When Juventus first met AC Milan in November, it was one of the most entertaining matches of the season. The San Siro was electric. Big moments came with frequency. The intensity on the pitch was at 11. Even though Juve saw out their 2-0 win in relative comfort after Wojciech Szczesny denied Gonazlo Higuain from the penalty spot, the atmosphere seemed like it was on fire the entire night, and it was a joy to watch.
Wednesday’s Supercoppa Italiana against the same opposition lacked that game’s magnetism. Perhaps it was the relatively subdued atmosphere at the King Abdullah Sports City in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (We won’t get into the ethics of keeping the game in Saudi Arabia here, but just imagine a side-eye emoji.) Or perhaps the knowledge that they had just four days to rest until they resumed Serie A play on Monday. But the game never really took on the urgency of the first meeting.
There were a few similarities, though. Milan ended the game with 10 men after a nasty tackle by Franck Kessie, Cristiano Ronaldo scored — this time a flicked header following a delightful ball into the box from Miralem Pjanic — while Gianluigi Donnarumma’s hands remained stone, and Juventus again carried the victory, this time by a 1-0 scoreline that saw them secure their first trophy of the 2018-19 season.
It was obviously Juve’s seventh straight time in the Supercoppa, but they had lost their last two — a 3-2 loss to Lazio last season in a game that belied how badly Juve actually played, and a penalty shootout loss to Milan the season before. Both teams came in joint-highest winners of the competition, while Paulo Dybala entered the game looking to become the top scorer in the Supercoppa’s history.
Massimiliano Allergi made a number of changes to the lineup that beat Bologna in the Coppa Italia on Saturday. Szczesny remained in goal behind a nominal 4-3-3 formation. Joao Cancelo made his return from a knee injury at the right back position, and was joined by Leonardo Bonucci, Giorigo Chiellini, and Alex Sandro. Pjanic was the only holdover in midfield, joined by his usual partners Rodrigo Bentancur and Blaise Matuidi, who were both restored to the lineup. Ronaldo also made his return to the starting XI alongside Dybala and Douglas Costa, who took the roster spot of the injured Mario Mandzukic.
Genarro Gattuso countered with a 4-3-3 of his own. Donnarumma took his customary place in Milan’s goal, with Davide Calabria, Alessio Romagnoli, Cristian Zapata, and Ricardo Rodriguez arrayed in front of him. Hot new signing Lucas Paqueta started in midfield along with Kessie and Tiemoue Bakayoko. Hakan Calhanoglu and Samu Castillejo manned the wings, but the striker position was the cause of some drama. With a deal reuniting Higuain with Maurizio Sarri at Chelsea purportedly close, Higuain was held out of the starting lineup and replaced by Patrick Cutrone. Officially, the reason was given that he was suffering from a fever — which really wasn’t really fooling anyone and prompted ESPN commentator Mark Donaldson to lightheartedly suggest that Higuain was suffering from a case of the Blues.
Milan started the game with a lively press, but it was Juve that nearly started the game on the highest of notes when Costa cut in from the right and curled a ball just past the far post only three minutes in. The Rossoneri kept up the pressure and started hemming their opponents into their own half, but failed to create much beyond a couple of long-range shots that badly missed their marks. It was Juve that created the next biggest threat when Costa squeezed through a tiny opening and fed Cancelo, who fired a low shot that again skittered past the far post. Bakayoko was presented with a gilt-edged chance to open the scoring shortly thereafter when Szczesny completely missed his attempt to punch a way a corner, but the midfielder was so surprised to see the ball come to him that he couldn’t configure himself and Sandro poked the ball away.
Another Milan corner was the setup for one of Juve’s best chances of the first half, a 3-on-2 breakaway with all three of Juve’s forwards joining in. Costa, leading the charge, elected to slide the ball to Ronaldo on his right. The Portugal international chose to try to lift a ball to Dybala on the far post but didn’t execute properly, and the pass was intercepted, with the rebound being lashed into the stands behind the goal by, of all people, Chiellini.
By this point, though, Gattuso’s men had somewhat blown themselves out. Juve penned them in their own half for the last 15 minutes of the half, and came oh-so-close yet again two minutes from time, when Ronaldo took an inch-perfect Costa cross with a scissor kick into the ground that bounced over by the width of the ball.
The teams went into the locker room with Juve having outshot Milan 9-4, but Milan had found the only shot on target, a quick snapshot by Calhanoglu just before stoppage time began. Milan wasn’t carving out the best of challenges, while Juve had been in better positions a few times but hadn’t managed to trouble the error-prone Donnarumma.
During the beginning of the second half, players indulged in their base urge to hit things. Ronaldo hit the wall — again — with an early free kick, then at the other end Cutrone came as close as any Milan player came to scoring when he made a quick turn and hit a shot that evaded a soaring Szczesny but slammed into the crossbar. The young striker industriously forced Cancelo into a giveaway eight minutes later, but Chiellini came in to block his shot.
As the hour mark approached with no score, the unpalatable prospect of extra time started emerging at the edge of the frame. Fortunately, it wasn’t given the chance to sharpen into focus.
It was the 61st minute when Pjanic stood 26 yards or so from the penalty area and, unmolested by the defense, lobbed an absolutely beautiful pass to Ronaldo. He flicked a header toward goal that went through the hands of Donnarumma, who looked to be between two minds as to whether to parry or catch it. The superstar forward was so alone in the box that in real time it looked like there was no way he had held himself onside, but replays later showed that, if anything, his hand was over the line. Because the arm is not a playable part of the body, it’s not subject to the offside rule, and referee Luca Banti wasn’t even brought to the VAR screen as the replay officials were able to quickly pass the goal as legal. It was either an incredible spot by assistant referee Fabiano Preti or proof positive that the admonition to let play flow if it’s close and let VAR sort it out later is starting to really take hold on officials.
Dybala thought he had salted the game away six minutes later when he slotted past Donnarumma, but this time Preti correctly caught Matuidi offside in the buildup. La Joya wasn’t the only one who thought he had the game sealed — whoever was in charge of things started running the pyrotechnics and playing “Chelsea Dagger” over the loudspeakers … the second time they’d done so for a disallowed goal.
With 20 minutes to go, Higuain’s fever was apparently deemed low enough to go in as a sub, replacing Castillejo. (As someone who’s been laid up sick for more than a week, could someone give me some of whatever Gonzalo was taking?) Unfortunately, his chances at making an impact dropped within minutes of his introduction when Kessie, trying to recover a ball that he lost, lunged hard into Emre Can, who had come into the game shortly after Ronaldo’s goal, with exposed cleats, hitting him in the shin and again in the ankle. Banti immediately booked the Ivorian, but as Can lay on the field getting treatment for the blow he was called to the screen by VAR official Marcelo Guida, and quickly returned brandishing a straight red. Milan captain Romagnoli protested enough to earn himself a booking, but Kessie himself walked resignedly to the locker room.
That took the wind out of Milan’s sails, and for the last 15 minutes of the game Juve essentially lived in the attacking half. Dybala got into that spot he loves in the right channel with five minutes to go, but substitute Fabio Borini got back to block his shot. Milan fans were certainly shouting for a VAR review in the 87th minute when Can went into a challenge with Gattuso’s final substitute, Andrea Conti, at the near post after a good low cross by Calhanoglu. Banti saw nothing wrong with the challenge as Can sealed Conti off from the ball, and Guida concurred, chalking one up, perhaps, to football in fact being a contact sport.