It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
Heading into the Champions League final against Real Madrid in Cardiff on Saturday, hopes were high for Juventus. The Bianconeri had allowed only three goals in 12 games. They had blasted past the high-powered attacks of Barcelona and Monaco to arrive at their second final in three years, determined to exorcise the ghosts of their loss in Berlin two years ago.
For the first 45 minutes, it looked like it really could happen. Juve penned Real in their own half for extended periods, and as they went into the locker room with the game deadlocked the optimism abounded.
Then the second half happened.
Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane made a simple tactical adjustment, and Massimiliano Allegri failed to respond. The result was a massacre. The defending champions scored three unanswered goals in a dominant second half to win 4-1 and become the first team in the Champions League era to defend their title.
Each team had one lineup question going into the match. For Juve, it was a question of tactics. Allegri waffled between the 4-2-3-1 “Five Star” system that had brought so much success since the middle of January and adding in the wrinkle he used in the semifinal against Monaco, benching Juan Cuadrado for Andrea Barzagli and pressing Dani Alves higher up the pitch. He went with the latter option, creating a 3-4-2-1 that could morph into a 3-5-2 or into a modified “Five Star” as the situation warranted.
Zidane’s decision came down to fitness and form. Would he start hometown hero Gareth Bale, who hadn’t played for more than a month due to a muscle injury? Or would he use Isco, who had been on fire as his replacement and provided a different presence up front? He too opted for door No. 2, leaving the Welsh international to come off the bench.
Beyond that, the starting lineups that marched onto the field after the Black Eyed Peas finished their set were exactly as you’d expect.
What was perhaps less expected was how the game started. Juve took the opening kick and within 2 1⁄2 minutes had put a shot on target, with Mario Mandzukic and Alex Sandro combining on the left before the former put in a cross that Gonzalo Higuain headed from range. Keylor Navas made an easy save, but the opening salvo belonged to the team more regarded for their defense than their offense.
Sixty seconds later, Higuain skipped past Casemiro before slamming a 25-yard cannonball right at Navas, who parried and then quickly covered the ball before anyone could follow up the run. Miralem Pjanic got in on the act two minutes later, latching on to a poor clearance by Raphael Varane and firing a vicious curler that Navas just got a hand to.
Eight minutes, three shots on goal.
Not too shabby.
Real started getting back into the game and got the ball into some dangerous spots, but never truly threatened Gianluigi Buffon in goal. The rock-solid Juve defense was able to disrupt crosses coming into the box and, in one case, tackle the ball away from Cristiano Ronaldo just as he was about to load up and fire.
But all that possession was starting to take its toll, and after a Juve counterattack failed, Los blancos were in the perfect position to take advantage. Switching the field with a short combination of passes, the ball was eventually sent to Dani Carvajal, whose pass set Ronaldo up perfectly. His shot had power and possibly the aid of a slight deflection from Leonardo Bonucci, and it didn’t look like Buffon had been unsighted by his defender as well. It had taken 20 minutes for Real to finally get their first shot, but they used it well and took the lead.
To their credit, Juve responded well. Immediately realizing that that ceding quite so much possession was a recipe for disaster, Juve kept hold of the ball far better and continued to attack out wide, particularly down the left, where Mandzukic and Sandro were making life difficult for Carvajal. Pjanic had a good shot opportunity charged down before Sandro found Mandzukic, who pushed his header wide.
Isco had a chance to double Real’s lead on a counterattack in the 27th minute, but scuffed it. Sixty seconds later, we had a new ball game.
Juve sent the ball back down the left again and Sandro popped a cross in. Higuain headed the ball back to Mandzukic, who controlled the ball with his chest and then went for an outrageous overhead kick. The ball feathered over the reach of Navas and under the bar. It was an incredible goal, one of the best in the history of UEFA’s showpiece event and Mandzukic’s second career strike in a Champions League final.
The remainder of the first half was a push-pull affair. Ronaldo tried to imitate Mandzukic with a bicycle kick attempt of his own on the half hour, but it never came close to troubling Buffon. He skied another good attempt three minutes later, while Paulo Dybala put a free kick into the wall and Pjanic had another effort from range closed down.
The whistle sounded, and an immensely entertaining first half came to an end with Juve looking arguably the better of the two sides. Madrid’s goal had been their only shot on target, and Juve was taking the game to them for long periods and creating chances of their own.
Then it all came tumbling down.
Zidane reacted well to Juve’s ability to attack his flanks. Carvajal and Marcelo, who had been kept relatively quiet on the Madrid left in the first half, pressed far higher up the field. Juve simply couldn’t keep hold of the ball in any meaningful way. It called to mind the first hour of the first leg of the Round of 16 tie against Bayern Munich in last season’s Champions League. Wave after wave of pressure came from Madrid with hardly any response. Higuain couldn’t hold the ball up for any length of time.
Just after the hour mark the pressure finally paid when Casemiro latched onto a cleared cross and pumped a long shot at goal. It took a huge deflection off Sami Khedira and flew just past the outstretched hand of Buffon to give Madrid the lead again.
Three minutes later they doubled it as Luka Modric — who crucially missed the semifinal tie between these teams two years ago — dashed down the right wing and crossed to Ronaldo, who had found an inexplicable gap between Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini. Buffon was stranded, and it was 3-1.
At this point, Allegri needed to respond with his bench, and he immediately pulled Andrea Barzagli off for Juan Cuadrado. Claudio Marchisio came on not long after in place of Pjanic, who had been booked and then given a stern warning by referee Felix Brych a few minutes later. Cuadrado was booked shortly after, then wasted a good position by passing the ball to absolutely no one. With 12 minutes to go, Dybala came off for Mario Lemina — a curious move that essentially raised the white flag. The young Argentine had had a bad game, it’s true, but when you’re behind an off-form Dybala still gives you a better chance at coming back than Lemina in any form.
The capper on the night came thanks to a disgusting display of unsportsmanlike conduct from Real captain Sergio Ramos. After the Spain international had clattered the Cuadrado to put the ball out for a throw in, the Colombian looked like he pushed past him to try to get the ball. Ramos threw himself to the ground, conning Brych into giving Cuadrado a second yellow.
While the result of the game would likely not have been all that different at this point, the fact of the matter is this was truly farcical. I can’t say I’ve lost respect for Ramos — I had none to begin with — but this simply confirms that the man has zero class. Madrid fans should be embarrassed that he’s their captain.
Just as stoppage time was about to begin substitute Marco Asensio buried a Marcelo cross to put even more of an emphasis on the evening. Four agonizing minutes later, the game was done, and the collapse was complete.
Gianluigi Buffon - 7. Can’t be faulted for any of the goals. The first two were deflections and the second two were the result of shambolic defending. When he had a chance to make saves he did, doing particularly well to hold a Modric shot from distance early in the second half. He didn’t deserve this.
Andrea Barzagli - 6.5. Easily the best of the BBC on the night. Tasked with making life difficult for Ronaldo, he did just that. The Madrid man spent a lot of time in the box to get away from him. Removed after 66 minutes as Allegri tried to spark the offense.
Leonardo Bonucci - 5.5. The deflection on the opener was a bad break — Ronaldo simply put too much power on the shot for him to be able to block it effectively. But the miscommunication between he and Chiellini on Ronaldo’s second goal was shocking.
Giorgio Chiellini - 6. The same can be said about Ronaldo’s second goal here. Chielo did make a few vital interventions on other plays, though, which gives him a bit higher a rating than his counterpart.
Dani Alves - 5.5. In the first half he practically erased Marcelo, but in the second half he evaporated and let his compatriot have far too much room. Didn’t have anywhere near the offensive impact he’s had in the last month, although that could be down to Juve’s attack focusing on the other side in the first half.
Miralem Pjanic - 5.5. The Bosnian started brightly, nearly beating Navas early with a wicked shot. He had a few more good positions to shoot from distance but was closed down. The second half saw a huge regression, and he was rightly hauled off after losing his cool and flirting with a red.
Sami Khedira - 5. The German has been so successful keeping the midfield together since the formation change, but he was overmatched today. Did hardly anything.
Alex Sandro - 7. A constant menace down the left in the first half. His crosses created a lot of danger, including Juve’s goal. Defended as hard as he could, blocking three shots, according to WhoScored.com.
Paulo Dybala - 4. He was almost a non-factor on the night. Not a lot of Juve’s offense went through the middle, but he did absolutely nothing to stamp his mark on the game.
Mario Mandzukic - 6.5. Mr. No Good’s goal was one of the greatest ever scored in a Champions League final. It’s a shame nothing could be built on it. Dropped off as everyone did in the second half, and his giveaway led to Madrid’s third goal.
Gonzalo Higuain - 4. This rating would be lower if not for his assist. This was the kind of game he was bought to be a decisive force in. Instead, he was the €90 million invisible man, touching the ball only 28 times. He’s not going to be shaking his reputation about coming up small in big games anytime soon.
Juan Cuadrado - 2. This rating has nothing to do with him getting sent off — that was a preposterous call. The fact of the matter is he did absolutely nothing. He touched the ball six times and attempted only three passes, completing one. Introduced to try to breathe life into the attack, he did less than nothing.
Claudio Marchisio - 6. Replacing Pjanic, he tried to stabilize the midfield but at that point there was nothing to be done.
Mario Lemina - NR. A curious introduction. There wasn’t much to be done by the time he got on, and it’s not like he was going to spur on the attack, especially considering who he replaced.
Max Allegri - 5. I am not Allegri’s biggest fan, but I will acknowledge that he has been working with some severe limitations over the last few months of the season. From a depth perspective, the front line wasn’t built for this kind of formation, and Marko Pjaca’s injury on international duty only made the problem worse. Allegri had hardly any moves available that could change the game offensively. That being said, he totally failed to respond to the way Zidane changed his tactics at the half. The blame for the second half rests on his shoulders.
In the first half, it looked like Allegri’s plan was to allow Real the majority of the midfield battle in order to focus on attacking down the flank. It worked, especially on the left side, where Sandro and Mandzukic were running over Dani Carvajal. Rare was the attack that went down the middle of the field.
The problems came when Zidane tweaked his fullbacks at halftime. Both Carvajal and Marcelo pressed higher, and with the midfield already mostly ceded, Juve had nowhere to play. Allegri’s options on the bench may have been limited at this point, but he could have tweaked something on the field to counter Zidane’s move.
He never did, and Zidane’s move ended up being the decisive one.
This is not, as many fans of other Serie A clubs hope, a sign that Juve’s cycle is ending. Allegri was even asked that in his post-match press conference and he dismissed the notion. But Juve will have to make changes if they want to get to this stage again.
The 4-2-3-1 formation is a good one, but if Allegri stays and retains it the club needs to be built around it. Of particular need is forward depth. By the end of the year a lot of the forwards — especially Higuain — looked absolutely gassed. At least one winger and a prima punta to spell Higuain are a must.
Juve will be one of the favorites to return to the final next year. A fourth consecutive double is not a far-fetched idea. But the cup with the big ears is the goal and has been for several years.
This isn’t the end. Key players must be retained and new ones introduced, but Juve’s cycle can continue — and the Champions League can be won. But the hard lessons of this match must be taken to heart.