As Juventus’ epic run of Serie A titles has worn on, the Champions League has taken on more and more importance for both the club and its fans. The desire to win their first European title since 1996 has become almost all-consuming.
Most of us have tempered some of those expectations this year, given the craziness of COVID-19 and the clear retooling being done under rookie coach Andrea Pirlo, but on Tuesday as he made the long trip to make his European debut against Dynamo Kyiv, there was certainly a sense that this was a match he needed to win after dropping points against rock-bottom Crotone over the weekend.
It was something of a full-circle game for Pirlo, who was coaching against Mircea Lucescu, the man who gave him his debut as a player when he was at Brescia. The gulf in experience was immense. The Romanian is one of the most decorated managers in history, winning 13 league titles, 11 domestic cups, a UEFA Cup, and a UEFA Supercup since he took his first coaching job in 1979. In 2015 he became only the fifth man ever to coach 100 Champions League games. Pirlo’s experience is three Serie A matches. But he did have one thing that could bridge that gap: a striker from Spain.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Alvaro Morata had a great game for Juventus in the Champions League. The Spaniard has scored some of the team’s biggest European goals in recent history, and with the Bianconeri depleted due to COVID-19 positives and injuries, he was being counted on to lead the line — and he delivered in a big way, scoring twice in the second half to clinch a 2-0 workmanlike win that lacked flash but took home the points in relatively easy fashion.
Pirlo made several changes to the lineup that played in Calabria. The formation morphed constantly during the match, but the default was the 3-4-1-2 setup that was his default the first two games. Wojciech Szczesny took back his place in goal, while the back three in front of him was shaken up, with Leonardo Bonucci playing on the right, Giorgio Chiellini in the center, and Danilo on the left. Juan Cuadrado and Federico Chiesa played as the wing-backs with Rodrigo Bentancur and Adrien Rabiot between them. Aaron Ramsey returned from the minor knock that kept him out on Saturday, while Dejan Kulusevski joined Morata up front.
Lucescu countered his old pupil with a 4-3-3 that was heavy on domestic Ukrainian talent. Georgi Buschan took up the starting gloves, with Tomasz Kedziora, Vitalii Mykolenko, Illia Zabarnyi, Oleksandr Karavaev screening him in defense. Serhiy Sydorchuk, Vitaliy Buyalskiy, and Mykola Shaparenko made up the midfield, while the attacking trident was composed of Viktor Tsygankov, Vladyslav Supryaha, and Carlos de Pena.
The first half was generally a messy affair. Juve got themselves into decent positions and recovered the ball well, but their passing was sloppy and they often turned the ball over with their first or second move. This was sometimes exacerbated by multiple players attacking the same space, resulting in a jumble of bodies that closed lanes and made for forced passes.
Still, Juve had much the better of the chances that did come by, starting in the 12th minute when Ramsey fed a pass down the left side for Chiesa, who beat Kedziora and hit a left-footed shot across goal that was knocked away one-handed by Buschan. The rebound was put out for a corner, and the keeper came out to punch the delivery only to whiff at it. Chiellini was waiting at the back post but couldn’t turn his header on the open goal, instead putting it just wide.
Chiellini had looked lively over the game’s opening phases, which made it all the more disappointing when he went up to contest a corner kick and, after dealing with it, coming down clutching at his hamstring. He came off after only 19 minutes on the field, making way for Merih Demiral.
The game devolved into a midfield battle, with both teams hitting wayward passes and creating little in the way of danger. It stayed that way until the 34th minute, when Ramsey skipped past a few men on the left, cut along the byline, and squared to Kulusevski, who hit an outrageous back-heel that took a slight deflection off Mykolenko on its way to the near post, but Buschan was down to turn it past the upright.
The home team had been able to disrupt Juve’s disjointed attack well enough, but hadn’t put together much of anything in response. It wasn’t until six minutes before the break that they had their first shot on target, and that was a 50-yard lob by de Pena, who clearly thought he’d spotted Szczesny off his line but was sorely mistaken and watched the Pole glide under it for one of the easiest saves of his life. He was tested a tiny bit more in the sole minute of stoppage time, when Tsygankov hit a free kick harmlessly at him.
It had been a relatively uneventful first half, but it took less than 60 seconds to light a fire under the game after the restart. Things again started with Chiesa on the left. The youngster twisted Tsygankov around on the left side and squared the ball to Ramsey in the channel. There was no way forward, but the pass had drawn to players back toward the ball, leaving Kulusevski alone at the top of the box. Ramsey fed him with a back-heel, and the ginger wonder hit it first time from 17 yards. Buschan got down, but spilled it in front of him and Morata, who had been played onside by Mykolenko on the shot, was there to whack the ball into the net in a pure poacher’s finish.
The Italian tabloids were probably salivating over the fact that Paulo Dybala had once again been left off the team sheet at the start, but 10 minutes into the second period the Argentine finally made his season debut, coming on for Kulusevski. He was given an opportunity only four minutes later when Bentancur found him with another back-heel — the team certainly was feeling fancy Tuesday night — in his favorite spot in the right channel, but there wasn’t space to shoot and he was dispossessed by a good tackle that would have triggered a dangerous counter had Demiral not taken down his man, picking up a yellow card for his trouble.
But despite throwing on his best available attacker, it looked as though Pirlo’s men were starting to drop back into their own half. This was even more evident after the 70th minute, when Lucescu introduced Benjamin Vrbic, who combined with fellow sub Gerson Rodrigues to start making life a little bit difficult for Juve. The defenders in orange (side note about the third kits: puke) were running to cover a little bit more, as crosses started coming into the box in dangerous areas only to be scrambled away. Sydorchuk found the target for the first time in the half with 15 minutes left on a half-volley off his chest, but the ball sailed right at Szczesny for another easy save.
The defense was bending, but while it managed to stay in tact, the team could definitely have used another goal. Morata obliged when Cuadrado was afforded a massive amount of space to send in an early cross that the striker met with a diagonal run and a powerful header that skipped past Buschan’s back foot and into the net.
Morata might’ve had a shot at a third minutes later, but Chiesa was a bit too selfish trying to dribble through a crowd on the left. To their credit, Dynamo never gave up, and had their best sights of goal in stoppage time, with a long-distance strike by Sydorchuk that Szczesny had to sprawl to turn round the post, then a Shaparenko free kick that curled past the upper corner. But it was too little and too late, and Juve were headed home with the first three Champions League points of Pirlo’s career.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 7.5. Was sharp to any shots that Dynamo managed to push their way, kept the defense relatively compact, and overall had a very solid night.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 7. Stepped up in a big way when Chiellini left the field, racking up two tackles, three interceptions, and two clearances. If his partner ends up missing significant time, he’ll need to keep this level of play going.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - NR. Really lively before his injury and was playing really well. With Matthijs De Ligt still several weeks away from returning from his shoulder surgery, you have to hope this won’t keep him out long.
DANILO - 7. He just keeps on doing it in the back three, although the way the formation was shifting he spent a good amount of time at a more familiar full-back spot when the team wasn’t in possession. Led the team in tackles with three and in dribbles with five. This would’ve been higher if he hadn’t made a couple rough-looking giveaways passing.
JUAN CUADRADO - 6.5. Two key passes total, including that fantastic assist, but he was a little scatterbrained in his passing outside of that. A typical Juan game — a little infuriating, but ultimately very effective.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 6.5. Completed 92.3 percent of his passes and added a pair of tackles and interceptions. Generally quite good buzzing around the midfield and pushing passes up to the forward line, where Ramsey was able to use them.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 6. It seemed like he recovered every other ball, and tied for the team lead with five interceptions, but his passing was a little lacking. Too many giveaways trying to get the ball to the attackers.
FEDERICO CHIESA - 6.5. Like Cuadrado a little scattered in his decision making, but was denied by a good save in the first half and looked dangerous every time he had the ball. Didn’t matter that he was on the other side of the field. I’m surprised this position is fitting him as well as it is.
AARON RAMSEY - 7. Led the team with three key passes and was second on the team in dribbles. Wasn’t the pressing terror he was in the league opener, but always dangerous with the ball at his feet.
DEJAN KULUSEVKSI - 6.5. Only touched the ball 19 times, but seemed dangerous every time. That back-heel shot would’ve been an early contender for goal of the season had it made it past the keeper, and his shot led to Morata’s opener.
ALVARO MORATA - 8. Two excellent finishes. With Ronaldo unavailable and Dybala limited as he ramps back up to full fitness, the onus has been on him to lead the attack and he’s stepped up in a big way. He’s happy to be back at Juve, and it’s showing in his play.
MERIH DEMIRAL - 7. Excellent job in relief of Chiellini. Co-leader on the team with five interceptions and added a trio of clearances. As opposed to Saturday he didn’t often have to clean up after an initial mistake. He’ll need to step up if Chiellini misses significant time.
PAULO DYBALA - 6. Didn’t get all that much in the way of service after he came on, but completed 95.7 percent of his passes and moved between the lines well. Get some minutes into his legs and the production will come.
ARTHUR - NR. Completed all of his passes after coming on and completed two dribbles as he helped lock the midfield down late.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - NR. Didn’t get on the ball much in his 12 minutes as he helped see out the win.
Pirlo’s formations have been morphing in-game from the beginning, but Tuesday night it was far more noticeable than any other point so far this season. The team’s base formation was the 3-4-1-2, but that morphed into a 4-4-2 when out of possession. Ramsey would take up a striker position while Kulusevski dropped back to the right of the midfield four. Cuadrado would drop back to a fullback spot, with the rest of the back line flattening out with Danilo on the other flank. That change was probably why Pirlo shuffled the back three around to have Danilo on the left and Bonucci on the right — though it’s also easy to wonder whether or not Bonucci’s somewhat weak defending in the middle in recent games has something to do with it too. Whether or not it did, Pirlo will need to keep him there so long as Chiellini is out.
Overall, Pirlo put out a very good lineup given how limited he was by the availability, or lack thereof, of key players and utilized them well. Away games in eastern Europe always have the potential to be tricky, but Pirlo handled this game very well and had things under control pretty much from the get-go. The only thing one would complain about was the way the team dropped back in the second half, which was a little risky with only a one-goal lead, but the team held together during that passage until Morata put things away.
This crowded stretch of season continues with a pair of home games, starting Sunday with a visit from Hellas Verona. After that, a big early Champions League test comes in the form of Barcelona.