One would have been quite reasonable to be rather satisfied with the first half of Juventus’ trip to face Atletico Madrid in the first leg of the UEFA Champions League round of 16 on Wednesday night. The first 45 minutes were very even and quite entertaining, with both teams looking to take their performance and refine it in the second half.
Unfortunately for the Bianconeri, only the hosts managed to do that.
Massimiliano Allegri was comprehensively out-coached in the second half, and a pair of late goalmouth scrambles on set pieces gave Atleti a 2-0 lead heading into the second leg of the tie in Turin three weeks from now. Turning that around against a defense as organized and stingy as Atletico Madrid is will be about as daunting a task as turning around Real Madrid’s 3-0 advantage in the quarterfinals last year was.
This was always going to be an intriguing tie between the decade’s two nearly-men. Both teams had made it to the Champions League final twice in the last six years, but neither had managed to attain Europe’s greatest club prize — Atleti falling twice to their crosstown rivals while Juve had fallen to both Barcelona and Real. It was a matchup of the two best defenses in the competition, and was really worthy of being seen at a far later stage in the tournament than the the first knockout round. The teams had only met competitively twice before, both games in the group stage of the 2014-15 season, with Atleti winning 1-0 at home before seeing out a goalless draw in Turin.
Juve, of course, reached the final that year. Here’s hoping that’s still a sign.
Allegri chose a lineup that will be the subject of a good deal of criticism in the days and weeks to come — we’ll get to that in a bit. He settled on a 4-3-3 that acted more like a 4-3-1-2 when the team was in possession. Wojciech Szczesny took his usual spot in goal. Mattia De Sciglio was chosen over Joao Cancelo at right back for more defensive solidity, and he was joined by Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini, and Alex Sandro. Miralem Pjanic shook off a fever to take his place in the starting XI, joined by Rodrigo Bentancur and Blaise Matuidi. Paulo Dybala worked as a hybrid right wing/trequartista, alongside Cristiano Ronaldo and Mario Mandzukic.
Atletico coach Diego Simeone deployed in a 4-4-2. In goal was one of the game’s best insurance policies: Yan Oblak. He was screened by Juanfran, Diego Godin, Jose Gimenez, and Felipe Luis. The midfield four was made up of Koke, Thomas Partey, Rodrigo, and Saul Niguez. Diego Costa, the game’s premier whiny bitch, got a surprise start in his first game back from a foot injury suffered at the beginning of December, joining the always-dangerous Antoine Griezmann in the strike pair.
Referee Felix Zwayer of Germany was in the thick of things right from the get-go — and would be for the entire game. The clock hadn’t even reached 50 seconds gone when Atletico screamed for a penalty following a shot from Griezmann that sailed wide, but the French sniper had hit Matuidi’s foot on his follow-through while his international teammate had gone to block his effort, and quite correctly no action was taken.
Juve had their first action at the other end when Ronaldo was taken down chasing after a Mandzukic through ball in the seventh minute. There was a bit of a delay, mainly due to Costa getting a yellow card for moving inside Zwayer’s 10-yard line on Ronaldo’s first approach — an occasion that would have multiple impacts going forward, the most immediate of which was to put him over the suspension threshold, ruling him out of the return leg. When Ronald was finally able to take his kick, he actually made it past the wall (I know, right?!) and got it to dip perfectly, but the 30-yard screamer didn’t have any curve, and Oblak was able to meet it with his left and and get it over for a corner. Three minutes later Pjanic delivered a perfect corner that saw Bonucci rise for a free header, only to thump it over the bar when he really should have done better.
The opening phases continued to be action-packed, and on a quarter of an hour Szczesny got his first action when Partey first-timed a Chiellini clearance at goal from range, but the Poland international got down and did well to not only stop the shot but hold it. Mandzukic got up for a decent header not long after but missed the far corner under pressure from Godin.
In the 27th minute came a moment that could have — and should have — changed the face of the tie. A through ball had sent Costa through on the attacking left, and as De Sciglio chased after him he put a hand on his shoulder. Costa made so much hay out of such minimal contact that watching it in slow motion is almost comical. He takes three steps at full speed before making what looked like the very conscious decision to go down. I’d say Zwayer should have been insulted that Costa thought he was that stupid, but the German not only whistled for a foul but pointed to the penalty spot, despite the fact that De Sciglio’s tap on the shoulder had come well outside the penalty area. The newly-instituted VAR called down on the radio and Zwayer immediately changed his decision to a free kick without even going to the video screen, but both he and the VAR officials should have gone further. Costa’s dive was so blatant that it should have garnered him a second yellow card. It’s likely that once VAR ruled the “foul” to have been outside the box there was no way under the rules to determine the validity of the foul call itself, but if Zwayer had had a little sense Atleti would have been playing with 10 men for over an hour.
The ensuing free kick saw Szczesny called into action again to beat away Griezmann’s effort at the near post. After that, Juve looked to have the better of things for a good amount of the rest of the half. Dybala fired one at Oblak but didn’t have much power from range and the Slovenian superkeeper easily claimed the shot. Juve’s No. 10 worked hard connecting the lines and got himself into some very nice positions, but almost always ended up turning around to find two or three Atletico shirts in his path.
The half ended with a tantalizing passage in stoppage time when Mandzukic headed a free kick back across the box, but Ronaldo didn’t get good contact to the ball and Oblak was able to get to the ball before a pursuing Bonucci.
For the first five minutes of the second half, Juve looked like the same team that had walked into the locker room, pushing toward the Atletico goal. Pjanic had a good look three minutes in when a ball fell to him at the top of the box, but the germ-ridden midfielder badly shanked the shot. A few minutes later the momentum turned when a bad touch by Chiellini gifted Costa a free run at goal. The big striker charged into the box, fended off Bonucci’s efforts to get back in front of him, and sent Szczesny the wrong way — before completely missing the target. Moments later, Griezmann got into the box and dinked a shot that Szczesny got the barest of fingertips to to divert it onto the crossbar, and Chiellini rushed in to whack the ball over for a corner just ahead of Costa’s arrival on the scene.
It was at this point that the door slammed firmly shut on Juve for pretty much the rest of the game.
Simeone took initiative and used all three of his substitutions in a nine-minute period between the 57th and 66th minutes, including the introduction of an old friend, Alvaro Morata, in place of Costa. Juve’s passing game, which was so crisp in the first half, started to come unglued. The pace of the ball slowed, and the accuracy of the passes waned. Atleti started pushing Juve farther and farther back. It looked as though the pressure had paid with 20 minutes to go when Felipe Luis wasn’t closed down and had all day to cross to Morata, who headed the ball in for what looked to be the opening goal. But Zwayer was paged by the VAR and went to look at the screen, eventually ruling that Morata had pushed off on Chiellini before heading it in. On replay you can kinda see a push, but it was pretty weak, and to be honest if I had been the ref I probably would have let it stand.
But, eight minutes later, the football gods did give the hosts the lead that by this point they had richly deserved. It came off a corner kick that Morata headed back across goal. Mandzukic got a touch to it, but it bounced off the prone figure of Bonucci, who had gone to ground after contact with Gimenez. That bounce teed it up for the center-back, who poked the ball into the net. Juve players again surrounded Zwayer demanding a VAR check, but Bonucci had gone down far too easily—on the reverse angle you can actually see him peeking at where the ball was going through his fingers.
This finally prompted a reaction from Allegri, who until then had watched the second half thoroughly turn against his team without much in the way of changing things up besides introducing Emre Can for Pjanic in a move that probably had more to do with the latter’s stamina after his illness than tactics. Now behind, the coach finally threw on Federico Bernardeschi for Dybala, only to see his defense immolate on set pieces for a second time in five minutes when a half-clearance fell to Godin, who got the aid of a deflection off Ronaldo to double the lead from a tight angle.
Allegri threw on Joao Cancelo in a more advanced wing position as Juve tried to use the last few minutes to get the away goal that could be so valuable to them come in three weeks time, but Atleti were far too organized defensively. They were so solid that at one point Sandro failed to beat Griezmann on the wing with the ball. They did get so very close in the very last minute of normal time, when Sandro earned a free kick near the junction of the penalty area and the end line. Ronaldo stood over it and most of the defenders were probably expecting a shot even at that tight angle, but instead he rolled it across the box for Bernardeschi, whose powerful shot was again one-handed over the bar by Oblak. Bernardeschi then tried to return the favor with a nice ball to the far post halway though stoppages. Ronaldo met it at the far post and tried to head it in to the upper far corner — a shot we’ve seen him make a whole lot over his career — but this time all he could do was loop it over.
The sight was, in the end, a fitting way to see the night end — the man who was ostensibly bought to finally secure that elusive European crown with his head in his hands as he and his team were handed a mountain to climb in the second leg.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 6. I’m dinging Woj here mostly because setting up the defense for set pieces is a big part of his job, and both those goals saw the team all over the place. He did make some good saves, particularly that fingertip effort against Griezmann, but he’s got to command the defense better in these dead-ball situations. He’s done a fantastic job at an impossible task in replacing Gianluigi Buffon, but defensive generalship was always Gigi’s biggest strength. Szczesny needs to hone this skill.
MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - 6. Got to a number of dangerous balls in the first half and made some good clearances. He’ll get a lot of criticism for not being Joao Cancelo in this game, but he did his job fairly well.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 4. I wasn’t going to put him this low before I saw that replay of him peering through his hands to watch Gimenez sweep home the opener. Throwing himself to the ground in an unconvincing attempt to get a foul when there was real defending to do is inexcusable. Reacquiring him might be the worst move Beppe Marotta ever made.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 6. Made some really important interventions and led the team with six clearances, but he also ended up on the ground too easily when Morata thought he’d opened the scoring. He trained against Morata for two years and has completely shackled him in international play as well—he shouldn’t have to resort to that.
ALEX SANDRO - 5. Got in one nice cross to Mandzukic but wasn’t much of a factor up the left side in attack. Got himself booked in the first half, which will see him suspended for the second leg.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 5. I love him to death, but this wasn’t his best game. He flashed some good moments recovering the ball in midfield, but wasn’t much of a factor trying to go forward.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 5.5. Major props to him for going out and playing whilst ill, but he certainly looked it today. He did make the midfield work in the first half, and made a pair of key passes, but clearly ran out of gas in the second.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 6. He was everywhere in midfield recovering the ball, but his touch is so rough that it did snuff out some promising attacking positions. Would’ve been higher otherwise.
PAULO DYBALA - 6. I admired his effort. He worked hard to get into good positions but three Atletico players would pop up in front of him like jump scare features at a haunted house. Also showed a couple of neat bits of skill to keep possession and keep moves going in the first half. He’s probably going to get a ton of flack but he turned in a good shift.
MARIO MANDZUKIC - 5. Hard to do much of anything when he’s so starved of service. He touched the ball fewer times than Szczesny did. He was the last man to touch the ball on both goals, but that can be chalked up to bad fortune more than bad play.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 5.5. I’m grading him on a harsher curve than I otherwise would. This is the man who was supposedly bought to take the knockout stages of the Champions League by the scruff of the neck and push the team through where it hadn’t gotten before. There were few signs of that. His free kick was the only one of his seven shots that hit the target — and few if any of the other ones were particularly close. The success of moving for him hinges on winning the Champions League during his time here, and this was a poor first showing.
EMRE CAN - 6. Got around in the middle of the park to bring some energy but was mostly relegated to defending.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - NR. I’d have liked to see him on 10 minutes sooner. He brought a real energy up front and nearly got a big away goal.
JOAO CANCELO - NR. On FAR too late.
There will be all sorts of pundits in Italy criticizing Allegri for being too conservative in this game. Arrigo Sacchi’s big ugly head will probably be on TV somewhere talking about beauty and how Allegri’s lack of it is his downfall.
I, for one, had no problems with how he decided to set the team up at the start. It’s a matter of personal preference for me to have a more stable defense for big away games. Allegri’s problem was that he waited until it was far too late to make changes to the team.
Simeone took initiative and made three attack-minded changes in the space of less than 10 minutes early on in the second half. Those changes helped push Juve ever farther into their own half, and Allegri just...stood there. He didn’t make his first change until the 73rd minute and didn’t make one that could be considered attack-oriented until Atleti took the lead with only 12 minutes to go. At that point he should have at least thrown Bernardeschi and Cancelo on together, rather than waiting until after the second goal to put on the Portuguese with only four minutes left in the game. The guy probably barely got any sweat on his shirt.
How Allegri has managed his subsitutions has been a point of concern all year long. Last season he turned some big games around with substitutions that were spot-on in terms of timing and in terms of who he put on. The second leg in last year’s Round of 16 against Tottenham Hotspur comes to mind, when, of all things, putting on Kwadwo Asamoah and Stephan Lichtsteiner in straight swaps for both full-backs pushed the team to a comeback win at Wembley Stadium. This year, though, he has waited for what seems like forever before making any changes, regardless of how badly Juve might be struggling. Wednesday night, he watched the situation deteriorate and didn’t do anything about it until it was too late.
I’ve been critical of Allegri in the past but always acknowledged his quality. But that quality might not be enough anymore. It was Bela Guttmann who once said, in so many words, that three years is about as much as a coach can spend at a club before complacency starts to set in. Allegri is now in his fifth. It’s entirely possible that we’re seeing a level of burnout here. Whatever the case, whatever Allegri is doing simply isn’t working right now. I’m not fully on the #AllegriOut bandwagon quite yet, but if he can’t turn things around in the second leg, I almost certainly will be. This team is at a crossroads in its goal of winning the Champions League, and Allegri, for all his quality and skill, may not be the man to finally get them over the hump.
The second leg is in three weeks at the J Stadium. Juve must win, and win under very specific conditions, if they are to advance. A 2-0 victory would see the tie go to extra time and, if necessary, penalties. Win 3-0 or more and they advance outright. But if they fail to keep a clean sheet, they’ll have to win the match by three clear goals—which means having to score at least four against this defense. A clean sheet is almost a necessity.
As for the next game on the docket, that’s a trip to Bologna, where they’ll try to shake out the cobwebs before their trip to Naples a week later, where a result will all but assure them of an eight consecutive scudetto.