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Examining Champions League comebacks by Juventus and Atlético Madrid

We explore Juventus and Atlético Madrid’s Champions League history in similar scenarios, and what Juve can do to overcome the deficit.

Club Atletico de Madrid v Juventus - UEFA Champions League Round of 16: First Leg Photo by Angel Martinez/Getty Images

It’s happened many times before. In latter stages of the Champions League and with greater deficits. Italian sides overcoming first-leg losses to Spanish sides. Last year alone we had Roma overcoming a 4-1 first-leg defeat to Barcelona, and should have had another when Juventus turned a 3-0 loss in Turin into a 3-3 aggregate tie in Madrid before … well, you know what happened.

So can Juventus overturn a 2-0 first leg defeat? In the history of the European Cup/ Champions League, Juventus has never officially come back from a first-leg deficit of more than two goals. There have been seven instances in which Juve took a two goal or larger deficit into the second leg, and each time they were not able to overturn the result. In several instances, they have come close.

In the 1975-76 European Cup, Juve returned home from Düsseldorf down 2-0 against Borussia Mönchengladbach. In Turin, they got a 35th-minute goal from Sergio “Bobo” Gori and a 68th-minute goal from Roberto Bettega to level the aggregate 2-2, but gave up two goals late to surrender the tie.

More recently, in the 2015-16 Champions League Round of 16 tie with Bayern Munich, Juve went down 2-0 at Juventus Stadium before tying the match with goals from Paulo Dybala and Stefano Sturaro. Juve scored two quick goals in the return leg at the Allianz Arena before falling apart in the second half and losing in extra time.

Then, there’s the aforementioned Real Madrid-Juve tie from last year’s quarterfinals. That one still hurts, so I’ll spare the details.

In Madrid, Juve left the Wanda Metropolitano down 2-0, and didn’t look particularly good doing it. Atlético Madrid could have easily scored four or five goals and put this tie out of reach, but instead, here we are with 90 minutes left to play at Allianz Stadium and a chance at redemption. In their history of European Cup/Champions League knockout round matches, Atlético has taken a 2-0 lead or better in to the second leg six times, and they have emerged victorious from the tie every time.

Make no mistake, this will not be easy.

Juve has had such a poor run of form that you have to go back to December against Roma the last time they beat a quality opponent and actually looked good doing it, and even then they couldn’t put the match away.

Atlético will go into this one knowing they need to defend, and only three teams across the five major European leagues have given up less goals per match: Liverpool, Paris Saint-Germain, and Juventus. They also go into this match knowing one goal against Juventus will essentially end any hope of a comeback, and they have two guys you may have heard of, one of the most prolific scorers in Europe in Antoine Griezmann and former-team killer Álvaro Morata.

In the first leg of their quarterfinal matchup against Real Madrid last season, Massimiliano Allegri fielded a 4-4-2 in Turin that showed no danger in attack and confusion in the back under heavy pressure. In the return leg at the Santiago Bernabéu, Allegri switched to a 4-3-3 and brought in four new players, sparking a determined Juve side to the brink of a historic comeback win.

Can we use this as a blueprint for the second leg against Atlético?

Hard to say. History is not necessarily a good indicator of future results. Atlético have been pragmatic this season. Outside of a 4-0 drubbing in Dortmund in October, they have had a pretty consistent campaign, sacrificing aesthetics to get the needed results. Diego Simeone’s men are also much better defensively than Zidane’s was.

Juve is a different team than last year, but the elements are certainly there for Juve to pull off a similar comeback. They will be spearheaded in attack by Cristiano Ronaldo, who has so far scored one goal — albeit a spectacular one — for Juve in Champions League play. Mario Mandžukić, who played a pivotal role in that match last year, will need to be fed the ball more like he was in that matchup.

In the first leg against Atlético, Juventus dominated possession and were nearly equal in shots, but they were thoroughly outplayed, especially in the second half. Atlético won aerial deals, created better chances, forced bad passes, and smothered opportunities within their own 18-yard box. Of course, Juve had their own share of unforced errors and lacked creativity, frequently settling for long range shots that did not trouble Jan Oblak.

So what can Allegri do to turn this tie around?

Juve could benefit from a wider attack, avoiding Atlético’s defensive strength through the middle with José Giménez and Diego Godín, and attacking Juanfran and Filipe Luis on the wings. Allegri could implement a 4-4-2 with Ronaldo and Mandžukić up top, Douglas Costa and Federico Bernardeschi on the wings, and Miralem Pjanic and Blaise Matuidi in midfield. With Alex Sandro suspended, it will be crucial to get someone in the lineup who will be a consistent threat down the left side of the field, and I think Costa, assuming he is match fit, can be that man.

If Allegri is keen on starting Paulo Dybala, then perhaps he reverts back to the 4-2-3-1, with Mandžukić up top and Ronaldo, Dybala and Bernardeschi behind him. Either way, I think you need one or both of Bernardeschi and Costa along with Joao Cancelo in the back in order to provide a wider and more varied attack. Juve tried to attack through the middle in the first leg, and Dybala had very little room to operate. Mandžukić barely saw the ball. Juventus’ best opportunity was a Ronaldo long-range free kick. That is not acceptable.

Advancing to the quarterfinals is not out of reach, but Allegri needs to be aggressive with changes if things are not working early. Juventus’ season will be defined by what happens on Tuesday night. Juve went out and got one of the best goal scorers in the history of the game precisely for matches like this. They need the lethal Ronaldo of Champions League past to get us over the hump.

With Serie A essentially wrapped up, all of Allegri’s focus should be on this match. He had the wherewithal to show that in his lineup selection for Udinese on Friday, and hopefully it pays off.