Did Federico Chiesa take some tips from his father before Juventus’s visit to Milan? Enrico scored goals everywhere he went in his career, but lining up against the Rossoneri always seemed to draw out something extra: the red-and-black flag to his bull.
He punctured them 17 times in 24 encounters across Serie A and the Coppa Italia, more than he managed against any other club. Not bad when you consider the names of some of the defenders sent against him: Baresi, Costacurta, Maldini, Nesta and Stam.
The back four that started for Milan on Wednesday was not quite in that category. Alessio Romagnoli and Simon Kjær have formed an encouraging partnership at centre-back, but a feeling persists that the Italian has not yet realised his full potential, while his partner’s lack of pace can be exposed. On the right side of defence, Diogo Dalot made only his third Serie A start.
Theo Hernández, one of Milan’s best signings in years, still has a way to go before being considered in such illustrious company. And this would turn out to be one of the left-back’s worst games for some time.
There were not 20 minutes played when Chiesa left Hernández in his wake for the first time, shimmying in from the right-hand touchline, cutting the ball square for Paulo Dybala and accelerating towards the penalty box. The ball came back to him via the Argentinian’s masterful heel-flick, and Chiesa buried it into the far corner.
It was a breathtaking start to a game that would keep its audience gasping. Chiesa had already struck the woodwork, slamming a half-volley into the right-hand upright, after Wojciech Szczesny produced an important near-post stop to thwart Samu Castillejo at the other end.
The stakes were as high as they could be at such an early stage of a campaign. Milan, unbeaten in 28 league games, had an opportunity to move four points clear at the top following Inter’s defeat to Sampdoria earlier on Wednesday. More significant still, a win would have left Juventus – champions of the past nine Serie A seasons – 13 points adrift.
Both teams were missing key players. Milan have been without Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Ismaël Bennacer since mid-December, but a suspension to Sandro Tonali, coupled with positive Covid tests for Rade Krunic and Ante Rebic left them so short that manager Stefano Pioli was compelled to draft right-back Davide Calabria into central midfield.
Juventus had to do without Álvaro Morata up front – the only player besides Cristiano Ronaldo in their squad who had scored more than twice in this league season. Both of their own starting full-backs, Alex Sandro and Juan Cuadrado, were out after testing positive for Covid as well.
Neither side, though, seemed willing to let such setbacks discourage them from trying to play on the front foot. Opportunities came thick and fast throughout the first 45 minutes. It was a Bentancur backheel inside his own penalty box that set up that early chance for Castillejo, and Aaron Ramsey was every bit as careless with a pass across the face the area that went straight to Milan’s Jens Petter Hauge.
The Rossoneri equalised in the 41st minute, Calabria placing a gorgeous first-time finish into the top corner from the edge of the box. A 1-1 scoreline was a fair reflection of the balance of play, but it was a surprise not to see VAR intervene after Hakan Calhanoglu had appeared to foul Adrien Rabiot at the start of the move.
Chiesa, though, was not finished. One month earlier, after Juventus’s win over Dinamo Kyiv, a journalist had asked him whether there were any traits he would like to steal from his dad. Federico did not mention Milan, back then, but instead replied: “his ability to shoot off either foot. He had phenomenal co-ordination.”
Perhaps he has inherited more than he knows. Having scored the opener with his right boot, Chiesa put Juventus back in front with the left, running straight at Hernández to put the defender off balance before picking out the bottom corner, giving Gianluigi Donnarumma no chance even from 20 yards out.
It was the turning point. Milan did not yield but, for the first time in almost a year, Pioli’s young and overachieving team had come up against a domestic opponent they simply did not have answers for. When Chiesa limped out of the game after scoring his second, Andrea Pirlo sent on Dejan Kulusevski – a €35m signing – to replace him.
The second-half substitutions spoke to the realities of both teams. Juventus went on to introduce Weston McKennie, Arthur and Federico Bernardeschi from the bench. Milan had Pierre Kalulu, a 20-year-old centre-back, together with teenage academy graduates Daniel Maldini and Lorenzo Colombo.
It was McKennie who made it 3-1 to Juventus, from a Kulsevski assist. A greater vindication of Juventus’s summer transfer strategy was hard to imagine. On a night where Cristiano Ronaldo failed to sparkle, three young players who arrived together this summer had taken over the most important game of the league season to date, dragging their team back into the title picture.
Chiesa, though, was the greatest gamble. He was the last to arrive, this October, and there were many who considered his signing to be superfluous for a club that already seemed to have too many options to deploy in support of Ronaldo – from Kulusevski, Dybala, Bernardeschi and Ramsey through to the newly-returned Morata. Was it really necessary to add Chiesa – whose deal is structured as a loan with obligation to buy, but could eventually cost them €60m in transfer fees – on top?
If he can continue as he has started in 2021, there will be no doubts. He had already scored, and sparkled, in the 4-1 rout of Udinese at the weekend, and on Wednesday Pirlo was specific in highlighting the different options Chiesa gives to the team as a player who could dominate one-on-ones in the final 30 metres of the pitch.
The player himself preferred to deflect the praise, crediting the manager for encouraging him to attack the penalty box more, and his Juventus teammates for showing him new tricks. “At the end of training we get together with Cristiano [Ronaldo] and Paulo [Dybala],” he said. “The younger players – me and Kulusevski – watch them and try to steal something.”
After all those years observing his father, he has grown into a most accomplished thief.