Juventus had more than the obvious reasons to rue the miracles worked by Atalanta head coach Gian Piero Gasperini as they were made to dig into dwindling reserves during Wednesday’s Coppa Italia final.
Most of the way through their utter dominance of Serie A over the past decade, Juve decided winning alone wasn’t enough – certainly not if they were to become a preeminent force in Europe.
They needed a superstar and along came Cristiano Ronaldo. That was half the job and, fittingly considering their marque signing, the other part concerned aesthetics.
Increasingly in the modern game, the way in which a team wins marks them out as great. Massimiliano Allegri was certainly no arch practitioner of catenaccio but he was a coach of substance more than style.
Juve did not want pragmatism, they wanted a philosophy. After all, Gasperini’s Atalanta – all intricate whirring parts – were compiled on a shoe string and scoring goals by the bucket load. Why couldn’t the grand Old Lady have some of that?
And so, Allegri made way for Maurizio Sarri. A ninth consecutive Scudetto arrived via Sarriball but with little of the desired joy. So off he went and in came club great and coaching rookie Andrea Pirlo.
Charged with improving a bankable winning machine, Pirlo headed to the final in Reggio Emilia with Juve’s Champions League qualification hopes now out of their hands. Admittedly, his board don’t seem too keen on that competition nowadays.
The Bianconeri tried to match Atalanta stride for stride during the opening stages but they coughed up chances and were fortunate to see the best of those fall to lumbering centre-back Jose Luis Palomino – Gianluigi Buffon’s early save so crucial to this 2-1 victory and the goalkeeping great riding off into the sunset with one last piece of silverware.
Duvan Zapata fired into the side-netting and made the first half an utterly torrid experience for Matthijs de Ligt. Juve were snapping into challenges and trying to roll with the punches, but much of the first half looked like a team in the season’s latest fashion trying to match a catwalk model stride for stride.
Then a player reared in the Atalanta style opened the scoring. For Juventus.
Dejan Kulusevski moved to Turin from Bergamo, via an electrifying loan spell with Parma, in deal that could be worth €44million to Atalanta.
Whether that is a price worth paying after the Sweden attacker’s goal and assist denied them a first major honour for 58 years is a tantalising question, but selling gems like Kulusevski and Manchester United winger Amad Diallo at huge mark ups is a massive reason why Atalanta head into the final weekend in Serie A guaranteed a Champions League spot for a third consecutive campaign.
They are an impeccably run club, and this defeat to a Juve in shambles will truly sting. The build-up to the 31st-minute opener was as chaotic as the club who scored it, but Kulusevski’s curled left-footed finish was an utter delight.
The response to that artistic flourish came via the sledgehammer of Ruslan Malinovskiy’s left boot after the brilliant Remo Freuler – who completed more passes (55) and gained possession (nine) more times than any of his team-mates – ransacked Adrien Rabiot.
At that point, it felt like there was only one winner, but Juve regrouped, re-established their lead and Atalanta’s discipline unravelled.
There will be a lot of guff spoken about Juventus’ DNA and such, although this victory owed everything to the younger more recently attached parts to this Frankenstein’s monster of a team.
De Ligt came out the other side of his Zapata ordeal and produced a heroic and painful block to deny Cristian Romero when it was still all square, giving the Dutchman a more grizzled contribution to this win than the wonderfully weathered Giorgio Chiellini alongside him.
Kulusevski drew a sharp reaction stop from Pierluigi Gollini and Ronaldo’s deft backheel saw Federico Chiesa hit the post.
Ronaldo seemed happy to play second-fiddle to the bright young things alongside him and they combined for glory, Chiesa coming inside menacingly from the left and exchanging passes with Kulusevski to score emphatically.
It was the sort of sleek goal desired to be a feature of the post-Allegri years and this piece of silverware should help a team in transition, even if the evidence of the season as a whole suggests Pirlo is not the man to lead it.
Buffon lovingly strapped his gloves back on to lift the trophy – the 19th major honour of an incredible senior career at club and international level – but this was a night that belonged to the players who will shape Juve’s future. It is a future that aspires stylistically to romantics like Gasperini, however little comfort that might provide for him and his beaten players.