Juventus has been about as blatant as a club can possibly be about the fact that their goal this season is to win the UEFA Champions League. The massive financial outlay to sign Cristiano Ronaldo, the open talk in interviews and press conferences about the primacy of the competition in the team’s thinking, the sheer desperation to bring the Cup With the Big Ears back to Turin for the first time since 1996.
It stood to reason that the team’s first Champions League match of the year, a trip to Valencia, who were themselves making a return to the competitions after a two-year absence, would be appointment viewing, but this? This was something else.
Ronaldo’s team debut in the Champions League lasted all of 29 minutes after referee Felix Brych, on the advice of one of the goal line assistants, showed him a straight red card for ... touching Jeison Murillo’s head, as far as anyone can tell. The Mestalla, a difficult place to play as a visitor in the best of situations, turned into a cauldron, but where past Juventus teams would shrink and hold on by a thread, this Juve didn’t skip a beat. Miralem Pjanic converted a penalty on either side of halftime, the defense tightened up and gave Wojciech Szczesny very little to do until the end of the game (Brych again) and the Old Lady of Italian Football pulled out a surprisingly comfortable 2-0 win to start the Champions League on a winning note.
Massimiliano Allegri had spent much of the time since Sunday’s win over Sassuolo talking about the Douglas Costa incident, and decided it was best to sit the Brazilian at the start of the game. With Paulo Dybala nursing a bruised foot, he deployed a 4-3-3. Joao Cancelo, Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini, and Alex Sandro screened Szezesny, with Blaise Matuidi and Sami Khedira flanking Pjanic in midfield. Ronaldo joined Mario Mandzukic and Federico Bernardeschi in the attacking trident.
Marcelino’s Valencia side had a couple of players familiar with Juve from stints in Serie A. Chief among them was Norberto Neto, who we all know best for serving as Gianluigi Buffon’s backup/Coppa Italia goalkeeper for two years before getting fed up with his lack of playing time (what did he think was going to happen?) and moving on to Spain. He stood behind a 4-4-2 formation, with Ruben Vezo, Gabirel, Murillo (formerly of Inter), and Jose Gaya in defense. Another ex-Inter man, midfielder Geoffrey Kondogbia, missed the game due to injury, so the midfield was left to a pair of Daniels, Wass and captain Parejo, with Carlos Soler and Goncalo Guedes on the outside. Michy Batshuayi partnered with Rodrigo Moreno up top.
Valencia grabbed the initiative at kickoff and held it for about five minutes. Guedes forced Chiellini into an early blocked shot three minutes in, but Juve settled in an clawed out a foothold. Ronaldo’s first shot in European competition as a Juventus player came in the ninth minute, when he took a shot from way out and saw it deflected out for a corner kick by Soler. Two minutes he and Bernardeschi switched sides, and the Italian used a burst of speed to beat two men to get into crossing position. Ronaldo was sitting back post and swung a leg at it, but mishit it. He almost earned his second accidental assist of the season, but Mandzukic, who was in perfect position for the ricochet, hooked the volley over the bar.
Juve used the left wing to create an even better chance in the 17th minute, when Ronaldo sent an early ball behind the defense and all the way across to an onrushing Bernardeschi, who used his first touch to deftly cushion the ball into the path of Khedira, who was alone from eight yards out but put the ball over with the goal at his mercy.
Neto kept riding a lucky streak in the Valencia goal when he deflected a cross straight into the feet of Bernardeschi. He managed to scramble and get a hand to the shot, then tried to gather the ball in only to squirt it back out. Matuidi, no stranger to taking advantage of goalkeeper errors in Spain, pounced, but Murillo threw himself into his path and blocked the shot. As the ball came back out Khedira tried to chase it down, and after getting into a tangle stayed on the ground, gently probing the back of his knee with his finger. Emere Can got up immediately began warming up, and checked into the game before play resumed.
Brych had done a good job controlling the game up to that point, but the wheels came off the Volkswagen for the German arbiter just before the half hour. It started when Murillo tracked a Ronaldo run into the penalty area. The two bumped each other and Murillo flopped a bit. Ronaldo seemed to tell the defender to get up, then put his hand on the top of his head. Perhaps he squeezed slightly. Maybe he even tugged on his hair, although it looks more like his fingers simply went through it.
Regardless, Murillo got into Ronaldo’s face, and after diffusing the ensuing fracas, Brych was called over by the assistant behind the goal. After a brief conversation, he returned to the field, called Ronaldo over, and brandished the red card — an almost comical overreaction to such a minimal event. Ronaldo was beside himself, crumpling to the ground and leaving the ground in tears. It was the first time he had been sent off in in 154 career Champions League games.
If the Mestalla had been rocking before, it was on fire now. Watching the man who had tormented them for years take an early walk whipped the crowd into a frenzy, and Valencia tried to capitalize on the energy. Batshuayi pounced on a blocked shot in the 38th minute and tested Szczesny for the first time, but the Poland international made a strong save at the near post to deny him from an acute angle. Four minutes later the Belgian striker fired well over from distance.
Juve didn’t capitulate and pressed forward themselves when they had the chance. Just before the half, that effort gave the game another swerve.
A cross from Sandro managed to creep over everyone in the penalty area, and Cancelo was waiting at the other end to latch on to it. He tried to volley it goalwards, but whiffed at it, which fortuitously allowed him to dribble himself into a better shooting positoin. Neto just managed to get a hand to the shot and tip it onto the crossbar, and when Cancelo charged after his own rebound he was met by the outstretched cleats of Parejo.
Brych immediately pointed to the spot and pulled a card from his pocket—the yellow one, because planting your studs into a guy’s face doesn’t reach the shameful level of patting someone on the head.
Unphased by Brych’s strange priorities, Pjanic stepped up to the spot in a situation that would have been a mortal lock to go to Ronaldo otherwise. He faced down his former teammate and fired to the right. Neto guessed correctly and even got a fingertip to the low ground-skimmer, but it was too powerful and well placed for him to stop. Just like that, Juve had turned what might have been a dire situation into a halftime lead.
Valencia immediately pushed forward upon kicking off to start the second half, with Batshuayi firing way over from long range and Moreno putting an easy header at Szczesny. It looked like the traditional hold-on-to-the-lead-for-dear-life tactics of Allegri were about to take hold, but in the fourth minute of the second period Cancelo burst out on a counterattack and tried to find Mandzukic moving ahead. The ball was deflected away from the Croatian for a corner, As Pjanic sent in the delivery, Bonucci managed to get free of Murillo and began to race forward. The defender’s response? Tackling Bonucci to the ground, earning him a yellow card and Juve’s second penalty of the night, which Pjanic duly dispatched, again beating Neto to the shooter’s right with an even better shot than his first.
Valencia was left chasing a home game when they had a man advantage. World Cup hero Denis Cheryshev came on just before the hour, and Kevin Gameiro, a veteran of Sevilla’s three straight Europa League crowns, followed in the 70th. In between, Soler began unleashing shots from range, one of which forced Szczesny to beat the ball away as it skipped toward the bottom corner. Douglas Costa arrived as a substitute for Pjanic and hit the side netting with his first burst down the left side. Another shot from Soler was easily handled by Szczesny in the 72nd minute, then in the 81st the 21-year-old swerved one that came close to the upper 90 but slipped high and wide. As the clock ticked on Valencia couldn’t muster up anything beyond speculative shots from range.
Costa nearly put the game fully out of reach four minutes from time when he blasted up the left again, but Neto was up to it and saved it. Costa got tangled up with Gabriel as he released the shot and looked to have gotten his leg caught under him. He stayed down in the Valencia penalty area and had to be helped off the field by two trainers, and Daniele Rugani, who was about to come on anyway, replaced him with a minute left in regular time.
Six minutes were tacked on to the end of the game, and Brych got in one last greatest hit when he called a penalty and booked Rugani when he went up for a ball and hit Gabriel in the head with his arm as he did so. It was a incredibly soft penalty, but fate seemed to know it, because Parejo’s attempt was limp, and Szczesny dove to his right and beat it away. Bonucci to block Cheryshev’s follow-up, and Brych mercifully ended his own performance by blowing the final whistle.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 9. When a defense goes down a man for 60 minutes but still sees out an almost routine win, the goalkeeper deserves a lot of credit for his organizational skill. This has always been Szczesny’s weakest point, and anyone is a clear step down from Gianluigi Buffon, whose greatness was in large part due to that skill. But in the last two games the Pole seems to have improved his communication with his defenders. Valencia only found the target six times, one of which was the missed penalty, and only two of the open-play shots were particularly dangerous. A fantastic performance.
JOAO CANCELO - 8. Another excellent day for the new signing. Led the team in tackles for a second consecutive game and threw in the interception lead as well. Excellent going forward, and his work in the box prior to the first penalty was exceptional. Marotta’s found another real gem.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 6.5. Earned the second penalty with some good movement in the box and distributed fantastically from the back, completing 96.9 percent of his passes. Why is he so low? His marking is still riven with unsettling lapses. He got caught ball-watching again in the 84th minute and nearly allowed Valencia to set up a grandstand finish.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 8. A monster in the back, registering 10 clearances. He kept the back line together and pulled the team through a very tough situation in his first Champions League game as full captain.
ALEX SANDRO - 7. Put some good crosses into the box that created a lot of danger and did his part defensively when the team backed up. A good shift.
SAMI KHEDIRA - NR. His day ended after 23 minutes and one awful, awful miss. He did quite literally nothing else. He spent the second half on the bench, so his injury doesn’t look that bad, but we’ll see if anyone manages to Wally Pipp the guy.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 8. Stone cold on both penalties. A little sloppier than usual in distribution, and he was pulled in the 65th minute in what was probably a scheduled move, given the fact that he pulled up while on international duty.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 7. Dogged as ever to regain possession, and defended strongly as Juve retreated late.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 8.5. This was a really great performance. Put a couple of really dangerous balls into the box before the red card and defended doggedly when required. His work rate was excellent, and he’s earning his playing time amongst huge competition. He’s evolving into the stud many of us thought he’d become when he was signed last year.
MARIO MANDZUKIC - 6. Didn’t get a whole lot to do in front of goal, especially after Ronaldo was sent off, but dropped back to defend as the game went on and turned in a good shift overall.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - NR. I’ve seen few players who deserved to be sent off for less. Brych and his assistants done messed up.
EMERE CAN - 6.5. Looked more solid than Khedira in midfield. Will this be an opportunity for him to steal his countryman’s starting spot?
DOUGLAS COSTA - 6. Made a few explosive runs on the counter and did pretty well tracking back. The injury looked bad though. His suspension may be moot.
DANIELE RUGANI - NR. How was he supposed to jump for that ball? Hold his hands at his sides and flop through the air like a Magikarp? A really soft call.
It’s hard to talk tactics in a game like this, because when you go down to 10 men a lot of things get thrown out the window.
What is clear is that Allegri displayed an adventurousness with 10 men that he doesn’t often show. He’s often guilty of dropping the team back to defend for their lives when he has a full compliment of players, and it would have been easy to just drop back and cling to a point down a man in a place like the Mestalla, one of the most difficult places in the world to play as a visitor.
Instead, they kept control of the game through much of the rest of the first half before the quick second gave them more license to drop back. Who knows how long that would have lasted if Murillo hadn’t done something characteristically dumb, but the idea of a Juve that keeps attacking has been the basis of many a Juventino’s dreams. If this is the new normal, it’s indicative of a cultural shift on the team—one that could finally propel it to the promised land.
The continued insistence on running Khedira out at the start remains puzzling, but Sami is almost certain to sit now against Frosinone, so it remains to be seen whether he’ll stay in the side long term. The midfield certainly didn’t miss him.
The first midweek action in Serie A this year is on the horizon. A trip to Frosinone is first on the agenda in Sunday. This is a good opportunity for some rotation in the squad. Rodrigo Bentancur, Max? What about Moise Kean? This would actually be the perfect game for him to get his feet wet in a Juve shirt.
After Frosinone, struggling Bologna will come to Turin on Wednesday.