When UEFA staged the draw for the group stage of the Champions League a few weeks ago and Juventus were drawn with Barcelona, all anyone was talking about was the revival of the Ronaldo/Messi rivalry. Besides that, it looked like a really intriguing matchup on paper. Both Juve and Barca were drawn together at at time when they were clearly rebuilding, or at the very least retooling. They had new coaches, new formations, some new players to add in. It looked like they could be very evenly matched as they vied for the top spot in Group G.
After Wednesday night’s game, though, things don’t look anywhere nearly as close between the two.
Barca didn’t put on the type of clinic that the peak Pep Guardiola teams could stage to make even the best of their opponents look silly, but they were clearly a step above Juve in almost every department. Their midfield thoroughly outclassed the one in black and white, allowing them to build up attacking moves that Juve simply wasn’t able to replicate on the other end. Barca looked like a team that was working off a plan. Juve looked like they had no idea what was going on.
Amazingly, you can still say that Juve was relatively close to at least coming out of this game with a point. Alvaro Morata had the ball in the back of the net three times, but all three times VAR chalked off the goal for offside. While the first two were relatively correct, the third was yet another application of the rule that goes against the spirit of the law, being flagged for having a fraction of his body offside when his overall position gave him no advantage over the defender.
But the problem was that outside of those three plays, Juve produced absolutely nothing. Of their 10 shots, none of them hit the target. Even when the ball was put into a relatively dangerous position, the player on it rushed himself into either whacking a wild shot or a terrible pass that gave the ball right back to the opposition. The overall effect was a game that was somehow not nearly as close as the 2-0 scoreline made it out to be and yet a game that Juve could maybe have gotten something out of if their luck had been anywhere close to in.
It was bad. And weird. But mostly bad.
It didn’t help Andrea Pirlo that he was going into his first big Champions League game about 10 cards short of a full deck. Cristiano Ronaldo has still not tested negative after contracting COVID-19, so despite his frustration he was again forced to stay home. Giorgio Chiellini, Matthijs de Ligt, and Alex Sandro were all out injured, seriously limiting his options in the back, and Weston McKennie was not fit to start after only just returning over the weekend from his own bout with COVID. His 3-4-1-2 setup therefore had very little wiggle room if something were to go wrong. Wojciech Szczesny manned the goal. Leonardo Bonucci somehow passed a late fitness test to start the game, joining Merih Demiral and Danilo in the back three. Juan Cuadrado and Federico Chiesa served as the wingbacks, with a double pivot of Rodrigo Bentancur and Adrien Rabiot. Dejan Kulusevski played in the hole behind the strike pair of Morata and Paulo Dybala.
Ronald Koeman had a few selection problems of his own, specifically in center defense. With Gerard Pique suspended and Samuel Umtiti injured, he had to dig deep into his depth chart. He was also missing his No. 1 goalkeeper, Marc-Andre ter Stegen, so he had to send out former Juventus backup Norberto Neto out in his stead. The formation ahead of the Brazilian was a 4-2-3-1. Clement Lenglet was joined by 21-year-old Ronald Araujo in center defense, with Sergi Roberto and Jordi Alba bookending the two. Miralem Pjanic came back to meet his old mates in record time, joining Frenkie De Jong in midfield. Ousmane Dembele, Messi, and Pedri were arranged behind Antoine Griezmann up front.
The fireworks started almost immediately when Demiral made a monumental error, passing the ball from the right corner into the middle of his own box — and right to Messi. Bonucci ran over and got a foot in to block the legend’s attempt at a shot, and probably gave everyone who roots for Juventus a heart attack when he came up rubbing his thigh, but he ended up giving it no mind and continued on. Meanwhile the ensuing corner produced two more scoring chances for the visitors, one on a long-range shot by Pjanic that Szczesny had to fly to save, then, after Juve again failed to clear the ball out after a set piece, Griezmann hit the post from point-blank range after Pjanic, who had infiltrated the box, laid it off to him in the channel.
Barca seemed to need some time to settle into this game as well, as Pjanic started acting like he was back at Juve and made a terrible pass across his own box that was pounced on by Kulusevski, but Lenglet made an inch-perfect tackle to take it off him before he could capitalize.
Unfortunately, that was the last time Juve menaced Neto’s goal for quite some time. Barcelona settled in and started keeping possession for long stretches. It wasn’t quite the tiki-taka of old, but it was effective enough, and was aided by the fact that when Juve did manage to get the ball on their feet they were often unable to keep it. Eventually that pressure paid when Dembele took a long switch from Messi and took on Danilo. He cut a little bit inside, putting him up against Chiesa instead, who he duly turned inside out. Chiesa scrambled back to try to recover just as Dembele let loose a shot, and the resulting deflection looped high over a stranded Szczesny and dropped under the crossbar.
It was the start of an astonishing run of bad luck that continued only a minute later, when Morata latched on to a through ball by Cuadrado and charged into the box. His first effort was stopped by Neto but he stayed with it, poking it into the net. Neto appealed for a handball, but it wouldn’t have mattered one way or the other because he was marginally offside as he ran onto the pass.
Juve continued to fail to produce any extended period of possession, and when they did get the ball upfield, they grasped at straws, like Danilo’s badly skewed shot in the 18th minute. Five minutes later, Barca came ever so close to doubling the lead. Pjanic dispossessed Kulusevski and in three passes the ball was in the Juventus box. Griezmann completed a one-two with Messi, who went far post from the left channel, but dragged wide.
Morata again thought he had the game knotted up at the half-hour mark when he slammed a Cuadrado cross home, but the assistant flagged him, and VAR confirmed he was ahead of the last defender. Five minutes later the Blaugrana were at it again, forcing Szczesny into one of his best saves as Juve’s keeper. Messi and Dembele drove down the left side after another turnover, and Messi dropped the ball to the Frenchman in the box. Bonucci slid in to disrupt his run a little bit, then Szczesny went to ground, stopped his shot, then scrambled across the grass on all fours to deny Griezmann’s followup.
The last five minutes of the half saw maybe the best build-up play the team managed to muster up all game — but that isn’t saying much. The only shot they mustered in that time was a wild blast into the stands by Danilo, with none of the rest of it putting anyone in any position to shoot.
Juve were handed a golden opportunity over the break when Araujo, who had needed some treatment right at the end of the first period, failed to turn up for the second. With no other center-backs available, he was replaced by Sergio Busquets, with De Jong dropping back into back four.
But they were never able to take advantage and challenge the out-of-position young Dutchman. The closest they came early on was four minutes in, when Bentancur had the chance to measure up a shot but slipped as he shot. It flew high, but close enough to make one wonder whether it would’ve hit the target had he kept his footing.
Six minutes later, Morata’s hat trick of disappointment was complete. Bonucci sent Chiesa down the left side with a nice long ball, and the wing-back hit the byline, came back upfield, and sent a cross toward the Spaniard. De Jong headed the ball away, but right at Cuadrado, who reached out and clipped the ball back across for a now-unmarked Morata, who side-footed it into the net. By this time Morata was cynical enough to keep an eye on the referee’s assistant, but the flag stayed down — only for VAR to overturn the call yet again. Unlike the first two calls, this was once again a moment where the letter of the rule doesn’t fit the play on the field. His trailing foot was the only thing that was sitting beyond Lenglet as Cuadrado played the ball — again, not a position that gave him any sort of unfair advantage over the defender. But the letter of the law rules, and Morata was denied yet again.
And that was as close as Juve came to scoring the rest of the night. What depth was at the team’s disposal also showed through, as Koeman was able to throw on his teenage sensation Ansu Fati, while Pirlo ended up waiting until there were 15 minutes left, at which point he introduced McKennie in favor of Kulusevski. Barca held the edge in possession, and Juve never managed to put the ball on frame. Pirlo finally made more movies in the 82nd minute when he introduced Arthur and Federico Bernardeschi, but any effect those moves might have had were wiped out when Demiral, who had been booked for a professional foul in the 70th minute, charged forward with the ball but lost it to Pjanic and wiped him out trying to get it back, and Dutch referee Danny Makkeile immediately reached for the card a second time, leaving Juve with 10 men.
The extra space paid at the end of the game, when Fati found a gap between Danilo and Bernardeschi. Danilo had recovered and looked ready to defend the run, and as the winger pulled up to face him Bernardeschi came running back like a bat out of hell. Forced to stop short, he tripped over himself and crashed into Fati on the boundary of the penalty area. Makkeile rightly pointed to the spot immediately, and Messi duly dispatched the penalty, providing the final margin of victory as the game ticked into stoppage time. The margin almost looked even worse when Fati was fed in all kinds of space in the penalty area a few minutes later, but he inexplicably chose to pass the ball rather than shoot and overhit it out of bounds, leaving the scoreline, if not Juve’s performance, a little more respectable.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 7.5. That double save might’ve been the best he’s made since joining the team. He had no chance on Dembele’s deflected shot and penalties are always advantage shooter. Overall, he did very well.
MERIH DEMIRAL - 5. This was going to be a lot higher until his completely stupid red card. That mistake was proof positive that as much talent as he has, he still needs a lot of refinement in order to take full advantage of it.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 6. That he even played at all, let alone finished the game, is amazing, given the injury that forced him off only three days ago. He made some good plays to break up Barca’s final balls, and he was one of the few outlets to any sort of attack the team had, completing 10 of 13 long balls, several of which led to some of the more dangerous (yes, I know that’s a relative term) situations the team managed to create.
DANILO - 8. Dude had eight tackles! I don’t remember the last time a player racked up that many. He was constantly breaking up moves and preventing the last pass from getting through. He also led the team with four interceptions. If he hadn’t been playing like this things could’ve been a lot worse. It’s officially time to wonder if this form is permanent.
JUAN CUADRADO - 6. He could’ve had two assists if the offside gods had been a little kinder. He and Morata are generating a ton of chemistry, and his crosses are looking about as dangerous as they ever have since he’s been with the club.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 5. I expect much better from him at this point. He only completed 79.7 percent of his passes, and he didn’t offset that much on the defensive end. He was clearly meant to be the more creative of the midfield pair, and he’s capable of filling that role, but this was not his day.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 6. On most days five tackles is enough to lead not only the team but the game, but he fell short to Danilo on Wednesday. He’s recovering a ton of balls in midfield, and he completed 91.1 percent of his passes as well, including a key pass.
FEDERICO CHIESA - 4. Completely invisible. Some of that came from the fact that the team seemed be building far more on the right — Cuadrado out-touched Chiesa 88-38 — but he didn’t do much of anything when he did get onto the ball. This was his first taste of a game like this, and he needs to take this experience and use it to grow.
DEJAN KULUSEVSKI - 4. Another rough night from a youngster. The Barca defense had him pretty well bottled up, not allowing him to move into his favored shooting positions and limiting him to a single long-range effort. He wasn’t able to connect the lines, either. Another situation where a guy needs to take this experience and make it better.
PAULO DYBALA - 4.5. He’s still getting his feet wet after coming back from his injury, but he needs to influence the game more than this. It didn’t help that he got hardly any quality service, but the was bottled up whenever he had the ball and wasn’t able to get any sort of quality shooting opportunities.
ALVARO MORATA - 6.5. Gave an excellent effort and attacked the space in the box. In addition to the three disallowed goals — the final of which was yet another example of the current rule’s failings — he had three key passes and even blocked a shot on the defensive end. He’s been the team’s MVP for the month of October.
WESTON McKENNIE - 5.5. Made a pair of tackles in only 15 minutes, but was scattershot with his passing.
ARTHUR - NR. Had no opportunity to influence the game after Demiral was sent off.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - NR. It is my policy not to give a rating to a player who was on the field less than 15 minutes. I was really tempted to break that rule in this case, because that penalty was ridiculous. He needs a change of scenery.
For all the challenges Pirlo faced in this game in terms of selection problems, he made some mistakes in this game. It was clear that the midfield wasn’t matching Barca’s for a lot of the game, but Pirlo didn’t make any changes until it was way too late. Arthur would’ve only had eight minutes to have any impact on the game, although that was all blown to hell when Demiral got hit with his red card. I also want to know why McKennie replaced Kulusevski instead of giving Aaron Ramsey, a more genuinely attacking player, the chance to make any impact. He may have been thinking of fitness levels in this fixture crunch, but overall it seemed like the moves he made were far too late and of questionable tactical value.
Juve hit the road for the next three games. On Sunday, they play top-flight newcomers Spezia for the first time, then travel to Hungary on Wednesday to play Ferencvaros. The following Sunday is a lunchtime kickoff against Lazio, the last game before the international break and, maybe, a little bit of a respite from this chaotic schedule.