After he scored twice against Barcelona in the Champions League quarterfinal in 2017, Paulo Dybala was anointed ‘The Next Big Thing’ by many in the world soccer media. But he’s never really fulfilled that billing. He had a fantastic 2017-18 season after that big moment against Barca, but last season was one of frustration. Many wondered if it was time to cash in on La Joya — and oh how it seemed like Fabio Paratici tried to do just that this past summer.
But through all of that transfer drama — some of it really rather shocking in terms of how the player was treated — Dybala stayed, and he’s persevered. The conventional wisdom that he cannot play with Cristiano Ronaldo has been severely challenged. He scored a fantastic goal against Inter to open the scoring in the Derby d’Italia three weeks ago. And on Tuesday night, in the midst of a shocking team performance against Lokomotiv Moscow in the Champions League, Manu’s large adult son had his first big boy moment since those two goals against Barca.
Juve had been dominating possession, but produced nothing, and a serious defensive error had allowed the Russian outfit to hold a 1-0 lead into the deep stages of the game. But Dybala turned everything on its head, pumping in two goals in two minutes — including an absolutely gorgeous left-footed curler to equalize — to give Juventus the 2-1 victory over Lokomotiv Moscow despite an insipid performance.
The equalizer was a thing of absolute beauty. Dybala and Juan Cuadrado exchanged three passes between them, the last of which being a square ball that put Dybala into a layer of open space about 22 yards away from goal. He turned and unleashed that potent left foot of his, curling the ball so perfectly that Guilherme couldn’t even move as he watched it rip into the net.
Miralem Pjanic badly scuffed a great setup in the box a minute later, but that was of little matter. The ball came right back toward the Lokomotiv goal, and Rodrigo Bentancur deserves credit for keeping the ball in play near the sideline and putting the ball into the box. The defensive header rolled out to Alex Sandro, who loaded up and sent a pile driver at goal. Lokomotiv goalkeeper Guilherme got a hand to it — a really impressive save — but the rebound rolled right into danger, and Dybala charged in and slotted it home to give Juve the lead.
Maurizio Sarri trotted out the 4-3-1-2 that he’s used for the last several weeks. made one change to the lineup that beat Bologna over the weekend. Wojciech Szczesny retook his place in goal, with Cuadrado, Leonardo Bonucci, Matthijs de Ligt, and Sandro in front of him. Sami Kheidra, Pjanic, and Blaise Matuidi manned the midfield. Sarri had a surprise in store for the trequartista position: Bentancur was drafted in to give Federico Bernardeschi a rest. He slotted in behind Dybala and Ronaldo.
Lokomotiv manager Yuri Semen was the coach of Lokomotiv when these two teams last met in competitive match in 1993. At that time Juve came away 4-0 winners over two legs in the first round of the 1993-94 UEFA Cup. He was dealing with a massive injury crisis, missing no fewer than six players, and only had one striker with which to work. He broke out a 5-3-2 formation that was reflective of his team’s ultra-defensive approach to the game. Guilherme took his place in goal, screened by, from right to left, Vladislsav Ignatijev, Murilo Cerqueira, Vedran Corluka, former Juve loan player Benedikt Howedes, and Brian Idowu. Grzegorz Krychowiak, joined Joal Mario and Joao Mario behind the strike pairing of Alecksey Miranchuck and Euro 2016 hero Eder.
Business nearly started early for Juve when Corluka deflected a Dybala effort behind for a corner, the Croatian just missing putting the ball into his own net. Ronaldo tried his luck from distance in the sixth minute only to have his effort blocked. The signs were clear: Juve was going to be the team with possession for the majority of this game.
Unfortunately possession didn’t necessarily mean danger. It took 10 minutes for Juve to take another shot, a tame effort from a long way out by Ronaldo. Bentancur nearly teed the Portugal international up a minute later when he made an excellent interception near the midfield line and charged forward, cutting inside before feeding his teammate, who was blocked yet again.
Twenty minutes in Ronaldo missed what should have been a sitter, ballooning over from a cross from Cuadrado, although had he scored he would certainly have been ruled offside, either on the field or through VAR. Four minutes later Dybala was a fraction too late to make contact with a dinked free kick over the top by Pjanic.
Bonucci had a golden opportunity to put the team into the lead in the 29th minute when he got himself open for a free header on another Pjanic free kick, but only succeeded in glancing it wide. It was an opportunity that he really should have taken, and it was obviously still on his mind when Guilherme took the ensuing goal kick. The ball got in over the top and bounced to Miranchuck. Bonucci was in front of him, but rather than stand his ground he made a lazy attempt at a back-heel tackle that the Russian easily evade. He charged into the box and fed Joao Mario. The midfielder fired a stinger of a shot that Szczesny parried, but Miranchuck was right there for the rebound. His shot crackled past Bonucci’s attempt to head it off the line, and Lokomotiv had a shock lead.
The Bianconeri had looked impatient before the goal, but now they were downright rushing. Passing moves didn’t have the crispness of recent games, and players tried to force the ball in to their teammates only to see them swamped. For the next 10 minutes their only shot was a long-range effort by de Ligt, of all people, that was blocked.
Dybala had the ball in the net with four minutes left in the half, but Greek referee Tasos Sidiropoulos had correctly ruled that Ronaldo had gone in with a high boot on Guilherme and stopped play.
The team went into the half searching for answers, but they nearly took a huge blow almost immediately into the second period when Szczesny came off his line for a free kick but missed. Fortunately for Juve the ball spun past before it was cleared. Almost immediately after Gonzalo Higuain stripped off his warmup gear and stepped to the touchline, and he came on for Khedira only three minutes in.
It didn’t take long for Dybala to get into a fantastic position on a diagonal run into the left channel, but his volley off of a great Pjanic pass flew over. Shortly thereafter he gained a free kick in good shooting position, but Ronaldo’s continued effort to prove—physics be damned—that he can shoot the ball through another human being’s anatomy once again wasted the opportunity. The ball moved too slowly as they tried to find soft spots in the parked bus that was Lokomotiv’s defense, and the attacks were far too narrow, funneling themselves into the teeth of the defense where there was little if any space to work the ball. The few times they did move it wide, seemed a little more dangerous, but the crosses were often too close to the keeper or kept away from the strikers by the defendres. Cuadrado in particular seemed lively, and right on the hour mark made a jinky run up the right side only to fire a cross across the goalmouth in a spot where there was no one to attack it.
Ronaldo hit another free kick into the wall, and wave after wave of Juve attacks continued to slam into the wall of green shirts.
Slowly but surely, however, tiny spaces began to open. Between the addition of Adrien Rabiot, who came on for Matuidi, and Higuain, a few more concrete chances were being carved out. In the 73rd minute Higuain took down a mishandle by Ronaldo and turned Howedes inside out, but his shot was wide. Two minutes later, he met a Sandro cross with a glancing header that had the keeper rooted to his spot but slipped just to the wrong side of the post.
But just as frustration seemed to be taking over, magic happened.
Suddenly, thanks to Dybala’s brace in the span of two minutes, it was like Juve had shed the shackles. The play got faster and more fluid as the team suddenly was given a dose of speed and confidence, and a couple more moves with potential came up in rapid succession, but the Lokomotiv defense acted quickly and cleared their lines.
Ronaldo had an attempt at window dressing saved at the near post in the last minute of stoppage time, and when the final whistle blew, Juventus knew that they had just dodged a major bullet in their quest for the Champions League.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 6. A little shaky coming out for the odd cross, but did well on the initial save on Lokomotiv’s goal and generally kept things going.
JUAN CUADRADO - 7.5. Gave a really good effort on the right. Excellent defensively, making three tackles, two interceptions, and two clearances, to go along with two key passes going forward. He touched the ball a whopping 151 times. A really complete match, but he did pick up his third yellow card of the tournament for sliding through Joao Mario from behind, so he’ll miss the return match. That dings him half a point.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 4. What on earth was he thinking with that challenge that led to Lokomotiv’s goal? Just lifting his leg behind him and expecting that would be enough? Add that to what amounts to a missed sitter in the first half off that free kick and you’ve got a really poor night.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 6. Did his job for the most part, marking well and making himself available to recycle the ball for the attack.
ALEX SANDRO - 6.5. The attacks didn’t come out of his side a whole ton, but he still made a pair of key passes, and his excellent shot led to the winner.
SAMI KHEDIRA - 4. A black hole Tuesday night. He made a lot more passes than he did on Saturday, but they didn’t do anything. He was dispossessed multiple times and moved too slowly to help break down the Lokomotiv defense.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 7. Led the team with five key passes and was the only guy in the starting midfield that can escape criticism. He kept the ball moving as well as he could and his free kick deliveries were spot-on, producing more than a few opportunities that his teammates couldn’t put away. He also found a few guys with scooped passes over the top that similarly didn’t get results.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 5. Made a nice move early to create a shot for Ronaldo, but that was pretty much it. He couldn’t make much work today, and his first touch seriously wasn’t working. Things started getting better once he was replaced.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 6. He wasn’t terrible in the first half, but was much better in the second when he was moved back to the box-to-box role. Pugnacious off the ball and did well to regain and hold it in some big spots late. Serious consideration needs to be made to him replacing Khedira in this spot.
PAULO DYBALA - 8. Two wonderfully taken goals, especially the first. It was one of those classic curlers that we saw so much from him in his first few years with the team. He worked well as a trequartista behind Higuain and Ronaldo, and this time the balance of the team wasn’t thrown off the way it was against Inter.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 5.5. His lack of impact today came largely from the team’s lack of ability to get him decent service, but the shots he did take were either way off or incredibly easy to save. Everyone has an off game here and there, and this definitely was one for Ronaldo. Oh, and he needs to not take free kicks ever again. Period.
GONZALO HIGUAIN - 6. Started pulling some of the Lokomotiv players around to create some cracks of space, and he just missed tying the game on a great turn. His introduction eventually changed things.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 6. More dynamic in possession than Matuidi, he made three key passes in only 25 minutes of work.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - NR. On to see the game out up front, still got a game in a key pass and a shot on target.
It’s been about a month since Sarri broke out the 4-3-1-2, and it’s been largely successful. This game, however, had its chief shortcoming on full display: the extreme narrowness of its attack. Juve repeatedly tried to shove the ball down Lokomotiv’s throats through the middle of the field last year, and ran into a wall until they finally tired and started allowing some windows through which Juve could get through. Cuadrado and Sandro made an effort to provide what width they could, but they continued to hammer the middle of the field, to the point that the English commentary repeatedly remarked how narrow they were playing, even expressing dismay that the ball was going back into the middle of the park right before Dybala unleashed his equalizer.
If ever there was a game screaming for Douglas Costa, it was this one. Had the Brazilian been healthy, he could have dramatically changed this match. Heck, even putting Danilo into the game and moving Cuadrado further forward as a winger could have worked. It will be interesting to see whether Sarri decides to use Costa to change things on the fly once the Brazilian is healthy.
In-game, however, Sarri played all the right cards. It was a little strange that he put Higuain three minutes into the second half rather than just doing so at the break, but it was the right move to get Dybala into the hole and Khedira out of the game. With Khedira out of the game and, eventually, Rabiot in it, things started moving that little bit faster in midfield, and eventually the openings arrived.
Juve remain tied on points with Atletico Madrid, technically ahead of them on head-to-head away goals for first place. Lokomotiv now trail the pair by four points. Juve take the trip to Moscow in two weeks and could clinch qualification for the knockout rounds if they win.
In absolute terms, Juve’s next assignment is a trip south to take on Lecce on Saturday.