At the final whistle, after 90 minutes plus stoppages that had just about everything one could think of seeing in a football match, AC Milan and Juventus split the points in one of the most compelling, nevermind important, games of the Serie A season. And as so often is the case in football, the 1-1 score—bookended by Antonio Nocerino’s deflected opener from distance and Alessandro Matri’s emphatic volley from fellow substitute Simone Pepe’s cross—told little of the story, expressed only the hardest facts of what was an intricate narrative.
The real meat of this encounter came in the middle chapters, between an exciting introduction and thrilling conclusion. No one got exactly what they wanted from the story, but nobody can feel particularly aggrieved, either. But for the observer, and now the reader, the ultimate proof of fascination: once immersed in the tale, it could not be put down.
The opening: It was provided by Nocerino, who in 23 league appearances for AC Milan has now scored eight goals. That’s more than he ever mustered with Palermo; more, even, than he could bag with Piacenza in Serie B. He didn’t find the back of the net at all in the one season he played at Juventus, and on Saturday he came back to haunt his former team by opening the scoring in the 15th minute.
After a dominant first quarter-hour the lead was the least Milan deserved. Robinho, who once again shone in the absence of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, found his teammate after intercepting Leonardo Bonucci’s careless pass, and after taking a step Nocerino lashed one from 22-yards, the ball taking a deflection off Bonucci as it flew past Juventus goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon.
The villain: Nowhere are match officials viewed with as much scepticism, if not downright disdain, as in Italy (they have a special vocabulary reserved for insulting officials of which Cornuto, or “bastard”, is one of the more popular terms), and it was always going to be impossible for a match as big as this to be played without a referee or linesman becoming intrinsically involved in the outcome. Especially as one of the sides was Juventus.
Loathed by rivals fans for what they see as preferential treatment, Juventus got a huge favour from the linesman in the 25th minute when Sulley Muntari was denied a clear goal that would have given Milan an imposing 2-0 lead.
Robinho had done well to earn a corner off Giorgio Chellini and it was from the resulting set-piece that Muntari headed the ball well past the goal-line. The linesman, who had a good view of the play, did not indicate to the referee that a goal had been scored, however, and play was allowed to continue. You could have forgiven a Milan fan for yelling Sapete solo Rubare—“you only know how to rob.”
But the villain wasn’t finished. With 11 minutes to play Juventus were denied an equaliser when the same linesman who had missed Muntari’s goal signalled incorrectly for offside. Matri had put the ball in the net and had run from an obviously onside position, but the linesman’s attention had been grabbed by another Juventus player—uninvolved in the play, according to current interpretations of the offside-rule—who was standing a good two or three years behind the Milan defense. Juventus would eventually get their goal, but for the moment they had the match officials to blame for their deficit. Cornuto, indeed.
The twist: Juventus initially lined up in the 3-5-2 formation manager Antonio Conte had preferred in recent weeks. After using a 4-2-3-1 for much of the season Conte’s shift in tactics demonstrated a growing trust in the players at his disposal, some of which he was reluctant to use earlier in the campaign.
That flexibility allowed the Juventus boss to change things up in the second half when it became clear Milan were going to win the midfield battle unless a strategic modification was made. And so, on came Pepe for Marcelo Estigarribia, and Mirko Vucinic replaced Marco Boriello four minutes later. Stephan Lichtsteiner, meanwhile, was redeployed to his usual left-back slot after beginning the match on the wing. Matri’s introduction in the 69th minute completed Conte’s adjustments.
The result was a nearly immediate rebalancing in possession, and after Matri’s disallowed goal Juventus were never going to be denied their equaliser, which two of Conte’s substitutes combined to create in the 83rd minute.
The climax: For the entire first half of the season, and perhaps a little more, Alessandro Matri and Simone Pepe were two of Conte’s stalwart players in that 4-2-3-1 formation. Both started on the bench against Milan, however, but came on in the second half to provide Juventus with the point they required to go back atop the standings, provided they win their game in hand.
Pepe, who has scored five goals of his own this term, was the provider in this instance—his delightful cross arching over the Milan defense before finding Matri, who needed just a single touch to volley past Milan ‘keeper Christian Abbiati. It was an emphatic finish by a forward who was so often irresistible in front of goal in the first half of the season and now, having bagged his 10th of the year in the league, may well be a central figure to his side once more down the stretch.
Follow Jerrad Peters on Twitter @peterssoccer