I usually enjoy myself watching soccer games. Sometimes I end up disappointed at the end, but it’s rare that I haven’t had a good time in some way, shape, or form.
Tuesday was one of those rare days. By the middle of the first half, I was highly frustrated. By halftime, I was downright furious.
The difference between the Juventus that played its best game of the year and dominated AC Milan on Saturday and the team of aliens that walked out of the locker room in Lisbon on Tuesday was night and day. This team was a shell of the squad we are used to seeing. This team had no idea what it was doing for most of the game. The possessed the ball but did nothing with it. They allowed a ton of dangerous breaks and stood around watching the ball while Sporting players got into dangerous positions.
The fact that Juventus managed to get a point out of this match is down to sheer dumb luck. Luck that Bas Dost’s leg isn’t two inches longer, luck that Bruno Cesar’s piledriver of a shot on the hour mark wasn’t on target, luck that Bruno Fernandes’ late shot from distance dipped just too late.
Ultimately, the situation is as it was. It could have been so much more — we’ll get to that — but Juve are still on track to the knockout rounds—by the skins of their teeth.
Here are five talking points about Tuesday’s
1) Deficient Mentality
The biggest problem on Tuesday was the way the players looked, particularly in the first half. They had no spark, no intensity. It didn’t look like they believed that being there made a difference.
The reaction of Mattia De Sciglio to Bruno Cesar’s opener really said it all. The right back just...stood there. He didn’t react. He didn’t put his hands on his head or hips or even say anything. He just stared.
This was a huge game. Had Juventus won, they would have mathematically clinched a place in the knockout round by virtue of a six-point lead and the tiebreaker on Sporting. It would have considerably lessened the stress on the final two Champions League games and been a morale boost as well.
With the kind of opportunity at hand, the Bianconeri should have come out of the gate spitting fire. Instead, it looked like they didn’t even believe winning was in the cards.
A lot of people will chalk that up to a deficiency in the players, but that is, in my opinion, misplaced. A team’s attitude is a reflection on its coach, and this is not the first time that Massmiliano Allegri has sent his team out against a lesser team devoid of spirit. It happened in the first group stage game against Sevilla, a game that ended in a flat 0-0 draw — at the J Stadium no less.
Allegri has to shoulder the majority of the blame here. His team came out totally lifeless in a game that probably qualifies as the most important of the year to this point. The way the team aimlessly passed the ball around in the early phases of the game it almost looked as if they had been instructed to play for a goalless draw.
Add to that the fact that it took Allegri far too long to start making changes when it was clear that what was going on on the field was not working. Douglas Costa should have been on far earlier than the 65th minute, and Sami Khedira should have been hauled of sooner than the 70th.
For the team to come out as listless as they did on Tuesday is unacceptable and it lands squarely on Allegri. He needs to get this team playing the way it should with the mentality that it should have — and if he can’t, it may be time to start looking at other options in the manager’s office.
2) Lipstick on a pig
That is what Gonzalo Higuain’s goal and Juan Cuadrado’s assist were on Tuesday.
I’m going to get skewered for this down below in the comment section but I really don’t care. Beyond the three seconds it took for Cuadrado’s pass to turn into Higuain’s goal, neither of them did anything.
You can blame Higuain’s lack of productivity on a lack of service, but he wasn’t particularly good off the ball either. He was caught offside four times, and he started moving away from the efficient, one-touch football that made his performance in the San Siro so special. It’s never a good sign when he starts dribbling the ball, which he did several times as the game went on, losing it almost every time.
As for Cuadrado...well, there is Good Juan, who is an obscenely talented world beater anyone would want on their team, and Bad Juan, who is too cute for his own good in possession and gives balls away in inventive ways. For all but that one moment when he set Higuain free, we had Bad Juan in Lisbon.
There were giveaways, there were inexplicable decisions — why are you dribbling with the ball when there are two players sitting in front of the goal waiting for a tap in? — and he very nearly gifted Sporting a golden opportunity to get back ahead when he passed the ball straight to a green-and-white shirt and was forced to commit a foul to keep a break from starting.
Their joint moment of brilliance kept the night from being a complete and utter disaster — but had they played to their respective potentials the team probably wouldn’t have been in that situation in the first place.
3) Streaky Sami
Joining Cuadrado in the frustrating department is Sami Khedira.
The German midfielder can be exceptional when he’s on. His hat trick a week-and-a-half ago was a reminder of just that, and he was very good on Saturday as well.
But then you get games like this, where he’s practically nonexistent. Juve’s midfield went missing for extended stretches in this game, and Khedira was the main culprit. He was slow covering in defense, and his passing didn’t have any purpose to it. He was rightly hauled off with 20 minutes to go — about 10 minutes later than he probably should have. With Claudio Marchisio getting healthy again, it may be time to let Il Principino have a run for a while — we’ve seen the kind of effect he can still have on the team when healthy.
4) Dybala on the fritz
Paulo Dybala set an impossible standard for himself when he scored 12 times in the team’s first eight competitive games. That being said, he’s been far less decisive in the Champions League this season. He hasn’t scored or registered an assist in four games as teams have collapsed on him.
There are a few mitigating factors here. For one thing, Dybala has had to try and create a lot more in Champions League play to make up for deficiencies in the rest of the team — he’s averaging 3.5 key passes per match in Europe as opposed to 1.5 domestically and had two more on Tuesday. He’s also had the snot kicked out of him, especially over these last two games against Sporting, whose manager, Juan Jesus, often seems more concerned with beating the tar out of opponents than scoring goals.
But the fact of the matter is to go far in this competition Juventus will need the Dybala that buried Barcelona in the first leg of the quarterfinal last year. Without him producing, the rest of the team might not have enough creative oomph right now to get the team to its objectives.
Cuadrado said after the game, “It was a good result.” Higuain told reporters “The important thing was not to lose,” and called the result “an important point.”
Those are nice spins — as Crash Davis once said, cliches are your friends — but they mask the reality. This game was a failure. A complete and utter failure.
Juventus are far more talented than Sporting. They should have won this game handily. Perhaps not dominated it, but won with comfort. Hopefully, that truth is being acknowledged behind closed doors, and that the solution is more than “I just want to give it my best shot, and the good Lord willing, things will work out.”
Allegri needs to make some changes. For sure, the team needs to get out there with a better mentality than what came out of the locker room for the beginning of the game. There need to be some wrinkles in the team sheet. The summer’s acquisitions need to be incorporated into the starting XI. Daniele Rugani needs to play in important games. And for goodness sake, the defense needs to be figured out.
For almost an hour of game time Tuesday night Juventus was starting down a real possibility to playing on Thursdays when the new year comes. If something goes really wrong that could still happen. This team has been to the Champions League final twice in three years and is considered one of the best in the world. It’s time they start acting like it — and playing like it.