For Juventus, there was an overriding sense of relief when Gianluca Rocchi blew for full-time last Friday. They booked their place in the Coppa Italia Final, courtesy of a goalless draw with Milan, and pulled through without any injuries, even managing to play a bit in the first half. However, their performance levels plummeted after the restart, leaving Maurizio Sarri with more questions than answers going into Wednesday’s Final against former club Napoli.
Granted, Juve were playing for the first time in over three months and so were never going to press for 90 minutes. They flew out the traps and, despite Cristiano Ronaldo’s saved penalty, seemed to be heading for a goal fest when Ante Rebic was sent off for a kung-fu kick. Yet the red card had the opposite effect on the two teams. Instead, Milan sparked into life with one less man, whereas the Bianconeri looked laboured and lethargic.
Yet for those first 20-30 minutes, it was perhaps the best football Maurizio Sarri’s Juve have ever played. Even the coach confessed to being “very surprised and satisfied, as we moved the ball so quickly and totally dominated the game. After that, we slowly dropped our tempo, intensity and determination.” This is the quandary that continues to torment Bianconeri supporters, as they see flashes of what could be an unstoppable and spectacular force, but too often this team trudges along. Is it worth sticking with the project, and how long will it take for them to replicate some of the style he had at Napoli?
While it’s true that the Rossoneri never came close to breaking down Juve, the same could be said in reverse. Miralem Pjanic played as if his head was already at Barcelona, Paulo Dybala was clearly unfit, Douglas Costa was wrongly sacrificed and none of the substitutes made any impact. In the end, away goals were their salvation – and even then the winner was an equaliser, scored against 10 men, from the penalty spot and deep in injury time.
Sarri is expected to make changes for the Final, starting in midfield where Sami Khedira is likely to replace Pjanic, in turn giving more prominence to Rodrigo Bentancur. Elsewhere, Juan Cuadrado could fill in for Douglas Costa out wide, but Gonzalo Higuain, Giorgio Chiellini, Aaron Ramsey and Merih Demiral are all unlikely to recover in time to face Napoli. The loss of Higuain, in particular, should see Cristiano Ronaldo stay on as the lone striker.
Although he failed to score in the second leg against Milan, Ronaldo’s contribution showed CR9 could be possibly more effective than CR7. He averaged nine attempts on goal, compared to 5.4 on average from the left wing, created more chances (two compared to 1.4 on average) and played more passes to teammates (66 compared to an average of 56.1). Dybala is an option as a false nine, but Sarri appears inclined to stick with the Portuguese up top.
Having already let one trophy slip this season, Sarri can’t afford to pass up the Coppa too if he wants to lay the building blocks for Juve’s future. The circumstances are far from ideal, but winning is all that counts for the Old Lady and their coach must demonstrate he is aware of that on Wednesday.