Let’s not kid ourselves. The only thing that really mattered for Juventus during Wednesday’s trip to Westphalia to play Bayer Leverkusen was that they got through it without adding to their already-significant injury list.
Their opponents had more to play for — any hope they had of advancing to the Champions League Round of 16 hinged on them winning this game and then hoping Lokomotiv Moscow avoided defeat against Atletico Madrid in the group’s other game. But for Juve, who had sewn up the top spot in Group D when they beat Atletico in Turin last month, the trip to the BayArena was a dead rubber. The game began trending toward the totally meaningless within 20 minutes of kickoff when Joao Felix gave Atleti a lead in Madrid.
It wouldn’t have necessarily been a surprise to see Juve go out and ship a few goals in this scenario, especially with Bayer needing a victory to have any chance of avoiding the Europa League. But despite the lack of obvious motivation — and the fielding of a makeshift lineup in the midst of an injury crisis — Juve played pretty well. They were slightly out-possessed but held the home side to a single shot on target (plus one off the woodwork) and eventually found their way in front with 15 minutes left, before sealing the 2-0 victory with another tally in stoppage time, giving them five wins out of six and equalling the club record for performance in the group stage that had been jointly set by Marcello Lippi (1996-97) and Fabio Capello (2004-05).
Maurizio Sarri came into the game with a major selection crunch to deal with. Injuries to Sami Khedira, Aaron Ramsey, and Rodrigo Bentancur left the team badly short of midfielders, while Douglas Costa’s absence meant that there was little ability to rotate the team’s top attacking stars. The team even brought youth team prospects Simone Muratore and Manolo Portanova along as backup. Eventually, Sarri cobbled together a 4-3-1-2 lineup that was part squad rotation, part desperate necessity. Gianluigi Buffon got the start in goal, his first Champions League appearance in a Juve uniform since That Game in Madrid We Don’t Talk About. Screening him was a completely rotated back line that consisted of Danilo, Merih Demiral, Daniele Rugani, and Mattia De Sciglio. The right-sided central midfield spot was taken up by Juan Cuadrado, a spot he had played in desperate times before under Massimiliano Allegri. Joining him were Miralem Pjanic and Adrien Rabiot. Federico Bernardeschi started in the hole behind the strike pairing of Gonzalo Higuain and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Peter Bosz made a couple of surprising decisions in his starting XI, leaving out stalwarts like Kevin Volland and Jonathan Tah. Striker Leon Bailey, who had been injured for the first meeting between the teams in Turin, was also benched. What ended up opposite the Bianconeri was a 4-4-2 formation, with Lukas Hradecky at the base of it. The Bender twins formed the heart of the defense, with Lars on the right-hand side and Sven in the middle along with Aleksandar Dragovic, joining Daley Sinkgraven on the left. Charles Aranguiz and Kerem Demirbay played in the middle of the park, with Karim Bellarabi and Moussa Diaby out wide. Teenage phenom Kai Havertz combined with Lucas Alario to form the strike pair.
The hosts had the better of the opening exchanges, but it was Juve that carved out the first real threat on 10 minutes, after Higuain was sent through on goal. He had a shooting chance but chose the unselfish route and tried to pass it to Ronaldo, who wasn’t expecting the move and could only stretch as the ball flashed in front of him, tantalizingly close to a tap-in. The Germans responded almost immediately, with Diaby unleashing a pile driver from 23 yards that bent a little too much and smacked into the post as Buffon flailed in a dive to his right.
Ronaldo and Cuadrado both missed the same goalpost within seconds of each other, then Buffon dove to parry another stinging shot after Bellarabi got just inside De Sciglio. It would be Bayer’s only shot on target the entire game.
Higuain got himself into a fantastic position on 36 minutes, turning into the box with a pass from Rabiot but blazing high. on the stroke of halftime it was Bayer who had a huge opportunity as Havertz took advantage of some poor defending by Cuadrado to get himself into position to receive a pass from Bellarabi eight yards away. Demiral had to swing into action and make a sliding block in order to avoid conceding the opening goal.
Juve broke out of halftime quicker, and within six minutes Ronaldo had put the ball into the net, but he’d been a length ahead of the back line and the goal was rightly chalked off for offside. Not long after that any remaining meaning to the game was pretty much sucked out when Atleti got their second goal against Lokomotiv.
As the game wore on, both managers began looking for a change to the match. Bosz made a double change on 65 minutes, bringing on Bailey and Julian Baumgartlinger, while Paulo Dybala came on for Bernardeschi to sit in the hole. The No. 10’s first touch a moment later was a shot that flew wide.
But with a quarter of an hour to go, Dybala helped provide the difference. The move started on the left side when De Sciglio nutmegged a defender and exchanged passes with Pjanic, whose gorgeous ball over the top led the Argentine down the left wing. He had the defense well beaten on that side, and he delivered a perfectly placed ground cross that left Ronaldo the easiest of tap-ins.
Aranguiz had the best shot at equalizing for Bayer in the 89th, after some poor clearing saw the ball fall to him at close range, but Rugani did enough to put him off his shot and it flew wide. Then, halfway through the four minutes of stoppage time, Danilo launched a ball forward that Higuain back-heeled into the path of Dybala, who dribbled into the box with it. Dragovic had sagged off of the striker, and Higuain’s powerful left-footed strike, sealing Juve’s first win since the international break and sealing the game.
The game’s end stages were marred by repeated incidents of pitch invaders running onto the field to try to hug or take a selfie with Ronaldo. Two such fanboys (both were men) did this before the game ended, and a third got himself onto the field just after the final whistle. This one actually grabbed Ronaldo by the shoulder/neck area as he tried to get himself a picture. It was a despicable display of self-importance, and a surprising thing since German teams tend to have stadium security well in hand.
GIANLUIGI BUFFON - 7. His only save of the night had to be a good one — and it was. If there was ever a time where his ability to marshal a defense came to the fore, it was Wednesday night, as he guided a center back pairing that had only three combined appearances going in, and had never played alongside each other.
DANILO - 6.5. Led the team with a whopping six tackles and was accurate on five of eight long balls—the last of which led to Higuain’s clincher.
MERIH DEMIRAL - 7.5. In his first outing since his horror-show debut in September, Demiral showed everyone why the team is so high on him. He was sticking his nose everywhere, made a ton of stops, got really physical, and made that huge block at the end of the first half. His partner wasn’t bad on this night, but the eye test says he might be the next guy who goes out to relieve Leonardo Bonucci or Matthijs de Ligt.
DANIELE RUGANI - 6. Looked a bit unsure of himself at times, but in the end kept the ball away from the net, racking up 10 (!) clearances to go along with two tackles and an interception.
MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - 6.5. A typically reliable day for him on the defensive side of things, letting hardly anything past him save the shot that Bellarabi saved, although that was simply a good effort on the part of the German midfielder to buy himself the barest of spaces. Also, that nutmeg in the run-up to Ronaldo’s goal ...*chef’s kiss*.
JUAN CUADRADO - 6. He’s played this role before in a pinch, even in the Champions League, but it was a bit of a mixed bag. He was dispossessed a lot, perhaps expecting to have the kind of space he gets when he’s wide.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 6.5. Led the team with four interceptions, but didn’t take the game over the way he was doing at the beginning of the year. Did make that absolutely beautiful pass to release Dybala in the instinct tell me to not.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 5.5. Was second on the team with five tackles and was the only guy in the starting XI to record a key pass, but he gave the ball away somewhat cheaply at times and was lucky on two separate occasions not to be shown a yellow card.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 5. Yeah, Berna isn’t a trequartista. If that’s not obvious now to your ordinary viewer, you aren’t watching the same games. Did have a nice almost-assist when Ronaldo was flagged offside.
GONZALO HIGUAIN - 7. Beautifully taken goal and generally active up front all night as the revenge tour continues.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 6.5. Easy tap-in for the goal, but looked a little listless in the first half before finally combining well with Dybala.
PAULO DYBALA - 8. You get an 8 when you pull off two assists in just over 30 minutes. Yes, he only got official credit for one, but he should have gotten both of them notched into his belt. His ingenuity was plain for all to see from the moment he stepped on to the pitch.
BLAISE MATUIDI - NR. Sought to help close out the game out late.
SIMONE MURATORE - NR. Got a minute to end things late on.
In terms of the starting lineup, Sarri did what he could with what he had, and the formula he came up with won him the game.
While he should be applauded for how he set things up from the start and for sending on Dybala at the right time, he did make one very questionable in-game decision: sending Matuidi, who is a yellow card away from a suspension in European competition, on at the end of the game. You’re leading in a game that quite literally means nothing to your team. Why, then, would you risk playing Matuidi when a mistake or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time would mean seeing him suspended for the first leg of the round of 16? If it were me, I’d have let Portanova and Muratore both have five to 10 minutes out there and let Matuidi kick up his heels rather than risk a yellow card suspension.
The Champions League draw will be held on Monday. Teams cannot be drawn against the runner up in their own group — in this case, Atletico Madrid — or from their own country (Napoli, Atalanta) in the round of 16, so that leaves Juve with only five potential opponents: Real Madrid, Tottenham Hotspur, Borussia Dortmund, Lyon, and Chelsea. All decent opponents, with Lyon being the one that sticks out as the one you’d want to be drawn against he most. Real isn’t the team it was when it was knocking Juve out of the Champions League in consecutive years, but can still be a threat when they’re on their game. Still, you’d probably want most every one of the teams in the draw first. Dortmund and Chelsea are young and mistake-prone at this level, while Spurs seem rejuvenated under Jose Mourinho — though it remains to be seen for how long that will be the case. Whoever comes out of the hat for Juve, there will be a lot of talk between now and February about the upcoming tie.
As for game action, Juve are back on the field on Sunday when they face Udinese at the Allianz Stadium. That’s followed by a midweek fixture against struggling Sampdoria, then a flight to Saudi Arabia to take on Lazio in the Supercoppa Italiana before settling in to the winter break.