I have a confession to make.
When I left my apartment to go to my club’s home bar for the second leg of the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 tie against Atletico Madrid, I told my fiancee that I just hoped Juve would go out of the competition with dignity. After a dismal 2-0 defeat in the first leg at the Wanda Metropolitano, I wasn’t all that confident in Juve turning things around. It had been months since Juve had showed anything close to control over a game, even against vastly inferior opposition. Atletico was a defensive monster. Even with the Curva Sud ending their strike to help turn Allianz Stadium into the cauldron it was when it first opened, I wasn’t optimistic. The likes of Diego Godin, Jose Gimenez, Juanfran, Jan Oblak — they were so experienced and had played with each other for so long that they wouldn’t be fazed by such an environment. The only potential weak point was Santiago Arias, who might be exploited in the air. And even if Juve did manage to take the game by the scruff of the neck, one moment from Antoine Griezmann or a returning Alvaro Morata, one single away goal, would almost certainly salt the tie away. The absolute best outcome possible, I thought, was 2-0 and penalties.
Sometimes, it’s so lovely to be wrong.
Juventus played the best game they’ve played since the 3-0 win against Barcelona in the Champions League quarterfinals in 2016. They completely wiped out Atleti’s attacking potential and, save for a brief period at the end of the first half, completely dominated possession. They pressed hard in midfield, won practically every second ball. Atletico did not register a shot on target and didn’t earn a single corner kick. It was a performance that compelled Griezmann to say after the match that “Juventus were superior on every level,” and Atleti coach Diego Simeone to admit “they simply played better and we have to congratulate them.”
And finally, Cristiano Ronaldo did the kind of damage in the Champions League that he was brought to Turin to do. The superstar bagged all three goals, notching his eighth career Champions League hat trick, sealing a 3-0 win with a coolly taken penalty and turning a 2-0 deficit into a 3-2 aggregate win and a berth in the quarterfinals.
Allegri sent out a lineup with four changes from the first leg. Wojciech Szczesny took his normal place in goal. Joao Cancelo started at right back, while the left flank was manned by Leonardo Spinazzola, who was forced into the lineup for his Champions League debut in place of the suspended Alex Sandro and the injured Mattia De Sciglio. Giorgio Chiellini made his 500th total appearance for the club, partnering with Leonardo Bonucci in central defense. Emre Can, Blaise Matuidi, and Miralem Pjanic manned the midfield, while Ronaldo was joined up front by Mario Mandzukic and Federico Bernardeschi to round out the 4-3-3.
Simeone was forced into a trio of changes from his starting XI three weeks ago thanks to suspensions to Diego Costa and Thomas Partey and and injury to Felipe Luis. Arias took the place of Luis at fullback, arraying with Godin, Gimenez, and Juanfran in front of Oblak. The midfield was set up in Simeone’s usual bank of four, stretching from Koke to Thomas Lemar, with Rodrigo and Saul Niguez in the middle. Griezmann set up at the top of the 4-4-2 with Morata, who returned to the J Stadium for the first time as an opponent in a club game.
Predictably given their predicament, Juve came out of the box like gangbusters. Seconds into the game Matuidi burst down the left side of the box and sent in a low ball that was hacked away by the defense. Five minutes later the Frenchman fired in a shot that was blocked by Godin for Juve’s first corner of the night. Bernardeschi’s delivery was flicked on by Spinazzola and pinballed off a defender and Bonucci. Oblak came out to claim, but the ball squirted out after Ronaldo challenged and Chiellini slammed it into the net — only for Dutch referee Bjorn Kuipers to disallow the goal, judging that Ronaldo had fouled Oblak. Whether the call was correct or not is a tough one. Ronaldo clearly stuck a foot in and clearly made contact, but whether Oblak already had the ball or if it was a true 50/50 challenge is tough to judge, but when the keeper is involved these kinds of fouls tend to get called nine times out of 10.
The game pressed on — as did the Juventus players every time an opponent so much as sniffed possession. They pressed hard against the Spaniards, and Atleti, wearing their blue change kit, could barely string more than two or three passes together before getting swallowed up. Every time a Juve player forced a loose ball, there were teammates there to gobble it up and send it right back to Oblak’s goal. The problem was that the final deliveries weren’t quite good enough. Oblak commanded his penalty area well in the early going, claiming more than one cross, while Gimenez and Godin were busy heading balls away from danger. Even the midfielders stepped back now and again to take a crack at a cross.
The result of this was a ton of pressure headed toward Atletico’s goal while Szczesny sat back and watched. He didn’t see his first shot until the 22nd minute, when Koke fired over the bar from about 22 yards. Two minutes later he made a smart save on a wicked shot by Griezmann, but Morata had jumped to try to head the ball from an offside position, killing the move. Szczesny wouldn’t have to play the ball with his hands again.
In the 26th minute another potential refereeing controversy arose, when Godin and Gimenez both went up for the same ball in the box and the former headed the ball onto the latter’s arm. Kuipers ignored desperate appeals for a penalty and the VAR official did not stop the game for a review. Fortunately this was all pretty much moot, because within 90 seconds Can regained possession off a loose header from Morata and tapped the ball to Bernardeschi, who fired in a cross from the left corner of the box. It met Ronaldo at the far post, and he rose just far enough over Juanfran to send a header past Oblak with such power that it was practically in the net before he had the chance to turn around.
It took just five minutes for the next close call, this time from the left foot of Bernardeschi, who fizzed a free kick just over the bar. Two minutes later he got under a mishit cross from Spinazzola and attempted a wild bicycle kick that only missed by a couple of feet.
In the last five minutes of the half it looked like Atleti may have finally managed to ride the storm. They held a good spell of possession as the half ended, though Juve did manage one dangerous counter that ended with Oblak palming a Chiellini header over the bar off a corner. With just over 20 seconds left in stoppage time Morata nearly initiated the nightmare scenario when he ghosted past Bonucci and got a free header from six yards away, but put Saul’s cross inches over the bar.
From the nightmare came the dream. Just four minutes into the half Cancelo sent in his best delivery of the night to date, squeezing the ball between Juanfran and Lemar, who were both facing him up, and connected with Ronaldo at the back post. Oblak clawed the ball back into play and Ronaldo’s followup was blocked by Giminez, but as the Uruguayan chased after it and the capacity crowd let out a collective groan, Kuipers’ whistle pierced the air.
The Dutchman was pointing at his watch. For all the talk of the introduction of VAR in the Champions League during the knockout phase, it was an older, far less controversial piece of technology that came to Juve’s aid: the goal-line technology system had determined that the ball had crossed the line with a fingernail to spare. Ronaldo was mobbed by his teammates, and the Round of 16 was in a flat-footed tie. It was well and truly game on.
Simeone again proved quicker on the draw with his substitutions, sending Angel Correa on for Lemar before the hour mark. Ronaldo hit yet another free kick into the wall a moment later — in other news: water, wet — but Correa did little to break the seals holding down the Atleti attack, as they were forced to resort to long-range efforts that couldn’t find the frame of the goal ... on the rare occasion they even got that far.
The effort of the game seemed to be wearing on Juve just a bit at this stage. Ronaldo had a couple or rough moments of control, and Cancelo wasted a great tackle by making a loose pass to give the ball away. Atleti managed a little more attack, but couldn’t put the ball into a good shooting position. Paulo Dybala was called off the bench with 23 minutes to go. He replaced Spinazzola, and for a time Bernardeschi moved all the way to left back. It was an uncharacteristically ballsy move by Allegri.
By this point Mandzukic was really moving badly. Footage taken right before halftime showed that he had taken a nasty-looking knock to his thigh, and he’d been a step slow for most of the second half. In the 74th minute he tried to stoop down to head a free kick, but couldn’t get down and it hit him on the thigh instead. It wasn’t a simple chance by any means, but things really weren’t going his way, and with 10 minutes left he was the subject of another gutsy move by his manager, who withdrew him for the 19-year-old super-prospect Moise Kean.
The teenager very nearly turned into the hero when Chiellini sent a long ball his way. Gimenez kindly skewed his attempt at heading the pass away, giving him a clean run on Oblak. Godin got back to challenge, which may have rushed him just a bit, and he pulled his shot a hair’s breadth past the far post.
But two minutes later the miss was forgotten after the decisive sequence of the game played out.
Given how well he played, it was fitting that Bernardeschi was the catalyst. He flagged down a pass from Ronaldo and held off the much fresher Correa, eventually blasting past him and up the left side. He cut inside and looked to have a lane, but Correa, still chasing, shoved him in the back, sending the winger to the ground. For two breathless seconds Kuipers weighed his options, then blew his whistle and signaled for the penalty.
There was no question who was taking this one. Ronaldo went to the shooter’s left, Oblak went to the right. The J Stadium exploded.
Simeone’s men could muster no response. They hoped and pleaded for a penalty in the depths of stoppage time when Chiellini and Correa made heavy contact while the defender tried to shield the attacker off after Can attempted to head the ball back to his goalkeeper for him to claim, but Chiellini had had position before the contact, and Kuipers dismissed any appeals after a quick discussion with the VAR officials over his radio set. As the clock ticked down Dybala ran the ball down the right side to the corner flag, and the ref blew his whistle one last time to send Juventus through to the quarterfinals in the most improbable fashion.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - NR. There’s no point in giving him a grade. The only time he had to make a save, it didn’t even count. He touched the ball 17 times all game.
JOAO CANCELO - 7.5. Bounced back from a rough first half to lead the team in key passes (4) and finish second on the team in tackles (5). His assist was a wonderful ball driven between two defenders, and he posed a danger down the right side throughout the second half.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 7.5. Made a couple of pretty important interventions around the box in the second half and made two interceptions and four clearances, but gets a bit knocked off for almost letting Morata score on the stroke of halftime.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 8. Often left Bonucci back by himself to drive into the attacking half of the field. Had a great chance with his header that was saved by Oblak, and would have had the assist on the winner if Kean had buried his chance. Led from the front, played like his life depended on it, and even got himself busted open a little at the end of the first half.
LEONARDO SPINAZZOLA - 8. This was a hell of a situation to be thrown into for your Champions League debut, and he more than lived up to it. Constantly made darting runs down the left wing, throwing some slick moves to get past people, at one point straight-up nutmegging a guy. We may have just seen a glimpse of the club’s future.
EMRE CAN - 7.5. Was on hand for every loose ball and second effort, defending, attacking, all over the place. Completed 88.2 percent of his passes. This was the kind of game the club was expecting when they signed him this past summer. If he starts playing like this with regularity, a lot of concerns about the midfield could be assuaged.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 7.5. Made a pair of key passes and generally kept the midfield in line, while also popping up defensively now and again to poke a ball free. Connected on 12 of 14 long passes.
BLAISE MATUIDI - 8. Made a team-high six tackles and was a key player in keeping Atleti bottled up for long stretches. His normally iffy touch was working for him, and he even connected on all three of his long balls.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 8.5. Looked like he was pressing a bit in the first 10 minutes or so, but settled in and drove in a peach of a ball for the assist on Ronaldo’s first goal. He was a terror in the attacking third, impacting things far more than his one key pass would suggest. The only way to contain him was to shove him to the ground, as Correa did at the end of that superb run.
MARIO MANDZUKIC - 5.5. The one guy on the field who didn’t have a superlative game. It’s hard to say when he took that hard knock to the thigh, but he was clearly not right throughout the second half and wasn’t really able to do much out there, although it should also be said that Atleti did a very good job keeping the ball away from him, especially in the air.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 10. This is what he was signed for. Both headers were excellent, and the penalty as cool as you like. If he has more games like this in the knockout stage, it’s hard not to think of the possibilities.
PAULO DYBALA - 6.5. Didn’t get himself into shooting position, but his impact on the game was definitely felt. He linked the midfield and the rest of the attackers together on more than one occasion, kept possession well with some nifty moves, and drew a couple of crucial fouls.
MOISE KEAN - NR. If he had scored that goal I would have needed new pants. Only touched the ball three times besides.
Everything Allegri did wrong three weeks ago he did right Tuesday night. Cancelo, after a shaky start, turned into a difference maker. Spinazzola, a player he probably wouldn’t have started had he not been forced into it, turned out to be a key contributor. Bernardeschi dominated in the attacking third. The attitude, in general, was one of confidence and verve.
This was the kind of play we haven’t seen from the team since the first half at Old Trafford in October. It was the kind of reaction most were starting to think Allegri had lost the ability to get out of his charges. The #AllegriOut movement has certainly been stopped in its tracks by this one. They key now is for him to get this kind of performance in the Champions League without going down 2-0 in the first leg. That would generally be ideal.
One last little tidbit: If this game hasn’t driven home to Allegri the need for rotation, I don’t know what will. Ronaldo, Pjanic, Cancelo, and Chiellini all rested on Friday against Udinese, and all of them had some of the better games they’ve had all year. With the lead Juve has in Serie A, as many of the key players as is possible should be rested before however many remaining Champions League games Juve plays in. That goes double for Ronaldo, who looked so lethargic three weeks ago after playing more than an hour against Frosinone, of all clubs, the weekend before.
Fresh legs are going to be key — especially if Juve draws one of the English clubs, all of whom are involved in tight races for either the title (Manchester City, Liverpool) or Champions League places (Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester United) in the EPL and will therefore be less inclined or able to rest key players. (The Manchester sides are both still kicking in the FA Cup as well.)
One more time, Max: Rotation, rotation, rotation.
Juve will look forward to the quarterfinal draw on Friday, which, in a new look, will also set up a bracket that will feed into the semifinals without having a separate draw for that round. Any of the seven other quarterfinalists (at the time of this writing, Ajax, Porto, Manchester City, Manchester United have all qualified, with Liverpool/Bayern Munich and Barcelona/Lyon yet to play their second legs on Wednesday) are potential opponents.
As for the league, Juve will take a Sunday morning trip to the Marassi in the hopes of avenging one of their few missteps of the season, a 1-1 home draw against Genoa. That will lead into the first international break of 2019, and the start of Euro 2020 qualifying.