For Juventus, Tuesday’s second leg of the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 tie against Porto was about seeing things out. Firmly in the driver’s seat after their 2-0 win in Portugal three weeks ago, the main focus for the bianconeri was to make sure Porto didn’t make things interesting.
It wasn’t an exciting performance by any stretch of the imagination, but it did the job. Paulo Dybala’s strike from the penalty spot three minutes before halftime put the tie out of reach, especially after finding themselves up a man for the second consecutive European game.
While Massimiliano Allegri’s men lacked flash, they put on a clinic in killing off a tie — the kind of thing a team like Paris Saint-Germain might want to take note of for the future.
Given the comfort of the game overall, it’s easy to forget that there was still some concern going in. Porto are by no means an easy tie. Yacine Brahimi is a beast in midfield, and the front two of Tiquinho Soares and Andre Silva can be a dangerous combination. Soares in particular has been on a tear, scoring nine goals in seven games going into Tuesday’s match. With Juve’s backline lacking Giorgio Chiellini, who was sitting out with a leg injury (again), Nuno Espiritu Santo’s men were looking for the chance to snag an early goal and make it a tie.
Juve seemed to realize the danger, because they went on the attack early. Two minutes in, Gonzalo Higuain put an early cross from Dani Alves wide from the edge of the penalty area, and less that a minute later Paulo Dybala headed the ball to himself before springing forward into the box. He decided to try to put the ball into the roof of the net rather than put it across and ended up going over, but the early salvos went to Juve.
Chiellini may have been out, but Leonardo Bonucci had returned after being suspended for the first leg after that much-talked about row with Allegri three weeks ago. His incredible passing ability was a variable that Porto hadn’t had to face at the Estadio Dragao, and they clearly weren’t prepared for it.
Bonucci put two balls over the top of Porto’s defense within 10 minutes, and both of them led to good scoring chances. On the first Dybala blasted wide after Mario Mandzukic knocked the ball down for him, on the second the Croatian headed the ball down to Alex Sandro, who fed Dybala who in turn crossed it just over the waiting head of Sami Khedira. By game’s end, according to WhoScored.com, Bonucci had completed 15 of 21 long balls and 94.4 percent of his overall passes.
After that pair of long passes Porto managed a decent spell of possession, but only ever managed a long ball right into Gianluigi Buffon’s gut. The rest of the half saw Juve press for the goal that would, in all likelihood, kill off the tie. Dybala was lively, roaming to the right to combine with Alves and Juan Cuadrado, but could never quite find the right final ball.
Really the entire team was fumbling for the last touch. Crossing was a theme today, and the bianconeri put in some really good ones, like Alves’s early ball as well as a 23rd-minute ball by Cuadrado, a fizzed ground cross by Higuain in the 28th and a fantastic ball by Dybala in the 34th.
But all of them lacked the final touch. Cuadrado’s ball found Mandzukic, but the Croatian’s header was right at Iker Casillas, who did well to get down and save. Higuain’s ball skipped off the top of Dybala’s boot, and Dybala’s cross was inches for Higuain’s head before Marcano managed to get a touch to the ball from behind the No. 9 and clear.
With the game, and the tie, poised to go into the half on a knife’s edge, Porto made a fatal mistake. Alex Sandro’s header off a corner was palmed away by Casillas, and when Higuain followed up Maxi Pereira threw himself at the shot. The ball struck his outstretched arm, and referee Ovidiu Alin Hategan acted immediately. The Romanian pointed to the spot and showed the Uruguay international a straight red for denying a goalscoring opportunity.
Given the events of the last few weeks, the Bianconeri could maybe have done without getting awarded a penalty kick — at least from a P.R. standpoint — but at least this one was pretty dang clear. Dybala stepped up to send Casillas the wrong way — the second time the Spanish legend watched a penalty sail by him in as many trips to the J Stadium for him — and the tie was pretty much done and dusted.
The second half seemed to be played with both sides pretty well aware of that fact — although all hell could have broken loose early on. Seconds after Danilo Pereira nearly put an Alves cross into his own net to truly put a cap on proceedings, Medhi Benatia was robbed in the defensive third by Soares, who charged into the box but couldn’t win the 1-on-1, slashing it wide as Buffon charged forward.
It was another in a series of recent howlers by the Morocco international, whose selection in front of Daniele Rugani is quite frankly a mystery at this point. Moments later Benatia pulled up with what looked like a groin injury and was replaced by Andrea Barzagli, so at least the prospect for disaster was significantly reduced.
The rest of the half played out fairly uneventfully. Higuain looked very interested in scoring a second to really put things to bed, but wasted a couple of chances shortly after the hour. In the last few minutes there were a few lapses in concentration — including one that saw Diogo Jota go clear on goal but, like his teammate, fail to convert a 1-on-1 with Buffon.
As the commentators on the English feed that FOX uses for its Champions League coverage (let’s get on that, FOX) observed late in the game, this tie was really over the minute Alex Telles hacked down Stephan Lichtsteiner in the first leg. From that point on, the Juve was in firm control of things, and by the time the teams walked off the field for the half the result was a mortal lock. From then on it was a question of seeing things out without expending any unnecessary energy.
Gianluigi Buffon - 7. Had very little to do with Porto only finding the target twice, and both of those easy. Managed to put off a pair of Porto players in 1-on-1 situations.
Dani Alves - 8. One of his better games in a Juve shirt. Lively along the right hand side and put in several excellent crosses. Active defensively with five tackles but wasn’t given a torrid time by any means.
Leonardo Bonucci - 8. His passes over the top gave Porto all sorts of problems early. Excellent distributing from the back.
Medhi Benatia - 5. Another howler very nearly threw Porto a lifeline. He shouldn’t be playing over Rugani, period.
Alex Sandro - 6.5. A threatening presence when he needed to be but it seemed like Juve’s attacks were flowing more through the right today. His header off Alves’s corner set up the penalty.
Sami Khedira - 6. Where is the guy we saw earlier this year? The German has been decidedly meh since the end of September. A lot of interesting positions wasted with heavy touches.
Claudio Marchisio - 6. Had a few moments, including a nice 1-2 with Alves in the 66th minute that set up a chance for Higuain. Still trying to find full form after his knee injury last year — something that usually takes at least 12 months. Give him time.
Juan Cuadrado - 6. Had a few good balls in but a 12th-minute booking made things nervy — if he had gotten a second yellow things could have really been turned on their head.
Paulo Dybala - 7.5. He talked about how much he wanted to score against Casillas before the game and made no mistake with his penalty to do just that. Lively all day in the attacking third, but his final touch failed him in open play.
Mario Mandzukic - 7. Another understated but hugely influential performance by the Mandzubeast. Tracked back well and overmatched Maxi Pereira physically.
Gonzalo Higuain - 6.5. Would’ve had a goal were it not for Periera’s handball, but despite his obvious hunger for one he missed a few chances in the second half. Needs to pull the trigger earlier with the ball at his feet.
Marko Pjaca - 6. Replaced Cuadrado at halftime and made some trouble. Nearly scored after a neat Mandzukic flick, and got a little physical as well.
Andrea Barzagli - 7. You barely knew he was on the field — in the good way — after coming on for Benatia.
Tomas Rincon - N/R. Given the final 13 minutes to give Dybala a rest. Did little of note.
Manager: 6.5. Allegri made some good moves here. Resting Miralem Pjanic was a good decision — he didn’t need to come on unless Porto made a move and a goal was badly needed. But — and I know I sound like a broken record here — why, why, why is Benatia starting over Rugani? This was the perfect opportunity to blood him in the knockout round of the Champions League. Benatia is simply too mistake prone to be relied on.
The majority of Juve’s major attacks in the first half came from the right side. Alves and Cuadrado teamed up well, and when Dybala drifted wide it seemed to be almost exclusively to that side — as his heat map on WhoScored shows.
Allegri may have been interested in testing Miguel Layun, Alex Telles’ replacement on the left side. The Mexico international has big-match experience — he’s been on the roster for his country’s last four major international tournaments and boasts 45 caps since 2013 — but he’s largely been behind Telles on the depth chart this year, so perhaps Allegri was checking for rust.
It seems to have worked. Layun didn’t make any tackles or interceptions and committed three fouls, one of which got him booked.
Bonucci’s long ball ability also looked to be part of the game plan today. His ability to spring the offense forward from deep was something Porto didn’t seem to be able to cope with. Once things were taken care of, there wasn’t much in the way of tactical tinkering — it was simply a matter of keeping the right people fresh and seeing the game to the end.
So, the quarterfinals beckon for the third time in five years. In their first trip back to this stage since rising from the ashes under Antonio Conte, Juve were eliminated by Bayern Munich after losing both legs 2-0 — the home leg being the only European loss the team has ever suffered at the J Stadium. Considering the fact that Bayern went on to beat Barcelona 7-0 on aggregate in the semis, that loss doesn’t look all that bad.
Two years ago, Juve squeaked by Monaco 1-0 on aggregate en route to the final, the tie decided by an Arturo Vidal penalty in the first leg at home.
This team is significantly different than both of those squads. They are arguably far better. The Champions League looks to be wide open this year. Bayern, Barcelona and Real Madrid all have warts this year. This could be Juve’s chance to finally claim the cup with the big ears after 21 years.
In order to do that, Juve will have to up their game a bit. All but one, perhaps two of Juve’s potential quarterfinal opponents — including all four involved in the ties yet to be decided — represent a step up from Porto. But if they can reach that level, the sky could be the limit.
The road to Cardiff is open.