It was a clash between youth and experience, extreme attack versus stout defense. The UEFA Champions League semifinal between Juventus and Monaco had all the hallmarks of an exciting tie, and the first leg did not disappoint.
The buildup to this tie wasn’t quite as overwrought as the Madrid Derby on the other side of the bracket, but there is certainly history between these two clubs. In fact, Monaco has tended to be a good luck charm for the Bianconeri. Juve has dismissed the principality side in the knockout rounds twice before. Both times they made the final of the competition, winning 6-4 on aggregate in the 1997-98 semifinals and 1-0 over two legs in the quarterfinal in 2014-15.
This Monaco, however, is a far cry from the team Juve defeated two seasons ago. That team was built on a stout defense but was ineffective in the extreme at the other end. Their most dangerous attacking player going into that tie was Dimitar Berbatov. He was supported by an emerging Yannick Carrasco (now playing on the other side of the bracket for Atletico Madrid), but there was so little punch in the team that they had entered the quarters with only seven goals to their credit — three of which had come in one game during the round of 16 against Arsenal.
This Monaco is the photo negative of that side. Their high-powered attack has put in 148 goals in all competitions this season, led by a reborn Radamel Falcao and 18-year-old sensation Kylian Mbappe, who has scored 16 times since the beginning of February and five times in four knockout games in Europe. The defense, on the other hand, has been an afterthought on occasion. Former Torino captain Kamil Glik — he who was sent off in three straight Turin derbies once upon a time — is the leader of the back line, and coach Leandro Jardim’s system, which pushes the fullbacks high up the field, is vulnerable to counterattacks.
Of course, this Juve is a much-changed side as well. Only five players in Massimiliano Allegri’s starting XI played in the quarterfinal two years ago: Gianluigi Buffon, the BBC, and Claudio Marchisio. The MVP midfield has been replaced by the “Five Star” system — although on Wednesday night it would be minus one star.
Allegri surprised pretty much everyone everywhere when he left Juan Cuadrado on the bench. His speed was seen as a key in getting behind Monaco’s attacking fullbacks. But Allegri, wary of Monaco’s speed with Sami Khedira serving a one-game suspension, chose to push Dani Alves further up the field to play the wing and installed Andrea Barzagli as a makeshift right back.
Monaco had a surprise of their own on the team sheet, as fullback Benjamin Mendy was left off the squad entirely with a late injury. This caused Jardim to shuffle things, switching right back Djibril Sidibe to the left and starting Nabil Dirar on the right. Apart from his changes to the right side, Allegri plugged the hole left by Khedira with Marchisio, who is less familiar with the system but far from a downgrade in terms of quality.
The game began with Juve firmly in control. The first 10 minutes saw Monaco pinned back deep in their own half, with Juve looking to stretch the field and isolate Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala on center backs Glik and Jemerson.
Higuain was a point of focus in this game. He had only scored three times in the Champions League coming in. One had been a penalty against Lyon, and the other two had come against that powerhouse of European football, Dinamo Zagreb. He had wasted numerous chances in the quarterfinal against Barcelona, and it was looking more and more like his reputation as a player who couldn’t rise to big occasions had followed him to Turin.
Things certainly weren’t looking up for him in the game’s early stages. Ten minutes in he was streaking up the middle, looking to latch onto a layoff pass from Dybala, who had dribbled past two defenders, only to lose his footing and fall flat on his face. Three minutes later, he failed to time a wonderful volleyed cross from Alves, leaving the Brazilian visibly frustrated with his striker.
After those two wasted chances, things looked like they might start to go pear-shaped. Monaco produced a sustained period of pressure starting just before the 15 minute mark, when a ball over the top from Dirar found Mbappe free behind the defense. The teenager, so clinical over the past few months, was unable to direct it, and it flew straight at Gigi Buffon. Those who play FIFA on their Xboxes and PS4s probably heard Martin Tyler’s usual line (“Well, you’re not going to beat Buffon like that!”) echo in their heads.
Three minutes later, Mbappe nearly did beat Buffon, volleying a wicked ball from Dirar toward the near post only to see the Juve captain deflect it away. A few moments later it was Falcao’s turn, beating Leonardo Bonucci in the air and sending a header toward the top corner that Buffon had to turn around the post for a corner.
After almost 15 minutes of this, the Bianconeri managed to break and win a corner, only for Higuain to make a hash out of another chance. The frustration was mounting, but two minutes later the tune changed on a dime.
The move began with Marchisio recovering possession and dribbling himself free. He hoofed it upfield, where Dybala met it with a sublime backheel into the path of Alves. Alves fed the ball up to Higuain, who returned it and continued his run. Alves pulled up in the box and delivered a backheel of his own into a wide open space 16 yards out and just to the right of the penalty spot. Higuain met it first time with the side of his foot. Monaco goalkeeper Danijel Subasic had no chance.
Just like that, jinx over. Higuain had scored a huge away goal, and the tie had been turned on its head.
The half was seen out, but not before another Monaco delivery, this one from a free kick, bounced through everyone before going out.
Monaco came out of the gate hard after the break, with Falcao firing a low-angled drive less than two minutes after the restart that Buffon not only got to but held. As the second period played out, it was clear Allegri had decided that the best way to see the game out was to deprive Monaco of its greatest weapon — its pace.
Juventus allowed the Ligue 1 leaders the lion’s share of possession and denied them entrance to the penalty area, forcing long shots that would either fly over the bar or easily into the mitts of Buffon.
The tables were turned as Juve began countering. On 55 minutes, Marchisio mugged Sidibe just outside the box and drove into scoring range, only to be denied by a good save from Subasic. A little less than five minutes later, though, Higuain struck again.
It again came from the right side. Tiemoue Bakayoko was too lazy on the ball when Dybala came to press him, and Alves joined the effort to poke the ball away. Dybala moved downfield and fed Alves, who lofted an early cross to the far post. Glik flailed as it passed, and Higuain’s sliding finish made it 2-0.
It was a gut-punch that Monaco didn’t seem to have an answer to. Scoring had come so easy to them in the Champions League this season. Most of their opponents’ goals had been swiftly responded to, especially in the knockout stages, but they had finally come up against a wall they couldn’t get through. And with Juve sitting back to deprive them of their trademark speed runs, they looked like they didn’t know what Plan B was.
They had a few more moments. Bernardo Silva managed to find some space with 15 minutes left, but Bonucci managed to not only block the shot but deflect it off Silva for a goal kick. A fluffed clearance by Giorgio Chiellini saw Falcao get a half-chance, but the Colombian sent it wide. Long balls were forced into the box and dealt with by Bonucci, Chiellini, and Barzagli, mostly with relative ease.
Le Monegasques had two more chances off set pieces in the dying moments. One delivery slipped through everyone before flashing past the post, lacking only the barest of touches to put it in. Then in stoppage time substitute Valere Germain thumped a powerful header that Buffon tipped over the bar, a save that looked eerily similar to the incredible stop he pulled on Zinedine Zidane in the World Cup final 11 years ago.
Monaco had battered at the walls but had not broken them. Antonio Miguel Lahoz’s whistle blew for the final time and the game was over — with the tie well on its way to being so.
Gianluigi Buffon - 9. Massive day for the legendary keeper. Kept out Mbappe with an excellent save at 0-0. His early second-half stop on Falcao prevented an equalizer and his tip of Germain’s header at the death kept Monaco from a desperately-needed morale boost.
Andrea Barzagli - 6.5. The surprise starter at right back looked a little slow-footed when matched up against the shifty Mbappe, but won three aerials and made three interceptions, according to WhoScored.com. Still, the fact that he’s lost a step against faster and quicker opponents is becoming more and more apparent.
Giorgio Chiellini - 7. Not the virtuoso performance he had against Barcelona, but more than adequate. That bobble in the box toward the end was a little worrying, though, but he cleared the ball a whopping 15 times.
Leonardo Bonucci - 6. Not the Bonucci we’re used to seeing, but did have a couple of important interventions. Seemed to lose some luster after picking up a harsh booking 20 minutes in.
Alex Sandro - 6.5. Incisive early, but unable to push forward much in the second half after Juve began to sit back.
Claudio Marchisio - 7. Filled in well for Sami Khedira. Denied a goal by a good Subasic save and held his own defensively, which had been a concern going in.
Miralem Pjanic - 7. Held his own in defense as well. Made a last-second intervention in a scrum that denied Monaco a goal-scoring chance.
Dani Alves - 9. A fantastic performance from the right wing. Recorded both assists — the first time in his career that he registered two helpers in one match in the Champions League.
Paulo Dybala - 7. Wasn’t on the ball in goal-scoring positions very much, but linked well on the counter and pressed at opportune times, including the buildup to Higuain’s second. And that backheel...
Mario Mandzukic - 7. You got the idea that he’d be defending a lot, and indeed he did, especially with most of Juve’s meaningful attacks going down the right. Excellent defensive efforts, though, tied for third on the team in clearances on the night.
Gonzalo Higuain - 8. For the first half hour I was fully prepared to give Higuain a ludicrously low grade and let the comments go crazy. What a difference two goals make — but he could easily have had three or four. Still, this is a huge monkey off his back.
Juan Cuadrado - NR. Sent on as Juve’s tactics switched to pure counterattack in order to exploit the spaces as Monaco pressed forward.
Tomas Rincon - NR. Provided cover for Marchisio in the dying moments.
Mario Lemina - NR. A cup of coffee to close out the match.
Max Allegri: 7. A surprise decision to leave Cuadrado on the bench paid dividends, but putting Barzagli up against opposition so much quicker than him at this point was inviting some danger. It worked out for the most part, but Juve allowed a few more chances than normal.
When Allegri’s lineups were released, it dredged up an old memory. With Barzagli on the field likely to be used to seal off the right side without overlapping all that often, it gave serious credence to the idea that Allegri would seek to neutralize Monaco’s vicious counterattacks by ceding them possession and making them play through the defense. That’s something that they’re not used to — especially not against a defense like Juventus.
It called to mind a pivotal game in the 2013-14 season, when Antonio Conte allowed a similarly counterattacking Roma side to possess the ball, stripping them of their biggest weapon. It was probably the tactical masterstroke of Conte’s tenure. Juve built a 3-0 lead while Rudi Garcia’s men lost their heads, with Daniele De Rossi and Leandro Castan both seeing straight red cards.
The first 10 minutes disproved that theory, at least at the beginning of the game. Allegri told said at his post-game press conference that his choice was made to make up for the loss of Khedira, particularly when it came to playing in the air. Juve possessed the ball and put Monaco under a lot of pressure, but as the game evolved that game against Roma started becoming relevant again. Monaco became the possession team, and Juve countered.
At first this was an enforced change as Monaco recovered from Juve’s initial surge to control the game. But as the game progressed it became clear that the Bianconeri were content to defend and spring the rush themselves. Monaco managed to generate a couple of dangerous half-chances, but they were never able to completely break Juve down, and didn’t really look like they had much in the way of ideas on how to do that. As the game neared its end, Allegri had taken Jardim’s greatest weapon and used it against him.
END IN SIGHT
With two away goals salted away, Juve have one foot in the final, maybe even a foot and a half. But one must not risk inciting the wrath of the Whatever from high atop the Thing. There are still 90 minutes of football to play at Juventus Stadium in six days’ time, and before that the Bianconeri will have to navigate the Derby della Mole — always one of the most intense days on the calendar.
This weekend could send Juve into the second leg as six-time Italian champions. A win in the derby won’t be enough in and of itself to sew up the Scudetto, but if Juve do win and Roma fail to beat AC Milan, the record-setting title will be confirmed.
Total focus is still required over the next week. A lapse against Monaco could be punished severely, and sewing up the title as early as possible would be a benefit to Juve going into the Coppa Italia final and — just maybe — that other final being held on June 3.
All of Juve’s objectives are firmly within reach at this point. All it will take is hard work and focus — things Juve have had in abundance over the last few months.