Wednesday’s return match with Manchester United in the Champions League group stage represented an amazing opportunity for Juventus. Win, and the Bianconeri, who were off to their best Champions League start in 14 years, would clinch the top spot in the group with two games to spare — a feat normally reserved for someone’s FIFA save. Even a draw would see them at least qualify for the knockout stages.
Playing at home against a United team that they comprehensively outplayed in their own building two weeks ago, hopes were high that Juve take care of business and make the last two games of the group dead rubbers, which would give the team the chance to give a lot of younger players some extensive Champions League playing time.
With 85 minutes gone by it looked like they were going to do just that, leading 1-0 after a stunning strike by Cristiano Ronaldo, his first in the Champions League as a Juventus player. But then the team inexplicably folded. A bad call gifted United a dangerous direct free kick opportunity, which was converted by Juan Mata. Then, just as the game was about to tick into stoppage time, a free kick was flicked on and bounced off three Juventus players and into their own net, gifting Manchester United a 2-0 win, three points and, most likely, forcing the decision on who wins the group all the way to the final matchday next month.
If the lost opportunity to clinch the group represented the macrocosm, Juve’s performance over 90 minutes presented the microcosm. Juve never dominated the game the way they did at Old Trafford two weeks ago, but they were certainly in control. They outshot Jose Mourinho’s men 23-9 and until they conceded the equalizer had only allowed one shot on target. The problem was they only found the target with three of their own — something that came back to bite them when the game was still in the balance as the clock ticked down.
But as we discuss this incident, we need to talk about referee Ovidio Alin Hategan. He had a really uneven game. He called some really soft fouls, let other obvious ones go, and on several occasions stopped play when he really should have given advantage. It was more and more obvious as the game wore on that he was seeing a major step up in class from doing games in the Romanian league on weekends, and he wasn’t handling it well. So when Blaise Matuidi and Paul Pogba came together in the penalty arc in front of Juve’s box and Pogba threw himself forward, it was a disappointment but not a surprise when Hategan fell for the diviest of dives and called a free kick. Mata and Ashley Young stood over the ball, and Young made a dummy run that Wojciech Szczesny bit on. He took a step to the left — a step that probably prevented him from getting to Mata’s shot.
With stoppage time closing in, Juve gave up another free kick, this time on the left wing. Young’s delivery was flicked on by Marouane Fellaini, who got in front of Giorgio Chiellini to flick the ball across the mouth of goal. Szczesny, wrong-footed by the flick, could only flap at the ball, tapping it off the faces of first Leonardo Bonucci and then Alex Sandro before it dropped into the net.
Massimiliano Allegri did come into the game with some major injury issues in all phases of the game. Federico Bernardeschi and Douglas Costa were both unavailable, as was Moise Kean. Emre Can’s recovery from thyroid surgery continued, and Matuidi was only fit for the bench after suffering a bruised hip against Empoli at the weekend. Joao Cancelo was also relegated to the bench after suffering a minor strain on Saturday. Mario Mandzukic was also only fit for the bench after just overcoming his own injury. There was also a massive scare in warmups when Szczesny was practicing long clearances and accidentally poleaxed Paulo Dybala, who was standing nearby and looking in the other direction. Fortunately, the Argentine picked himself up from the blow and was able to play.
Allegri again deployed the shapeshifting 4-3-3 that has been the staple of the Croatian’s absence. Szczesny started in goal behind the defensive screen of Mattia De Sciglio, Bonucci, Chiellini, and Sandro. Rodrigo Bentancur and Miralem Pjanic were joined in midfield by Sami Khedira, who was playing his first game in more than a month and only his second since the Champions League opener on September 19. Ronaldo was joined up front by Juan Cuadrado and Dybala.
Mourinho, on the other hand, could call on a few players that he couldn’t in the first game. Alexis Sanchez, Jesse Lingard, and Fellaini all returned to the fold, although Romelu Lukaku was out, along with Antonio Valencia and Diogo Dalot. He decided to switch from the 4-2-3-1 he employed two weeks ago to a 4-3-3 of his own. David De Gea guarded the posts with Ashley Young, Chris Smalling, Victor Lindelof, and Luke Shaw in defense. Pogba returned to the stadium he called home for four years, and joined Nemanja Matic and Ander Herrera in midfield. In the absence of Lukaku, Sanchez was employed as a false nine, along with Lingard and the red-hot Anthony Martial.
Juve provided the first flare of life to the game less than a minute in, when Pjanic played a nice ball to the back post, but its trajectory wasn’t quite what was needed to allow Bentancur to run on to it. Four minutes later Dybala scooped a delicious pass over the defenders to Ronaldo a few yards ahead, but Shaw managed to get himself in the way of the shot. The ensuing corner was an attempt to roll the ball to Dybala at the top of the box, but Pjanic hit it poorly and it was jumped on well before it could get to him.
United made their first noise in the eighth minute, when Martial saw his shot blocked by Bonucci. Ronaldo suffered a similar fate a minute later when he got a little selfish and passed up a layoff to go for goal himself, only to be denied by Smalling. The United center-back had to act again almost immediately, this time preventing a shot from Bentancur from getting through. The Uruguayan was active in the attacking third during the first half, and made a nifty run down the left after a nifty chest control, only to see a good ground cross defended well.
It gradually became clear that balls over the top were an effective weapon against the United defense, and in the 19th minute Bonucci, the master of the form, put a good one through the middle of the field for Ronaldo, who tried to flick it to Khedira. A faster player might have gotten to the ball, although the pass really was at an angle that always favored the defender. Bonucci could’ve cut out the middle man and gone straight to Khedira, who had a massive swath of grass in front of him, but didn’t identify the opportunity.
Nearly 10 minutes later came the first real missed opportunity. It started from Ronaldo, who took a pass on the right from De Sciglio. His square ball found Khedira totally unmarked, but the German got too far around it and doinked it off the far post. The defender crumpled to the ground in disbelief, a feeling surely shared by the entire arena after such an easy chance went begging.
In the 50th minute, Dybala came the closest anyone had come to that point to scoring after he took a simple pass from Cuadrado and got himself to that spot he loves on the right side of the box. He unleashed one of those trademark curlers of his, but he elevated it a tad too much and it crashed off the top of the crossbar.
Khedira made way for Matuidi on the hour, and Juve, who had had the better of the half by a good margin, started looking a bit better. Then, in the 65th, Ronaldo finally broke his Champions League duck.
It came on yet another long ball, which continued to be effective against the United back line. Bonucci dropped the ball on a dime to Ronaldo, who let it go over his shoulder and unleashed a thunderbolt of a volley from 10 yards that hit the net almost before De Gea could move. Two minutes later Ronaldo turned provider and Pjanic almost doubled the lead with a side-footed effort that De Gea managed to claw away with one hand. It looked like the goal had struck the Red Devils dumb.
Mourinho introduced Marcus Rashford in an effort to get the United attack going, but Juve continued to press and in the 74th minute wasted another pristine chance to score when Ronaldo set up Cuadrado perfectly from 10 yards away, but the Colombian fired over. Another miss came three minutes later when Pjanic whizzed the ball just past the upper corner from long range.
Mourinho went to his bench again with 11 minutes left, introducing Fellaini to give the team a much-needed aerial presence and Mata to set him up. Four minutes later Allegri made a move that’s going to be talked about for a bit, introducing Andrea Barzagli for De Sciglio, counting on the BBC to take the game home as he has done so often over his tenure. That change coincided with a drop back into their own half, and Szczesny had to get a hand to a cross after some bad defense from Cuadrado on the right.
Then, in the 85th minute, things made an abrupt turn for the worse.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 4. What had been an uneventful game turned into a nightmare, as he made mistakes on both goals — the false step on the first and the poor parry on the second. There are people already calling for his head, but they need to slow their rolls. These were his first real mishaps of what has been an excellent season so far.
MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - 7. People will decry his lack of attacking dynamism, especially in comparison to Joao Cancelo, but he was rock-solid in defense. Nothing was getting past him, and he completely shut that side of the field down. What would have happened if he’d stayed on the field in the closing minutes?
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 6. His part in the confusion on United’s second goal drags his grade down a little bit, but he did very well spraying long balls over the heads of a defense that turned out very vulnerable to them.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 6. Led the team with six clearances and added in four tackles, including one clean dispossession of Pogba, but got beaten by Fellaini on the winner.
ALEX SANDRO - 4. He had had a rough game before the own goal. His crosses didn’t have much in the way of bite or accuracy. Obviously he was all over the place on the last goal.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 6.5. Made two key passes and added in a pair of tackles, and he was really active up the field, especially in the first half.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 7. A really good game in the engine room. He made four tackles (a rarity for him), five key passes, and completed 92.1 percent of his passes overall. Took four shots, one of which De Gea kept out with the most desperate of saves.
SAMI KHEDIRA - 4. Every time Khedira plays his lack of pace sticks out like a sore thumb. It’s like everyone else is on fast-forward around him. Add to that his horrific miss in the first half, and this was an unsuccessful return to the lineup.
JUAN CUADRADO - 6. Lively in the first half, but faded badly in the second. His miss in the 74th minute was brutal, and he had trouble defensively at the end of the game.
PAULO DYBALA - 6.5. Didn’t hit the target with his four shots, but nearly had one of the goals of the year with his early-second-half curler that hit the bar. Did make three key passes, looked a lot livelier than in games in the early part of the season. He’s learning Ronaldo and combining with him better.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 7.5. He gets a a big bump for his goal, which was an absolute beauty, but he was pretty quiet for the rest of the game and has been indulging his selfish side over the last few games.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 6. A workmanlike shift in relief of Khedira. I’m not docking him for the free kick that led to the equalizer — it was a really bad call.
ANDREA BARZAGLI - NR. Intercepted a pass in his short duty, but today the BBC didn’t work.
MARIO MANDZUKIC - NR. Worked what he could in stoppage time to try to salvage things.
The big question on this game will be whether Allegri erred in introducing Barzagli and shifting to a 3-5-2 at the end of the game. This is a move that Allegri has made for years in order to see out leads in the Champions League, and there was no reason to think this move would be any different. Where Allegri may have made a mistake was in withdrawing De Sciglio rather than Cuadrado. MDS was playing one of his best games in a Juve shirt and had his flank on total lockdown. He’s familiar with being a wingback in 3-5-2 systems after working in them with Antonio Conte with Italy, is a natural defender, and was on fire. Unless there was some sort of physical problem that necessitated his departure, he should have stayed out there.
I’ve seen assertions that Mandzukic should have come on early to chase a second goal, but keeping him on the bench was also the right move. He’s only just come back from an injury, and after Juve took the lead there was no point in risking a recurrence with AC Milan looming on Sunday. Allegri made the correct moves on the night, but the refereeing mistake and subsequent equalizer seemed to have drained the team of its fight.
Group H is now likely going to come down to the last game. Juventus’ next matchup in the competition is a home game against Valencia in three weeks. A point will qualify them for the knockout round, but unless Young Boys surprises a lot of people and beats Man U they won’t be able to wrap up the top spot until they take their trip to Switzerland in December. For what it’s worth, United now own the tiebreaker on head-to-head away goals.
As for domestic competition, a big game looms against AC Milan at the San Siro on Sunday. Juve took all three games against the Rossoneri last year, including a 2-0 win in Milan. Both goals were scored by ... Gonzalo Higuain.
Oh, boy. This’ll be good.