Before Juve’s No. 9 entered the pitch Wednesday night, play was static.
Olympiacos elected to play what had seemed to be, up to that point, a sensible strategy — defend with 10, and occasionally break on the counter attack or else attempt to capitalize on a Juventus mistake. And let’s not kid ourselves, there were a few. Alex Sandro, who for the most part was and is back to his golden god Alex Sandro self, left a wimpy pass in the midfield which led to a — sort of — chance for the Greek side. At a later point, the visitors attacked in a two-on-one situation, and dribbler simply made the wrong choice.
The first half, basically, was far from convincing.
And I’ll be honest — I thought Gonzalo Higuain made his appearance a bit too late, subbing in at the 59th minute. I wondered if it should’ve been 10 minutes earlier. Or if Max Allegri should’ve brought a Federico Bernardeschi-Higuain tandem on the field at the same time.
But the move, I suppose, paid off, because — fat jokes aside (mostly) — the Argentine off the bench looked like the hungriest player in the world, and his hunger paid off after 10 minutes of action. The build-up, of course, was brilliant, with Mario Mandzukic and Sandro using their well-developed chemistry to spring the Brazilian up the field; he sent a cross into the middle of the penalty area, with which Higuain connected once with the left foot to no avail — blocked by a defender.
The ball went nowhere.
Higuain switched feet.
And the right sent it through the back of the net.
A tantalizing collection of titillating tidbits.
- Stefano Sturaro at right back — not bad, not amazing. He almost scored the first goal with a pretty decent header to the bottom-right, but that was during the time when Silvio Proto was making some cautiously stellar saves.
- The center backs were on-point. Yeah, it sucks not to have Daniele Rugani play, but Andrea Barzagli looks exponentially better in the middle than on the flank, so I’m okay with the Sturaro-Barzagli partnership for now. (Never thought I’d be typing that...)
- I thought Douglas Costa played well, if not totally exceptional. The Brazilian is yet to net his first goal for the black and white, but he won like a gazillion corners, a couple of which threatened Olympiacos. He’ll get there.
- Sporting only lost 1-0 to Barcelona, so that’s something of which to be aware.
- Juve play Atalanta this weekend and then get an international break. The second half of the month certainly doesn’t get any easier, with six games total: two against Sporting, one apiece against Lazio and the Euro League team from Milan, and a couple of not-so-great Serie A opponents.
Onto the awards.
Italian Teenager Gaggle Award
For the unit embodying the following descriptors: incoherent, waste of space, frustrating.
Okay, okay, this is ridiculously harsh, but I think there’s a tiny bit of truth to it: the midfield wasn’t great. Especially in the first half.
The amount of mitigating circumstances — or contrary evidence, or whatever terms you want to level at me — is pretty high. Miralem Pjanic tweaked something before the game, so the change was sudden. Juventus in fact one the match, and even though it wasn’t the strongest opponent — rather, the weakest opponent in the group — there are no free lunches in the Champions League.
But it’s starting to look if the Bianconeri want to be one of Europe’s best clubs, they’ve got to have at least one of Miralem Pjanic or Claudio Marchisio on the field. (Or Leonardo Bonucci, I guess, but he plays for a Europa League side, I think.)
Rodrigo Bentancur is smooth as chocolate milk, but he’s got to get some confidence with his distribution. It seemed like a large number of his passes were backward, which required old King Kong to venture yonder probably more often than he’d like.
Blaise Matuidi knows his game, as I’ve said before, and being Pjanic is not it.
Credit where credit is due, of course, because the youngster from Uruguay was dynamite on defense — three tackles, five interceptions, and three clearances.
Egyptian Museum Award
For the best game by a player older than 30.
Mr. No Good looked like Mr. So-So in the first half. His attempts to hold up play and distribute the ball to La Joya were predictable by any measure, and pedestrian in their efficacy. He showered the net with shot attempts, but none was particularly threatening — and a couple were rather tepid.
Then — I’m sure you’re getting the motif here — Pipita entered.
The Croatian returned to his now-customary left wing, more or less immediately hooked up with Alex Sandro, and — was it just me who thought this? — seemed to settle happily into the free-roaming left wing/left back/left wingback position he’s occupied since last spring. I was shocked at Mandzukic’s running in the waning moments of the game. Despite his age, the workhorse puts work in like, um, a really good and productive horse.
His play at the more traditional striker role was quite good against Torino, but there were some disclaimers to that game, most notably the first-half red card. Against Olympiacos, Mandzukic looked happiest on the flank.
Giuseppe Garibaldi Award
For the man of the match.
Pipita scored the fist goal, and almost assisted the second; he basically got the hockey assist (they should track this in soccer!). I, for one, wanted Paulo Dybala to get the goal, so we can see just how many he’ll deposit into his account this year, but his touch was a little too weak, and one kind of wished in that moment he had a better right foot, as the angle was difficult for a left-footed player.
Anyway, the pass that Pipita sent his countryman was wonderfully weighted, wonderfully timed, wonderfully threaded.
Dybala clipped the ball and would’ve scored were it not for a last-gasp dive from a defender, but Mandzukic was there to — uh — sort of push the ball into the net. It worked!
Besides the goal, the most encouraging thing to me from Higuain was the body language. When he scored, he unleashed the latent frustration of the last couple weeks. When the second goal was scored, he and Dybala had a cuddly moment, the kind that only means good things for Juve fans — and bad things for everyone else.