For a change, Juventus concluded the Champions League group stage with the knowledge that they controlled their own fate. Victory at home against a poor Dinamo Zagreb side who have failed to register a single point or goal scored in the group stages so far, and Juventus win Group H. Ez boiz. Considering the caliber of teams who have concluded the group stages this year as second seed, it might not make much of a difference, but as our in house financial adviser Fefu would tell you, another victory and topping the group is certainly good for our finances. And at least we did our utmost to finish the phase as top seeds, and we get a nightmare Round of 16 draw now, it comes down to luck, and not a screw up like last season.
The game started in a relatively open fashion, as Dinamo were keen to crowd out the midfield. However, a quick forward pass to Gonzalo Higuain ended up with him releasing Miralem Pjanic in the space between the midfield and defense, but the Bosnian playmaker could only pull his shot well wife of the post.
The roles were reversed a few minutes later, when a beautiful long ball from captain for the night, Claudio Marchisio, found Mario Mandzukic beyond the defense. His first time pass back to Pjanic was lobbed into the rushing advance of Higuain, who took a touch that might have ended up being one touch too many, as the onrushing keeper Dominik Livakovic managed to reduce the angle and block his shot.
The majority of the rest of the first half failed to live up to the action of the first five minutes. The game settled into a bit of a lull, with Juve trying to push forward, but without really moving the ball around quickly enough to cause problems to a Zagreb team keen to defend deep and hopefully get lucky on the counter attack.
The best chance of the half came on the 32-minute mark, as some nice skill by Colombian winger Juan Cuadrado down the right, found Mandzukic in space in an advanced position on the right flank. He dummied his man before firing in a pinpoint cross onto Pjanic’s head, but the Bosnian’s free header was straight at the keeper.
A wild shot from Mario Lemina, and a few shots on target from Pjanic from a free kick, and Mandzukic, concluded what was a half played at somewhat a pedestrian speed.
The second half started off where the first concluded, with Juventus maintaining a lot of sterile possession in the middle of the pitch, and struggling to bring either winger into the game or get beyond a resolute Zagreb defense.
Finally, some neat work by Lemina helped Juventus take the lead. After getting played in in space in the middle of the pitch by Cuadrado, the Gabonese midfielder wonderfully controlled possession of the ball despite being crowded out by three or four determined players as he entered the box. Eventually the scramble gave Higuain the half a yard of space he needed to fire in a vicious shot from the edge of the box into the bottom corner. You could see the relief on the Argentine’s face as he celebrated what was his fist goal in a month.
Once again the game settled into a bit of a lull, as Zagreb rarely threatened and Juve were keen just to hold onto the ball. Finally around the 72-minute mark, a delicious Marchisio through ball released Cuadrado down the right flank. His cutback found Lemina with a bit of space in the box, but he was quickly charged down, and his shot was deflected for a corner.
From the resultant set piece, Pjanic fired in a wonderful ball that defender Daniele Rugani attacked with deadly intent, and gave Juventus a comfortable two goal cushion with a bullet header, which was almost an instant replay of the goal he scored a few days prior at the J-stadium against Atalanta.
To the crowd’s delight, La Joya Paulo Dybala came on for Pjanic, in what was his first appearance since the end of October. The diminutive Argentine forward looked eager to make up for lost time, and when on what was almost a one man crusade to get a third goal. Time and time again the team sought him out on the right flank, and he cut in and bamboozled a defender or two... or three, before firing in a multitude of shots with his left foot that were either well saved by the keeper, blocked by a defender for a corner, or narrowly wide of the goal. It was a fun cameo, and it was a delight to see Dybala running at defenders with the ball again.
The game fizzled out from there, and Juventus did more than enough to take the spoils and end the group stage as top of Group H.
Much to what I can suppose would be shock to my friend Linez, Max Allegri lined the team up in a new 3-4-1-2 system, abandoning his central midfield trio for the first time since he became Coach. The system had Marchisio and Lemina manning the center of the pitch, thereby giving Pjanic the freedom to free roam in the trequartista position he excelled in over the weekend. In what was another surprise, despite announcing that Medhi Benatia was the leading candidate to take up Leonardo Bonucci’s position as the central defender in a back three, it was Rugani who occupied that role, with Benatia and Evra playing on either side of him.
However, it was clear from the first half that the team had yet to get used to this tactical setup. That doesn’t mean I think it was a poor first half, just that it looked a little disjointed, particularly in the middle. Marchisio held his usual position shielding the defense, with Lemina playing next to him. However, Zagreb defended so deep throughout the match, that the Gabonese had freedom to break forward and make runs late into the box. Despite having the lion’s share of possession, the team struggled to breakdown the Zagreb bus. In particular, we struggled to bring the wingers, Cuadrado and Asamoah, into the game. In the former’s case, it wasn’t for lack of effort. The team just opted to utilize Pjanic in his free-roaming role, and Marchisio who was under next to no pressure when on the ball, to play predominantly through the center. Asamoah, however, endured a torrid evening. He looked lost when in possession of the ball, and even when he had it, he didn’t have a lot of success in trying to add some width down the left flank.
Credit to Max for noticing these minute details, and acting on them. In the second half, the team came out in what resembled a 4-3-1-2 formation, with Patrice Evra and Cuadrado as fullbacks, and Asamoah slotting into the LCM position. However, correctly predicting that Zagreb were more interested in not losing than scoring, the full backs ended up playing more as wing backs, or maybe even wingers, meaning that for the bulk of the half, Rugani and Benatia were the only two players still in our half. And even the two of them were fearless in stepping up into midfield and carrying the ball forward.
Pjanic’s performance suggests that Allegri has finally found his best position, with the defensive work rate provided by the likes of Sturaro or Lemina giving him a lot more freedom to support the attack and create from the space within the midfield and defense. Our gameplay also should become that much more fluid once Dybala returns to the fold fully fit. The presence of someone like Dybala over the likes of Mandzukic/Higuain should also help to speed up the passing through the middle, an issue the team suffered from today. However, from this game, my main conclusion would be that setting the team up to play both with wingers, and a trequartista in Pjanic, might be counter productive, as the team really did struggle to bring the wingers into the game. The bulk of the passing and movements were through the center, and this certainly did utilize the intelligence and passing range of Pjanic and Marchisio wonderfully, who regularly sought out the runs of Mandzukic and Higuain, and late runs of the likes of Lemina, beyond the last man.
On his Champions League debut, the Brazilian couldn’t have asked for an easier outing. Had absolutely nothing to do all night.
With Andrea Barzagli at the twilight of his career, and Giorgio Chiellini struggling with his fitness, its a blessing to have the Moroccan. I’ve been quite impressed with his reading of the game, aerial prowess and passing. He brought the ball out from the back very confidently, and enjoyed a game-high five interceptions.
Another commanding outing from the young Italian, who pleasantly surprised me with his passing in this game. I think back to the solid defender who was extremely nervous on the ball when he first broke into the team last year, and serious credit must be given to the lad for his hard work, for the improvements are startling. Commanded our third of the pitch with his aerial prowess and reading of the game, giving the Zagreb attack next to no sniffs at goal at all. Completed 95 passes with a 90 percent accuracy (second only to Benatia), and scored his third goal of the season with another bullet header from a set piece, making a serious claim to be our biggest set piece threat.
Comfortable evening for Uncle Pat, who had nothing to do defensively, and played as almost an out and out winger for the majority of the match. That said, his offensive output has suffered this year, and despite trying very, very hard, he is struggling to influence the game in the final third, just as his squad rival Alex Sandro’s offensive output is thriving.
Another very solid outing from the Columbian wideman, who is certainly striking a wonderful balance between his flair play and skills and his improved chemistry with his teammates. Struggled to get into the game through no fault of his own, as the bulk of the play was through the center. Yet, every time he got any space in the final third, he managed to look threatening. Swung in some lovely crosses, and teed up his teammates often.
I was personally very impressed with Lemina. Another player with a lot to prove, he is certainly making a case for himself to get more game time as a box-to-box midfielder, which is good for us as it provides Allegri with more chances to rest Khedira. Two tackles and clearances each, four interceptions, the fourth-highest number of passes completed in the squad (after Benatia, Rugani and Marchisio) at an astounding 95 percent accuracy back this claim up. He wasn’t afraid to drive forward, and his dribbling and strength on the ball offer something unique when compared to our other midfielders, something we lack since Pogba’s departure. Also seems to have been reading BWRAO lately, as despite not always meeting the mark, he wasn’t afraid to take some risks and try to slice the defense open for those ahead of him.
Another solid outing for our Little Prince, as he continues his quest towards full fitness and match sharpness. Shielded the defense wonderfully throughout, showcased the full range of his wonderful passing, including a delightful ball over the top for Mandzukic in the opening five minutes, and went about his business with composure and minimal hustle. Our midfield looks so much more balanced and stable with him playing.
It was a struggle for the Ghanaian all night, as he struggled mightily to influence the game at all. Despite playing in his old position, he looked lost on the pitch, and clueless as to what to do with the ball. As a wing back, he struggles to offer width. As an LCM, he struggles to provide the dynamism needed of a box-to-box midfielder. I don’t know how much of a future he has with this squad.
Another very encouraging display from the Bosnian, who for the first time this season, is starting to look unshackled and not restrained. All he was missing was that killer final touch needed in the final third, but full marks for trying, as he was relentless in roaming all over the pitch and seeking the ball out, and trying to get every around him involved. Still managed to rack up another assist from a set piece. Very excited to see him with Dybala now!
It was a decent game from the Argentinian, who worked hard all night. The goals were missing for the past month, but it was fantastic to see the big money star of the squad so willing to sacrifice himself for the team. Got the goal he deserved with a fantastic first time finish. Didn’t get too much space on either side of that however, as the defense tried to double team him all night. Should have done better on his chance in the first half.
Another stunning display of work rate from the tireless Croat Machine, who seems to be fighting Chiellini’s legacy tooth and nail for the title of “Most grinta in the squad.” Was everywhere once again, as evident from his heatmap below. Didn’t get many chances in front of goal, but did well to bring others into the game, and setup Pjanic for what should have been a goal in the first half. How he isn’t fatigued to hell yet is just the most amazing mystery.
The game was all but done when he came into the fold. Still added some hustle to proceedings.
He looks like a caged tiger just let loose. His hunger is heartening to see. Looked fired up for his 10 or so minutes on the pitch. Hope to see him from the start soon.
New experimental midfield system indicating a willingness to adapt? Check. Playing good players in their best positions? Check. Adjusted his tactics based on the flow of the game? Check. Clean sheet with minimal chances afforded? Check. Energy conserving performance? Check. Top of the Champions Lague group? Check.
With that, we conclude the first part of our European adventure this season. What joy or horrors await us now? Time and fate will tell. Will Juventus get a favourable draw? Will Juventus get a nightmare draw and crash out again? Will Juventus get the hardest draw ever, but fight their way to the elusive Big ears title? Find out next time, on DRAGON BALL Z.
This is Kaushik, signing out.