There was a sense of relief and anticipation in the air as calcio returned to our screens on Friday evening with two of Italian football’s most decorated clubs. By the end of 90 minutes, that sense of relief would have extended to Maurizio Sarri and his players as they trudged into next week’s Coppa Italia Final.
Circumstances were always likely to prevent this game being a blockbuster affair and so it proved, but not before both teams served up a tense tie that had a competitive edge, a saved Cristiano Ronaldo penalty and Ante Rebic’s best impression of Nigel de Jong.
Juventus burst into life as the first whistle was blown with the Bianconeri scurrying to dominate play. Sarri’s team exchanged the ball sharply with neat combinations, punching passes across the pitch and suffocating any turnovers in possession as they stamped their authority on proceedings. Milan were unable to catch their breath as they laboured into the match with Juve creating a couple of early opportunities.
The game’s main talking points came just 15 minutes in. Gianluigi Donnarumma fingertipped a Ronaldo spot kick onto the post, but before the Rossoneri could finish celebrating, their Croatian forward Rebic saw red for dangerous play. From that moment, the pattern for the remaining minutes was set. The visitors would defend deep, waiting for chances to foray forward.
Stefano Pioli was left unfazed by the loss of his only striker and calmly re-adjusted his tactics. Patience was key. Despite needing a goal, Milan dropped into a narrow and compact 4-4-1, playing without an attacker as Jack Bonaventura retreated to aid the red and black wall that Milan raised in their half.
It was assumed that The Old Lady would now go on to win comfortably, but instead what they found in front of them was a dogged and disciplined opponent who was in no mood to go quietly. Juve’s early intense pressure began to fade as they became loose with the ball, Milan appeared comfortable and were now able to have short spells of possession.
Douglas Costa’s bright beginning dwindled as his space was limited and Milan doubled up on him defensively, whilst Ronaldo - who was being used in a more restricted role as a central striker - was unable to find his rhythm and after a positive opening, the home team’s play all of a sudden had a very familiar, hollow feel to it.
Leo Bonucci and Matthijs de Ligt were often in the attacking half with the midfield three pushed forward as Juve attempted to dislodge Milan and occupy spaces across the pitch, but il Diavolo stood firm. Pioli’s players ensured their hosts had no way through. There was a distinct lack of penetration on Juve’s part, Paulo Dybala floated around the right hand side with little effect with Danilo only limiting things further down that flank. Rodrigo Bentancur - who again impressed in midfield - was energetic and enterprising, but he was flanked by disappointing performances from his fellow midfielders.
As the game wore on it became apparent that this semi-final would go to the wire. Juve continued to work the ball, but the threat to Milan’s goal remained scant and Sarri’s substitutions had no effect on his team, only serving to increase the problems they already had. Ponderous play that left players frustrated as they failed to make a breakthrough.
Meanwhile, Milan would have been delighted to run deep into the second half with the scores level after playing with 10 men for so long. Rossoneri captain Alessio Romagnoli put in a colossal display at the heart of the Milan back four, as he defended superbly throughout with the help of Simon Kjaer.
On reflection, perhaps Mister Pioli will regret leaving it too late in making an attempt to win it. After introducing a striker in the form of Rafael Leao on 50 minutes he then waited until beyond the 80th minute to make further changes. Milan carried little in the way of a threat on the counter and whilst his players deserve immense credit for their application, they could be forgiven for thinking that they had more than a chance if their coach had been a little braver earlier on. Simply put, Milan had nothing to lose and this should have been reflected in their attempts to claim a momentous victory.
In the end, Milan’s advances proved futile as two tired sets of players ended an energy-zapping affair goalless. As for Juventus, they will see this as job done whilst gaining important minutes in the legs as they set their sights on Wednesday night’s final in Rome.
In what has been an unprecedented situation for all those involved, it would be unfair to set expectations too high and harshly judge anyone on the back of this performance. For now, perhaps we can just enjoy the fact that football is back and a small slice of normality has been restored.
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