When Juventus last played in the Champions League, they did knowing that a point would get them into the knockout rounds. Thanks to their five-minute brain fart against Manchester United, they couldn’t achieve that, and so came into their last home game of the group stage against Valencia looking at the same scenario. Of course, now Juve wouldn’t have the opportunity to win the group — an opportunity they blew last round — unless they got some help from Young Boys, who were playing United at Old Trafford.
By the time the final whistle blew Tuesday night, Juventus had done more than what was necessary to get through to the knockout phase — barely. Juventus pulled out a 1-0 victory over Valencia, although they made it a lot harder than they maybe needed to. Young Boys, on the other hand, came tantalizingly close to getting a result in Manchester, only to fall 1-0 to a stoppage time goal that should have been called back for a blatant hand ball. Despite the minor disappointment, the Bianconeri are well on track to winning the group when they head to Switzerland in two weeks.
Juve had handily defeated Valencia at the Mestalla in September, a feat all the more remarkable considering the fact that they had spent more than an hour in that cauldron of a stadium down to 10 men after Cristiano Ronaldo was bafflingly sent off for ruffling the hair of Jeison Murillo. This time around, Murillo was sitting on the bench, while Ronaldo took his place in Massimiliano Allegri’s starting lineup and eventually did what Ronaldo do, providing the assist for the game’s only goal.
Allegri aligned his team with an eye on keeping the growing rapport between Ronaldo and Mario Mandzukic going. The two started up top with Paulo Dybala playing just behind them. The three formed the spearhead of a 4-3-1-2. Rodrigo Bentancur, Miralem Pjanic, and Blaise Matuidi manned the engine room in midfield, while Joao Cancelo, Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini, and Alex Sandro screened Wojciech Szczesny in goal.
Valencia manager Marcelino countered with a 4-4-2. Norberto Neto came back to the J Stadium for the first time since leaving for Spain after growing dissatisfied of being Gianluigi Buffon’s backup. (What was he expecting?) He was protected by Daniel Wass, Gabriel, Mouctar Diakhaby, and Jose Gaya. Francis Coquelin and Goncalo Guedes bookended central midfielders Daniel Parejo and Geoffrey Kondogbia, who missed the first game between the two teams due to injury. Rodrigo Moreno and Santi Mina formed the strike pairing.
Juventus began pounding on the door almost immediately. With less than a minute on the clock, Mandzukic hooked a long ball back into the path of Ronaldo, who fired wide of the near post. Moments later, Ronaldo was again set up by Sandro, only to see his dipping shot fly right at Neto, although it was powerful enough that the Brazilian had to knock it into the ground before he could control it.
Valencia are one of the few Spanish teams that can really be said to excel defensively, and they stayed well organized throughout the first half. More than once a fantastic pass into the box that would almost certainly have resulted in a goal was rebuffed by a well-placed defender — the kind of play you can only tip your hat to.
In the first game in September, referee Felix Brych somewhat equalized his strange decision to send Ronaldo off by correctly awarding a pair of penalty kicks during the match. The man in the middle for the return, Willie Collum of Scotland, seemed to not be aware of what actually constitutes a penalty in the laws of the game. In the span of six minutes, he missed three calls that probably should have ended up as Juve spot kicks. The first and most egregious came in the 26th minute, when Pjanic burst down the right side of the box and was obviously impeded by Kondogbia. It was about as obvious a penalty call as can be seen, but Collum waved play on. Three minutes later Chiellini had his legs taken out from under him in midair as he went to attack a corner kick. He was lucky he didn’t come down badly on his knee, but again Collum ruled there as no infraction. The third came on 32 minutes when Coquelin planted a forearm into Bonucci’s back as he went after a free kick, sparking a minor confrontation that made it look like the Scot was about to lose control of the game in a major way.
Juve controlled the first half, but beyond Ronaldo’s early salvos didn’t trouble Neto all that much. Cancelo nearly pulled something out of nowhere three minutes before the half when he was run down a blind alley in the box and tried to shape a ball into the far corner with the outside of his right foot. The ball whizzed by the post, and Ronaldo reproached his countryman for not passing him the ball, although there really didn’t look like such a pass was in the cards.
After having very little to do over the first 45 minutes, Szczesny closed the first half on a crazy note when Diakhaby escaped Bonucci in the box and met a last-second corner kick with a powerful header. The Pole threw up his arm in the general direction of where the ball was going and managed to get it in the way of the shot and deflect it over.
Both teams made a change at the half. Marcelino introduced Kevin Gameiro in place of Moreno, while Alex Sandro felt a twinge in the first half and was withdrawn as a precaution. With Mattia De Sciglio out of the matchday squad, Allegri had to improvise, sending out Juan Cuadrado to play right-back and switching Cancelo to the left.
Ronaldo managed to actually get a free kick past the wall within the first two minutes, but the long-range effort bounced right to Neto, who controlled it easily. It looked like the half was trending into a complete slog before Juve finally drew first blood.
It came from the feet of Ronaldo, who bought himself the perfect amount of space with a neat shimmy before putting a perfect ball along the ground. Mandzukic had ghosted behind Gaya and burst into the gap between the full-back and Diakhaby, where he easily tapped the ball into the net for the breakthrough on 59 minutes.
The importance of an insurance goal was magnified two minutes after the opener when Diakhaby put the ball past Szczesny into the net, only for the score to be immediately chalked off after the young Frenchman committed a pretty obvious handball that got him booked. Juve took the hint and Mandzukic nearly got his second when he fired from an angle failed clearance on a free kick, but Neto smothered it. Dybala also had a chance to double the lead when he got a chance to pull out one of his trademark curlers from the right channel. It gave Neto more of a challenge than many of the other shots he faced, but he still managed to palm it over. Ronaldo may have had the best chance of all from a corner with 17 minutes still to play, but the keeper was again there and caught his header in midair.
The last 10 minutes or so probably felt a lot more stressful than they actually were simply because of the score. Valencia began to get a lot more possession and looked to be actively targeting Cuadrado on the defensive right. The Colombian was certainly the weak link in the back four, and in the 80th minute he was juked out of his cleats before Chiellini came in to clean up after him. But despite the suspense, Valencia only managed two shots, one well wide and the other was blocked. Szczesny was never challenged, and when Collum finally blew his whistle, the job was done — perhaps with a little bit more stress than was necessary, but done nonetheless.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 8. He gets the grade for that save alone. He didn’t even really need to go after any crosses in this one, but that save was not only fantastic in its own right, but also came at a really important juncture. The game is entirely changed if Valencia goes into the half ahead.
JOAO CANCELO - 7.5. Had a really good game on both flanks. Good defending, sound passing. Made the entry pass that Ronaldo eventually turned into his assist. Growing by the game.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 6. Made a pair of key passes but continues to lose his mark on aerial balls. He was the reason Szczesny needed to make that crazy save in the first place. It takes the shine of his passing.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 7.5. Again huge in defense. Made seven clearances and blocked an important shot late on.
ALEX SANDRO - 6. Was good down the left in the opening half, although he could have done better on one passage of play in particular when he wasted a great ball from Dybala with a bad cross. Hopefully his injury isn’t that bad.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 7.5. All over the place in midfield. Three tackles, three interceptions, three clearances, a blocked shot, a key pass, and 86.8 percent passing overall. Watching him come into his own is going to be so fun.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 6. Completed just over 90 percent of his passes, but didn’t create a whole ton of danger with them and made a couple of really weird giveaways. Not a bad game, but definitely not his best.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 6. Made four tackles and was constantly around the ball in the attacking third, although his touch lets him down a fair amount of the time.
PAULO DYBALA - 6.5. The stats give a better story than the eye test. He led the team with three key passes and tested Neto with that nice curler. What drives this grade down is the number of times he lost possession—he’s got to stop dribbling into walls of humanity.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 7.5. A few feet on either side and he probably would’ve had three goals. His pass for the assist was fantastic, and he was able to cut inside well to send the defense scrambling.
MARIO MANDZUKIC - 9. The goal was only one part of the game for him. He led the team in tackles. Let’s say that again: He led the team in tackles. Busted a lung to get back on defense on multiple occasions. He’s really coming into his own this year and his relationship with Ronaldo is really surprising everyone.
JUAN CUADRADO - 6. Made a ton of tackles (four to be exact) in his 45 minutes, but he was turned inside out a few times as well and Valencia visibly started targeting his side as they searched for an equalizer.
DOUGLAS COSTA - NR. Came on to try to find a second goal but didn’t do a while ton.
I want to touch on squad construction here.
Mattia De Sciglio was included on the larger squad list for this game, but ended up not making the grade as one of the seven subs. That was a mistake. Unless something happened between Saturday’s game and Tuesday that made Allegri question his fitness, there was no reason to carry three center backs — Andrea Barzagli, Medhi Benatia, Daniele Ruagni — at the expense of a player who can cover both fullback spots in the case of an emergency just seems like bad selection.
De Sciglio would have been an asset when Sandro went down. He could have simply plugged in as a like-for-like change at the half, or if he decided Cuadrado would add a little more offense from the full-back position, he could have come in for, say, Dybala and pushed Cuadrado up into the wing for a bit more defensive solidity. As it stood, Cuadrado stood out as a major weakness on the back line as they tried to protect their 1-0 lead, and Allegri should have done something to compensate for that even with one of those center backs. It’s not like he had no subs to change with — he’s used less than his full compliment for his second game in a row.
In terms of the Champions League, there’s only one game left, away to Young Boys on Wednesday, Dec. 12. Juve will need to win in order to guarantee their place at the top of the group. Manchester United holds the tiebreaker over Juve — in this case head-to-head away goals—so if they draw and United win, the Old Lady would be dropped to the runner-up pot, which is not a good place to be.
Before that, they will face two of the toughest games of the andata: away to Fiorentina and then the Derby d’Italia in Turin. With three big games in the offing, Juventus is going to have to prove all of their quality in order to come out on top in all three.