IVO'S CHAMPIONS LEAGUE PRELUDE REFLECTION
I lost it. I was up yelling, kicking, and screaming. I was in that mode where 95% of your body is losing control and just reacting, and that other 5% is wondering what to answer when the neighbor knocks on the door and asks what the hell you're screaming about.
My ape-like reaction did not happen when Chiellini was sent off, no. It happened once Llorente caught a rebound from Pogba's header to equalize to 1-1 early in the first half.
Once I calmed down a bit, I caught myself. This game mattered. Not just to me, but to the whole team and all the fans.
You see, this isn't the Juventus we came to know for a while after Calciopoli. This isn't a team that you wonder how good they are and if they are going to fight for Serie A honors. This is a team you expect to win the title for the third year in a row. It's a standard that the management, coach, and team have set for themselves, and have taken us along for the wonderful ride to date.
Things, however, are different in the Champions League. In this international world of the best vs the best vs the most resilient, Juventus is still unproven. Yes, we are a great team by many standards. We indeed are the most successful and most famous team out of Italy. But in the highest echelon of competitions, we are still unproven.
Us fans dream of success in the Champions League every day. Imagine how the players must feel, how motivated they must be. This was a game against one of the Top 3 teams in the world, certainly the most expensive club around too. The table situation before the match was irrelevant. To be the best, you have to beat the best. That's exactly what Conte and the Juventus players want to do in Europe. Anyone nearly as competitive as those guys would know.
Unfortunately, on a cold Tuesday night in Madrid, the right to compete was taken away from us. The word shame doesn't even begin to cut it.
Now that I got the drama out of me, let's break this game down real quick and look at the takeaways.
Conte's beloved 3-5-2 can only work on so many levels; it was time for a better suited formation to cover fast wingers like Ronaldo and Di Maria. Four defenders were installed, with Caceres and Ogbonna inserted in the starting line up on the flanks. All four of our best central midfielders took the field as well, with Marchisio playing a mix of a trequartista+right flank attacking midfielder stretch role. Tevez played a bit wider on the left with Llorente right in the thick of the Madrid defense.
Here's what I saw at the end of 90 minutes:
1. Juve's game is slowly coming back - I'm not taking about grinta or effort. When you have warriors such as our players, even throughout the recent games in which we conceded goals like we played without a defense, the effort was there. What was lacking was the focus and determination to play well, to play with each other, for each other. Against Real at the Bernabeu, new formation and all, we played one for another. It was evident. Everyone was up for the game, we sacrificed for the team, linked up a lot faster and pinned down Real for a majority of the game. If we can take this performance and strive for it in every game from here on out, we'll add another title in our trophy room at the end of the season, whichever that may be.
2. Flexibility = unpredictability = success - We saw this against Fiorentina and have timeless times before. La Viola switched things around at halftime, put in a classic winger and spread the field, then went on to score 4 goals in one half against our 3 man defense. Against Madrid, Juve played with 4 in the back thus covering wingers much better, then used the likes of Marchisio, Tevez, and Giovinco to spread the field themselves and stretch Madrid's defense. I personally love our 3 man defense, but we have to keep the other team guessing each game on what and how we will execute. Having more than one well-oiled formation in Conte's pocket will go a long way.
3. My take on the referee - Just so we are clear: Chiellini maybe deserved the penalty but absolutely did not deserve the red card. There are always Judo-like takedowns in the box on set pieces, and the way they are called by referees all across Europe is incredibly inconsistent. One thing is for sure thought - if the ref didn't send Chiellini off, the second half would've been even more spectacular than the first one. That is what the Champions League is about - the best against the best going at it. Let them play! I'm not going to go into any conspiracy theories here. But when I saw the red card I had the same feeling I had last year when Nani was sent off for Manchester United - robbed. Robbed of two great teams playing some of the best football in the world and competing. That is what the Champions League is all about, at least in our innocent fan minds. I think diverting the discussion to Ronaldo's play-acting is desperate. Everyone has flaws, and diving/faking is obviously one of his. The referee, as tough as a job he has, needs to rise above it if he is going to handle a high-flying match like Juve v Real.
Buffon: 6.5 - If you really look at the whole game, he wasn't that threatened by Madrid. Ronaldo's first goal perhaps could've gone better for him, if he kept his feet on the ground, but you can't blame him for trying to block as much of Ronaldo's angle as he could. Still, it was weird to see Buffon rounded so easily.
Caceres: 7 - Was it just me, or did our team feel rejuvenated with Caceres on the field? His energy is palpable, he pushed hard in attack while he had the energy to do so, and did well in defense as well. For a first game back after a long injury, I was ecstatic for him. He can be counted on to give Lichtsteiner rest when necessary. I did see people on here recommend we play him on the left, but I am really against that idea. He doesn't have a strong left foot and is much better suited on the right.
Barzagli: 6.5 - I never felt like Barzagli was compromised during the game. What I did see, was a lack of a ball-playing defender we have in Bonucci. Barzagli, as much as he'd like to try and fill that gap, is not the ideal candidate for the job.
Chiellini: 5.5 - I was called out for being too generous to Giorgio against Fiorentina, but I have little reason to do that this time around. Forget the non-existent red card he received - Chiellini should've been more locked in and a lot smarter about Ramos' foul. You can't play on the big stage and not account for the small things. Everything counts. I liked the idea of being physical with the galacticos, but there's a limit to everything (unless you're Pepe, of course).
Ogbonna: 6 - Okay, I don't have time to watch the game for the second time. What was so wrong with Ogbonna's performance? People have been bashing him like he put in a Molinaro type effort. I was okay with how he played, given him being out of position and possibly out of prime shape. Give the kid a break, eh? Did anyone really expect him to shut down Di Maria? I think a handful of players can do that in this world. He was a body that was supposed to slow him down. Maybe my expectations were too low?
Pirlo: 6.5 - I won't get in your way of blaming him for Ronaldo's first goal, but I think that's a bit of a stretch. Afterwards, he was the link we were missing between the midfield and attack in this new formation of ours. I was actually surprised how much space he was given.
Marchisio: 6.5 - Started the game great, could've scored early. I felt like he struggled to really find a place on the field where he would be of most benefit to the team in an unusual role for him. His nature is to scrap, defend, close down, and then take opportunities to run in the box, not the other way around.
Pogba: 7 - His first half performance had me mesmerized. It's no secret I'm a fan of the boy, but how he handles himself in big matches at his age is truly amazing. The "assist" for Llorente's goal was no easy feat, mind you. In the second half, he failed to really make an impact, though he did very well supporting Tevez on the left side of the field when possible. My biased man of match.
Vidal: 7 - Gave it his all as usual, but was also more of a force offensively. Took over deep in midfield for a bit once Pirlo was taken off.
Tevez: 7 - This little pitbull has become so valuable for Juve in any formation we play. He was played a bit wider on the left, and he did very well cutting in. So many times I thought he would score with his outside shots, really bummed that he didn't.
Llorente: 7 - Nothing flashy from the Spaniard, but he did score his first ever Champions League goal against Real Madrid in his motherland. Reacted great to the save by Casillas. Had a couple good set ups and link ups with Pogba, Tevez, and the rest of the midfield. He's coming into his own in our line up, I can feel it.
Bonucci: 6 - Other than getting beat by Khedira for a one-on-one with Buffon he was okay for a forced 40 minutes.
Giovinco: 6.5 - Brought energy in the team, but should've taken that golden shot opportunity towards the end!
Conte: 7 - I have to admit, I was impressed with Conte's handling of this game. He played the right risks with the formation change and except for maybe Ogbonna, got the lineup spot on. Even Marchisio's start was correct in my opinion, as Giovinco is a lot more effective as an energy sub. I would've swapped Pogba and Marchisio's positions though. Anyways, hopefully this game will serve as a good platform for more varied style of play at Juventus. The 3-5-2 can only get us so far.