There can perhaps be no better example of the mentality at Juventus than that given by Juan Cuadrado in the aftermath of the team’s extraordinary win in Lyon on Tuesday. “When [Mario] Lemina got sent off [in the 54th minute], Neto and I both said to each other on the bench: ‘We’re going to win this’.” Summoned by Max Allegri to take the place of Paulo Dybala 15 minutes later, not for the first time in his Juventus career, the Colombian produced a huge moment, catching Lyon goalkeeper Anthony Lopes out by feinting to cross, then launching a "missile" past him to score the only goal of the game.
Most teams would have folded when down to 10 on the road in the Champions League without big names like Giorgio Chiellini, Claudio Marchisio and Mario Mandzukic. But not Juventus. One wonders what Vincenzo Montella made of it all as he scouted them ahead of the champions’ visit to San Siro on Saturday evening.
Montella wished to be reunited with Cuadrado this summer. Milan supposedly tried to persuade him to leave Chelsea to work under his old coach at Fiorentina. But Cuadrado’s mind was made up. After winning the Scudetto while on loan in Turin last season, not even Antonio Conte, who memorably resigned from Juventus in part because they wouldn’t buy Cuadrado for him, could persuade him, despite repeated attempts, to give life at Stamford Bridge another go. The heart wants what it wants and, in this case, Cuadrado’s was stolen by the Old Lady.
While the Vespa, as Luca Toni used to call the speedy cumbia-dancing winger, was rated very highly in the Pagelle on Wednesday morning, his stunning cameo was not enough to out-perform the Man of the Match, Gianluigi Buffon who kept Juventus in the game with what, even by his high standards, was one of the finest displays of his career. The 40-year-old saved an Alexander Lacazette penalty in the first half - the first one he has made from the spot in the Champions League since he denied Luis Figo in the 2003 semi-final against Real Madrid. Then after the interval came the pick of the bunch.
Nabil Fekir thought he had beaten Buffon when his shot was deflected to the right just as the Juventus No.1 was diving to his left. Fekir’s arm went up to celebrate but remarkably so did Buffon’s to push it over the bar. At the other end, Lopes, his opposite number couldn’t help but applaud. Another save, this time with his feet from point blank range, later denied Corentin Tolisso too.
“Gigi can I have your shirt please,” a banner in the crowd read. David de Gea tweeted his own appreciation. “It was like watching Yashin again,” Buffon’s proud father, Adriano, insisted. More to the point, the performance answered Buffon’s critics. After a mistake against Udinese at the weekend followed another in Italy’s World Cup qualifier with Spain, the pundits on La Domenica Sportiva, Italy’s Match of the Day, debated whether it might be time to rotate Buffon with Gigio Donnarumma, the Milan wunderkind who he meets again on Saturday. The save ratios of the two this season are almost identical - Buffon with 70.6%, Donnarumma 70.3% - but last season the gap between them was substantial (Buffon 82%, Donnarumma 70.7%), suggesting that the Juve man is still the master to this apprentice.
Marco Tardelli, the former Juventus midfielder, began to wonder if Buffon would accept a more diminished role. “I don’t believe he would stay [on],” he said. “For a goalkeeper, peace of mind is everything.” While the errors were surprising, not least because they were committed by the otherwise impeccable Buffon, the reaction to them felt disproportionate and knee-jerk.
People are quick to forget Buffon was Juventus’ MVP last season and broke Sebastiano Rossi’s long-standing record by going more than 16 hours without conceding a goal in Serie A. Incidentally, the Jakub Jankto shot that squirmed under him on Saturday was the first Buffon allowed in over six hours for his club and the blame for it should have been shared by Hernanes whose miscontrol led to the chance in the first place. How the saves he made from Cyril Thereau and Duvan Zapata got overlooked, both of which were critical to Juventus clinching victory, boggles the mind.
“People can hold a funeral for me, but they won’t find me there,” Buffon hit back on Tuesday. Far from being in decline, Buffon will make the precocious Donnarumma wait his turn until after the World Cup in Russia. In August, the 17-year-old became the youngest player to make his debut for Italy since 1912. It came just a fortnight after he saved a 96th minute penalty from Andrea Belotti to ensure Milan started the season with a 3-2 win against Torino. No teenager had ever stopped a spot-kick before in the history of Serie A. “If I had known he was going to do that, I wouldn’t have given Gigio his debut a year ago,” Sinisa Mihajlovic joked.
That Buffon plays behind a magnificent defence isn’t exactly news to anyone. Juventus have allowed just 6.9 shots per game in Serie A this season, the best record in Europe’s top five leagues. Milan, by contrast, concede an average of 14.4 a game. But their backline has improved considerably, shipping three fewer goals than at this stage a year ago. The Rossoneri strung together a hat-trick of clean sheets in September for the first time in three years and surprisingly for a coach renowned for attacking football, Montella has achieved a level of defensive organisation that has eluded Milan since Max Allegri’s dismissal.
As such, Saturday’s clash promises not to be quite as one-sided as the others in recent memory. Milan have lost their last seven encounters with Juventus, the worst run in the history of this illustrious fixture, but they go into this encounter confident and hopeful. This is the best start Milan have made since they last won the Scudetto five years ago. They have already beaten Torino, their bogey side Sassuolo, Lazio, Chievo and held Fiorentina 0-0, all of whom wish to get in the way of Milan making a return to Europe. Maybe the Diavolo should start to dream bigger and aim higher than a place in the Europa League.
“It’s a pleasant surprise,” Giacomo Bonaventura told La Gazzetta dello Sport. “Montella has been the difference. The fact we are where we are with more or less the same team as a year ago shows it.” Except Montella has put even more faith in Milan’s kids than Mihajlovic, which is saying something given how he dared to drop Diego Lopez for Donnarumma. The team is now the youngest in Serie A with an average age of 24 and Montella's decision to persist with academy graduate Manuel Locatelli instead of the more experienced Jose Sosa, even after the injury to captain Riccardo Montolivo, feels symbolic. Davide Calabria has also got more game-time.
Up front Suso and M’Baye Niang look better for the six-months they spent at boarding school in Genoa, where both got an invaluable tactical education from Gian Piero Gasperini. After establishing himself last year, Niang, once a lot more famous for crashing sports cars than for what he did on the pitch, has matured, scoring a goal or laying on an assist in five of his seven appearances this season. Carlos Bacca remains one of the most lethal strikers in the league. In fact, no one has a higher conversion rate and while Bonaventura concedes “Juve are on another level…” we should not forget that Montella has masterminded their defeat on more than one occasion in the past, not to mention the loss the champions suffered on their last visit to San Siro [in the Derby d’Italia].
Juventus have been winning without convincing of late. The trouble for the competition is that it has still been enough to open up a five-point lead at the top of the table and Lord help Serie A when they start playing better. While an upset seems unlikely, Milan aren’t in Europe and have had the whole week to prepare for this one. It could be a classic and, from a neutral perspective, it’s just nice to again have sympathy for the Devil rather than pity.
Is Donnarumma ready to take the gloves from Buffon with the Azzurri? Let us know in the comments below