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Bloodied and bruised Juventus edge Olympiacos thanks to Higuain, Mandzukic

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Gonzalo Higuain provided the late spark in Juventus’ first European victory of the season.

Juventus v Olympiakos Piraeus - UEFA Champions League Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images

Gashed heads, missing teeth, blood, bruises and even a head wrap. But in the end, smiles all around for Juventus.

It wasn’t easy, nor pretty for Juve in the first 65 minutes of the Champions League match against Olympiacos. It took every bit of effort from the starting XI for the Old Lady to break through in a hard-fought 2-0 victory.

What started as a clean, fresh offensive attack quickly turned into an aggressive, frustrating charge for Juventus. Olympiacos played on their heels all game, but they didn’t back down from the daunting task of beating Juventus in Turin. Olympiacos agitated Juventus for much of the game, especially on counterattacks.

Douglas Costa, who played very well, had a deadly turnover when trying to thread the needle on a pass that shouldn’t have been made. Juve’s back four was tested early on thanks to an overzealous attack from their midfield. However, the back four were able to recover with the likes of Andrea Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini leading the retreat, before Olympiacos forward Sebá smashed it wide and out of play. A superior team makes Juve pay for that awful turnover — especially with the space that was given. Juventus was plagued by the counterattack against Barcelona and couldn't afford to be complacent against inferior Olympiacos. Fortunately, Juventus’ defense matched Olympiacos’ counterattacks through out the match.

Olympiacos’ tenacity and physicality disrupted Juve’s offensive flow. The wild challenges and aggressive tackles got under Juve’s skin in the first half. Juventus remained focused on offense and tactically sound on defense, but body language showed they were frustrated with the results. A match that should’ve been a successful offensive showing for Juve, had nothing to show but zeros across the board.

Paulo Dybala had three free kicks in the first half that were blocked by an Olympiacos wall. After failing to break through against Barcelona, he struggled to even get a clean shot off against Olympiacos. Dybala became frustrated and angry with his body language as if he were asking himself “Why is this happening?”

Juventus v Olympiakos Piraeus - UEFA Champions League Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images

Every attack that showed so much promise, ended with an underwhelming result. Stefano Sturaro, who had a pedestrian game, actually found himself in prime position to give Juve their first goal. A corner kick was sent into the box with Sturaro falling forward for a header with some heat on it, but Olympiacos keeper Silvio Proto was there to make a fantastic diving save.

Minutes later, Mario Mandzukic received a beautiful cross from Alex Sandro but Proto again made another dramatic save. Gianluigi Buffon even showed his approval with an applause from the other end. The game hadn’t gone Juve’s way thus far, but Olympiakos deserved a tip of the cap for their admirable first half.

Juve had one last chance to break the tie when Dybala found a rebounding shot that rolled into his possession from a distance. His shot was hit with grace and a slight curve, but Juve’s grim reaper was there to make one final superb save. Proto was having one of the best halves of his career.

The scoreboard read 0-0, but it wasn’t a result of bad play. The offense missed Miralem Pjanic’s creativity, but bounces and shots were inches off from this half being a different story. Juve must push through without feeling discouraged. It was evident that Olympiacos’ entire starting lineup was inside the box preventing Juve’s offense from finding space, but Juve needed to win more corners and crosses. The game felt like Juve was pressing at this point, with so many crosses that went begging.

“This evening Juventus played an intelligent game with patience. We ran a few risks on their counters, Olympiakos had just changed coach and played very well defensively,” said Allegri. “They closed up the spaces and we didn’t move the ball quickly enough, but as they ran out of steam and loosened up just a little, we broke through.”

Juventus came out of the half with rejuvenated energy, but their efforts didn’t produce many clean shots on goal. With the help of its back four and Buffon, Juve was able to keep the attack rolling without much regroup. Olympiacos is an inferior team, but Juve’s back four deserve credit for looking rock solid with the return of Chiellini, who helped mask Sturaro’s deficiencies.

It was obvious that the offense needed a change and couldn’t keep an intense pace without a result to show for it. Gonzalo Higuain, who has had a lackluster start to the year, came off the bench in an unfamiliar role as a sub for Juan Cuadrado in the 60th minute. Nearly every Juventus fan shared the same thought: if there’s ever a time for Higuain to provide a spark, it’s now. Higuain would conquer to the moment.

Alex Sandro sprinted down the left side of the field before kicking a low line drive that bounced into Higuain’s one-time shot, which was right at Proto. But just when Juventus thought every bounce had not gone their way, one finally did. The rebound off of Proto trickled right back into Higuain’s possession, with a pure right-footed shot into the back of the net. Finally, Juve had broken through. Higuain showed an overwhelming elation and rejoice for his game-changing goal.

He has deserved the criticism thus far, and even though this goal was one of the easier ones he’ll score all year, it’s still a clutch one. This may be the return of Higuain.

Juventus v Olympiakos Piraeus - UEFA Champions League Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images

Juventus had taken a 1-0 lead but knew the game was far from over. They knew one goal wasn’t enough. And in the 80th minute, they smelled blood and went for the kill.

Higuain sent a ball through for Dybala, who raced the goalkeeper for possession. Dybala made a last-ditch effort to chip the ball over Proto, but Olympiacos had reinforcement to deflect it away. Except, another fortunate bounce went Juve’s way. Mandzukic headed the deflecting ball into the back of the net for Juve’s second goal. Juve wins, 2-0, and captures a very important three points.

Goodnight, Olympiacos.

Juventus v Olympiakos Piraeus - UEFA Champions League Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images

LE PAGELLE

GIANLUIGI BUFFON - 6.5: He saw very little action, with Olympiacos only recording two shots on goal for the game. The saves he made were fairly routine, but as always, he was mentally sharp and technically sound.

Giorgio Chiellini - 7: Chiellini played a rock-solid game. Like Buffon and the rest of the defense, Chiellini didn’t have an overwhelmingly active night, but he didn’t give an inch when called upon. Not only did the back four look better with him in the lineup, but they avoided mental lapses in the second half — which was a problem last game. Leadership not enough? How about a head wrap to prevent the gushing blood from his head. The man could not have lead by example any more than he did this game.

Andrea Barzagli - 6: Barzagli played well for both halves, and kept the inside cluttered to avoid any wide-open space like Messi had. He didn’t have a lot of work to do in the second half, but he did show some heroics in recovery when Olympiacos had counter attacks. Solid performance.

Alex Sandro - 6.5: Sandro played aggressively and looked more like his old self. He used his speed to his advantage, and pushed the ball forward to Mandzukic for the game-icing goal. Not only did Sandro play a clean defensive game, he was creative when Juve needed him to be.

Stefano Sturaro - 5: Sturaro didn’t play poorly, but he didn’t light it up, either. His decencies were masked by the other three defenders, and he was outmatched when pushing the ball. We would’ve liked to see more, but there weren’t too many opportunities.

Blaise Matuidi - 5.5: Matuidi pushed the ball on offense, and ran all over the field on defense, but he didn’t impact the game. We know he’s more of a defensive midfielder, but he has not looked like a top midfielder in the Champions League. Pushing the ball is fine, but eventually he needs to make a play.

Rodrigo Bentancur - 8.5: Bentancur was thrown into the starting lineup right before the game with Pjanic’s injury, and he did not disappoint. Bentancur completed 93 percent of his passes, as he controlled the midfield with creative, crisp passes. He combined great technique and balance with a calm demeanor, even when the pressure intensified.

Douglas Costa - 7: Douglas Costa was often the center of attack for much of the game. He was swift and sleek with his creativity in space, breaking ankles down the left side of the field. If it weren't for him, the pace of the game would’ve been slower.

Juan Cuadrado - 6: Cuadrado pushed the ball up the right side and sent some excellent crosses in. He had a couple of chances to get creative in space, but couldn’t quite get proper touch on the ball to attack forward. Not a bad performance by any means.

Mario Mandzukic -7.5: Mandzukic looked like his normal aggressive, physical self throughout the game. He positioned himself beautifully in many attacks, and finally had a bounce go his way late in the game for Juve’s second goal. Right place, right time.

Paulo Dybala - 6: Dybala had many of his shots blocked early on, but he persevered in the second half, avoiding a disappearing act. He had a couple of close shots, but it was his effort and creativity that gave Juve space to work with. It wasn't his best game, but he put forth an honorable effort.

Subs

Gonzalo Higuain - 8: It’s not the level of difficulty in Higuain’s goal that warrants this score, it’s his heart, effort and level of play. He came on as a sub and scored the goal that lead to Juve’s break through. He looked fit and energetic in providing a spark off the bench when Juve needed it most. The game looked ugly, but his goal allowed everyone to breathe.

Medhi Benatia - NR

Federico Bernardeschi - NR

Manager

Massimiliano Allegri - 7.5: Allegri rolled out an effective starting lineup who responded strongly from last game’s loss to Barcelona. He pulled the right strings in bringing Higuain off the bench late in the game, and looked like a genius by inserting Bentancur into the lineup. His call to push the ball and increase pressure was rewarded late and he didn’t make any irrational moves when things looked bleak. However, why is Daniele Rugani missing in action? Why does Allegri inexplicably keep Rugani handcuffed to the bench in the Champions League? It’s baffling.