Juventus entered Tuesday night’s game against Olympiacos with something to prove after a rocky ride through Group D of the Champions League. Playing in Greece is never an easy place as an opponent, and if Juventus wanted to advance, they had to be ready for a 90-minute fight.
While it wasn’t easy — it never is in the Champions League — but Juventus shined the brightest when the stakes were the highest, playing calm and disciplined until the final whistle was blown. Like a venomous snake, Juve just had to be patient and pick their spots to strike.
They did just that: Juve delivered a decisive blow to knockout the scrappy Olympiacos in Karaiskakis Stadium, 2-0, thanks to goals from Juan Cuadrado and Federico Bernardeschi.
Juventus came out swinging in the first 10 minutes of the match with a fast-paced offensive tactic. They nearly broke through early when Mattia De Sciglio sent a nice through ball into the penalty box for Paulo Dybala, who created a possession into a suddenly dangerous attack toward Olympiacos goalkeeper Silvio Proto. Dybala struck a signature curling shot, but it lacked enough air under it to seriously threaten the goal. Nonetheless, it took a diving effort from Proto to knock the ball out of play and save the game’s first shot on goal.
After a couple of misplayed balls and failed crosses by Cuadrado, Juventus switched sides of attack, where Blaise Matuidi finally gained possession. Matuidi quickly sent a clean ball ahead for Douglas Costa, who planted and sent an absolutely gorgeous cross into the box for a well-positioned Cuadrado. The Colombian finished off one of the easiest goals of his career, one-timing the pass into the back of the net for an early breakthrough — something Juventus hasn’t had enough of. Before anyone could blink it was 1-0, Old Lady, 15 minutes into the game.
While Juventus enjoyed a 1-0 lead, Olympiacos failed to gain possession. Juve used possession tactically throughout the midfield, spreading then all and playing comfortable for arguably the first time in group play. Juve had a 65 percent possession rate, with four shot attempts (two on goal). The Old Lady were in no hurry to put their foot on the gas, but it was encouraging to see them still attack rather than cling to a 1-0 lead. When Olympiacos threatened, the back four for Juventus were alert. Playing without Gianluigi Buffon and Giorgio Chiellini is never an easy task, but credit to Massimiliano Allegri and his staff for scheming a game plan that lessened the blow of the starting line up absences. Benatia, De Sciglio and Wojciech Szczęsny all played very well, providing a reliable defense for Juve all night.
In the 42nd minute, Uros Djurdjevic found himself in a prime position for a header to equalize the game. Djurdjevic headed the ball downward but Szczęsny made a terrific kick-save that was reminiscent of Buffon, deflecting the ball out of danger. Szczęsny’s game-changing save kept a clean sheet for the first half, leaving Juve in control.
Olympiacos put pressure on Juve’s defense for the first 20 minutes of the second half. On multiple occasions, Alex Sandro and Andrea Barzagli took poor angles when retreating on counter attacks. During this stretch, both defenders struggled to keep attackers in front of them. A couple of corners from Olympiacos lead to frightful moments for the Juve faithful.
Midfielder André Martins sent a high cross that fell into the possession of Juve after the ball was kicked around a couple of times. A lot of contact between Matuidi and defender Björn Engels happened inside the box, but the referee did not listen to any complaints from Olympiacos players. Matuidi may have gotten away with a foul when he leaped into the shoulder of Engels. He can't leave a call like that in the hands of the referees on such an important stage. That was close.
The second half certainly belonged to the Greeks. They were the aggressor who kept possession and pushed pace forward to keep Juve’s defense on their heels. The Old Lady needed a spark in the worst way, and almost saw the game slip away from them. In the 83rd minute, Olympiacos defender Leonardo Koutris sent a blazing cross into the box that almost tied the game for the Greeks. Striker El Fardou Ben Mohamed launched himself forward for a diving header that knocked the ball into the top left corner of the crossbar. Juventus cleared the nearly devastating shot away, before any further damage could be done. Sometimes it’s skill, sometimes it’s luck. Juventus got extremely lucky there.
In the final minutes of the game, Bernardeschi, who came on for a gassed Cuadrado, turned heads for Juventini across the world. After his first screaming shot that drifted down was denied by Proto, Bernardeschi was given a second opportunity to ice the game for Juve.
This time, he would capitalize on the opportunity. Bernardeschi dribbled twice before stepping into the shot, and rocketed a curling ball into the far side of the net. What a magnificent goal to bury Olympiacos and send Juventus on to the round of 16.
Just when Juventus almost surrendered a devastating goal that would’ve tied the game, Bernardeschi comes back with a dagger to the hearts of the Greeks.
Forza Juve. See you in the Round of 16.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 8: He played exceptionally well in the absence of Buffon. Szczesny was never out of place on any attacks, turning in a clean sheet and a sharp performance. The kick-save was beautiful.
MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - 7: A really solid performance that kept attacks out of threatening range for most of the night. A few vital clears and tackles showed Allegri that De Sciglio can handle starting. But will he moving forward? He should.
ANDREA BARZAGLI - 6.5: By no means did he play poorly, but his side of the field had a few nerve-wracking moments — most notably in the second half — that gave Olympiacos life while they were only down one goal. Barzagli made plays when he had to, but he and Alex Sandro need to clean up counter-attack defense. There were a couple of balls that wiggled their way into danger that gave Juve a reason for panic, when in reality, they should’ve been handled with better pursuit angles.
MEDHI BENATIA - 7.5: Another excellent performance by Benatia. He wasn’t challenged as much this game as previous ones, but he continued to provide physical support inside the back four that Juve has desperately needed. Don’t look now, but Juve is starting to find its defensive form in life after Bonucci.
ALEX SANDRO - 5.5: There were a few instances where he just took baffling angles on counter attacks outside of the box. He played a part in Juve’s clean sheet, but failed to impress today — or this season.
SAMI KHEDIRA - 5: He failed to make any significant impact on the game. His defense was sketchy, and he wasn’t a key part to Juve’s success offensively. That hat trick game against Udinese was nothing but a fluke at this point.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 6: The push of pace was an important part of Juve’s success on offense. He seems to have a chemistry with Douglas Costa, and while Matuidi hasn’t done any scoring for Juve, he is starting to look comfortable on offense. He traveled the most distance out of anyone in the match and played well in help-defense.
JUAN CUADRADO - 7: He performed well and positioned himself beautifully for the one-time goal. It was an easy goal, but the run and positioning was encouraging, considering he’s been a near non-factor on offense for much for the Champions League. He played well — both on offense and defense — which is a breath of fresh air for the often criticized Colombian.
PAULO DYBALA - 4 Saw plenty of the ball in the first 15 minutes, but vanished after that. His shot on goal was decent, but a better save was made. Dybala is capable of more, and Juve will need it from him if they are to be a serious threat for advancement through the Champions League. The substitution was warranted, and hopefully a wake-up call.
DOUGLAS COSTA - 8: He was fantastic. One could argue he was the spark for the offense the entire game. The cross to Cuadrado for the opening goal was magnificent, and he never showed any signs of fatigue for the entire match. I’d like to see him score and generate more opportunities for himself, but his passing and creation for teammates has been top-notch.
GONZALO HIGUAIN - 6.5: The effort was there all night. He never had the chance for a clean shot, but he created for others. He played with physicality and agility which lead to attacks that opened up the middle of the field.
DANIELE RUGANI - 6: Rugani came on and played solid for a defense that looked sharp for most of the night. There wasn't a ton of challenges that came his way, but his presence gave the team a boost in energy down the stretch.
MIRALEM PJANIC - NR: Pjanic played fine. He came on as insurance for the ineffective Dybala, and controlled the midfield’s pace.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 8. A perfect spark to close out the game. His first shot was a screamer that drifted down for a tough save, but before anyone could say “That was close”, Bernardeschi ripped one from distance, past the outstretched Proto, into the back of the next. For a team who has struggled to create scoring opportunities, Bernardeschi made it look easy.
MASSIMILIANO ALLEGRI - 8.5: While I’m still unsure as to why Khedira is in the line up, Allegri certainly pulled every string correctly in Greece. The substitution of Rugani gave the defense an added burst of energy and Pjanic held the midfield together just when Olympiacos began to capture momentum. But the sub of Bernardeschi was masterful. If Allegri subs Mario Mandzukic, I’m not sure that goal is scored based off of the tight defense Olympiacos were playing inside the box. But Bernardeschi was able to create for himself and score to put away the pesky Olympiacos for good. Not to mention, Juve played without Buffon and Chiellini, and barely saw a dip in production. Guys were ready to step up when called upon, and the depth shown tonight is a sign of a good team moving forward. I saw nothing wrong with the tactics or schematics put forth by Allegri. He’s often criticized, but there can’t be too many criticisms for tonight’s managerial performance.