Wednesday night didn’t just bring the Champions League group stage finale for Juventus. There was also something we haven’t seen all that much of through the first 3 1⁄2 months of the 2019-20 season — massive squad rotation. Some of that was going to happen no matter what because of who was available, but some of it was also Maurizio Sarri taking advantage of the situation and realizing that Juventus didn’t have much to play for at the BayArena.
With a heavily-rotated squad, the result was about as good as we could have hoped.
Not only did players who haven’t featured much at all lately get some much-needed run, but thanks to second-half goals from Cristiano Ronaldo and Gonzalo Higuain, that makeshift starting lineup rolled into Germany and picked up a 2-0 win over Bayer Leverkusen to finish the Champions League group stage on a positive note.
Yes, a defense featuring two central defenders who have never played together in a competitive match, Merih Demiral and Daniele Rugani, and Danilo at right back pitched a shutout against a Leverkusen team that had to attack if it wanted any chance of qualifying for the Champions League knockout round.
And that defense, one that had no real on-field rapport with one another outside of training limited a Leverkusen side that, on top of needing a win (and some help from Lokomotiv Moscow against Atlético Madrid), had been unbeaten in its last six games in all competitions to all of one shot on goal.
There were no massive defensive breakdowns like we saw over the weekend against Lazio or the weekend before against Sassuolo. This was not Juventus being its own worst enemy.
Sure, there was nothing to play for, and Juventus’ starting lineup featured more reserves than it did regulars. This could have been the kind of game where they pretty much go through the motions, give up a goal or two and just not show much of a damn in the world about what was taking place. I wouldn’t have blamed them — especially when you consider that the more important games coming up in the next two weeks are the ones to be played domestically rather than the final European fixture of the calendar year.
But, even with Juventus recording all of six shots total, the team that had something to play for on Wednesday was the one that ended up not really coming all that close outside of a first-half chance that clanged off the upright.
That’s pretty good for a new-look defense. (Although I hear that goalkeeper who wore No. 77 has accomplished a thing or two in his career.)
So now the attention turns to the Champions League Round of 16 draw on Monday, which will be the official signal that things in Europe are about to pick up a notch or two. The field of 16 teams is set — HELL YEAH, ATALANTA! — and possible opponents that Juventus could face come the new year are probably already filtering through your head.
This performance was not perfect by any means, but hey, I’ll take the win when, considering all of the circumstances that could have happened, it could have ended up being a lot worse.
RANDOM THOUGHTS AND OBSERVATIONS
- Seeing as I watched some of this at work — don’t tell my boss because he hadn’t gotten into the office yet — I wasn’t able to follow along to every minute as closely as I would have liked. But it seemed like every time I looked over at the screen to my right, Merih Demiral was doing something good and showing what has people excited about Juve signing him. I don’t know about you guys, but I hope that this performance against Leverkusen was a signal to Maurizio Sarri that he can, in fact, rest both Matthijs de Ligt and/or Leonardo Bonucci (and Giorgio Chiellini when he’s healthy again) and feel comfortable with Demiral in there. He was a monster, and this was the kind of performance that proves he deserves more playing time.
- Demiral also provided us with this funny photo, which I always like:
Flyyyyyyyyyyy Merih flyyyyyyyyyy!
- It might be a controversial opinion, but I think the Ronaldo-Higuain partnership with Paulo Dybala in the No. 10 role can play and should be used more often.
- The above opinion is actually not controversial at all.
- That assist by Dybala on Ronaldo’s game-winner was about as perfectly placed as you can place a pass. Once Dybala made contact with the ball, all Ronaldo had to do was just tap it into the goal. Paulito put that thing on a silver platter.
- Higuain’s first touch to control the long ball sent up to him that started the combination play before his stoppage-time goal was low key fantastic. He didn’t just hold off the man that was tightly marking him, but also put the touch to bring the ball down right into the path of Dybala.
- And the finish by Higuain on what was his second goal of the group stage (to go along with a couple of assists as well) wasn’t too bad, either.
- Have I ever said that I really like Argentina? Because Juventus’ Argentinian contingent makes me happy. They’re pretty damn good at game, if you ask me.
- Very nice of Juventus’ defense to have Gigi Buffon make only one save in his first Champions League game in a Juventus jersey since that game against Real Madrid a year and a half ago.
- Adrien Rabiot played about 85 minutes on Wednesday night and man did he need it. It had been over a month since Rabiot recorded that many minutes in a single game and just the third time all season he played more than 80 minutes.
- Juan Cuadrado in the mezzala role ... I’m intrigued.
- Daniele Rugani record a team-high 10 clearances against Bayer Leverkusen. Not bad.
- Just in case you were wondering, our Atlético Madrid fan friends are very thankful of the result that Juventus provided Wednesday.
- Final thought: Champions League Round of 16 draw is on Monday. Who ya got for Juventus’ next European opponent?