For about 44 minutes and 30 seconds, Juventus was playing an excellent match in their Champions League opener against Barcelona at the Camp Nou. Barca goalkeeper Marc-Ander ter Stegen was the busier of the two goalkeepers through most of the first half, and while Gianluigi Buffon had made a fantastic save on Luis Suarez in the aftermath of a Lionel Messi free kick, that was the only shot Barca had found the target on the night.
Then, a brain fart.
Niether Miralem Pjanic nor Rodrigo Bentancour tracked Messi as he burst into the channel on a 1-2 pass with Suarez, and the immortal one snookered to the far post for his first goal ever against Buffon. From there, things unraveled, and by the middle of the second half Ernesto Valverde’s men were firmly in control.
It wasn’t quite the epic collapse we saw in the final in June, but it was another case of a good first half being undone by a drop in form in the second.
All things considered, though, this isn’t by any means a disaster. Yes, Juve didn’t play well once Barca opened the scoring, but the game was at the Camp Nou, and Juve wasn’t nearly at full strength.
So what are the biggest stories from this difficult night? We take a look in detail at five points from Tuesday’s match.
1. MEDHI BENATIA SUCKS
I hate Medhi Benatia. I hate him with the flaming heat of 1,000 suns.
How did this man become so highly regarded? How on earth did a man that plays this badly command the kind of transfer fees that took him to Bayern Munich and to Juve? He’s slow, he’s mistake prone, and he was made to look silly multiple times.
To be fair, he actually didn’t do badly on Messi’s first goal. He closed down as well as he could given the circumstances. The responsibility for that goal lies in the failure of Pjanic and/or Bentancour to track the Argentine’s run for the return ball from Suarez.
But the last two goals land squarely on his shoulders. Quite what was going on in his mind when he took that idiotic touch that caused the giveaway that eventually turned into goal No. 2 I will never know. When Messi bore down on him for the third, he legitimately just stood there while Messi passed on by. Alex Sandro whiffed, too, but at least he tried to make a tackle.
Benatia is not good enough. Not by a long shot. All of the other four center backs on the roster are demonstrably better than him. So long as Daniele Rugani can stand upright, he should be starting over him. Once Benedikt Howedes is passed fit he should be placed firmly ahead of him on the depth chart. Hell, Mattia Caldera must have been sitting in Atalanta’s training ground watching the game on TV and thinking, “Man, if that’s all I have to compete against next year, I’ll be playing in no time!”
I think I’ve whipped this dead horse enough. Rugani is the future of this team. He needs to play. He needs to play in big games like this. He needs to play over Benatia. Benatia should only be playing if the rest of the center backs have been run over by a bus.
2. WILL THE REAL ALEX SANDRO PLEASE STAND UP?
It was a little disconcerting to see Alex Sandro play so poorly two-and-a-half weeks ago against Genoa. He was one of Juve’s worst performers that day. His defending was poor as the Grifone raced out to a 2-0 lead and played little part in Juve’s comeback win.
Sandro rested against Chievo over the weekend after making the long trip back from South American World Cup qualifying, but he didn’t see any game action, so he was as fresh as could be physically. Unfortunately, that didn’t see an improved performance.
Sandro overlapped well with Douglas Costa on the left early, but as Barca pushed back he was unable to get forward and his defending was, quite frankly, pretty darn bad. The aforementioned whiff on Messi’s second goal was just the nadir of a lot of uncommitted tackling and shoddy marking.
What’s going on here?
Why is one of last season’s best performers in such a rut?
Eager Chelsea fans — and Leonardo Spinazzola’s agent — will probably say that he’s unhappy and would rather be in London. We can probably dismiss this. As much as I think it puts Juve at a disadvantage in the market, the “no player will be forced to stay against his will” mantra is deeply entrenched in Juve’s front office. If he had wanted out this summer, he wouldn’t be at Juventus right now.
Another potential cause could be the lack of defensive cover next to him. With Giorgio Chiellini out and Massimiliano Allegri replacing him with a subpar player (read: Benatia), Sandro may feel forced to stay back and defend — although that wouldn’t explain why his defending has been so poor. It could also be that teams are rolling their tactics to prevent him from breaking out offensively now that Dani Alves isn’t offering the same level of attacking threat on the other side.
In reality this rut is probably just that — a rut. But Sandro needs to start getting back to form, especially with the situation on the right unsettled. His overlaps are crucial to Mario Mandzukic’s effectiveness on the left, and could make Douglas Costa’s wing play even more effective if he can augment him the same way he does the big man. His play will be key to the success of the team, and he needs to return to the level we all expect, and soon.
3. GONZALO HIGUAIN COMES UP SHORT AGAIN
Coming into Tuesday’s game, a lot of the talk was about Gonzalo Higuain and his track record of disappearing in big matches. This had to be the year when he took that monkey off his back and finally did what Juve bought him to do — score important goals at the highest levels.
He’s not off to a good start.
Higuain only touched the ball 24 times in the entire match before being subbed off late. His one shot on target was a tame effort that was never going to trouble ter Stegen. He held the ball far longer than he should have, sometimes passing up promising early passes to run with the ball. Yes, he and Dybala were both increasingly isolated as Barca exerted more and more control over the match, but the fact is Higuain did absolutely nothing even in the first half when Juve was playing well.
Beppe Marotta spent €90 million to get a player that was supposed to score the goals that got Juve over the hurdle in Europe. Higuain has to turn into that player. If he doesn’t, it doesn’t matter how many braces he scores against Sassuolo or Bologna. This transfer will be a failure. He may get even less of a chance to make amends during the group stage, as he is likely to face a suspension. The home game against Barca in November looms large now.
4. INJURIES LOOMED LARGE
Juve wasn’t anywhere near full strength coming into this game. Juan Cuadrado was suspended after his preposterous red card in the final (although that could arguably have been a good thing), and the injury list read like a starting XI: Chiellini, Claudio Marchisio, Sami Khedira and Mario Mandzukic were all out. Add to that the fact that Howedes is still rounding into form after his transfer and Stephan Lichtsteiner was inexplicably left off the Champions League roster for a second consecutive year, and a you’re missing a ton of talent.
Of particular note where the absences of Mandzukic and Chiellini. Their industry, experience, and physicality were desperately needed. Mandzukic would likely have gotten more physical with Barca’s forwards while supporting the defense on the left side, perhaps making them a bit more tentative, and would have been another target up top. Chiellini would have been...well, not Medhi Benatia. (Did I mention I hate Benatia?)
Seriously, though, Chiellini’s absence was sorely felt. He isn’t given as much credit for his tactical sense as he probably deserves, and he’s certainly not above giving an opposing forward a mauling when the occasion calls for it. The defensive breakdowns that led to all three goals could have been avoided with a player of his quality on the field.
All these players will return. When they do, the field will be far more even come November. A counterpunch is possible with a full squad. The hope is that these important players don’t get rushed back into the lineup and exacerbate their problems. One thing Tuesday did prove is that scraping the bottom of the barrel for depth is a recipe for disaster against teams like Barca.
5. THERE IS NO REASON TO PANIC
Not yet, anyway.
There are several factors that indicate an upswing is in the offing. Once the roster is healthy, Allegri will have a much deeper and better pool of players to call on. A more settled tactical formation will also help. Allegri has been tinkering with a 4-3-3, but Juve did play better in the 4-2-3-1 against Chievo on the weekend and seemed to come alive a bit more when they started playing closer to that scheme when Federico Bernardeschi replaced Bentancour. Allegri is going to have to figure out which formation fits the team best and stick to it, because constant switching is only going to hurt the team.
We also need to give the new arrivals like Bernardeschi, Bentancour, Costa, Howdes, and Mattia De Sciglio settle in. Player turnover has been heavy during Allegri’s tenure, and as a result his teams have tended to peak later in the year, when new arrivals have had more time to jell. There’s no reason to think that won’t happen here, especially given the talent of some of the new boys.
Juve can get by in the rest of the group — Olympiakos and Sporting CP — on talent alone for the most part, although the trip to Piraeus is always a daunting one. Still, unless something disastrous happens, Juve isn’t in much danger to crash out. If the return match against Barca does end up being unduly important, they will have the advantage of playing it at the J Stadium — where they haven’t lost in European competition in five years.
Did Tuesday’s result stink? Yes, it did. Quite a bit. But it’s by no means fatal and things will likely only get better from here.