OK, let’s cover one thing before we get into the nitty-gritty of Juventus’ 2-1 Champions League loss against Young Boys on Wednesday: Anyone who says the word “turf” is getting kicked out.
Hey, you! Yeah, you, I heard you. Out the door — now.
Many people have been obsessed over the fact that Juve’s group stage finale was played on an artificial surface. Yes, such a thing certainly has some effect on how players used to playing on grass, and yes, it’s mind-boggling that UEFA would allow a game in its biggest competition to be played on such artificial turf, to say that Juve lost because of the turf is at best an easy excuse and at worst ignorant of just how bad Massimiliano Allegri’s men were Wednesday night. These players are professionals, and as Wojciech Szczesny said at Tuesday’s pre-match press conference, it wouldn’t matter if the game was played on sand. The Manchester United team that Juve throttled for 185 minutes over two games won 3-0 on that same turf. The turf is not an excuse.
The real reason Juventus lost was that the team’s collective head was somewhere in Bermuda. It certainly wasn’t at the Stade de Suisse in Bern. They strode onto the field against the worst team in the group, one they had dominated in September to the tune of a 3-0 thrashing, and thought the result was in the bag before a ball was kicked. The way they came out, they could have played this game on the field they grow for the Super Bowl every year and they still would have lost.
That’s a bad thing to have happen when you go into the game knowing that only a win would totally guarantee them the top spot in Group H. The good news is that Manchester United played even worse at the Mestalla and lost to Valencia by an identical 2-1 score, allowing Juve to back into Monday’s Round of 16 draw as group winners despite the utter failure in Switzerland.
It really is amazing how flat Juve came out for this game considering the fact that Allegri may have sent out his most attacking starting lineups he’s ever employed at Juventus. Szczesny played at the base of a 4-4-2, with Juan Cuadrado, Daniele Rugani, Leonardo Bonucci, and Mattia De Sciglio in front of him. Miralem Pjanic and Rodrigo Bentancur were bookended by Douglas Costa and Federico Bernardeschi in midfield, with Cristiano Ronaldo and captain-for-the-day Mario Mandzukic pairing up front.
Young Boys manager Gerardo Seoane countered with a 5-3-2 formation. Former Serie A regular Steve von Bergen missed out due to injury, so Marco Wolfli sat behind a wall of five defenders made up of Kevin Mbabu, Loris Benito, Sandro Lauper, Mohamed Ali Camara, and Ulisses Garcia. Christian Fassnacht, Djibril Sow, and Michael Aebischer manned the midfield, while Moumi Nicolas Ngamaleu and Guillaume Hoarau formed the tip of the spear (or maybe halberd, seeing as how we are talking about the Swiss).
When these teams last met at Allianz Stadium, Young Boys attempted to park the bus and deny Juve space, the way Frosinone had forced Juve to slog to a result a week or so earlier in Serie A. Their problem was they weren’t very good at it, and Paulo Dybala skewered them with a goal in the first five minutes, and it was all downhill from there. That in mind, Seoane changed tactics and started the game with a high press. Combined with Juve coming out very flat, it made for a lot of lost balls, both in passing and in possession. With Young Boys unable to really do much with the ball themselves, the first 10 minutes or so turned into a cagey affair in which no one really managed to keep hold of the ball.
That changed in the 13th minute, when De Sciglio intercepted a pass and sprang Costa with a long ball. Costa cut inside from the right and then found Ronaldo running free down the left channel, but the superstar couldn’t manage to get a shot away with his first touch, and he drifted too close to Wolfli. The keeper tipped the ball out wide, but Ronaldo was back on it in an instant, cut back inside, and fired a shot that beat Wolfli but not Camara, who blocked it off the line with his chest. Two minutes later, Ronaldo had another opportunity, spinning away from Lauper after taking a delivery from Bentancur, but putting the ball wide of the far post.
Chances were being wasted and Juve still didn’t look like they were getting out of first gear — and things got worse when Cuadrado pulled up and stepped over the sideline to get his leg looked at by the training staff lasted all of another minute after trying to get back out and play through the injury. Alex Sandro had immediately begun warming up, and replaced the Colombian in the 23rd minute, kicking De Sciglio to the right.
After another missed chance, this time by Douglas Costa, disaster struck in the form of a pretty bad call. Sandro, who was still getting into the flow of the game, mishandled a cross-field pass from Costa in his own box, and Ngamaleu tried to pounce. The two got tangled up with each other and it was pretty much 50/50 as to who had ahold of whom, but both players hit the deck. It initially looked like referee Tobias Stieler of Germany wasn’t going to give a penalty, but the goal line referee — an official, it should be noted, looked to be a strictly domestic referee without a FIFA badge on his shirt — looked to have gotten into his ear, and he pointed to the spot after a fairly lengthy delay. It was a very harsh call given that Ngamaleu had as much of Sandro as Sandro had of him. Hoarau stepped to the spot, and Szczesny came within maybe an inch of stopping his third penalty of the season, getting a hand to it and pushing it onto the post—only to watch the ball trickle in rather than out.
Trailing after 30 minutes, Juve tried to respond, but continued to be imprecise with their passing. Ronaldo had yet another fantastic opportunity to tie the game when the rebound of a free kick was headed to him on a plate, but his daisy-cutter (rug-burner?) skittered wide yet again.
The hope for a second-half resurgence was almost immediately answered when Hoarau deflected a Sandro header off the crossbar, but improvement was piecemeal. Some players, like Costa, rebounded after a poor first period to pose a bigger threat in the second. Others, like Pjanic or Bernardeschi, continued to struggle. Shots from range traveled into the stands and failed efforts at controlling the ball ended promising runs.
Nothing currently on the field looked like changing anything, but after having had to burn a substitution early for the injured Cuadrado Allegri’s options were more limited — and he didn’t seem to display all that much urgency in taking them (more on that later). But almost as soon as he made a change and introduced Emre Can for some energy to the midfield, Hoarau doubled the lead when he managed to drift away from Bonucci on a counterattack. Receiving a good pass from Ngamaleu, he took one touch to get around Bonucci’s back and fired past a stranded Szczesny from the penalty arc.
It was now that Paulo Dybala was finally introduced, and the Argentine immediately gave Juve some of the life that it hadn’t been showing before. With 10 minutes left he cut the lead in half when he fired in a first-time pile driver of a shot that was set up by an excellent cut in from the right by Costa and a good layoff pass from Ronaldo.
Juve piled forward for an equalizer. Juve had a penalty shout of their own two minutes after Dybala’s goal when a defender pulled Ronaldo down by the wrist when he went up for a header, but Stieler almost certainly didn’t spot it, then Dybala unleashed a knuckling shot that Wolfli couldn’t quite control, fumbling it out for a corner. Ronaldo then got under a good ball by Bernardeschi, only to head it off the outside of the post.
Halfway through stoppage time Juve thought they had it when Dybala fired another absolute screamer past Wolfli, but Ronaldo, who was standing right in front of the keeper, tried to redirect it with his head while standing in an offside position. It was a close call but the right one, and the game ended after Can fired a last header at Wolfli off a corner kick, with Juve lucky to have had Valencia come up big and spoil United’s night in Spain.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 8. This close to saving his third penalty of the year. When you count Ronaldo’s penalty at the end of the second leg of the Champions League quarters last year, he’s correctly guessed the direction of the last four penalties he’s faced. Secure otherwise, and couldn’t do anything about the second goal.
JUAN CUADRADO - NR. Forced off after 22 minutes with what looked like a knee injury.
DANIELE RUGANI - 6.5. Looked a little shaky in the very early stages but grew into the game and made an excellent play on a two-on-one break in the 54th minute. Made a pair of tackles and a pair of interceptions. He could be set for some extended playing time depending on how long Medhi Benatia is out.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 5. Completely at fault for the second goal after losing Hoarau and then getting easily shaken as he tried to recover. Didn’t make any of the passes that might otherwise make up for it.
MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - 6. He’s not the force going forward that a guy like Joao Cancelo is, but boy his defending has taken a leap. Nothing got by him.
DOUGLAS COSTA - 6. Had a really bad first half but made up for it by becoming the team’s most dangerous player in the second.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 4. He’s looked off the last few weeks and this was easily his worst game of the season. He completed his passes at a high rate but really didn’t create a lot of danger before being pulled. When he struggles like this it tends to be from fatigue, so it could be time to give him the kind of two-week benching Gonzalo Higuain got around November last year.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 7. For my money, the best Juve player on the field. Constantly regained the ball and always had his nose in the scrum. Made four key passes, two tackles, and two interceptions.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 4. WhoScored lists him at a team-leading five key passes, but he looked exactly like a guy who hasn’t started a game in two months. This was a really rough display, but hopefully this will start getting the game back into his legs.
MARIO MANDZUKIC - 4. Almost popped up for a header just before Hoarau got his second, but Wolfli made a one-handed stop. Other than that he really never got going.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 4. So, so wasteful. I was straight-up ready to give him a 3 until he recorded the assist on Dybala’s goal, and his “me me me” reflex hit when he got in the way of what would have been the equalizer. All he had to do was duck his head.
ALEX SANDRO - 5.5. Not really blaming him for the penalty, which I think was a really harsh call, but the rest of his time on the field wasn’t the best. He didn’t hit the target with with four shots and didn’t really provide much in the way of service from the left.
EMRE CAN - 6. Not a bad display in his second game action since his thyroid surgery. Gave a little surge of energy to the midfield but not much in the way of creativity.
PAULO DYBALA - 8. Completely changed the game in his 19 minutes on the field. His technique and his ability to connect the lines makes this a different team. Both his goals—the one that counted and the one that didn’t—were so well taken. Could he be finding a groove?
There was some weirdness going on in this game. Not least of these was the choice of formation, which contained no fewer than five forwards in a 4-4-2. In theory, this setup should have worked, but it doesn’t look like the team was ever mentally present enough to take advantage of having so many skilled players on the field at once.
Allegri’s slow trigger finger on substitutions as the game went south has rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. Clearly, introducing Dybala earlier could have produced a very different result, but Allegri didn’t do this until it was too late. Clearly his intention was to rest his No. 10 as much as possible heading into Saturday’s Derby, and his lethargy in making subs was probably tied to the fact that Manchester United was down 2-0. Had the Red Devils been closer to winning in Valencia, Allergi may have taken action sooner, but with Juve’s position still relatively secure despite the bad night, he wasn’t as proactive as he could have been. Allegri has based tactical decisions in the last group game based on what’s going on in the other game in the group before, and I’d put money on that being the case here.
In terms of the Champions League, the next thing to think about is the round of 16 draw on Friday. Teams can’t play against teams from their own country or their own group in the Round of 16, which means that there are only six potential opponents for Juve: Liverpool, Tottenham, Lyon, Atletico Madrid, Schalke, and Ajax.
Next on the docket on the field is the first Derby della Mole of the season at the Stadio Olimpico Grande Torino. After that, Roma come to Turin for their visit to the Allianz Stadium.