After Wednesday’s Coppa Italia final against Atalanta, Giorgio Chiellini of a conversation he’d had with Gianluigi Buffon over a pre-game lunch. “For the first time in 10 years,” he said, “went into an Italian final and were not the favorites. It felt a bit strange.”
That’s probably how most Juventini felt after going into the game at the Mapei Stadium in Reggio Emilia.
Juve were wobbling their way home in a tough run-in and no longer held their Champions League destiny in their own hands. Atalanta had just confirmed their status in Europe’s premier tournament for a third year running, and were running roughshod over their competition. In the six games since their late 1-0 win over Juve in Bergamo, Gian Piero Gasperini’s men had won four and drawn two, outscoring their opponents 18-7. Juve had also won four of six since, but also suffered an embarrassing loss against AC Milan and a bad draw against Fiorentina, to say nothing of the fact that they’d had to pull a win out of the fire late against Udinese in that stretch as well. They hadn’t kept a clean sheet since a 3-0 win over Spezia on March 2.
Pirlo’s formation was as usual listed as a 4-4-2, although a lot of his hybridization into 3-5-2 was evident, especially in the second half. As is customary, the No. 2 keeper started, giving Buffon what is almost certainly his last game for Juventus, for realsies this time. (No, I just have something in my eye. Shut up!) Alex Sandro was suspended and Leonardo Bonucci was a late addition to the injury list, necessitating a slight shuffle in defense, which was made up of Juan Cuadrado, Matthijs de Ligt, Giorgio Chiellini, and Danilo. Weston McKennie, Rodrigo Bentancur, Adrien Rabiot, and Federico Chiesa made up the midfield bank, while Dejan Kulusevski got another surprise start up front alongside Cristiano Ronaldo.
Gasperini went with his tried and true 3-4-1-2 formation. Pierluigi Gollini was the goalkeeper, screened by the trio of Rafael Toloi, Cristian Romero, and Jose Luis Palomino. The dangerous pair of Hans Hateboer and Roben Gosens patrolled the flanks, with Marten De Roon and Remo Freuler create the double pivot in midfield. Matteo Pessina stood in the hole behind Duvan Zapata and Ruslan Malinovskyi.
Atalanta started this game at maximum warp. Within three minutes Zapata had created the game’s first big chance when he rounded de Ligt at the end line and fired in a low cross. Palomino was bombing forward and got to the ball first. His shot had Buffon moving the wrong way, but he stuck out his legs and fended the ball away. Barely another 60 seconds had gone by when Zapata had an opportunity for himself, bringing a ball down from Gosens and holding off Chiellini to turn and fire wide of the near post.
All that, plus the general struggles Juve have had against Atalanta over the last three or four years, didn’t look like much in the way of optimism would be had for the Bianconeri.The more optimistic amongst us were likely a little more downcast after a first half where Atalanta were borderline dominant, despite Juve taking the lead against the run of play. But coming out of the break with the game tied at 1-1, something rather unexpected happened: Juve played an utterly dominant second half, allowing Atalanta only three shots and coming through with the winner with 15 minutes to go. It was the kind of football Andrea Pirlo had talked about playing all season, but that we saw precious little of as the season wore on. The 2-1 victory sealed a consolation prize for the team after a disappointing season and saw Buffon — and possibly a few more — off with one more trophy in Juventus colors.