Juventus headed into Wednesday’s Champions League game against Olympiacos in what was essentially a must-win situation. After enduring a 3-0 loss in Barcelona two weeks ago, anything less than three points would put Juve in a very tricky situation going into the back-to-back fixtures against Sporting — who beat the Greek champions 3-2 in the group stage opener — in October.
Because nothing can ever be simple for Juventus in the Champions League, the Bianconeri indulged in their tendency to play down to inferior competition in Europe.
That was doubly frustrating considering the fact that Olympiacos were a team in turmoil. They’ve only won two of their first five in the Greek Super League, and over the weekend blew a 2-0 lead over early leaders AEK Athens to lose 3-2. That loss cost coach Besnik Hasi, who was only hired in June, his job.
While it’s always a good thing to be able to grind out a win, Juve needs to have an extra gear in games like this when teams park the bus. It is true that goalkeeper Silvio Proto made some outstanding saves that robbed Stefano Sturaro, Paulo Dybala, and Mario Mandzukic of goals, but for this game to be in the balance until 10 minutes from time isn’t something that should be happening on a regular basis if this team is to get where it wants to go.
Here are five major talking points to come away from Wednesday’s game.
Rodrigo Bentancour is going to be fire.
Massimiliano Allegri was thrown a major curveball when Miralem Pjanic pulled up injured during pre-match warmups. Sami Khedira and Claudio Marchisio are both on the cusp of returning from their respective injuries, but neither is in position to start a game, so Rodrigo Bentancur was pressed into action.
The 20-year-old Uruguayan has impressed in game action so far this year, even holding his own at the Camp Nou two weeks ago. But this game was really a coming-out party.
Let’s take a quick look at his stats: 86 passes attempted, 93 percent pass completion, three out of four long balls completed, three tackles, five interceptions, and three clearances.
It was more than just the numbers. He looked assured all day long and had a knack for being in the right place at the right time. He made a number of good interventions while tracking back to the defensive third. Even his misplaced passes ended up in positions where teammates could rectify things.
He was one of the best players on the field on Wednesday, and what’s even more incredible is that this is him as a 20-year-old with about three months of experience with a European club under his belt. This kid hasn’t even scratched the surface of his potential, and when he does, he’s going to be straight fire.
There was no major Bosman transfer in this year’s window, but this might end up being the equivalent. Bentancur looks like he’s going to be an important piece of this club for years to come, and could end up in the rarified air of the elite. I guess we can think of him as Carlitos Tevez’s last great gift to Juventus.
Is Gonzalo back?
Gonzalo Higuain was out of the starting XI for the second consecutive game on Wednesday. After a terrible run of form in the month of September, Allegri gave the Argentinian a mental health break over the weekend against Tornio. That continued on Wednesday, but with Juve’s attack misfiring, Pipita was brought in on the hour mark.
He looked a bit hesitant at first, but provided the breakthrough when Alex Sandro found him with a cross in the 69th minute. He fired his first shot off a defender, but the ball rebounded right back to him. It was a fortuitous bounce, because Proto had committed himself to the first shot and was now lying on the ground, his goal gaping for Higuain to break his goal drought and open the scoring.
You could tell how much it meant to the striker. He celebrated hard, and his teammates mobbed him. It also had an impact on the field. After the goal he looked much more decisive. He made up his mind quicker, stopped unnecessarily dribbling, and made the key pass that led to Mandzukic’s goal 11 minutes later.
Now we have to see whether or not this sticks. It’s unlikely that he’ll start on the bench again now that he’s scored, but Atalanta is a tricky opponent, and Juve loanee Mattia Caldera kept him firmly in his back pocket when the Bianconeri traveled to Bergamo in May. If he keeps things on an upward trend going into the international break, Juve’s attack will turn very dangerous indeed.
Alex Sandro is back.
After the Barcelona game I lamented Alex Sandro’s slow start to the season. He has since sped up.
Sandro has morphed back into the danger man up the left side that everyone knows and loves. He was a huge danger over the weekend against Tornio, and on Wednesday he pushed hard up the wing, allowing Douglas Costa to slide a bit closer to the center. He completed all 10 of his long balls and three of seven crosses. He made three key passes — including the ball that led to the opening goal — and tacked on three clearances and a block on the rare occasion that Olympiacos got forward.
He was even better once Mandzukic moved back to the left side after the introduction of Higuain. The two have excellent chemistry on the left-hand side, and one of the encouraging things about this game was that he looked to be developing that chemistry with Costa as well. Mandzukic and Costa are about as different as partners on the left can possibly be, and combining with each of them will require a different nuance. It’s going to take time for him to develop that with the Brazilian, but there were some encouraging signs that they were learning to play together.
Alex Sandro in top form is a dangerous weapon, and by the looks of the last two games he has regained that form. It’s going to make the supply to the rest of the team’s attackers that much more potent going forward.
Mario Mandzukic can do everything.
Mario Mandzukic has become a fan favorite over the last two-plus seasons and there’s no question as to why. He runs 100 miles per hour all the time. He tracks back to defend, is always in the thick of things when a set piece needs defending, and is a constant danger in the opponent’s penalty area.
His lack of pace and pizzazz have led to calls for him to be removed from the left wing role since he assumed it in January, but his method out wide, while unorthodox as heck, has had a profound impact on the team’s attack, and over the last two games his performance as the center-forward has been just as dangerous. He turns himself into a pivot, receiving passes from the midfield and relaying them to the wingers — or Paulo Dybala — before getting into the box as the target man.
He was even more impressive on Wednesday night by excelling in both roles in the same game. He was denied a goal in the first half on a great save by Proto, then in the second created the first goal with a sublime flick to release Sandro into acres of space. He was Johnny on the spot on the second goal, in the right place at the right time when Bjorn Engels cleared Dybala’s chip off the line. Doing his best Springsteen power slide, he bundled the rebound over the line.
His final stat line was impressive: four shots of six found the target. He’s an indispensable player right now. Regardless of whether or not Higuain is in form, the Croatian absolutely has to be on the field in some way, shape or form.
Yeah, leaving Stephan Lichtsteiner off the group stage list again was a miscalculation.
Allegri was left with an awkward decision going into Wednesday. With both Mattia De Sciglio and Benedikt Howedes recovering from injuries, there was no traditional right back available for him to pick. His options were this: 1) have Andrea Barzagli play on the right, and 2) have Stefano Sturaro play there.
The Barzagli option has shown itself to be less viable than in years past this season. Sturaro would be playing wildly out of position, but it would fit into the Swiss Army knife pattern that Allegri uses him in.
The decision ended up being Sturaro, and no, the world did not end because he played. In fact, he wasn’t all that bad. He’s certainly still learning the position, and made a mistake or two accordingly, but he put a few nice balls into the box and was surprisingly good as a target on corner kicks. The powerful header that was parried by Proto in the 35th minute was probably Juve’s best chance to score in the first half. He tied Bentancur for the team lead in tackles with three, and completed 83.6 percent of his passes.
That being said, Stu shouldn’t be playing on the flank when Barcelona visits in November. He’s a decent option for what Juve will be facing right now, but the sooner De Sciglio and Howedes get back the better.