If we’ve learned one thing about Paulo Dybala in the five-plus seasons he’s been a Juventus player, it’s this: He is one of those players whose confidence level is clearly marked by his play. When he’s at a low point, he can be really bad. His touch is all over the place, his passes are inaccurate, his shots are wild — and that’s if he even pulls the trigger on a shot to begin with. When he’s feeling it, though, he’s a totally different animal. The ball is magnetically attached to his foot, his efforts at goal are unstoppable, and he combines perfectly with his teammates in and around the penalty area.
Right now, Paulo Dybala is very confident.
You could tell from the beginning of the season that there was a determination in him, to prove himself after a trying summer that saw the club all but beg at least two teams to buy him. That determination has turned into an impressive run of form — one that perhaps came to a climax at the end of the first half of Juve’s Champions League tilt with Atletico Madrid. With the game goalless, Dybala was standing over a free kick on the right wing, less than a yard outside the Atletico penalty area, and two or three yards from the byline. One would have expected him to whip a ball in to one of the target men, or perhaps roll the ball to the top of the box for one of two potential runners who were lurking at the top of the box.
Instead, he had the confidence, the audacity — the impudence, even — to go for goal from such an absurd angle. It bent perfectly, squeezed under the crossbar and whizzed past the despairing hand of Jan Oblak. It was an insane shot that will be difficult to top for Goal of the Year by season’s end.
That proved to be the difference in a 1-0 victory that was entertaining but strange, with Juventus dominating possession but being heavily outshot by Diego Simeone’s side yet never really feeling all that threatened. There were long periods where Juve began to look like the team that had left fans so encouraged after the Inter game and before the October internationals seemed to interrupt the team’s progress. After a long period of frustration, this game represented both a goal achieved and a palpable positive step.
Maurizio Sarri made a couple of changes from the team that played Atalanta over the weekend. He employed his now-standard 4-3-1-2, with Wojciech Szczesny in goal. Danilo gave Juan Cuadrado a rest at right back, joining Leonardo Bonucci, Matthijs de Ligt, and Mattia De Sciglio. Blaise Matuidi rejoined the starting lineup after suffering a broken rib just before the November international break, combining with Rodrigo Bentancur and Miralem Pjanic. Aaron Ramsey got the start at the trequartista role, playing behind the strike pair of Dybala and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Simeone set up his charges in his long-standing 4-4-2 setup. He had the game’s best insurance policy in goal in the form of Oblak, at this point the best goalkeeper in the sport. He was screened by Kieran Trippier, Felipe, Mario Hermoso, and Renan Lodi. Saul Niguez, Thomas Partey, Hector Herrera, and Koke formed the midfield bank. Top summer signing Joao Felix was in the team for the first time since dislocating his ankle in October, but wasn’t fit to start, so Vitolo partnered with former Juventus fan favorite Alvaro Morata in attack.
The theme of the game was two teams building up attacks only to have them crash into well-organized defenses. It took nearly 10 minutes for either side to carve out a real chance. A cross-field pass to Dybala turned into a one-two between the striker and Ramsey, and the former first-timed a shot from the right side of the penalty area that was right at Oblak.
Atleti picked up a pair of corner kicks in the first 15 minutes, and both deliveries went to the exact same place that generated so many problems for Juve when the teams met in September. There were two differences this time around: first, Jose Maria Gimenez wasn’t around to cause havoc and, second, Juve have made huge improvements in their set-piece coverage. There were no such problems this time.
The game developed into an extended midfield battle. Atleti managed a couple of half-chances that didn’t come very close, while Juve enjoyed long periods of possession with some quick, sharp passing, only to run into Simeone’s typically organized defense. Atleti finally had a real sight at goal in the 24th minute, with Saul firing a left-footed shot from distance that went through a sea of bodies but was stopped by Szczesny, who nearly spilled the ball to a waiting Morata but managed to gather it back in.
The rest of the half passed by in relative quiet, until Bentancur drew the foul in stoppage time and Dybala did how Dybala do.
Atleti came out with a bit more fire in the second half, and after five minutes a corner kick skimmed off the heads of the defense in the main scrum and fell to Saul, who controlled with his chest and fired a shot off the bounce, but it was straight at Szczesny, who controlled it easily.
Simeone went to his bench quickly, and burned all his subs within 64 minutes, starting with Joao Felix just nine minutes into the period. Atleti began to look the more threatening of the two sides, but that was really relative. They didn’t put another shot on target after Saul’s early-half effort, although there were a few close calls late in the half. Juve, on the other hand, started losing their way a little bit in their passing, and were unable to build things up the way they had in the first half. Their best chance of the half came via Federico Bernardeschi, who replaced Ramsey just after the hour mark and four minutes after his arrival latched on to a loose ball and cut in from the right. He ripped a low shot to the near side that would have beaten Oblak, but was just a fraction off and smashed against the outside of the post.
Atleti, meanwhile, were mostly throwing balls into the box that were either missing their target, being headed well wide of the frame, or settling into the loving mitts of Szczesny. They did have two excellent opportunities to tie the score, but both came up short. The first came when Bernardeschi was dispossessed in the defensive third by Koke. Felix gathered up the ball and found Angel Correa alone in the right channel, but de Ligt somehow recovered and, in the most spectacular moment of what was a flawless night for the Dutchman, made an inch-perfect sliding tackle that could very well have seen him get sent off had it gone wrong. The second came deep in stoppage time, again with Felix as the initiator. He found Correa on the right side of the box, who slipped a ball across the face of the goal. Morata was right there but somehow failed to get a touch to it — although he may have been offside on the play regardless. The whistle blew a moment later, and Juve had a deserved victory in one of their best games in a month.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 8. Secure in all phases of the game, making the only two saves he had to make with ease and hanging on to every cross that came his way. A strong performance.
DANILO - 6.5. Led the team with four interceptions and made a couple of nice overlapping runs as well. Easily his best game since his debut in August.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 7. Didn’t put a foot wrong in the back and often moved up into the opposing half to act as another passing outlet.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 9. Nearly flawless Tuesday night. That last-ditch tackle on Correa was a thing of beauty, and bumps up his rating a point or two all by itself, but it also came alongside four blocked shots. This is the de Ligt that beat Juve with Ajax last year — the one the team paid for in the summer.
MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - 7. You hardly ever see a fullback with seven clearances, but that’s what MDS had on this night. He’ll never be the attacking bomber that everyone and their mother want fullbacks to be these days, but he excels at the position’s primary responsibility: defending.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 6.5. Started out rough, but grew into the game. Made a couple of super tackles and was one of only three Juve players to record a key pass on the night. Also deserves credit for setting up Dybala’s goal by drawing the foul that set up the free kick.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 5.5. Led the team in pass completion, but didn’t really do much that was incisive or creative. Like at the weekend, his defensive contributions props up his rating. He is once again playing a ton of minutes and the effect of that is, once again, starting to wear on him. He should be rested against Sassuolo.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 6. His usual industrious self in midfield, winning the ball back well and even making a few attacking contributions, including a very good cross in the first half that was equally well defended.
AARON RAMSEY - 5. Not the best game from the Welshman. Did get a key pass credited on that early one-two with Dybala, but wasn’t particularly creative since, which is a shame since before his injury he and the Argentine had seemed to share a wavelength.
PAULO DYBALA - 9. Apart from his goal, he had some wonderful moments of skill to keep possession and even went up for a header in the box in the first half. Easily Juve’s most threatening player in the game. Dat free kick tho.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 5.5. Still doesn’t look 100 percent, which is why the fact that he played 90 minutes a little surprising. Wasn’t able to do much in the way of getting himself into shooting positions, often drifting out to the wings and trying — without much success — to dribble past people. He did lead the team in key passes, though, and did some nice tracking back to defend late in the game.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 6. Could’ve put the game away with that post shot. Much better for him today though, and he helped press up top a little better.
GONZAOLO HIGUAIN - 5.5. Spent most of his time trying to support his midfielders out of possession.
SAMI KHEDIRA - NR. Managed to get caught offside while touching the ball only four times.
I’m a little perplexed as to why Sarri made the substitutions he made. OK, Bernardeschi for Ramsey is like for like, But to remove Dybala and leave Ronaldo, who clearly isn’t well, seemed to me a very odd decision given Dybala’s recent form. Khedira, on the other hand, simply has no business going out in a Juventus shirt anymore. He touched the ball four times and was caught offside, which is kinda preposterous given slow he his. Whether or not Sarri addresses these decisions in the media remains to be seen, but I’d look forward to his answers.
All in all, though, the system is finding its place, and that should only make teams in Italy and the Champions League more worried than ever about what might happen come the spring.
Juve’s final Group D match will be a dead rubber against Bayer Leverkusen — which is suddenly all of one point behind Atletico Madrid entering the last round of group stage games — in Germany.
As for the full slate, next up is a Sunday lunchtime date against a struggling Sassuolo side at the Allianz Stadium. Six days later, it’s Lazio’s turn to try to fell the champs.