Finally, the wait is over. On Friday evening, calcio made its hotly-anticipated return, with more than eight million households in Italy tuning in to welcome back the beautiful game. Two hours later, most of them probably wished they hadn’t bothered.
Juventus and Milan served up a pain-staking 0-0 draw in Turin, which was enough for the Old Lady to step into the competition’s final. In reality, it was more of a trip and a fall head-first over the line, rather than a confident stride.
The overriding feeling at the final whistle was relief. Relief that football was finally back on our screens, Bianconeri relief for edging closer to Coppa Italia glory, and relief that the torturous 90 minutes were behind us.
Milan were probably grateful for the referee’s final intervention too, given they wouldn’t have found the goal they craved, even if they’d continued playing for another 90 minutes. All in all, it was not the return we were all expecting, and Juve’s success will have created more doubts and fears for their fans than celebrations.
While the circumstances that surrounded the game off the pitch were peculiar, to say the least, they were equally perplexing on the field too. Milan, needing a goal to make any sort of a fist of it, began the game on the back foot, and stayed there for the entirety of play.
In fact, Juve started in impressive fashion, pressing high up the pitch and suffocating the visitors with their intensity and relentless energy. And the midfield, which has lacked so much drive over the course of the season, was full of vim and vigour, thanks to the tenacious and insanely talented Rodrigo Bentancur. Promising signs, then.
It was an opening assault of a team desperate to throw down the gauntlet to the rest of Italy. As for Milan, they were holding their own, but a tidal wave was coming.
I Rossoneri’s task was all but put out of their reach in a mad 30 second spell, in which Cristiano Ronaldo handed them a sliver of hope by fluffing his lines from the penalty spot, only for star striker Ante Rebic to see red for a wild and ugly kick to Danilo’s heart.
While that was probably the worst-case scenario for Milan, it also proved to be a significant turning point for Juve too. From Rebic’s 17th minute self-destruction, the game became a training exercise. The hosts controlled possession, but rather than stamping their authority on proceedings in the form of goals, they reverted to their all-too familiar lethargic recycling of the ball, a dirty habit which has plagued their debut campaign under Maurizio Sarri.
Plenty was expected of this Bianconeri side under Sarri, having built one of the most exciting and dynamic teams in recent Serie A history during his time in Naples. But whatever he’s demanding of his current crop of players in Turin, they’re clearly not up to the task.
Miralem Pjanic, who has endured a miserable season before finding himself at the centre of a transfer storm during the pause in fixtures, was given the opportunity to stake his claim for a place in the starting lineup for this title run in. Once again, he failed to deliver the goods.
Equally one-dimensional and predictable was Blaise Matuidi, who possesses incredible levels of industry and athleticism in his game, but very little end product or quality on the ball. And so it was left to Bentancur to try and carry a midfield which was content to roll down the hill in neutral, instead of igniting the engine and blowing away their vulnerable opponents.
And if the central players will raise concerns for Sarri, then the displays of his goal-getters will leave him tossing and turning in bed for the rest of the month. Douglas Costa was electric in the opening exchanges, leaving his opponents for dead with his blistering pace, and even conjuring some dangerous crosses from the left flank.
But the red card saw his threat nullified, as Milan sat even deeper than they had originally started, meaning any space for Costa to attack had been swallowed up by the retreating backline. And this change of tack highlighted the biggest flaw in Costa’s game, which just so happens to mirror the major defect within this squad.
There is no plan B.
The Brazilian contributed nothing after the red card, failing to adjust his game to that of his opposition, and the onus was shoved onto the shoulders of Paulo Dybala to pull a rabbit out of the hat. The Argentine was off the boil, but given his battles with coronavirus in recent months, his shortcomings can be overlooked.
And the less said about Ronaldo’s performance, the better. He’ll be back though, and with a vengeance.
But that lack of ideas and inspiration comes from the top. When a change is needed to the style or personnel, very rarely does Sarri pull off the required masterstroke.
The Juve coach held his hands up at the final whistle, admitting that he got overexcited at the prospect of having five substitutions at his disposal. The Italian’s move to bring on Sami Khedira, Adrien Rabiot and Federico Bernardeschi in unison did little to improve the quality of the match, and he’ll think twice before turning to this underwhelming trio in the future.
Anyone who thought Sarri would have come up with the miracle cure during the three-month layoff, or hoped he would have found the perfect balance and style of play for this side was sadly mistaken.
In fact, there are endless questions for Sarri to ponder ahead of their opening Serie A clash with Bologna. Changes have to be made to the style and attitude of the players, or his reign with the Italian giants may be cut very short.
In the end, it should be pats on the back and handshakes all round (social distancing style, of course). I Bianconeri had a job to do, and they did it. Now only a game away from Coppa Italia glory, Sarri is closing in on his first major trophy in Italy.
But make no mistakes, this is not the biggest prize on offer this season. This year’s Serie A title race is without doubt, the most intense and gripping in Europe. Juventus and Lazio are battling it out at the very top, with Inter hanging on to their rivals’ coattails, and I Bianconeri’s crown has never been in more danger of slipping.
And after last night’s turgid performance, le Aquile will be licking their lips at the prospect of dethroning the Queen of Italy. The title is theirs, if they hit the ground running. But even Lazio’s incredible run of form, they’re still sitting in second place.
This group of Juventus players has relied on star quality and muscle memory to stumble to the Serie A summit, and they’ll have to dig deep into their reserves for the next two months if they are to remain top of the pile come the end of the season.
It’s time for heroes and superstars in Turin from now on, because this squad has never looked further from being a team. The clock is ticking for Sarri, he must find a solution – and fast.