quality of popping up with something crucial when it matters most. He’s like the midfield equivalent of David Trezeguet.
Milan and Gattuso will take heart from this performance, as they troubled Juve, and with the Derby della Madonnina, or the Derby della China as it has now jokingly been referred to, on Wednesday, they’ll be quietly confident of exacting revenge for the 3-2 loss in October.
The Old Lady meanwhile demonstrated the scale of depth that sits on her bench. With Real Madrid on their minds, Allegri rotated massively, yet was able to call upon Douglas Costa, Cuadrado and Rodrigo Bentancur to change the game - over €80m worth of talent.
Rotation is the key word as we enter the business end of the season. Napoli have played two fewer games during the course of this campaign, yet their starting XI have amassed some 7,000 more minutes of playing time compared to the champions. As the weeks roll on, it becomes evident that they simply lack the legs to keep up with the relentless Juve machine.
And yet, you get the feeling that the twists and turns of the season haven’t finished.