When Juventus signed Cristiano Ronaldo this past summer, a lot of folks — including myself — wondered just how it would impact Mario Mandzukic’s role at the club. Would he be a backup? Would Max Allegri still shoehorn the big Croatian in on the left wing as a makeshift winger? Would he even still be at the club come September?
Here we are, with Juventus having just played its final game in November, and not only is Mandzukic still around but also proving to be quite the compliment to Juve’s Ronaldo-centered attacking trio.
The Ronaldo-Mandzukic tandem were up to their regular tricks once again. Ronaldo, the best goal scorer the Champions League has ever seen, once again turned into the provider, taking a nifty pass from Joao Cancelo and putting a ball on a silver platter for Mandzukic to finish easily midway through the second half to give Juventus a 1-0 win over Valencia at Allianz Stadium Tuesday night.
With the win, Juventus did what they weren’t able to do the last time the Champions League came to Turin in November — get the necessary three points and advance to the Round of 16. (The small and kinda unfortunate part of the equation? Just as Juventus’ game went final, Manchester United was scoring in stoppage time against Young Boys, meaning that Juve clinching the top spot in Group H will have to wait until the final day of the group stage.)
And they can thank Ronaldo, Mandzukic and that absolutely vital Wojciech Szczesny save right before halftime for the three points coming their way.
We’ve seen the Ronaldo-Mandzukic dynamic developing over the last two months, and in recent games it really does seem to be hitting another level with how they’re playing off one another. Obviously you have Paulo Dybala added to the mix as well, but the ability for Ronaldo and Mandzukic to interchange between the top of Juve’s three-man attack and out on the left wing is becoming about as fluid as we’ve seen so far this season.
The payoff came in the 59th minute, as Juve finally got the breakthrough they so desperately needed knowing that the final third hadn’t exactly been clicking to its full ability through the first hour of the match.
Sure, Juve’s overall product in front of goal wasn’t great. The defense was sound, the midfield was playing well, but the chances they did have prior to Mandzukic’s latest game-winning goal on the European stage weren’t getting cashed in on.
Luckily for us, Mario Mandzukic might as well be known as Mr. Clutch in the Champions League. And, obviously, getting goals consistently set up by Cristiano Ronaldo doesn’t hurt, either.
Because of it, there’s no frustration and blood pressure boiling into overdrive like what happened against Manchester United 2 1⁄2 weeks ago. Instead, Juve’s workman-like effort against Valencia means we’re now officially going to be watching Champions League football in the new year.
RANDOM THOUGHTS AND OBSERVATIONS
- Of course Neto was awesome against Juventus. We should know how this works by now.
- I spent a lot of the top half of this article talking about offense, but here’s a defense appreciation statement: Giorgio Chiellini was absolutely fantastic.
- Wojciech Szczesny made one save against Valencia and OH MY GOD IT WAS SO GOOD.
Juventus and Valencia are still scoreless at halftime thanks to this remarkable save from Szczesny right before the whistle— Bleacher Report Live (@brlive) November 27, 2018
Watch the 2nd half on #BRLive: https://t.co/PeHr2hUe7d pic.twitter.com/PZlKKPRphf
- I mean, seriously, when you factor in the context — it was about 10 seconds before the halftime whistle sounded and Valencia could have delivered an absolute gut punch with a goal — that has to be one of the most important saves Szczesny will make as Juve’s goalkeeper. It was just absolutely fantastic.
- Joao Cancelo, again, is so much fun to watch. He was, again, so good. And this time, his impressive performance comes where he spent just as many minutes as a left back as he did at right back.
- Juan Cuadrado, to his credit, played pretty well after coming on at halftime for Alex Sandro. I know I am quite critical of Juve’s afro’d Colombian winger, but on this night he was quite good.
- Sidenote: Please don’t be hurt, Alex Sandro.
- Paulo Dybala didn’t score a goal Tuesday night, but some of the passes he dished out were just beautiful. That’s what you like to see from your No. 10 even when he isn’t getting goals.
- Outside of the save Szczesny made right before halftime, was there ever an extended period of time where you were really worried that Juventus were going to cough up the lead like they did against United? This wasn’t Juventus walking the tightrope, really. It was just a good team win where Max Allegri’s squad did what they needed to do.
- And that’s not a translation for “bad football,” either. Juve weren’t outstanding, but they weren’t about to tip into a worrisome segment of my brain with how they were playing.
- I leave you all with this: Who finished as the guy who recorded the most tackles amongst Juventus players? That would be the same guy who scored the game-winning goal. Mario Mandzukic is an absolute treasure and I am so happy he is a Juventus pleasure.