Tuesday’s game between Juventus and Manchester United at Old Trafford was one of the most anticipated and talked-about matchups to come out of the group stage draw.
There were so many storylines to look at. Just a sampling:
- Cristiano Ronaldo’s second game back at the place he made his name before leaving for Real Madrid in a then-record deal, and his first in a Juventus shirt.
- Paul Pogba’s first game against Juventus since leaving Turin to return to United in a then-record deal.
- The matching of wits between under-fire United manager Jose Mourinho and Massimiliano Allegri.
- The matchup between United’s big aerial threat, Romelu Lukaku, and the duo of Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci — the latter of whom has had ... problems marking people in the box early in the season.
All the hype finally came to a head — perhaps a little later than some people would have liked — on Tuesday night, and Juventus responded to the occasion with one of their best games of the season. The last 15 to 20 minutes were a little grating on the nerves and the game certainly could have been put away far earlier, but the 1-0 scoreline doesn’t come close to revealing how badly Juve dominated United in their own building as they pulled off their second-ever win at Old Trafford.
Both managers were confronted with some pretty serious injury problems coming into the prestige showdown. Long-term absentee Leonardo Spinazzola is back in training but not yet ready to play, but Allegri was faced with some much bigger issues. Mario Mandzukic twisted an ankle in training on Monday, ruling him out for a game that seemed tailor-made for him. Even more important, with Sami Khedira (thigh) and Emere Can (thyroid) both missing, Allegri only had three healthy midfielders, and it looked for a while like he would have to get creative with his lineup.
As it happened, Allegri opted for a lineup that looked like a conventional 4-3-3 on paper, but as we’ll see acted a little differently. Wojciech Szczesny took up his usual position in goal, and he was screened by what by now can be recognized as Juve’s first-choice back line: Joao Cancelo, Bonucci, Chiellini, and Alex Sandro. All three center mids — Blaise Matuidi, Miralem Pjanic, and Rodrigo Bentancur — took the field, and up front Cristiano Ronaldo and Paulo Dybala were joined by Juan Cuadrado.
United’s injury woes were even worse. At the moment, it may be more accurate to refer to the Theatre of Dreams as a M*A*S*H* unit. Marouane Fellaini, Alexis Sanchez, Jesse Lingard, Phil Jones, Antonio Valencia, Marcos Rojo, Diogo Dalot, and Scott McTominay were all unavailable. Taking the players he had available, Mourinho cobbled together a 4-2-3-1 in front of his elite goalkeeper David De Gea. Ashley Young and Luke Shaw bookended Chris Smalling and Victor Lindelof in defense. Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic formed a double pivot behind a line of Marcus Rashford, Juan Mata, and Anthony Martial, who supported Lukaku up top.
Old Trafford had played host to a Rugby League event recently, so the rugby lines were still visible and the pitch looked a tad less pristine than usual as the players walked in. For the first four-and-a-half minutes or so, United had the ball in Juve’s half. The majority of that time was spent idle as a pitch invader was cleared away so that Juan Mata could take a free kick.
Once that set piece was cleared, the football lesson began.
For the rest of the half, Juventus completely and utterly dominated. They pressed high, completely overwhelmed the midfield, and brought wave after wave of pressure crashing down on United’s goal. The defenders seemed spellbound, unable to press or close a man down. Bonucci sprayed long balls into space, and Cuadrado, Cancelo, and Sandro were fed into swaths of grass on the wings. The only problem came from the very last ball, which often was a little wayward. In the 10th minute Cancelo saw himself in an excellent crossing position only to balloon it over everyone. Three minutes later Cuadrado put an enticing cross into the box — but it was weighed for someone a little bigger and with more aerial prowess than Dybala, who craned upwards but couldn’t get much purchase on his header, which bounced wide.
Given Juve’s dominance it was a little odd that the first shot on target of the game was generated by United, when Mata swung a free kick into the box in the 16th minute. Pogba had to reach back to get his head to it, and it loped easily into Szczesny’s arms. But a minute later, the pressure paid.
The move started with Pjanic, who was imperious in the first half and here scooped a ball to Cancelo on the right. The full-back fed his countryman Ronaldo, who had temporarily swapped wings with Cuadrado, down the wing, and the superstar delivered a cross to meet the Colombian’s diagonal run. Cuadrado slid for it but was beaten to it by Smalling, who skewed the ball backward right into the path of Dybala, who had the simple task of stroking the ball past the stranded De Gea for his fourth goal of the Champions League season and his fifth in his last four European games.
The waves continued to roll toward the United goal. Dybala was finding all kinds of space, to the point where United resorted to violence as a solution, repeatedly manhandling him in possession and out. Unfortunately, the imprecision in the final passes also continued. They were either slightly too late, or ever so slightly misplaced as to carry the recipient out of the very best position. One exception came in the 22nd minute, when Ronaldo released Cancelo on a one-two and the full-back fired a hard shot across goal that De Gea was able to get to.
By the 25th minute, Juventus had run up 70 percent possession. Just before the half hour mark, every Juventus outfield player had more touches than everyone on Man U combined.
One of the big keys to all of this was the way the front three played. The three forwards didn’t stay in one place for very long. Ronaldo spent long stretches on the right, while Cuadrado hovered less on the left wing than the left channel. Dybala could be found everywhere, although he seemed to prefer staying a little bit to the right. This switching kept the United defense off-balance, without a reference point key in on. With the defense at sixes and sevens, huge spaces were opened up that could be exploited by runners and passes alike.
The chances kept coming. Bentancur got his head to a corner in the 30th minute but powered it just over. Cuadrado held the ball just a little too long on a good counter and ended up leading Dybala down a blind alley, and Cancelo abruptly ended a move when he put an attempt at switching field well over Sandro’s head.
De Gea was called into action again in the 38th minute when Ronaldo struck a long free kick toward goal. The shot was right at the Spain international but had a ton of pace, forcing him to parry it right into the path of Matuidi, who stole one of Pogba’s moves by bouncing his shot toward the corner. De Gea recovered to throw a fist at it and get it away from his goal, and Matuidi put a final header over after the ball was put back into the mix by Cuadrado.
As the half came to an end Bentancur had a shot blocked and one of Dybala’s trademark right-channel curlers missed the far post by a hair. When referee Milorad Mazic blew his whistle, the home team were lucky to still be in the game, and had 15 minutes to spend contemplating the lesson in soccer they had just received.
They came back out to the sight of Sandro bombing forward and firing in a cross that Matic was forced to scramble to chest back to his goalkeeper. They did manage their first real threatening move four minutes after the restart when Mata lobbed a ball over the defense to Martial, who had gotten a step on Cancelo. The ball bounced a bit high for the Frenchman and then his first touch rolled it a little long, allowing Bonucci to track back and make a well-timed sliding challenge in the penalty area to hook the ball away.
Juve continued forward. In the 50th minute Chiellini bamboozled a defender with a quick turn and drove forward to feed Matuidi, who used his own nifty little move to pick his way past Young, ultimately earning a corner. Two minutes after that Pjanic put a fantastic ball over the top to Cuadrado, whose inch-perfect layoff was met perfectly by Ronaldo. The thunderbolt of a shot was destined for the top corner, but De Gea made another great save one-handed and the score stayed 1-0.
At this point United began to turn the screws a little bit. They pressed higher, and with the game still in the balance the Old Trafford crowd, which for large stretches had been completely drowned out by Juve fans in the visitors’ section, started getting into the game a bit. That atmosphere clearly had an effect on Mazic, who by the middle of the half looked positively terrified by the prospect of making any call against Man U. Young likely committed three bookable offenses in the second half, but only saw a card for one of them deep into the half.
Whether it was fatigue, nerves, or some combination of the two, Juve’s game started getting a little bit frayed. Simple passes started being misplaced. Cancelo was the major culprit, giving the ball away multiple times on what should have been the easiest of passes. Pjanic, so imperious in the first half, committed a couple of his patented defensive-third giveaways, but the back four was able to rally around every mistake and limit the damage. The biggest mistake came from Bentancur in the 75th minute, when Pogba picked his pocket from behind and nearly put a cherry on his storyline with a snapshot that beat Szczesny and bounced off two things—the post, and the back of the keeper’s head. Fortunately for Juve the ricochet went out for a corner instead of back into the net, and the lead stayed.
That was the last real chance for either team. Lukaku burst through in the only to get his shot blocked by Bonucci in the 84th minute. The defender almost put the game away at the other end when he got onto a recycled ball following a corner, but he put it a little bit over. In the last minute of regulation Martial surged forward but his shot on the run was tame and right at Szczesny. Three minutes of stoppage time saw Juve counter a few times, but never look to score as much as to bleed time in the opponent’s half. When Mazic blew his the final time, Juve had taken their second win ever at Old Trafford—and put themselves in the firmly in the driver’s seat of Group H.
WOJCEICH SZCZESNY - 7. Had very little to do. Each of his saves was routine. He continues to cement his place game in and game out.
JOAO CANCELO - 6. Got himself into some great positions today, but his passing, especially late in the second half, was inexcusable at times.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 7. He picked a good night to have his best game since his return. He had one or two rough spots passing late, but overall was strong in defense, and his tackle on Martial saved what would have been a paradigm shift of a goal. Passing was also excellent.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 8. Is there a big game he won’t influence in a big way? His stats were big—three tackles, seven clearances (both team-highs) and an interception—and he was a rock of calm throughout the entire game. For the second consecutive game (Italy/Belgium at Euro 2016 was the first) he kept Lukaku firmly in his back pocket.
ALEX SANDRO - 7. Really solid defensively, and made some dangerous runs forward, although the attack tended to build up the right.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 6. Suffered from the general malaise of the team in the end, but he was excellent in the first half (50 for 52 in pass completion) and made some good plays in defense.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 7. This would have been a lot higher had he not nosedived in the last 15 minutes with some truly terrifying giveaways, but in the first half he was wondrous. For the first time, he truly reminded one of Andrea Pirlo.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 6. His usual motor and tenacity in the tackle. Unlucky not to have a goal after De Gea’s excellent double save.
JUAN CUADRADO - 5.5. Really clumsy today despite his four key passes. If he’d been a little sharper, Juve may have been able to put the game away far earlier, but his passing was always a little off, and he had his pocket picked a few times, too. After the September Federico Bernardeschi had it’s hard to justify Cuadrado starting two games in a row, especially one so imoportant.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 7. Would have had a goal in the second half were it not for De Gea. Provided the ball for Dybala’s strike.
PAULO DYBALA - 8. He was all over the place today. The goal was an excellent poacher’s effort, and he was in dangerous positions all night long. Needs to cut inside a little bit more, but Juve will be happy with what he’s done tonight.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - NR. Actually a pretty bad performance. His passes were wayward, either completely inaccurate or off by just that much.
ANDREA BARZAGL - NR. On to see out the last 10 minute or so and see the game out.
DOUGLAS COSTA - NR. Used his speed to carry the ball deep into the Man U half to bleed seconds off the clock.
Allegri’s fluid front three is going to be an interesting thing to watch going forward. United had no reference point to the constant shifting, and couldn’t lock into any one guy on whom to build their plans around. Yes, the later stages of the game were crying out for a guy like Mandzukic, but if Allegri decides he wants to do this with the front line on a regular basis, even after Mandzukic returns, it could turn into a very deadly weapon indeed.
One mention has to be made about the decision to start Cuadrado. The Colombian can, of course, be great on his day, but he hasn’t had a whole ton of days this season, and Bernardeschi has easily earned time above him in big games this year. Allegri could still be treating him with kid gloves after a strenuous international break, and Douglas Costa still needs to get minutes into his legs after his long suspension, but Cuadrado needs to be relegated to a supersub role at this point — a role that he could excel at against tired defenders.
A final note: until the two Germans are back, Allegri is going to have to come up with creative ways to rest his three healthy midfielders, otherwise they may not be healthy for long.
In terms of the Champions League, Juve’s next match will be the return against Manchester United in two weeks. After today’s win and the 1-1 draw between Valencia and Young Boys, Juve could clinch first place in the group with two games to spare if they beat United at the J Stadium. That would mean an invaluable opportunity to give some younger players extended Champions League minutes at the end of the group stage.
In the macro sense, the next game on the docket is a trip to Empoli on Saturday, where Juve will look to get back on track after the blown game against Genoa and maintain its lead over Napoli.