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Mandzukic helps Juventus escape European disaster with late game-winner vs. Sporting

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Ugly victory mustn’t mask glaring issues with team.

Juventus v Sporting CP - UEFA Champions League Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images

Another Champions League match, another heroic effort to escape a potential home disaster. A match filled with triumphant highs and baffling lows eventually led to an important victory in Turin for Juventus.

But the theme of “ugly victory” has been washed, rinsed and repeated for multiple games now. The defense — minus Giorgio Chiellini — make perplexing mistakes, and the offense doesn’t produce until dramatic heroics take place in closing minutes of matches.

The match against Sporting Clube de Portugal looked eerily similar to the previous Champions League victory against Olympiacos. Sporting came out ravenous and focused, determined to spoil Juve’s evening. A fast-paced start was what Juve needed — especially on offense — but Sporting matched Juve’s intensity for the first 10 minutes of the match. Juve rolled with the momentum from the fast start, but before their fans could cheer loudly, disaster struck in the 12th minute.

Right back Stefano Sturaro committed a turnover up the right side of the field that lead to Sporting’s counter attack. Midfielder Bruno Fernandes gained possession and sent a pass forward that left back Alex Sandro should’ve easily made a play on. Instead, Alex Sandro made an backwards gallop before making an awkward stab at the ball with his left foot. The ball trickled right over Sandro’s foot, leaving Sporting winger Gelson Martins in a one-on-one opportunity with Juve goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon. Buffon rescued Juve by blocking the first attempt on goal, only to watch the ball deflect off of a retreating Sandro and into the back of the net for an own goal.

Juventus v Sporting CP - UEFA Champions League Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images

Sandro’s elementary effort toward a through ball lead to a painfully embarrassing sequence that lead to an early deficit for Juventus. The last thing this team needed was to play from behind.

Aside from Juve’s nightmarish start to the game, the offense played fast with great intensity and pace. The speed of Juve’s attack was noticeably problematic for Sporting’s defense and it led to a few chances, but saw no results. Sami Khedira found himself with a great opportunity off a few deflections inside the penalty box, and struck a low line drive toward the bottom left corner of the net. Sporting goalkeeper Rui Patricio made a diving effort to save the ball from danger, ending Juve’s attack.

However, the right and middle of Sporting’s defense was vulnerable and Juve sensed it. Paulo Dybala, Gonzalo Higuain and Mario Mandzukic found numerous creases in Sporting’s defense, but last-second efforts denied Juve of their first goal. The extensive attacking effort by the Old Lady would finally be rewarded. After Sporting midfielder Battaglia elbowed Miralem Pjanic in the head on a leaping effort, Juve was given a free kick right above the penalty box on the left side of the pitch. In the 29th minute, Pjanic struck a curling line drive that splashed into the back of the net for an absolutely beautiful goal. Rui Patricio didn't even have time to flinch after seeing the perfect placement of the shot go past him. Juve tied the game at 1-1, allowing them to breathe, but not too deeply. There was still work to be done.

As the half carried on, Dybala and Higuain pushed the ball with good pace and set up Juve’s attack nicely. Neither of them scored, but the effort and chemistry was there on offense in this game, that has lacked at times this season. Dybala had some clever passes and pushed the pace of the offense forward, but was never able to strike a clean, powerful shot when given the opportunity. The frustration has set in for Dybala at this year’s Champions League, and it’s beginning to carry over into games.

Higuain, who also grew increasingly frustrated with his opportunities, had a point blank shot at the net from the right side that was saved by Patricio on a diving effort. Higuain was extremely angry with himself after the shot, which in hindsight, should've been aimed at the left side of the net.

The black and white gave a lively effort in the first half, but still found themselves tied to an inferior opponent — where have we heard this before? Still, Pjanic’s goal allowed Juve to salvage the half after a distasteful start.

As the second half ticked away, so did Juve’s patience with each other. Dybala and Higuain had attacks that were broken down, and they began to let Juan Cuadrado — who had a poor game — know about it. The body language for Juventus looked agitated and unsettled, as Dybala’s head sulked, and Higuain’s temper flared.

While the offense sputtered, the defense were rock solid after Alex Sandro’s early blunder. As Juve’s midfield and attack dominated most of the game, the defense quietly stayed back and practically gave Buffon a day off. Sporting isn't an offensive powerhouse, but Juve’s defense deserves credit for staying strong and focused in the second half. Had they faltered, the offense may have never found the break through they were searching for.

However, it was obvious the offense needed a change and couldn’t keep an intense pace without a result to show for it.

Manager Massimiliano Allegri substituted Douglas Costa for Sturaro to ignite the offense and inject a spark of energy for the final push of the game. While Allegri deserves his share of criticism, substituting Douglas Costa was an excellent decision. For the second consecutive match, Allegri pushed the right buttons at a crucial moment in the game.

Douglas Costa sprinted up the left side and delivered one of the most elegant crosses you’ll see all season. As the ball swerved into the box, Mandzukic out-muscled his counterpart and contorted his body forward to head the ball into the back of the net. A fantastic cross from Costa all of 18 seconds after coming onto the field was followed with an even more brilliant finish by Mandzukic to give Juventus the lead, 2-1, in the 84th minute.

Juventus v Olympiakos Piraeus - UEFA Champions League Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images

Despite the lead, danger still lurked for the Old Lady.

Three minutes of extra time were added, and Sporting would make the most of it. In the 92nd minute, Fernandes lead an attack down the right side past Alex Sandro and sent a spiraling cross over the leaping right back Andrea Barzagli. Sporting forward Seydou Doumbia roasted Cuadrado and had an excellent chance to tap in a one-timer for the equalizer. As the 11 Juve players lost their breath, Doumbia kicked his leg out to knock the ball down, but the ball scooted under his leg and went begging out of play. The ball was a whisker away from being tapped into the net and crushing Juve’s Champions League hope.

Juventus secured the win and got three points, but these heroics can’t be counted on every game. Changes are needed moving forward if Juve is to make a run at the championship. Enjoy this win, Juventus, but don’t ignore the glaring issues at hand.

LE PAGELLE

Gianluigi Buffon - 6: Buffon saw very little action with Sporting only recording five shots (one on goal) for the game. The save he made was terrific, but the deflection off of Alex Sandro costed him a clean sheet. Like always, he was mentally sharp and technically sound throughout the game.

Stefano Sturaro - 6: He did his job. He didn’t play poorly and didn’t do anything demoralizing, either. He played decent enough on defense to keep Sporting from attacking the outside, but he was underwhelming when pushing the ball. He needs to avoid awful turnovers, but an overall fine day for him.

Giorgio Chiellini - 8: Chiellini turned in another fantastic performance. Like Buffon and the rest of the defense, Chiellini didn’t have an overwhelmingly active night, but he didn’t give an inch when called upon. He did an excellent job of preventing Sporting’s attack inside, and really gave them no momentum or fluidity in the second half.

Medhi Benatia 6: Benatia had a decent performance, but had to leave early after sustaining an injury. He was off to a decent start, but it’s hard to judge him only off one half. He’s not the preferred starter, but he showed capability of handling pressure.

Alex Sandro - 4: Sandro turned in a dreadful performance. He looked unfocused and lethargic on the counter attack, and made a sophomoric effort when trying to defend the lead pass. Not only did he get burned for it, but his play was timid for the rest of the half. Alex Sandro also got caught overrunning Fernandes in the 92nd minute, allowing him to send a clean cross that almost lead to Juve’s doom. This grade may seem harsh, but Juventus needs way more from Alex Sandro. Enough with the lazy or timid efforts on defense.

Khedira - 6: Khedira is slowly reaching his form again. He helped push the ball and keep the flow of the offense rolling. His defense was solid and he played a solid role in preventing Sporting’s counter attacks. His shot on goal was nicely played, but needed more air under it to have a real chance of reaching the back of the net.

Miralem Pjanic - 8.5: Pjanic was the man of the match. What an overwhelming difference this offense looks like with him in the lineup. The attack was smooth, crisp, clean, fast and dangerous. Yes, Juventus had difficulties breaking through, but Pjanic controlled the pace of the attack and created a lot of opportunities forward for Dybala, Higuain and Mandzukic. Pjanic’s free kick was beautifully struck, and the goal was much needed for Juventus. His second-half performance wasn’t as stellar, but an overall excellent performance by Pjanic.

Juan Cuadrado - 5: Cuadrado couldn’t get much going on offense. His touches weren’t effective, and he often was out-hustled or out-muscled by the defense. He was on the ground way too many times, leaving the right side of the attack underwhelming as a whole. Dybala and Higuain showed displeasure with his passing and pace, and so did Buffon when Cuadrado was burned on defense.

Mario Mandzukic - 8: Mandzukic brought physicality throughout the game, positioning himself beautifully in many attacks. He had a few chances that could’ve easily resulted in goals, had the ball bounced the right way or a second sooner. He finally was able to take advantage of Douglas Costa’s cross to head home the game-winning goal. Where would Juventus be without Mandzukic?

Gonzalo Higuain - 6: Higuain didn’t wow many, but he looked fit, physical and energetic throughout the game -- which is something we have not seen a lot of. He fed off the chemistry between he, Dybala and Mandzukic, and created some opportunities for the offense. Again, not an amazing performance, but an encouraging one.

Paulo Dybala - 6: Dybala had many of his shots blocked throughout the game and never really got a clean look. His effort and creativity gave Juve space to work with, but there is a growing concern with his lack of scoring in the CL. It wasn't his worst game, but this is three straight games where he’s failed to convert in many moments.

Subs

Blaise Matuidi - NR: Matuidi came on to push the ball on offense, and ran all over the field on defense, but he didn’t impact the game. Need to see more from him.

Andrea Barzagli - 5: Barzagli played fine in the second half as a sub and kept the inside cluttered to avoid any wide-open space. He didn’t have a lot of work to do in the second half, but he wasn’t a liability of any sorts.

Douglas Costa - 7: Douglas Costa was often the center of attack for the goal of the game, and possibly the best cross you’ll see all season. He didn’t play for very long, but his impact was game-changing.

Manager

Massimiliano Allegri - 7: Juventus is capable of so much more, and Allegri needs to bring it out of them. There’s too much talent on this team — injured or not — to be scuffling against Olympiacos and Sporting. He pulled the right strings by bringing Douglas Costa off the bench late in the game, but why is Daniele Rugani still missing in action? Why isn’t Federico Bernardeschi getting more opportunities? Why did Juan Cuadrado get to play the entire game when performing at such a sub-par level?

His call to push the ball aggressively throughout the game paid off in the end, but it took way too long to get there against an inferior Sporting team. For the second consecutive CL game, panic set in for Juventus. The offense is capable of much more, and Allegri needs to shake up the lineup for better results. Dramatic wins against inferior opponents are only fun until Barcelona or Real Madrid stomps on you.