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Costa magic sends Juve into UCL knockout round

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FLASH! AHHHHHHH! SAVIOR OF THE UNIVERSE!!

Lokomotiv Moskva v Juventus: Group D - UEFA Champions League Photo by Filippo Alfero - Juventus FC/Juventus FC via Getty Images

The way Douglas Costa affects Juventus when he’s healthy is immense.

Few, if any, players possess his combination of pace and skill. Lokomotiv Moscow didn’t get to experience that when they visited the Juventus Stadium two weeks ago. That game, a stultifying affair that saw Juventus slog their way to a come-from-behind victory behind two incredible goals from Paulo Dybala, was one that was crying out for Costa’s talents, but at the time he was still recovering from a muscle injury he had suffered at the beginning of September.

He’s still not fit to play a full 90 minutes, but the 20 that he supplied as a substitute on Wednesday night in Moscow was plenty to show them what they had missed two weeks ago. The team had taken an early lead on a fluke opener, then continued their distressing inability to hold a lead for more than seven or eight minutes. After those opening twelve minutes, it seemed at times that Locomotiv might have a better chance at winning the game than Juve. As stoppage time approached in a driving rainstorm, it looked like a draw was inevitable. Then, when things looked their bleakest, a moment of magic from Costa changed everything.

It was a truly brilliant sequence. Costa received a simple pass on the left side from Alex Sandro. Then he did how Douglas Costa do.

Two men, Aleksey Miranchuk and Vladislav Ignatijev, were covering him. Costa blew through the space between them, leaving the latter swiping at air as he went to ground to try to tackle the Brazilian. Murilo Cerqueira was the next man to try and stop him, but only succeeded in a weak attempt to grab him by the shirt. Former Juventus man Benedikt Howedes was next, but flapped at air as Costa released a pass to Gonzalo Higuain. The Argentine ran over the ball and made an exquisite back-heel pass back into Costa’s path. Maciej Rybus was the next to get close, but he didn’t even make a challenge, pulling up and throwing up his hands when he realized that the only thing he’d do was clatter into him for a penalty. Vedran Corluka made a lunge for him, but by the time he did Costa was already gone. Goalkeeper Guilherme took a few tentative steps off his line and tried to make himself big — only for Costa to poke the ball forward with his right foot to nutmeg him just before Aleksandr Kolomeytsev hydroplaned across the turf in a last-ditch effort to stop the run.

In a single move, Costa had made eight of the Lokomotiv’s 11 players look silly in one way or another. It’s a goal that will be remembered for a long time, and one that turned the situation in Group D of the Champions League on its head. Juve had gone into the game knowing that a win would qualify them for the round of 16. As an added bonus, Bayer Leverkusen woke from its slumber in the main slate of games, beating Atletico Madrid 2-1, opening up a three-point lead atop the group table and making the path to winning the group much easier.

FBL-EUR-C1-LOKOMOTIV-JUVENTUS Photo by DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP via Getty Images

Juventus had come into the game on a string of grind-it-out games, and this one would prove to be another. Maurizio Sarri went into the game with the 4-3-1-2 that has become his standard shape. Wojciech Szczesny took the starting spot in goal. The defense required a couple of changes, as Juan Cuadrado was suspended due to yellow card accumulation and Matthijs de Ligt was left at home after spraining an ankle over the weekend against Torino. That left Danilo to play at right back and Daniele Rugani to partner with Leonardo Bonucci in the middle, with Alex Sandro on the left. Sami Khedira, Miralem Pjanic, and Adrien Rabiot took up stations in the middle of the park, and Aaron Ramsey made his first start in almost a month at the trequartista position. Higuain joined Cristiano Ronaldo in the strike pair.

Two weeks ago, Lokomotiv manager Yuri Semin went with a five-man back line. At home, he was a little less defensive, going with a 4-4-1-1. Guilherme took his place in the goal, with Ignatjev, Corluka, Howedes, and Rybus screening him. Dmitry Barinov and Grzegorz Krychowiak made up the center midfield, with Rifat Zhemaletdinov and Joao Mario playing on the outside. Miranchuk played just behind Eder (the Portuguese one) up top.

Things got started early in Moscow. Juve won a free kick on the left side, about 30 yards from goal. Ronaldo swung the ball toward the goal, skipping it off the grass right into the goalkeeper’s gut. But the Russian made a colossal flub, letting the ball slip right through his hands and between his legs. The ball was going to roll over the line anyway, but Ramsey ran in and tapped it the last few inches over the line.

Things were rather open after that, with Joao Mario hitting one over moments after the goal and Ronaldo pulling down a great long pass from Pjanic only to have his shot blocked over for a corner. But only eight minutes after taking the lead, Juve coughed up the lead. Rybus took the ball on the left side and sent the ball in. Bonucci got caught out in his marking, getting to Miranchuk a second late. The Russian got in a header that bounced off the far post and right back into his path for him to tap in to tie the game. Szczesny getting caught flat-footed on the initial shot didn’t help, either.

The next few minutes saw Lokomotiv look more likely to keep scoring. In the 21st minute, Miranchuk missed contact with with another great Rybus cross, but stayed with the play in order to latch on to the ball coming from the other side from Zhemaletdinov, heading just over the crossbar.

The game started to calm down after that, but just after the half-hour Juventus had a pair of chances to regain the lead, both through Higuain. The first came on a fantastic long ball by Khedira that dropped perfectly for the striker’s volley, but Guilherme managed to get down to make a fantastic one-handed save. Two minutes later Higuain tried again, this time from the top of the box that Guilherme managed to beat away.

Neither team made a substitution at halftime, but one huge change did occur: rain. Sheets of it. Over the course of the second half the field turned into a wet mess, making ground passes more and more difficult as the game went on.

Juve had another long free kick early in the second half, and Ronaldo managed to actually get it on target twice in one game, this one getting parried away by Guilherme. In the 56th minute, he had his best chance from open play when Ramsey deadened a ball into his path and and he unleashed a powerful shot that Guilherme flew to parry past the post.

Lokomotiv weren’t getting much in the way of possession, but they weren’t toothless either. Just after the hour Miranchuk worked his way into the right channel and bamboozled Rugani, getting him to lean outside then cutting hard inside, but his shot lacked power and was an easy stop for Szczesny.

Lokomotiv Moskva v Juventus: Group D - UEFA Champions League Photo by Daniele Badolato - Juventus FC/Juventus FC via Getty Images

The game slowly ground into a slog, and as it went on the better chances went to Lokomotiv. In the 78th minute they came agonizingly close to going ahead, but Bonucci managed to redeem himself for his terrible defending. Another awful play by Rugani allowed Krychowiak into the channel. Szczesny got a leg to his shot, but only deflected it right to Joao Mario. The midfielder fired from 16 yards, but Bonucci had gotten back to the line and kicked the ball off the line.

By that point, Costa was on the field, and with eight minutes left, Sarri put on his big boy pants and pulled Ronaldo, who had been misfiring for most of the game, and replacing him with Dybala. The No. 10 immediately got in on the act by stretching to meet a ball from Rabiot, but could only poke it wide.

The last phases of the game mostly saw desperation heaves toward Guilherme’s goal and a general sense that the game would end in a draw.

Until, that is, Douglas Costa did his thing, and the game was won.

LE PAGELLE

WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 6. Played well as the game when on but made a minor misplay on Miranchuk’s goal.

DANILO - 5.5. Really ragged in possession and passing, but did well on the defensive end, sharing the team lead with three tackles and two interceptions. He’s not going to be supplanting Cuadrado this way.

LEONARDO BONUCCI - 6. Really rough on the Lokomotiv goal, but the goal-line clearance made up for it, and he also made six clearances. That might have been his captain moment.

DANIELE RUGANI - 4.5. Also made a bunch of clearances, but man was he wobbly Wednesday night. He got sent the wrong way a bunch of times and he let up a ton of shots, along with a couple of fouls. A really rough day.

ALEX SANDRO - 6. A key pass and a big day defensively, with three more tackles and two clearances.

SAMI KHEDIRA - 6. Had a big day defensively, with three tackles and a blocked shot. Also racked up two key passes. This was one of his better games, but it still boggles that a guy who can never go the full 90 keeps starting.

MIRALEM PJANIC - 5.5. Looked a bit tired Wednesday night. Huge passing volume, but didn’t actually set up any chances directly. Did lead the team with three interceptions though.

ADRIEN RABIOT - 6. Led the team with four key passes and did some really great work keeping possession in the attacking third. He was a little off early, but grew into the game. It will be interesting to see what he can do when he really gets his feet under him.

AARON RAMSEY - 6. Yeah, he made two key passes and scored the goal, but wasn’t setting up chances the way you expected him to with so much possession. Probably needed to get his starting legs back under him after his injury layoff.

GONZALO HIGUAIN - 7. He was great in linkup play all night. Got stopped twice by Guilherme on great shots, and his assist for Costa was sublime — his second such helper in as many games. Also shared the team lead with three dribbles completed, which is not something you expect to hear next to his name.

CRISTIANO RONALDO - 5. He was out of it all night. His control was terrible, with passes in to him clanging off his feet all night, and all but one of his eight shots skewing well off target. He did manage to find the frame not once but twice on free kicks, which nearly dropped me on the floor in shock, and had a goal poached off him by Ramsey, but make no mistake: this was another in a string of relatively poor performances.

Lokomotiv Moskva v Juventus: Group D - UEFA Champions League Photo by Igor Russak/NurPhoto via Getty Images

SUBS

RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 6.5. Started his day in the hole before dropping back when Costa came on. He racked up three tackles in only 27 minutes of work and drew multiple fouls.

DOUGLAS COSTA - 8. What else can be said that hasn’t already been? What a goal.

PAULO DYBALA - NR. Sent on to open the game up in its last phases but only got to touch it six times.

MANAGER ANALYSIS

Douglas Costa is going to prove to be an interesting case. He was clearly sent on with the intent of playing in the hole — he clearly lined up in the center of the field when he got on — but he gravitated to the wings as his shift went on. I’ve mentioned numerous times before that it would be great to see Sarri switch from the 4-3-1-2 to the 4-3-3 mid-game to unbalance a defense, but that doesn’t seem to be his style. Costa, however, showed today that he can still apply his talents even when deployed in a more central spot.

Also interesting was Sarri’s choice of Rugani over Merih Demiral for the second straight time in the stead of De Ligt. Both players have been shaky when they’ve played—not surprising given how little they get on the field — but Rugani wasn’t great a week ago and the team seemed to be incredibly high on Demiral when he was signed this summer. It makes one wonder whether or not Demiral’s ... extracurricular activities during the last international break rubbed a few people in the club office the wrong way.

LOOKING AHEAD

Juve don’t resume Champions League play until Nov. 26, when Atletico Madrid comes to Turin for the return match. After Atleti’s stumble on Wednesday, Juventus only need a draw to secure the top spot in the group with a game to spare.

As for the next assignment, that comes Sunday evening, when a struggling AC Milan team arrives in Turin for the last game before the November internationals.