It could have been worse.
After Sunday’s shocking loss to Sampdoria, you would be forgiven if you thought that Wednesday’s Champions League tilt against Barcelona might not go well. Fortunately, the nightmare scenario of a drubbing similar to the 3-0 Juventus took in the group stage opener in Spain never materialized. But with a chance to clinch progression to the knockout stage and give themselves a chance to win the group, the team looked mostly flat.
Massimiliano Allegri was forced into a strange 3-4-2-1 formation following a late injury to Giogrio Chiellini, but the issue was the team’s mentality. After leaking so many goals through their first 13 Serie A games it looked like Allegri sent the team out with instructions to keep a clean sheet rather than press for a win, especially as the second half wore on. Barca’s true scoring chances were quite rare, but they dominated possession, particularly in the second half, and Juve hardly mounted any meaningful attacks.
The Bianconeri did still come close, but Paulo Dybala was denied at the death by a diving Marc-Andre ter Stegen, but it felt like the team could have been on the front foot a lot more given the stakes involved.
How good were the goods and how bad were the bads? Lets take a look at five major talking points from Wednesday’s match.
Give credit where it’s due...
I have not been kind to Medhi Benatia on this site. He’s been mistake-prone since joining Juventus, and I have repeatedly stated flat-out that he’s not up to par for a team like Juve. The fact that he’s been blocking Dnaiele Rugani for the last season and a half frankly infuriates me.
But one must give another credit when credit is due, and it was impossible not to with the game Benatia had on Wednesday.
Called into action after Chiellini was injured and playing in the center of a back three, the Moroccan racked up eight interceptions and 10 clearances while completing 96.9 percent of his passes. Unlike the first game, when he was directly responsible for two of Barca’s three goals, he was in complete control of the box in this one. It was easily his best game in a Juventus uniform by a wide margin.
I’d still rather see Rugani playing over him, but if Benatia is going to start playing like this, I’ll be a lot less concerned anytime I see his name on the team sheet.
...and not so much...
In September, I wrote this article advocating the benching of Gonzalo Higuain for a few games to give him a bit of a mental health break. I think the same needs to happen for Miralem Pjanic now.
The Bosnian was poor against Sampdoria, and on Wednesday he wasn’t any better. His usually incisive passing has lost some of its edge. He may have completed 86.7 percent of his passes, but there were only 30 of them, and when it came to making the kind of difference-making pass that could break the opposing defense down, he missed several times.
Pjanic is a pivotal part of this team going forward, but his performances haven’t been up to snuff the last few weeks. Giving him a game or two off in favor of Claudio Marchisio or Blaise Matuidi to try and get him in the right head space wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. It mostly worked with Higuain — the level of his play has certainly risen since he started the game on the bench two games in a row against September. If it works for Pjanic and he returns to his old self, it would give Juve back a massive weapon in midfield.
...and just no.
The Society for the Advancement of Juan Cuadrado is about to come down on me with a fury, but holy crap was he bad on Wednesday.
His decision-making continues to be abysmal. Like, high school level. I don’t know what goes through that head of his, but I can only imagine there’s a hamster in there on a wheel but he trips every now and then, depriving everything else of the necessary power.
He didn’t put many crosses in (only two), and his decision-making in the defensive third is even more abysmal. He made a pair of absolutely baffling decisions in trying to head balls back to Gigi Buffon. One, from long range and a tight angle, was easily intercepted by Andres Iniesta, whose volley went wide. The second was an out-and-out whiff on the left wing, but Gerard Delofeu’s cross was intercepted by Rugani, who recovered well to track back and make the intervention. Any thoughts of him playing as a right back should probably be put on hold.
I’m going to say this again: I have nothing wrong with Cuadrado personally, and I fully acknowledge that he’s talented as hell. The problem is he only ever fully realizes that talent every couple of weeks. It’s his maddening inconsistency and terrible decision-making that cause me to consistently call for his benching.
Douglas Costa is good
If Benatia has any competition to being the best Juventus player on the field on Wednesday night, it was Douglas Costa.
The Brazilian played next to Dybala and behind Higuain in the 3-4-2-1 formation Allegri deployed, an it turned out to be an excellent place for him. He consistently dribbled around and past Barca defenders, and played key roles in some of the most dangerous Juve managed to manufacture while in possession.
This man needs to start more. His dribbling abilities and breathtaking pace are true game-changers — especially in Europe, where those things are prized. If Allegri keeps to this formation, Costa should continue to play exactly where he is. If Allegri reverts to the 4-2-3-1 he’s a good alternative to have on both wings — starting him over Cuadrado would certainly be an upgrade. Getting him into the starting XI on a regular basis could go a long way toward giving the team the edge it needs in attack.
There were three conditions that would have given Juve passage to the knockout round on Wednesday. None of them were met. That means everything comes down to the game against Olympiacos two weeks from now.
The good news is that Juventus still control their own destiny thanks to the head-to-head tiebreaker with Sporting. There are a couple of scenarios here for Juve to advance:
- Juventus defeat Olympiacos.
- Juventus fails to defeat Olympiacos AND Sporting fails to defeat Barcelona.
Note that if Juve fail to defeat Olympiacos in Piraeus and Sporting manages to pull of an upset victory over Barca at the Camp Nou, they will jump into second and Juve will be playing on Thursdays in the Europa League come the new year. A victory in Greece is no sure thing, although this Olympiacos team is not nearly as good as in years past. Juve will be the favorites going in — but they were against Galatasaray four years ago, too, and we all know what happened there.
The best way to make sure to advance is to win. That’s the mindset Juve must be in come the second week of December.