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Juventus’ lethargic Champions League woes finally cost them in 1-1 draw vs. Sporting

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Juventus didn’t play well against Sporting in Turin a few weeks back. It didn’t get any better in Portugal on Tuesday night.

Photo by Tullio M. Puglia/Getty Images

The display by Juventus at Estádio José Alvalade in Lisbon was dismal, disappointing and dumbfounding. From a glimmer of hope to winning the Champions League Group D, to maybe the shocking possibility of missing the Round of 16. Sporting Clube de Portugal deserves all the credit in the world, while Juventus deserves every bit of criticism spat their way.

From the moment the match began, Juventus looked conservative on offense. There wasn’t a desperation or aggression in Juve’s attack — only complacency. When Juve were in possession, too many crosses begged for a good first touch and too many through balls were sent too far or too wide. Statistically, Juventus owned more possession of the ball throughout the match, but they failed to do anything productive with it. There was a noticeable difference between the Juve and Sporting attacks. While Juve dominated possession, Sporting made the most of the chances they were given. The Old Lady’s defense would calm things down, right? Surely, a return from Mattia De Sciglio would shore up the defensive woes Juve has suffered?

Apparently not.

Sporting pushed the ball with high tempo and force downfield, and after 20 minutes of Juve playing on their heels, they finally crumbled.

Sporting winger Gelson Martins made a dash up the left side of Juve’s defense until putting defender Giorgio Chiellini on skates. Chiellini was uncharacteristically turned around and had to make a last-ditch effort to chip the ball away. He always makes a play on the ball in times of desperation. Except, not this time. Martins made a quick move past Chiellini to blast a shot on goal that was saved by goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon. But before Juve blinked, forward Bruno Cesar struck a side-footed finish past the diving Buffon and into the net on the ensuing rebound. Sporting leads, 1-0.

The Bianconeri found themselves down early to an inferior opponent once again. It was elation for Sporting, complete frustration for Juventus.

The brutal truth is that Sporting brought tenacity, aggression and physicality, and Juventus failed to match it for the entire first half — and most of the match. One team played for desperation and victory, while the other played apprehensive of losing.

Sporting were the aggressors throughout the first half and Juventus failed to get any clean shots on goal. The half ended with Juve forward Mario Mandžukić falling down rather easily, looking for a foul that had minimal contact in the box. While the whistle could’ve blown there, Juve can’t rely on the referee to bail them out — which was the attitude they had for much of the night.

While manager Massimiliano Allegri has been questioned for his starting lineups and timing of substitutions, he deserves criticism for not getting the best out of his players in this year’s Champions League. Juventus has looked lethargic in each one of their four matches, and have been outplayed at times by the other three teams in their group. Allegri was also out-coached for much of this game considering the difference in possession both teams had.

How could Sporting have the ball less but look more threatening? Where is the creativity in Juve’s offense? Did No. 10 play for Juventus today? Because, Paulo Dybala would’ve been more affective on the bench in Tuesday night’s match.

The second half was better for Juventus, but had unacceptable results. The team’s first touches were abysmal but the overall pace was quicker. The effort by Juventus wore down Sporting, leading to many free kicks and corners. While none of them were successful, at least the Old Lady looked somewhat fluid on offense.

However, it was far from a smooth-sailing for Juventus, as they nearly lost the match when Chiellini committed another bad turnover — one of the themes of the night — that lead to another counter by Martins. Bruno Fernandes sent a beautiful cross that curved right in front of Buffon, and into near contact with forward Bas Dost. Catastrophe almost struck for Juventus, as another Sporting counter found its way past the back four. If this was a more dangerous team, Juve would’ve been punished for the lack of counter defense they showed.

Just when the Bianconeri escaped disaster, they responded with an attack of their own. In the 79th minute, forward Juan Cuadrado made a couple of moves before sending an exceptional pass through to striker Gonzalo Higuain, who chipped it into the back of the net. It was an excellently-timed run by Higuain to position himself for the opportunistic scoring chance.

Despite tying the game, Juventus couldn’t find a late spark to capture the victory. There were a few cluttered chances, but no real scoring opportunity in the final minutes of the match. They zipped it around in front of the goal, but failed to create the big chance they craved.

We’ve seen it throughout the Champions League, but there was no fairy-tale ending in store this time. No miraculous comeback. No bandaged victory to cover up the obvious wounds for Juventus, and Allegri must solve this ongoing problem.

Allegri said after the game that “Evidently this team needs to feel fear in order to perform." Juventus’ hot-and-cold identity is becoming a toxic ingredient for failure, and “fear” won’t fix that.

LE PAGELLE

Gianluigi Buffon - 6: Buffon saw very little action with Sporting only recording seven shots (two on goal) for the game. Buffon had a very little chance at stopping Sporting’s goal, but could’ve positioned himself a bit better.

Andrea Barzagli - 6: Barzagli had moments of frustration on counterattacks, looking slow and outmatched. However, he also kept the Sporting attack out of the box and didn’t do anything demoralizing. He didn’t shine, but he played alright.

Mattia De Sciglio - 6.5: De Sciglio did his job. He was rusty — especially on offense — but his defense was solid throughout the game. He played decent enough on defense to keep Sporting from attacking the inside and had an overall decent return.

Giorgio Chiellini - 4: Chiellini was thoroughly outmatched at times in this game. He had uncharacteristic positioning, and was sloppy on offense with his passing and pace. The normally rock-solid defender had one of the most forgettable matches of his Champions League career. His effort isn’t questioned, but even the best are capable of bad games.

Alex Sandro - 5: Sandro turned in another quiet performance. He looked lifeless on offense, and had a couple of uneasy moments in defending. This grade may seem harsh, but Juventus needs way more from Alex Sandro, who failed to impress.

Sami Khedira - 5.5: Khedira did a solid job defensively, but like many others, failed to impress in an overall sense. He played a solid role in preventing Sporting’s counterattacks. His header on goal in the early minutes of the game was nicely played, but just missed.

Miralem Pjanic - 6: Pjanic was very good on defense, but lacked the offensive creativity Juve often receives from him. There weren’t as many clean crosses or through-balls from him, and his passing was messy. His performance wasn’t great, but acceptable.

Juan Cuadrado - 6: Cuadrado didn’t excite, but he battled and deserves respect. While he couldn’t get much going on offense in the first half, he gave a complete effort for the entire game. His touches were inconsistent, and he was occasionally out-muscled by the defense, but he delivered the most affective pass of the night — which led to the equalizing goal for Juventus.

Paulo Dybala - 3: Dybala sky-rocketed the couple of shots he had and deserves a lot of criticism for not only this match, but all of the Champions League matches thus far. He lacked effort, creativity and patience. There was no heart nor aggression, and when frustration boiled over, his head sunk like it always does. This performance by Dybala puts him at rock bottom — somewhere he must climb out of if Juve is to make a serious run.

Mario Mandzukic - 5: Mandzukic brought physicality throughout the game, positioning himself in attacks. However, he was on the ground way too many times and failed to create on offense. He had a couple of chances that could’ve resulted in goals, but he never had the touch he was looking for. He was simply ineffective today, and Sporting’s defense seemed to have rattle him a bit.

Gonzalo Higuain - 7: Higuain created a couple of opportunities in the first half, but left his mark on the match when he saved Juventus and earned them a point in a game they had no business tying. His excellent timed run and delightful finish tied the game for Juventus, avoiding utter embarrassment.

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.

Douglas Costa - NR: Douglas Costa came on to spark Juventus’ attack but never came through with the brilliant run or cross Juve needed.

Federico Bernardeschi - NR: Bernardeschi came on late but failed to impact the game the way Allegri would’ve hoped for.

Manager

Massimiliano Allegri - 5: Juventus is capable of so much more, and Allegri needs to bring it out of them. Why is Daniele Rugani still missing in action? Why didn’t didn’t he substitute Dybala earlier? Why is this offense so stagnant? Where is the aggression and attack from this team? If a team needs to be in fear to perform, you have a huge problem on your hands. The offense is capable of much more, and Allegri needs to shake up the lineup and tactics for better results. This contained style of play is hurting the offense, and your best player (Dybala) looks completely lost. You resuscitated Higuain after his slow start, and now you must do the same with Dybala — or the entire team for that matter.