Things were quite simple for Juventus as they prepared to face off with Olympiacos for their final Champions League group stage game. Win, and go to the knockout stage. Fail to win, and cast a nervous eye to Catalonia to see what was going on at the Camp Nou. If Sporting managed to pull an upset and beat Barcelona, who had already clinched the top spot in Group D, then they could pass the Bianconeri if they failed to take all three points in Greece.
The Giorgios Karaiskakis Stadium is a tricky place to play. Massimiliano Allegri knows this. He lost here in the 2014-15 season. That was in October, though. He had a lot of margin for error. There wasn’t one here.
Fortunately, there wasn’t a whole lot of Alka-Seltzer needed in this one. Juan Cuadrado tapped an Alex Sandro cross into the net on 15 minutes, and even though it took a lot longer than it maybe should have for Federico Bernardeschi’s screamer to put things on lock, the results in Barcelona meant that the team was never in serious danger of dropping into the Europa League.
It was a win and a success, but it wasn’t without some things to talk about. Let’s run down five of the biggest talking points about Juve’s run in Greece.
Paulo Dybala’s slump continues
After the flurry of goals that started Paulo Dybala’s season, the last two-and-a-half months have been pretty worrying.
Dybala has only scored twice since the beginning of October. He has somewhat mitigated his goalscoring slump with three assists in that time, but since he missed back-to-back penalties against Atalanta and Lazio he’s looked a shadow of the player that he was at the start of the season.
He started the game brightly, nearly burying a shot into the bottom far corner in the seventh minute only to be denied by Olympiacos keeper Silvio Proto. Further looks showed that he scuffed the ball slightly, which makes one wonder whether it’s better to criticize the bad contact or marvel at the fact that he made it so difficult for the Belgian in spite of it.
As the game wore on Dybala’s performance got more and more sloppy, and he was hauled off shortly after the hour. While his play merited him being pulled off regardless, it’s also worth noting that he was replaced within minutes of Barcelona taking the lead at the Camp Nou, so he was probably subbed with an eye toward Saturday’s crunch clash with Inter as much as for having a poor match.
Whether Dybala’s problems are mental or, as suggested by Arrigo Sacchi after the match, the result of Allegri’s tactics not putting him in the right position, is a subject for another time. What’s clear is that regardless of the cause it needs to be rectified, because Juve will need him in the weeks and months to come.
A glimpse of the future
With Gianluigi Buffon nursing a calf problem, Wojciech Szczsney took his place in goal in the Champions League for the first time as a Juventus player.
He was slightly uneven, but certainly had more ups than downs. He had to jump into action very early, jumping onto a scuffed clearance in the first minute. About 10 minutes later he faced his first shot, a bouncing effort from Omar Elabdelloui that he tried to smother but spilled a good two yards in front of him. Luckily, the only players around him were his defenders.
After that, though, the Poland international settled in and showed a couple of brilliant saves. Just before the half somehow got back to kick the ball off the line after Uros Djurdjevic got his head to a flick-on from a corner. Just before the hour he came out to deny the run of Marko Marin before backpedaling and making a one-handed snare as the German recovered and tried to cross.
All in all it was a very positive performance for Szczsney. As Gigi’s supposed heir apparent, he’s going to be under a lot of scrutiny when he finds the field, especially for games like this, but he passed the test here. If he continues to play like this he’ll serve well once Buffon hangs up his gloves.
Supply and demand
There have been games where the forwards could be blamed for not being clinical, but today they put five of their eight shots on target and had another one blocked.
The problem was that number eight. There was very little supply to the forwards in Greece. Players managed to get into pretty good positions, but the last ball to Gonzalo Higuain & Co. tended to lack the precision needed to get them into a good place to take aim at Proto’s goal.
By contrast, in the first match between these two teams in September Juve took 22 shots. Yes, that game was at home, but there were only two changes in the Olympiacos back four and midfield between that game and this one. Juve have some deadly finishers, but if they don’t get service there isn’t much they can do. With big games against Inter and Roma coming up, the supply lines must be more precise.
Medhi Benatia’s improvement continues
I’ve been savagely critical of Medhi Benatia over the last year and a half. He’s had a tendency to make big mistakes at inopportune times since he joined Juventus, and I never much liked the prospect of an older player — any older player, not just him — being brought in and potentially blocking the development of Daniele Rugnai.
While I’m still a little annoyed over Rugani’s lack of playing time, the fact that Benatia has been immense over the last three weeks or so cannot be denied.
The Morocco international played very well again in Piraeus, notching a tackle, three interceptions and six clearances. He did have one nervy moment late on when he allowed a cross through that Ben Nabouhane eventually headed off the bar, but the balance of his play was more than positive. It’s encouraging to see him finally settle down and play mistake-free football at the back.
With Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli requiring rest to keep them at full form in April and May, having Benatia in form will be a major asset — especially given the fact that we have no idea when Benedickt Howedes will ever actually be able to play.
Allegri always espouses the one-game-at-a-time cliche that is ever-present in sports, but it’s clear that he was also planning ahead in this one.
While we haven’t really heard much news as to the severity of Buffon’s calf injury, it was the kind of thing that a few years ago he may have tried to play through with the knockout stage potentially on the line. But with Sporting making the trip to Barcelona Allergi probably felt more comfortable leaving him in the stands to let him heal for the big Serie A games on the horizon.
It’s also pretty clear that he had his eye on the Barca/Sporting match. As noted earlier, the fact that Dybala came to the bench minutes after Paco Alcacer gave Barca the lead at the Camp Nou probably wasn’t a coincidence.
We’ve seen the other result in the group influence Allegri’s play in the final group game in years past. In 2014, Juve played Atletico Madrid at home in the final game of the group phase. A draw would see them go through and a win would see them top the group, but a loss and an Olympiacos win over Malmo would have seen them crash out. The pattern of that game reflected the results of the concurrent Olympiacos/Malmo game, which was a seesaw affair that saw Malmo equalize twice before the Greeks eventually won 4-2. When the game was tied, Juve would press the attack a bit more, but whenever Olympiacos were ahead they shrank back to protect the 0-0 scoreline—something that Atleti were more than happy to allow.
With Inter looming on Saturday, it certainly looked like Allegri had tasked someone on the bench with updating him on the results from Spain. Dybala came out almost immediately after Barca scored, and Barzagli wasn’t far behind, making way for Rugani seven minutes later.
It was a commendable piece of planning. Allegri knew his situation and knew exactly how he would respond to the situation as it developed in-game. Now the team will be able to go into their second straight game against the team leading the league with that much more left in the tank.