Football is a cruel, cruel game sometimes. You can go from elation to devastation in moments. Juventus has proven that to its last two opponents.
Days after downing Lazio in the final 30 seconds of the game, the Bianconeri turned the second leg of their UEFA Champions League Round of 16 tie against Tottenham Hotspur on its head in the space of two minutes and 49 seconds, going from 1-0 down to 2-1 up and winning the tie 4-3 on aggregate.
In the first leg three weeks ago, Juve had gone up 2-0 within the first nine minutes, only to be totally overwhelmed in midfield and allow Tottenham to equalize, bringing two precious away goals back to their temporary home at Wembley Stadium for the home leg. The result left a lot of different scenarios for qualification. If Juve won, they were through. If they lost, they were out. If the game ended in a draw, it would end up depending on the score. Anything less than 2-2 would see Spurs through on away goals, 2-2 would have forced extra time, and anything beyond that would see Juve flip the away goals and go through.
The first leg saw Massimiliano Allegri make a significant tactical error with his formation, allowing Spurs to take advantage. While his shape was much better today, his player selection very nearly cost him again.
The team was sent out in a formation that I have alternately seen described as a 4-3-3, 4-1-2-1-2, and 4-3-2-1 — it was probably more the latter than anything else. Gianluigi Buffon took his customary place in goal, but it was the back line that the questionable decision was made. With Mattia De Sciglio struggling to return from a muscle injury, Allegri decided to start Andrea Barzagli at right back rather than Stephan Lichtsteiner. This has been done as an emergency measure in the past, but it has become less effective by the year, and on Wednesday night, as we’ll soon talk about, it became a glaring weakness. Giorgio Chiellini, Medhi Benatia, and Alex Sandro completed the defensive line. Sami Khedira, Miralem Pjanic and Blaise Matuidi — who missed the first leg due to injury — formed the midfield three. Douglas Costa and Paulo Dybala, who also missed the first leg, slotted into the hole behind Gonzalo Higuain as the main striker.
Mauricio Pochettino leaned on his tried-and-true 4-2-3-1, making two changes from the first leg. With Serge Aurier suspended due to yellow card accumulation, Kieran Trippier took the right-back spot. The rest of the back line in front of goalkeeper Hugo Lloris was the same as it was in Turin: Jan Vertonghen and Davinson Sanchez in the center with Ben Davies on the left. Eric Dier and Mousa Dembele formed the double pivot in midfield. Son Heung-Min replaced Erik Lamela alongside Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen behind star striker Harry Kane.
Before the game a moment of silence was held for Fiorentina captain Davide Astori, who died in his sleep in the hours leading up to the Viola’s match against Udinese on Sunday. As England’s national stadium stood silent, the cameras focused on Chiellini. It was impossible not to be moved by the sight of the big defender, known for his hard-nosed play to the point that he’s earned the nickname King Kong, using every last ounce of his will to keep from weeping.
The game had an inauspicious start. Seconds in, Benatia headed the ball into his own hand, and in the fourth minute Kane held off the attentions of Cheillini and Pjanic in midfield to feed Son, who easily shook Barzagli and blistered a shot from the left side that Buffon parried away.
Juve looked shaky under Tottenham’s press again, giving the ball away and resorting to long balls, while Pochettino’s men looked to exploit the giveaways. Chiellini made several interventions along the right sideline before Son got another opportunity but scuffed his volley so badly that it only traveled a foot or so.
Their first real move forward came in the seventh minute when Costa carved out soem space on the right and delivered a cross that was a fraction too high for Higuain to get his head to. In 13th minute when Sandro broke up the left side and crossed for Higuain, but the ball was defended away. Then it was Kane’s turn again, muscling past Chiellini and breaking into the box. Just like in the first leg, Buffon came out to meet him, and this time he managed to tighten the angle just enough to force him to put the ball wide.
Then came a moment that, had the game ended differently, would have haunted Juventus fans until whatever day in the future is ordained as the one they finally win the Champions League. It was the 17th minute, and Costa made a turn and burst past Vertonghen into the right side of the box. The Belgian went to ground and clearly chopped the winger down from behind, not only knocking him down on first contact but scissoring his foot between his on the follow-through. The referee, Szymon Marciniak, somehow decided that the blatant takedown didn’t warrant a penalty and awarded a goal kick to Tottenham. No fewer than five Juve players swarmed the Pole, who deserved every epithet that might have been offered for such a blatant error.
Three minutes later Sandro threw his head at a long-range shot from Eriksen. The followup saw a cross find Son, whose header was met with the joined fists of Buffon and punched away.
In the 22nd minute Juve finally managed their first shot, a long-range effort from Dybala off a layoff from Higuain that was easily blocked. Five minutes later Vertonghen was given what should have been a second yellow card for taking the No. 10 down on the right side.
By this point, it was becoming evident that Barzagli was struggling on the right flank. He’s never been a pacy player, and the last few years have robbed him much of what speed he did have. Son was running circles around him, but so far hadn’t been precise enough to make Juve pay the price. In the 38th minute, he broke down the side again, firing wide at the far post on a counter following a set piece on the other end. But about 49 seconds later, the Korean star finally found the mark.
The move started in midfield. Khedira lost the run of Eriksen toward the right side, and the Dane put Alli through on goal. Barzagli raced in from the right side and denied the Englishman with a sliding tackle, but the ball bounced to Trippier, who crossed to Son, who was unmarked in the chaos. The forward actually mishit the ball, hitting his own off foot with the shot, but the weird deflection saw it knuckle past Chiellini’s attempt to block and the despairing hand of a wrong-footed Buffon.
Two minutes later Pjanic very nearly put the game level, but got his feet tangled up and bent the ball just wide of Lloris’ post, and just after that the Bosnian’s lofted free kick was headed over by Sandro. Barely 60 seconds later he whiffed on an attempt to intercept a pass and made contact with Alli, earning a soft yellow card and a suspension for Juve’s next European game.
The teams went into halftime with Tottenham ascendent and Juve looking very much second best. It would take a big change for Allegri to get his team back into the game.
The problem was he didn’t have a whole ton of options available. All three of his available forwards were already on the field, so any chance to shift the momentum of the game would have to come from the midfield — or further back.
The second period got off to a similarly auspicious start when Alli bought a free kick on the edge of the box within a minute of the restart. Benatia saw a yellow card as well, and Higuain was dispossessed while dribbling far too long in his own half, with Alli shooting wide when the ball fell to him.
By the 52nd minute, when Pjanic ballooned Juve’s first corner kick of the match into a place where no one from either team was standing, that the hope really started to drain from the match.
But Allegri had what he was going to do in mind, and on the hour mark he removed the ineffective Matuidi for Kwadwo Asamoah. That let Sandro push up as a winger, and he immediately got into a dangerous position and found Higuain with a cross, but the Argentine roared his shot over. Barely 60 seconds after his first change Allegri made an uncharacteristically quick second, removing Benatia for Stephan Lichtsteiner and pushing Barzagli inside.
Then something unexpected happened: the substitutions and subsequent formation change turned the game on its head.
With more freedom to bomb forward thanks to the reinforced flanks, Sandro and Costa began making trouble. Asamoah’s first foray forward on the overlap created a dangerous chance, with Sanchez tipping his cross into no-man’s-land and Dybala blasting way off target as he arrived at the loose ball. It was a bad miss, but Spurs were creaking.
Two minutes later they broke.
It started with Costa, who got himself free with some good footwork and passed to Dybala, who sent Lichtsteiner through down the wing. The Swiss fired in a cross and Khedira met it just to the right of the penalty spot. He flicked it on with his head, and Higuain interrupted a rendition of “Oh When the Spurs Go Marching In” mid-chorus when he ghosted past Dier and flicked the ball past Lloris with the outside of his foot to tie both the game and the aggregate.
Less than three minutes later, Higuain turned provider, taking a pass from Chiellini, freeing up some space, and playing Dybala into a 1-on-1 with Lloris with an excellent through ball. All Davies, who had played La Joya onside, could do was pathetically raise his hand hoping for the referees to bail him out. Dybala drove into the box, sent Lloris one way and fired it over the Frenchman and into the net.
Seven minutes after Asamoah first took the field, and within two minutes of each other, Juventus had command of the tie again.
They very nearly iced it three minutes later, but Higuain’s through ball in the box for Costa was just off target. In the meanwhile, the rest of the team went into finishing mode, defending as a team and making Spurs’ deliveries largely ineffective.
That didn’t mean Spurs didn’t come close once or twice. Son got himself some space yards out with seven minutes left but put it wide. Eriksen took a layoff pass and likewise pushed the ball to the wrong side of the post.
Pochettino had one last gasp just before stoppage time. It came, fittingly, from Kane. The England international was blatantly offside, but play continued and Kane’s header hit the inside of the near post. It bounced sideways, stayed on the line but not over it, and Barzagli just beat Lamela, on as a sub, to clear it away.
Three minutes later Marciniak blew his whistle, and one of the more remarkable comebacks in recent Champions League history was complete — and Juventus were moving on to the quarterfinals.
GIANLUIGI BUFFON - 7. Made a couple of good saves in the first half and was vocal throughout in keeping the defense together.
ANDREA BARZAGLI - 5.5. This number would have been much lower if not for his improved play once he moved inside — and his able goal line clearance could be one of, if not the most important individual play of the Champions League this year.
MEDHI BENATIA - 5.5. Really not his day. Cleared the ball a bunch in only an hour on the field, but he’s had back-to-back rough games.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 8.5. Absolutely everywhere. This stat line is freakish: four tackles, two interceptions, 13 clearances, three blocked shots, and 86.4 percent pass completion. Kane got the better of him twice in early going, but he made life difficult for him thereafter.
ALEX SANDRO - 6. Much better when pushed forward to join the attack, was a real nuisance and put in some good crosses. Made a pair of key passes.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 5. Made three tackles in midfield but didn’t really put a stamp on the game.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 4.5. A first-half yellow made him obviously more tentative, and he didn’t dictate the game with his passing the way we’re used to seeing. He’s struggled lately and may be ready for a rest.
SAMI KHEDIRA - 6. This was gonna be lower before his assist to Higuain. It was an excellent flick on. Also defended well once the lead was had, but he can still do more, and more consistently.
DOUGLAS COSTA - 7.5. One of the only people who could be proud of himself in the first half. Used his pace to cause all kinds of problems, and started the move that led to first goal.
PAULO DYBALA - 6. Really was invisible for long stretches, and had to drop back far too much to get possession. But the winner was a beauty and an example of exactly how you deal with a one-on-one.
GONZALO HIGUAIN - 7. Another grade that would have been a lot lower before that flurry of goals. Starved of service before that, but also had some problems holding the ball up. In spite of that, for perhaps the first time in his career, he rose to meet the occasion.
KWADWO ASAMOAH - 8. Fantastic off the bench. Allowed Sandro to move up and was a rock in defense once Juve took the lead.
STEPHAN LICHTSTEINER - 6. With someone more able to overlap on the right it freed Dybala and Costa up to attack more. His cross on the first goal was a good one, and he managed to clear a pair of balls out after Juve had the lead.
STEFANO STURARO - NR. Brought on to put some physicality on the field in it’s dying moments.
There can be no mistake about it: Max Allegri hit on a master stroke when he introduced Asamoah and Lichtsteiner. Their introduction, and the subsequent formation change, changed the game completely. With no forwards available to introduce, Allegri replaced both of his full-backs and completely turned his team’s offensive performance around. It takes an exceptional tactical mind — and a little bit of luck — for something like that to work.
However, that doesn’t exonerate him for the egregious error of playing Barzagli at right-back to start. This has worked in a pinch before, but its time is over. Barza was repeatedly exposed by Son and just looked...old. He brought absolutely nothing to the attack down that side, and Allegri really should have switched out that flank even earlier.
Juve will have to wait until the round of 16 wraps up next week before learning their opponent in the quarterfinal at the draw next Friday.
In the meantime, Juve will turn their attention to their more immediate task: playing three Serie A games in a week. Udinese come to Turin on Sunday, then on Wednesday comes the makeup game against Atalanta before taking a trip to visit SPAL the following Saturday.
All three games are now critically important now that Napoli has surrendered the initiative in the race for the scudetto. Win all three, and Juve are firmly in the driver’s seat. That’s what needs to be focused on more than any potential UCL opponent.