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Stoppage time controversy dooms Juventus’ comeback in Madrid

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A scintillating performance by Juventus at the Bernabeu was rendered moot by an unconscionable call with 30 seconds remaining.

Real Madrid v Juventus - UEFA Champions League Quarter Final Second Leg Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

Gianluigi Buffon is one of, if not the most respectful man in the game of football.

So, when he takes it upon himself to scream in your face, and to say things like this...

I won’t accept that a referee is in charge of a game like this with two such high-profile teams and doesn’t have the character, courage, or ability to make calm decisions.

He was clearly unprepared. Giving a penalty like that, after a memorable match, sending off someone who has never been red carded for dissent in his life in my final game is simply not acceptable.

or this...

If you don’t have the character to walk on a pitch like this in a stadium like this you can sit in the stands with your wife, your kids, drink your Sprite and eating crisps.

...then it’s probably safe to say whatever you did to prompt it was incorrect.

Let’s give that a little context. Juventus, coming off a 3-0 gut-punch of a home loss in the first leg of the UEFA Champions League quarterfinal against Real Madrid, had done what seemed impossible two hours before. They had reversed the scoreline, becoming the first visiting team to ever hold a three-goal lead at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu. They were 30 seconds from forcing an extra time period that they would go into with a significant tactical advantage. Then, referee Michael Oliver called Medhi Benatia for a penalty on a challenge that wasn’t even a foul on Lucas Vazquez. The Bianconeri exploded, surrounding the Englishman, who responded by brandishing a straight red card at Buffon, likely ending his Champions League career in the worst way possible.

You can call us here at BWRAO homers, but the reverse angle footage on the replay is clear. Benatia gained the ball. End stop. It was not a penalty. Not in this game, not in this situation, not in the 15th minute of the last game of the season between mid-table sides in Sweden.

It. Was. Not. A. Penalty.

But Oliver pointed to the spot almost immediately, and compounded the situation by giving Buffon his marching orders. It was, at best, an unconscionable error. At worst, it was UEFA making certain that, after Barcleona was unexpectedly knocked out in similarly unexpected fashion by Roma 24 hours before, one of their cash cows made it through to the semifinals. As Giorgio Chiellini — who could end up facing disciplinary action for flashing a “money” sign at Real’s Raphael Varane — put it after the match, “It shouldn’t be surprising. Bayern Munich went through it last year and this was Juve’s turn.”

Wojciech Szczesny was summoned from the bench and took his time getting to the goal, giving Cristiano Ronaldo time to think about the situation. The Pole ended up guessing correctly, but Ronaldo’s kick was just too good, flying high into the right-hand corner, and Juve were out in the most gut-wrenching fashion imaginable.

Real Madrid v Juventus - UEFA Champions League Quarter Final Second Leg Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

The whole sequence snuffed out an incredible night for Juventus. Going in needing to win by three clear goals to even force extra time — and to do so without the services of Paulo Dybala, who was suspended after being sent off in the first leg — Massimiliano Allegri’s men played their best match of the season.

Max compensated for the loss of Dybala by transitioning to the 4-3-3 formation that he leaned on while the Argentine was out injured earlier this year. Buffon was protected by Mattia De Sciglio, Benatia, Chiellini, and Alex Sandro. Sami Khedira, Miralem Pjanic, and Blaise Matuidi started in midfield, while Douglas Costa, Gonzalo Higuain, and Mario Mandzukic started up front.

Zinedine Zidane had his own difficult decision to make. Sergio Ramos was suspended after garnering a yellow card in the first leg, and his natural replacement, Nacho, was out injured. He was forced to partner Varane with Jesus Vallejo, a 21-year-old product of Zaragoza who had only played eight games this campaign — and only one in the 2018 calendar year. The two were bookended by Dani Carvajal on the right and Marcelo on the left, with Keylor Navas behind them in goal. The midfield remained unchanged from the first leg: a diamond with Casemiro at its base and Isco at its tip, with Toni Kroos and Luka Modric playing box-to-box roles. Ronaldo was joined up top not by Karim Benzema, as in the first leg, but surprise starter Gareth Bale.

Juve needed a start similar to the one Roma got against Barca to have any chance to overturn their first-leg deficit. Incredibly, they got an even quicker one. It started with Costa, who kept after the ball when Casemiro intercepted a flick intended for Khedira and quickly regained the ball from his countryman. Khedira continued his run down the right and Costa duly fed him a ball down the wing, and he chipped in a cross. Madrid’s defense was all over the place, leaving Mandzukic wide open to slam a header into the back of Navas’ goal a mere one minute and 16 seconds after the opening whistle.

It was very nearly 2-0 only five minutes later when Navas tipped a Costa cross and then recovered in time to deny a sliding Higuain.

Ten minutes in Modric tried to end Juve’s momentum early, getting into the right-hand channel and leading Bale through, but Buffon was on the spot and denied the Welshman, who tried to back heel the rebound into the goal but only managed to hit the side netting. Moments later Chiellini made an incredible intervention tracking back to prevent Isco from tapping in Real’s first goal of the night after a mistake let Kroos loose on a counter.

Madrid continued to try to force the issue and equalize on the night, and just before the quarter-hour mark Ronaldo shook Benatia to get some space, but Buffon came up big again, parrying the shot away while Isco’s followup found the net but came from an offside position.

A minute later it was Navas again coming to the rescue on the other side of the field when a deflected corner bounced off Mandzukic’s knee and right at the Costa Rica international.

Most observers were probably taken aback in the 17th minute when Stephan Lichtsteiner suddenly stripped off his training gear and started receiving instructions from Allegri on the touchline. The Swiss entered the game as a straight swap for De Sciglio. The latter didn’t particularly look like he was struggling physically, but Real had been doing well down his side, so for all we know this was a tactical change. If there was an injury we’ll certainly know about it in the days to come. It certainly seemed a strange move, but there were dividends to be paid from it.

Juve were avoiding the catastrophic mistakes that doomed them eight days ago, but that wasn’t to say they weren’t running risks. In the 32nd minute a terrible pass from Chiellini in the defensive third saw Isco get into excellent position on the left. He pulled the ball back for Kroos, whose shot was blocked by Pjanic. The German’s second effort was cut short when his attempt came close to taking Khedira’s head off. Fortunately it was the latter’s shoulder that took the brunt of the blow.

Barely a minute later Isco was at it again, this time getting free one-on-one with Buffon, but the legend was determined not to allow this game to be his last in Europe, and he denied the midfielder.

Three minutes later, Mandzukic struck again.

This time it was Lichtsteiner — an exemplar of accurate crossing, amiright? — who turned provider, receiving a simple pass from Khedira and floating the ball to the back post to the big Croatian, who easily outjumped Carvajal to power it home through Navas’ hand.

Real Madrid v Juventus - UEFA Champions League Quarter Final Second Leg Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

Ronaldo had recognized the fact that his team was struggling mightily. When that happens, he does one of two things — he becomes a force of nature and singlehandedly obliterates defenses, or he flops all over the place hoping for a penalty to be called. In this case, he did the latter — repeatedly — but for some reason Oliver refused to book him for it as Cunyet Cakir had — incorrectly — done to Dybala in the first half last week. Real did have a chance from a set play to cut the night’s lead in half when Varane headed a free kick off the crossbar, the third time in 135 minutes that Real had hit the bar to that point in the tie.

Zidane made a pair of changes at halftime to try to alter his team’s fortunes, pulling Casemiro and Bale in favor of Marco Ascensio and Vazquez. But unlike last year’s final in Cardiff, Juve didn’t let the halftime interval or the Madrid coach’s adjustments blunt their momentum. Four minutes into the second period Costa cut inside from the right and got into a position similar to the one his was in for his outrageous goal over the weekend at Benevento, but he was dispossessed just before he could unleash his curler. Moments later Matuidi was sent into the channel but got tangled in his own feet and couldn’t produce anything.

As the hour approached both keepers made dueling saves, Buffon from a rather tame Ronaldo effort, Navas from a much more dangerous drive from Higuain at the top of the penalty area. A minute later, on the hour mark, it was bedlam in the Juve supporters’ section when Navas bobbled a Costa cross, allowing Matuidi, who had tried to latch on to the ball, to reach out and poke the ball across the line to put the quarterfinal into a flat-footed tie as Buffon went crazy celebrating on the other end of the pitch.

Real Madrid v Juventus - UEFA Champions League Quarter Final Second Leg Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

What had been considered a pipe dream was now very much reality, and they very nearly made it four seven minutes later when Chiellini, who had been up for a corner, sent in a cross from the left that was at a perfect level for Mandzukic to finish his hat trick only to be headed out at the last moment by a Madrid defender.

As the clock ticked on Juve began to drop back a bit, allowing Real more time to play with the ball. At about this time as well some probably began wondering what Allegri was planning to do with his remaining substitutions. We’ll discuss that in a bit.

For the last 15-20 minutes of the game, Juve was clearly playing to see out the 90 minutes and get to extra time, only going forward for the occasional counter. Ronaldo had a curler deflected behind in the 74th minute, while Khedira was just closed out by Vallejo when Mandzukic picked him out with a cross. Buffon then scrambled to parry an Isco shot that took a wicked deflection. Varane was wide as he tried to turn and shoot, and then with 10 minutes left Chiellini flirted with disaster by putting his attempt at clearing for a corner so close to the goal that it landed on the roof of the net.

Juve got a free kick in a good position with five minutes left, but tried to run a trick play that no one — not even the men supposed to be running it — was ready for. Ronaldo headed over at the other end of the field a minute later.

And then, on the brink of extra time, Michael Oliver happened, and the game was over. Juve were given one last chance to throw a ball over the top and it came somewhat close to falling for Benatia, but it was cleared and that was it. Juve had gone out in the most heartbreaking way possible.

LE PAGELLE

GIANLUIGI BUFFON - 8. The red card is immaterial to me given how absurd it was. He made five saves, including two excellent ones on Isco, that kept Juve’s momentum going. If this was his last Champions League game, he acquitted himself well between his sticks.

MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - NR. Put a few interesting looking crosses in, but his side was the focus of Madrid’s attacks in the early going. Keep an eye on his physical status going forward.

MEDHI BENATIA - 5.5. It wasn’t a penalty, but this also wasn’t Benatia’s best game. Ronaldo dribbled around him a few times and he didn’t actually register any counting stats and only attempted 27 passes the entire game.

GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 6.5. Made some really important interventions but also a little loose in his passing, giving Madrid a few short fields. But he still made eight clearances and three interceptions.

ALEX SANDRO - 5.5. Didn’t do well going forward but led the team with four tackles. Needed to be more of a threat going forward with Mandzukic on the wing.

SAMI KHEDIRA - 8. Had the assist on Mandzukic’s first goal and one of his two key pass on his second. He saved his best games of the year for his former team.

MIRALEM PJANIC - 6. Completed 90.1 percent of his passes, but how many of them were really incisive? The creativity came from elsewhere today.

BLAISE MATUIDI - 7. Scored the goal that leveled the tie and was constantly used as a third runner in the penalty area to create 1-on-1 matchups on crosses.

DOUGLAS COSTA - 8. Used his speed to totally control the game for a stretch. When he was moving in a straight line no one could catch him. Was a key contributor to both the first and third goals.

GONZALO HIGUAIN - 5.5. Hit the target with a pair of shots but faded badly as the game went into its final phase.

MARIO MANDZUKIC - 9. Anyone who complains about Mandzukic as a winger needs to take a good hard look at this match. The physical mismatches he creates against opposing fullbacks are massive, and he abused Carvajal on far-post crosses all night as he bagged a brace. Threw in a tackle and a key pass for good measure.

SUBS

STEPHAN LICHTSTEINER - 7. An excellent assist for Mandzukic’s second, cleared four balls, and generally improved the defense on the right side.

WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - NR. Guessed right on the penalty but with Ronaldo’s execution he would have needed Inspector Gadget arms to have stopped it.

MANAGER ANALYSIS

When I saw the lineup, I immediately figured that the Mandzukic/Carvahal matchup would be decisive, and it sure was. The Spain international lost the Mandzubeast on the first goal and was made to look insignificant on the second. Attempting to isolate Higuain on Vallejo proved less fruitful, while Matuidi made extra runs to pull people around in defense.

The big question out of this game, though, will be where Allegri was planning on using his substitutions. Juve entered second-half stoppage time with two sitting in Allegri’s pocket. Some will argue that he should have introduced new blood earlier, but Max’s tactial plans were sound ones. Once he had extra time in his sights, he pulled back to play for it, not because he was aiming for a shootout, but because he was planning on using his remaining changes to win the game in the extra period. Zidane had burned two changes at the half and his third with 15 minutes left, leaving his lineup set for the rest of the match. With two subs left in extra time, Allegri could have put two fresh players on the field against a tiring Real team. One of those players would certainly have been Juan Cuadrado, whose pace could have been decisive.

Allegri had been on the reverse end of a similar tactic against Bayern Munich two seasons ago, and looked to be ready to emulate it here. It was a good decision, but fate intervened.

LOOKING AHEAD

Buffon said one other thing in his post-match interview with Mediaset (the one with the crack about eating potato chips): “We will be furious when stepping onto the pitch in Serie A this weekend. Furious.”

I pity Sampdoria.

The Blucerchiati, who beat Juve 3-2 (in a game that wasn’t nearly so close close) in November, will bear the brunt of Juve’s European frustrations. They could be in for a long day.

After that, a midweek away tie against Crotone waits. With the Scudetto and Coppa yet to play for, Juve won’t let up on the gas, especially with Napoli so close, but they now have the luxury of focusing solely on domestic competitions. If it’s any consolation prize, there’s a seventh scudetto in the offing — and now Juve won’t have any European commitments in the run-up to the title decider against Napoli.