Football Features

“Ronaldo maintains perfect 2020” – Five things learned as Juve strike late to level Coppa Italia with 10-man Milan

By Ben Green

Published: 22:06, 13 February 2020

Juventus fought back from a goal down to level this Coppa Italia semi-final against 10-man AC Milan, drawing 1-1 at the San Siro.

It was a pulsating affair in Milan, with the match veering between the majestic and pure madness at times. The hosts opened the scoring after Ante Rebic converted Samu Castillejo’s teasing cross on the hour mark, but Theo Hernandez was soon given his marching orders after collecting a second yellow card, and from there Juve’s tails were up. 

The devastating blow was eventually delivered by none other than Cristiano Ronaldo, who converted from the spot to level the scoring heading into the second leg on March 4. It was an electrifying contest but what did we learn?

1. Ramsey looks all at sea in Sarri’s system

When Juventus took advantage of Ramsey’s perilous contract situation at Arsenal last year, it looked as though they pulled off yet another masterstroke in the transfer market. But since signing the Welshman he has struggled to showcase the kind of dazzling form that had match-going Gooners purring on a consistent basis at the Emirates.

Tonight was another worrying case in point of a player who has made anything but a smooth transition to the Italian game and Sarri-ball. As such, he has already been linked with a move away from Turin, and on reflection of his performance tonight at the San Siro, you can understand the recent speculation.

The 29-year-old certainly looked to get involved in this bruising contest and was often forced to drop deep at times to receive the ball, showing some neat touches and producing a number of clean passes. But his movement and link-up play were neither quick nor penetrative enough to unlock the catenaccio-style padlock of Milan’s watertight defence.

In fairness to Ramsey, he joined Juve with a thigh complication and has already been blighted by four separate injury issues, all of which appears to have stifled his progress. “It was not easy for him to adapt, coming from the Premier and from a bad injury,” Sarri said of Ramsey prior to this contest, before adding: “He is growing both as a condition and a belief.”

It’s clear the Italian wants Ramsey to be a prominent member of his system – his new Marek Hamsik, if you will – but thus far, he hasn’t had the desired effect. The whole situation was summed up by his air kick on the hour mark and subsequent withdrawal moments later.

2. Milan without Ibra and Theo for the return leg

In a game that threatened to boil over at times, referee Paolo Valeri brandished amber in the direction of both Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Theo Hernandez, meaning the former will miss the return leg in Turin due to yellow card accumulation, while the latter eventually picked up a red for his rash and mistimed challenge on Dybala.

As such, Stefano Pioli – who was also booked himself for what Valeri deemed to be overelaborate protestations on the touchline – will be without two key members of his first-team squad: his talisman and the trusty source of goals in Ibra, and arguably his defensive fulcrum in Hernandez.

The latter was particularly impressive tonight – bar the red card – and is essential to Milan’s buildup play from the back. The Frenchman boasts a robust engine that allows him to surge up the byline and assist his attacking teammates in the final third – a lot of the Rossoneri’s success came from the left tonight.

As for Ibrahimovic, well it’s not just about his play with the ball at his feet. His mere presence on the pitch seems to give his teammates a boost, while also keeping the opposition defence very occupied. This is a massive blow to Milan and their aspirations of reaching the final. 

3. Juve defence called into question… again 

That Juventus have conceded 23 goals in 23 Serie A games this season is a concerning sight for a club who have been formidable at the back in recent years. This evening illustrated just how fragile and susceptible this once indomitable force has been in defence since Sarri pitched up.

As Samu Castillejo floated what looked like a fairly routine and unimaginative ball into the box on the 60th-minute mark, his delivery simply evaded the Juve defence and found its path to Rebic, who poked home beyond the outstretched hands of a 42-year-old Gianluigi Buffon.

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There was nothing the veteran ‘keeper could do, but question marks have to be raised of right-back Mattia De Sciglio, who put in no effort to challenge Rebic. He cut a passive figure as the ball was whipped in and was taken off just 10 minutes later.

The 27-year-old has mustered just seven appearances in Serie A this season and amassed only 391 minutes of action. Based on the evidence of his Sunday-league lapse in concentration, which helped inflict the opening blow on his side, Sarri cannot be blamed for affording the Italian such little playing time. 

4. No striker, problem

One of the more prominent facets of Sarri’s illustrious set-up at Napoli was his positioning of Dries Mertens as a false nine. The 5ft7in forward isn’t the most physically imposing of strikers but his intelligent link-up play, movement and balletic gait made the whole operation flourish at the Stadio San Paolo. Tonight, Sarri tried to take a leaf out of his own book, deploying Paulo Dybala as the main man up top, but the result was a very impotent Juve frontline.

Dybala himself was Juve’s best player on the pitch, but he was effectively playing in midfield, dropping deeper and deeper to collect the ball and try to create openings. Unfortunately for the Argentine, his Juve teammates just weren’t on his wavelength, with the likes of Ramsey and Blaise Matuidi completely out of tune with the tempo of the game.

The 26-year-old was mesmerising at times this contest, wowing the San Siro crowd with his bag of tricks, turns and twists. Juve were screaming out for a bit of quality in the final third; Dybala was trying his best to find that moment of pure imagination, but in the end it came from that man Ronaldo. 

5. Ronaldo wins ‘clash of the titans’

The Milan-Juventus rivalry always offers plenty of spice, but a fascinating subplot to this contest was Ibra versus Ronaldo. The battle of the ponytails. The clash of the titans.

It was the latter, Ronaldo, who came out on top tonight, but only just. The Portuguese wasn’t quite at his brilliant best this evening, but he once again came up with the moment of quality to claw his side back into this match when it appeared to be getting away from them.

As Rodrigo Bentancur curled the ball into the box during the dying embers, Ronaldo rolled back the years and tried to execute an acrobatic shot towards goal. As the Juve forward pulled off the gravity-defying strike the ball appeared to catch the arm of Davide Calabria.

The 23-year-old turned his back to goal but his arm was up. Upon inspection of the pitchside monitor, the referee deemed Calabria’s arm to be in an unnatural position and pointed to the spot. The rest, as they say, is history and Ronaldo has now played eight games in 2020 and maintained his perfect start by scoring in each of those.

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