The League of Champions has finally returned. Juventus travelled to the ominously-named Estádio do Dragão to face FC Porto in the first leg of the Champions League Round of 16. Even though the visitors entered the game in red-hot form, some unfortunate events off-the-pitch put pre-match preparations in a bit of a pickle. Still, Juventus were looking to prove their European pedigree and get the tie off to a good start in this entertaining clash of styles. It proved to be a fascinating, feisty game as Alex Telles’ early sending-off swung the game in Juventus’ favor and allowed the Bianconeri to eventually break down the brave Portuguese side in the second half. Super-subs Marko Pjaca and Daniel Alves grabbed the goals in a quick succession as Juventus took a massive step towards the quarter-finals with a 2-0 away victory.
Although we expected Porto to come out with all guns blazing on the night, they didn’t quite begin the game with the ferocious intensity that we’re used to of them. Nevertheless, they had a foothold on possession in the opening stages which led to a nice early chance off the free-kick, but Yacine Brahimi’s effort sailed comfortably over the bar. Juventus weren’t too fond of seeing so little of the ball though and they quickly regained territorial dominance as the hosts dropped off deep into their own half. The Bianconeri knocked the ball around comfortably without suffering too much pressure on the ball and waited patiently for their opportunity to find an opening in the hosts’ defense. The patience paid off as the first opportunity of the game came after a combination of Sami Khedira and a Gonzalo Higuaín headed flick led to the ball bouncing into Paulo Dybala’s path. The Argentine was stretching for the ball though and didn’t quite catch the bounce favorably as his sliding right-footed effort sailed well over the target.
The moment that truly changed the game came just a few minutes later and halfway through the first half. First, Alex Telles, the ex-Inter defender, clattered into Juan Cuadrado on the right wing and earned himself a booking. Then, a mere 80 seconds later, Telles spotted Stephan Lichtsteiner going on a strong foray forward and decided to halt his run by absolutely crashing into the Swiss defender with a woeful challenge. Referee Felix Brych had no choice but to show the Porto left back a second yellow card and send him off for an early shower.
Juventus, predictably, almost completely monopolized the possession from this point on and managed to fashion a few chances as a result. First, Khedira couldn’t quite get enough on his header to trouble his former teammate Iker Casillas in goal and then Higuaín forced Casillas — also his former teammate! — into a smart, low save after his shot deflected off Marcano. In what seems to be turning into a bit of a custom, Dybala saw a thunderous shot crash off the base of the post in what was Juve’s biggest chance before the half-time whistle.
The halftime break clearly did Porto all kinds of good as the hosts came out of the changing rooms with far more spirit and fight in them than in the first half. Juventus, though, should have quelled this renewed optimism in the 47th minute. Miralem Pjanic chipped a lovely ball over the defense to Mario Mandzukic and Dybala, but the Croatian (onside!) left the ball for the Argentinian (offside?), who smashed the ball into goal from a tight angle but was ruled offside in a tight call from the linesman. Porto then got a strong chance after Layún floated a great cross to the far post to his compatriot Herrera, but the midfielder glanced his header a few yards wide of the post. Still, there was some life yet in the Portuguese side. Dybala continued to test Casillas with some testing shots from range, but the veteran goalkeeper was up to the challenge. Khedira also fired a rasping drive from range on the half-volley at goal, but it sailed just wide of Casillas’s goal.
As the game wore on, Juventus continued to pile on the pressure: after some exquisitely neat footwork to create a yard of space, Higuaín curled a right-footed effort agonizingly close of the far post with Casillas beaten. It looked like it was going to be one of those days for the Bianconeri until Allegri introduced Marko Pjaca for Cuadrado and later Dani Alves for Lichtsteiner, who was on a booking. After an exchange of passes on the right wing, a Dybala pass, intended for Lichtsteiner, deflected off Layún’s boot into the path of the onrushing Pjaca. The youngster needed just a split second to capitalize on the opportunity and struck a fantastic first-time effort into the far corner past Casillas: 1-0! Then, just a minute later, Alex Sandro crossed the ball to his compatriot on the opposite wing, Dani Alves, who chested the ball down and fired home the second goal for the visitors: 2-0!
Porto, completely deflated after chasing the game so bravely for so long, visibly lost faith in salvaging any type of result from this game after this quickfire double. Khedira almost drove the nail in the coffin in the 89th minute, but his sliding effort went just wide of the far post after being running onto Pjaca’s excellent through ball. That was more than enough though: Juventus take home a decisive 2-0 lead and have one foot in the quarterfinals!
BUFFON N/A – Don’t think he had a save to make all game.
SANDRO 8.5 – It was a huge night for the ex-Porto man and he really stepped up to the occasion. The pressure of his former home didn’t get to him as he gave us a phenomenal performance on the night, rampaging down the left flank and nullifying Herrera on the defensive end. Got the assist he deserved on the second goal.
BARZAGLI 7.5 – Although Soares huffed and puffed on his own after the red card, he did little to threaten the old veteran and Chiellini in defense. The only times I was worried were when Brahimi drifted inside from the flank, but the Algerian tired in the second half and his influence on the game waned accordingly.
CHIELLINI 7.5 – Strong performance on his return from injury as he partnered Barzagli well in the absence of Bonucci. Also carried the ball out of defense very confidently and neatly.
LICHSTEINER 7.5 – Did remarkably well against the tricky Brahimi and was impressive going forward as well. Brahimi did give him a few uncomfortable moments though, especially when he drifted inside.
KHEDIRA 8.5 – Supremely commanding display by the German on Wednesday night. Enjoyed the freedom in midfield after the sending-off forced Porto to drop even deeper into their own half and contributed wonderfully in attack as well.
PJANIC 8 – Happy to see that his niggling fitness problems didn’t affect his performance. Wonderfully elegant on the ball as always and his short-passing exchanges with the strikers was fantastic to see. His partnership with Khedira keeps getting better every game!
MANDZUKIC 6.5 – Spent most of the evening defending and was really quiet on the offensive end. Usually this is not such a big issue, but if you’re playing against 10 men it becomes a bit of a waste of offensive momentum (especially because width was the key after the red card).
DYBALA 7.5 – Hit the post with a rasping left-footed shot and had another chance on the half-volley before that in an eventful first half. Enjoyed the space between the lines after the sending off and linked up really well with the midfield and Higuaín.
CUADRADO 6.5 – A bit disappointing tonight. Lots of misplaced crosses and didn’t really threaten on the right hand side. Rightfully substituted for Marko Pjaca in the second half.
HIGUAÍN 7 – Not quite the stellar performance we’re used to of the Argentine, but then again we’ve been spoilt rotten by him recently. Got a few half-chances and had some neat passing interplay with Pjanic and Dybala.
PJACA 8 – Although he only had a short 15-minute contribution off the bench, what an important contribution. Scored the goal to break the deadlock in what was becoming a nervous, frustrating evening in Porto. What a moment to open his account for the Bianconeri and what a wonderful moment for the youngster!
ALVES 8 – Scored the second goal that really puts Juventus in the driving seat for this tie. I love how tidy he tucked his shirt into his shorts too, reminds me of the good ol days (plus I always used to do that as a kid).
MARCHISIO N/A – Came on with five minutes left as Allegri switched to a 4-3-3 to solidify the midfield.
ALLEGRI 9 – This game was a real test of Allegri’s pedigree, not necessarily because of the tricky opponent, but because of how the game changed dramatically after the sending off. It’s a deceptively difficult challenge to play against 10 men for such a long time, especially in such a difficult stadium and in the Champions League. Allegri played his cards excellently though as he emphasized frequent switches of play and efficient use of the flanks; something extremely crucial when playing with a man advantage. Then, just as things looked to be getting nervous, he introduced two golden subs, Pjaca for the disappointing Cuadrado and Alves for the already-booked Lichtsteiner, that changed the game around. Fantastic stuff from the man in charge!
Tactical Analysis – Patience
Given that CH Ho already did most of the heavy lifting for me in his pre-match tactical analysis of Wednesday night’s opponents (cheers mate!), I didn’t want to repeat everything he said in this analysis. However, the tactical battle changed dramatically after the red card – although Porto played much less aggressively than expected in the buildup to the game – so I had to change the way I analyzed the game tactically. Before the red card, the game was quite a chess match as Porto dropped quite deep and ceded most of the possession after an enthusiastic opening 10 minutes of the game. After the game-changing moment,
Laurence Fishburne Nuno Espírito Santo changed his side to a 4-4-1, sacrificing striker André Silva for Miguel Layún.
What could Juve do, then, to capitalize on this numerical advantage? Well, there were three crucial factors here: Dybala, width, and patience. Michael Cox describes the challenge of playing against 10 men very accurately:
When you have an extra player, you have to make it count. The best way to do this is to expand the ‘active playing area’ – (ie the area where players are positioned), to make the opposition run more, and tire them out. There are two ways to do this – either laterally (through wide players) or by forcing the opposition to defend deeper (by using pacey forwards). Your tactics should also, in some way, change. If your approach against ten men is no different from your approach against eleven, you’re making it easy for the opposition side to cope (especially considering they sometimes have to make an immediate substitution).
Dybala had acres of space to operate in because Danilo and Neves had to cover a tremendous amount of ground to deal with the rampant Khedira and elegant Pjanic in front of them, while the tricky Dybala was buzzing behind them. This meant that Dybala was always available for the easy triangle in attack, could be used as a decoy to give the overlapping Khedira space for a run, or give Pjanic the space to ping around passes. He could really do whatever he wanted; no wonder then that he was involved in the passing exchange that led to Pjaca’s crucial goal.
He was always lurking around in that perfect danger zone, waiting for his opportunity to strike as the chasm between the Porto midfield and defense grew larger.
Porto courageously threw caution to the wind after half-time as Nuno told his men to get out of their half and give Juventus a run for their money. At first sight, it seemed like utterly suicidal to press forward with a man disadvantage but, quite surprisingly, his audacious strategy seemed to be working well. Juventus were a bit wobbly in the 10-15 minutes after the interval while Porto, spurred by the quick-footed Yacine Brahimi, regained a bit of confidence in their ability to spring an upset.
The tireless Brahimi had to put in a real shift tonight because, in order to lift Porto’s spirits in the second half, he had to diversify his positioning a little. He ended up popping up centrally more often, although this came with the risk of him abandoning his defensive duties.
As a closing note, another fantastic part of Allegri’s strategy was his instruction to frequently play long, diagonal balls from one flank to the other. This emphasized and brought the best out of our wing play and forced Porto to constantly shift from one side to the other (i.e. a lot of running). He clearly took Michael Cox’s advice which, after a healthy dose of patience, paid off handsomely.
Mind over Matter
A truly fascinating game that showed off the tremendous maturity and patience of the side and Allegri’s tactical prowess. He used a range of tools in his tactical arsenal to great effect after the game took an unexpected turn so early in the game. Honestly, it probably did him more harm than good to play against 10 men with such a team (and away from home). But Il Mister instructed his side excellently and, just as the game seemed to be spiral into frustration, he utilized his subs to perfection to win the game. You could really see that it was that first goal that just drove the dagger into Porto’s heart as, before that, they really seemed to believe (rightfully) that a decent result was there for the taking. I don’t think people realize just how challenging an occasion this game was after Alex Telles turned things upside-down; it could easily have been a frustrating, stale game where Porto denied us chances at goal. Juventus, however, kept going at it and constantly looked to create chances: not all of the 19 shots were on target, but you absolutely cannot fault them for a lack of urgency.
Sandro and Khedira put in phenomenal performances for the team in a difficult game. Marko Pjaca broke his duck with his maiden Juventus goal. A clean sheet and a dominating first leg lead.
A wonderful evening of Champions League football for Juventus, don’t you think?