Going into Tuesday’s game against Real Madrid, the major theme was whether or not Juventus could gain revenge for their 4-1 loss in the UEFA Champions League final in Cardiff last June. Much was made of the fact that Juve had never lost to Real over two legs, and that Juve was far better and deeper than they were in Wales.
At the end of the day, though, Real Madrid’s still Real Madrid, and things have to go near-perfect in order to get them out. That goes for your own performance and the incidents in the game, like, say, the referee making the correct calls. Unfortunately for Juve, they got none of that. Their 3-0 loss to the two-time defending champions — their first European loss at home in five years — was death by a thousand cuts, both self-inflicted and otherwise.
Massimiliano Allegri had hard choices to make coming into the first leg of this quarterfinal. Two key starters, Medhi Benatia and Miralem Pjanic, were suspended due to yellow card accumulation. That meant he’d have to tinker with both his player selection and his tactics.
For the latter, he settled on a 4-2-3-1 that Fox Sports insisted on calling a 4-4-2. Gianluigi Buffon took up his customary position in goal. Andrea Barzagli was selected over Daniele Rugani to replace Benatia. He partnered with Giorgio Chiellini, while Mattia De Sciglio and Kwadwo Asamoah bookended the pair. The midfield pivot was made up of Sami Khedira and Rodrigo Bentancur, who was picked to take Pjanic’s spot over Claudio Marchisio. Douglas Costa, Paulo Dybala, and Alex Sandro formed a line behind Gonzalo Higuain.
On the other side, Zinedine Zidane sent out the same 11 players that humbled Juve at the Millennium Stadium. Fox Sports again depicted the formation as a flat 4-4-2, but it was clearly a diamond midfield. Keylor Navas stood between the sticks, with Dani Carvajal, Raphael Varane, Sergio Ramos, and Marcelo in front of him. Casemiro screened the defense with Toni Kroos and Luka Modric next to him, while Isco, who was so disruptive in the final, slotted into the hole behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema.
The night started about as badly as it possibly could have. Two-and-a-half minutes into the game, the ball came down Real’s left side to Marcelo. The Brazilian hesitated, and for some reason De Sciglio moved up to confront him, creating a double team when none was needed — as well as a massive amount of space behind him for Isco to run into. Run into it he did, and Marcelo found him with an easy pass. Bentancur rushed back to try to close him down, but the Spaniard was able to fizz a cross into the box along the ground. This is where perhaps the biggest mistake was made: Both Barzagli and Chiellini got stuck on Benzema, leaving Ronaldo, of all people, totally unmarked. He tapped the ball home with the outside of his boot, and Juve were down 1-0 before the game had even properly started.
It was a worst-case scenario for Juve, but they responded well.
Barely three minutes after the goal an excellent passing move sent Dybala into the left channel, but Ramos scrambled across the field and slid in to block the shot out for a corner. Two minutes later, Chiellini tried to make amends for his mistake with one of those bombing runs forward he makes, but lost control with his very last touch and tumbled to the ground as he lost the ball. Referee Cuneyt Cakir waved for play to continue — one of the few correct calls he made all day.
Juve continued to have the better of the ball, but their final product was just off. Khedira and Costa both in separate incidents had good ideas but executed their passes poorly, grinding attacks to a halt. Those moves bookended a Madrid corner that saw Varane presented with a golden opportunity to double his team’s lead, but he put his free header over the bar.
In the 13th minute, Bentancur started showing some real quality. He made an excellent run with the ball through the middle and sent Higuain down the left side. The Uruguay international continued his run but looked a bit surprised at the quickness of Higuain’s return ball to him, and his stab toward goal lacked power, allowing Ramos to make yet another block, this time a diving header. The ball was recovered on the Juve right, but Higuain was flagged offside as Costa tried to put the ball back into the mix.
The best chance to equalize came about 10 minutes later, after Higuain had earned a free kick on the left side. With Pjanic in the stands, Dybala stood over the ball, and his delivery was excellent, picking out the inside of Higuain’s boot. Everyone in the building thought the ball was going in, but Navas, who was moving toward his far post, somehow got his hand back to claw the ball away — a truly excellent save.
A few minutes later, De Sciglio made a rare foray to the attack, shooting an excellent ball along the ground into the box. Dybala and Higuain both slid in at full stretch, but the former was centimeters away from turning it into the goal.
Besides Varane’s miss, Real hadn’t caused a ton of trouble since they opened the scoring. That changed in the 36th minute, when Isco received the ball on the left side and skipped around Barzagli before laying the ball off to Kroos. The German darn near broke the crossbar in half with his powerful drive, and the bounce was kind, flying out for a goal kick.
Two minutes later, Dybala made another excellent set piece delivery, this time on a corner. The ball found Chiellini for a free header, but unlike last year at this stage, when he drove the knife home against Barcelona with a goal off a corner, King Kong could only drive the ball into the ground. It did stick in a danger area, but Varane beat Barzagli to the followup to put it behind for another corner—this one coming to nothing.
Shortly before the half Dybala earned a free kick right above the penalty arc, but his shot went into the wall. And here, dear readers, is where things got...interesting.
You may have noticed a previous comment on the referee’s performance in this match. He had already made some questionable calls, including delivering a booking to Bentancur for what looked like a pretty clean tackle that will mean the 20-year-old is suspended for the second leg. But the last few minutes of the first half was the nadir of the Turk’s night.
After Dybala’s free kick hit the wall, it came back out and was thrown back in over the top. Chiellini tried to flick it toward the middle but was prevented from doing so — by the outstretched arm of Casemiro.
A lot has been made of the handball rule the last few years. In this case, the Madrid midfielder was very close to Chiellini, but his arm was in an unnatural position. It was clear the Brazilian realized it, too — he was clearly trying to pull the arm away. It was very similar to the penalty that was called against Germany’s Jerome Boateng in the quarterfinal of Euro 2016 against Italy — but in this case Cakir dismissed the appeals.
Then, just before stoppage time, Dybala charged through the right channel and went down. Casemiro was again present, and replay angles clearly showed shin-to-shin contact between the two. But rather than a penalty, the ref showed Dybala a yellow card for simulation.
Both incidents merited penalty calls, but Cakir ignored the both of them and compounded his mistakes by issuing a booking that would have massive implications later on in the game. Frankly, this is what one has come to expect from Cakir, whose list of high-profile screw-ups is about as long as one of the goalposts. He’s one of the worst referees in the world, yet continues to be allowed to make these kinds of mistakes in high-profile games.
Thanks to those mistakes, Juve went into the half a goal down rather than even or better. They came out of the half hungry. They pressed high and hard, and it was only some good defense that kept Dybala out of the box early on a feed from Asamoah. Costa fired in a cross from the right, but no one was there to attack it.
Real wasn’t done being dangerous, and Ronaldo almost doubled his take five minutes into the half when he whizzed the ball just past the post after the ball trickled to him after a Benzema run.
Bentancur blasted wide when a free kick delivery pinballed its way to him in the box, then Dybala was again taken down in good position for a free kick. This time it was Sergio Ramos, who earned himself a booking and a suspension for the second leg...something that seemed so relevant at the time.
Dybala stood over the free kick and again hit the wall, but this time the deflection ballooned toward the goal, missing the post by a fraction.
The Juve now looked to be seriously taking control of proceedings, to the degree that Zidane, despite being ahead, was the first manager to make a change, replacing the anonymous Benzema with Lucas Vazquez.
But this is still Real Madrid, and a cut of the self-inflicted variety was about to turn the game on its head.
The man responsible was, again, Chiellini. The big center back was tracking a ball toward his goal while Buffon came out for it, but Chiellini somehow didn’t register that his captain was in position to get the ball and poked it past him — right into the path of a rampaging Ronaldo. The legend took the ball to the byline and crossed for Vazquez, whose shot was met with a flying parry by Buffon. The ball was cycled back out to the right, where Carvajal sent in a cross that Ronaldo turned into one of the pink elephants of the soccer world — a thunderous bicycle kick.
The overhead effort sailed past a stranded Buffon for a 2-0 Real lead.
Within moments of the restart, the game was pretty much over. Dybala came in high on Carvajal, hitting him with the side of his boot but not the spikes. Cakir deemed it a bookable offense (debatable) and, when coupled with the his preposterous early booking for his non-existent dive, meant an early shower for Juve’s best player.
The air immediately left the building. Allegri tried to patch things up with a double sub, introducing Mario Mandzukic and Blaise Matuidi, but the first leg was essentially over, and in the 72nd minute Marcelo completed a neat passing triangle to sneak past the defense on a feed from Ronaldo, avoiding a credible challenge from Buffon to tap into the net and, in all likelihood, end the tie.
The gap could have been even more. Ronaldo put two balls over the top, one from a bad Barzagli clearance and another in stoppage time from a Vazquez cross. Buffon made a pair of saves just before stoppage time began, first from Ronaldo and then from Marco Ascensio.
Juve had one last wheeze at the end of the two minutes of stoppage time. In quick succession Higuain forced a good save out of Navas from the top of the penalty area, then Chiellini, who had come forward on that play, played Juan Cuadrado clear through at the six yard box only to see the Colombian nudge it wide, leaving Juve with a goalless night and a mountain to climb in eight days.
GIANLUIGI BUFFON - 6. Couldn’t do anything about any of the goals, and made a couple of great saves late to make sure a heavy defeat didn’t become an out-and-out rout.
MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - 4.5. Sucked into a needless double team that allowed Isco in to set up the opener. A lot of people are blaming Bentancur for that goal but really De Sciglio should have done better. He was also ball-watching on Ronaldo’s bike.
ANDREA BARZAGLI - 3. He somehow lost the game’s most-deadly penalty box poacher on the opener, was consistently dribbled around, and made a couple ugly clearances late that could have led to more for Real. It’s a sad thing to admit, but games of this magnitude have passed him by.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 3. It’s amazing that the two worst players on the field were these two. Chiellini was complicit in leaving Ronaldo open for the first goal and his brain fart in the lead up to the second was mystifying. He also missed a sitter with the game still poised on a knife-edge at 1-0. One of his worst games in years.
KWADWO ASAMOAH - 5. Defended well, but didn’t do a good job supporting the attack on the left side, making some pretty ugly cross attempts.
SAMI KHEDIRA - 7. Before the international break we were calling for his head, but he picked a great time to have his best game of the year. One just wishes it had led to a better result. Led the team with three key passes and completed 90.6 percent. A far cry from the black hole that we saw against Tottenham.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 6.5. Showed some green, especially early, but made some great dribbles and got after the ball like a stubborn terrier. He’s going to be so good.
DOUGLAS COSTA - 5. Buzzed around Marcelo as a sub for Bayern last year but was quite effectively handled by his compatriot today, hardly setting up anything.
PAULO DYBALA - 6. Hard to gauge given the red card, but he should never have been given his first yellow to begin with. He was active in buildup but not particularly sharp. Took four shots but didn’t manage to hit the target, although one was blocked. His set piece delivery was on point though.
ALEX SANDRO - 4. More useful defending than attacking. He’s got the ability to forward but still isn’t comfortable as a winger. Perhaps not the best of ideas for him to be trying to figure it out in the biggest game of the year.
GONZALO HIGUAIN - 6. Two key passes, a pair of shots on target that were denied by snappy saves, and he dropped back to defend well too. Disappeared a bit in the latter stages though.
MARIO MANDZUKIC - 5.5. Came on when there wasn’t much difference to make.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 5.5. Tried to get a handle on the midfield down a man.
JUAN CUADRADO - 4. Rough situation to be in, but there were some awful crosses, and missed a sitter at the end that could have given Juve some kind of life in the second leg.
One of the most frustrating things about this game is that Allegri did pretty much everything right. His formation and tactics, for the most part, worked.
Until the second goal Juve was playing some of its best and smoothest football of the season. His adoption of a hard press at the start of the second half forced a reaction from Zidane off his bench. If I were to nitpick, I’d have put Mandzukic on earlier, both to aid in the press and to serve as a target for balls into the box, where he could have easily overpowered Carvajal. It’s entirely possible that the thigh bruise the Croatian suffered on Friday was still keeping him from the starting XI, but he really should’ve been out there.
Unfortunately, Allegri’s good work was undone by some huge mistakes by some of his most experienced veterans and some absurd calls by the referee. He sounded a bit like he was conceding the second leg, but even he has to admit that something pretty special is going to have to happen next week to see Juve make their third semifinal in four years.
Weirder things have happened in this tournament. Just three years ago Real beat Schalke 2-0 in Gelsenkirchen in the Round of 16, but three weeks later they spaced out and the Germans nearly mugged them, winning the game 4-3 and only falling one goal short of tying the aggregate and sending Madrid crashing out.
This Juve team, even without Dybala is far better than that Schalke squad. I’m not saying it’s probable, but if something breaks their way, who knows?
Let’s just hope they give us someone like Bjorn Kuipers for the second leg.
Before that, of course, is the matter of Benevento this Saturday. This should be an easy trip, but we said that when the Streghe came to the J Stadium and they were up 1-0 until the hour mark. Still, this is a good opponent, both because it can afford some potential rest to big players to try to make some sort of a push in Madrid and to give the team some confidence.
Of course, it might be just our luck that Gianluca Rocchi gets that game.