There’s always one. Always one game in the Champions League that gives Juventus trouble when you least expect it. The likes of Kobenhavn, Borussia Monchengladbach, or Lokomotiv Moscow will always throw up that one thorny game in the group stage that the Bianconeri have to slog through and find a win late — if at all.
This year, it was Ferencvaros’ turn to play the stumbling block. After a relatively easy 4-1 win the last time they met and a dominant display against Cagliari at the weekend, it was easy to expect Juve to brush the Hungarian champions aside and, with some help from Barcelona, book a very early spot in the Champions League knockout stage.
But reality ended up being different. The Hungarians packed themselves in tight, denying Juve’s passing lanes through the middle, and proved themselves dangerous on the counterattack. It was that counterattack, as well as a comedy of errors in the back, that gave Sergiy Rebrov’s team a shock lead just as Juventus looked like they had finally begun to settle.
But Juve’s two biggest contributors this season were on hand to salvage things. Cristiano Ronaldo hit yet another excellent goal with 10 minutes in the first half to tie the game, and then, after pushing the visitors to the edge for the entire second half, substitute Alvaro Morata slammed a header past Denes Dibusz halfway through stoppage time to give Juve a 2-1 win and all three points. It was perhaps not the most well-deserved victory ever, but a victory it was — and coupled with Barcelona’s 4-0 win over Dynamo Kyiv, it put Juventus in the knockout stage with two games to spare.
Andrea Pirlo came into the game in a bind. Poor planning on the part of the front office left him with only one healthy center-back going into the game. That saw his hybridized 3-4-1-2/4-4-2 skew a lot more to the latter shape. Danilo was drafted in as the emergency center back alongside Matthijs de Ligt, while Alex Sandro made his first start back from injury at left back opposite Juan Cuadrado. Weston McKennie and Federico Bernardeschi played wide in midfield, bracketing Arthur and Rodrigo Bentancur, while Ronaldo was joined up front by Paulo Dybala.
After employing a 4-3-3 in their first meeting three weeks ago, Rebrov changed tactics for the return. He sacrificed an attacker for an extra center-back, going to a 5-4-1 setup. Gergo Lovrencsics, Lasha Dvali, Abraham Frimpong, Miha Blazic, and Marcel Heister screened Dybusz in defense, with Oleksandr Zubkov, Somalia, David Singer, and Myrto Uzuni arrayed in a line in midfield. Tokmac Nguen was parked up top as the lone striker.
In Budapest Juventus had the benefit of a fast start, but this time it was Ferencvaros who got out of the gate quickest. Nguen put a shot on target, albeit an incredibly tame one from long range, within the first 60 seconds. In a pattern that was to mark the first half, Juve had the majority of possession, but for the most part Ferencvaros created more danger. But Juve were starting to settle in, and nearly took the lead on 15 minutes when Ronaldo pulled out a good piece of wing play and sent a cross into the box. It went over everyone but Dybala, who had pulled back after sending Ronaldo down the left side and met the ball in the right channel, hitting a right-footed volley back against the grain. Dybusz was moving back to cover the near post and had to fling his leg back out the other way to dig the ball off the goal line.
It was only four minutes after that that the visitors took their shock lead. De Ligt was beaten in the air to a long ball out of the box from Dybusz. Danilo then fell over as he tried to move into position to cut off Nguen, giving him a free run up the field. Sandro raced after him and tried to get in the way of the Norway international’s cross, but only deflected it to Uzuni, who had managed to ghost in ahead of Cuadrado and reach a foot across to tap the ball past Szczesny.
For the next 15 minutes or so Juve dominated possession but created precious little in the way of chances. Dybala saw a shot blocked from his favorite spot cutting into the right channel, and Danilo saw a tame header off a corner easily saved by Dybusz, but everything else was either far off target or didn’t develop into a shot at all as passes were repeatedly forced into the well-organized back five only to be turned back out again.
It was Ronaldo who finally calmed things down, taking a first-touch square ball from Cuadrado, skipping past Dvali, and unleashing a left-footed drive from outside the box that skipped past Dybusz to tie the score.
Ferencvaros responded immediately, forcing a pair of blocked shots within moments of the equalizer, while Bernardeschi fired high from a set play on a corner just before the teams were sent to the locker room for the break even.
The home side came out better for the second half. They limited Ferencvaros’ ability to counterattack, and kept the ball in the attacking half for extended periods of time, but they still didn’t have much in the way of end product as the center of the defense continued to deny any passage through. They finally did create some danger just shy of the hour mark when Bernardeschi latched on to a defensive header from Lovrencsics, controlled it with his knee, and fired a half-volley that skimmed Dybusz’s fingertips and crashed into the post. It was desperately unlucky, even more so considering it was one of his last actions on the pitch, as he was part of a triple change three minute later that introduced Federico Chiesa, Dejan Kulusevski, and Morata. It marked a change in how Juve went about things, widening the attack and trying to exploit the wings a bit more to stretch the Ferencvaros defense.
Almost immediately the subs went to work, with Morata sending sending Ronaldo clear into the box, but Dybusz managed to somehow get a hand on the ball as the Portuguese rounded him, disrupting him enough to keep him from completing the move and putting Juve into the lead. Seven minutes later Chiesa sent Morata down the field with the ball, but the Spaniard thumped another ball into the post.
As normal time ticked away the Hungarians were clearly on the ropes, but Juve were still having trouble throwing the final punch. One big effort with eight minutes left was barely avoided when Bentancur stopped an attempted clearance by Blasic and unleashed a thunderbolt half-volley that Dybusz leaped to tip over the bar.
The clock ticked into stoppage time with Juve still needing that one moment of magic—and a bit shit of halfway into the added minutes they got it. Danilo put a ball over the top for Cuadrado down the right side, and the Colombian got a step on Heister and hit the ball into the box first time. Blazic made the first big mistake the Ferencvaros back line had made all night long and left Morata alone in yards of space for a free header. Dybusz, who had been the goat of the first meeting and the hero up to this point, got his body in the way, but it squirmed between his legs and trickles into the goal to give Juve the win.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 6. Decent for the most part. It’s hard to say he should’ve done more on the goal after he was left so horribly exposed, but the shot was fairly close to him and he seemed in two minds on where it was about to go.
JUAN CUADRADO - 8. Assisted both goals and notched a total of six key passes, to go along with a pair of tackles in defense. He’s been phenomenal this year, but at some point he’s going to have to rest, right?
DANILO - 6.5. Made four interceptions and led the team with three clearances, but falling over on the goal brings his rating down a bit. That was a bad look, but at least it was his only mistake, and his ball over the top to Cuadrado led to the winner.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 6.5. Blocked three shots and was generally a rock in the back, with the exception of the Ferencvaros goal, which started on a rare loss of an aerial duel. Attempted 101 passes and completed 92.1 percent of them.
ALEX SANDRO - 7.5. Won a game-high seven aerials and a team-high five interceptions on the defensive end, and added two key passes going forward. And this was all while looking a little less than fully match fit after his long layoff. It’s good to have him back.
WESTON McKENNIE - 5.5. Wasn’t really able to get into the game offensively, making only 34 touches in the hour in change he was out there, but did well on the ball-winning front, notching a pair of tackles and an interception.
ARTHUR - 5.5. Pirlo was starkly critical of Arthur after the game, and with good reason. He would either be too conservative with his passing or trying to stuff the ball through congested passing lanes in the middle of the field as opposed to trying to get the ball wide. It all added up to not that much production even though he made 108 touches.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 6. Led the team with four tackles, along with two interceptions. He was nearly the hero late when he unleashed a powerful shot that Dybusz managed to tip over the bar. He’s still not all there, especially going forward, but his ball-winning has covered for that a little bit.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 6. Unlucky not to have come away with a goal for the second straight game, and was accurate with three of four cross attempts. He’s showing a little more confidence and making real contributions for the first time in what seems like months.
PAULO DYBALA - 5.5. As Pirlo has said, he’s still working his way back to fitness, having been run over repeatedly by the bad luck express when it comes to injury and illness since the end of last season, and he showed a flash or two, but he’s still not right. Was unlucky not to score early, and made two key passes, but Juve need the real Dybala back soon. The good news about this congested schedule is that the need to rotate will guarantee him the minutes to play himself back into form.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 7.5. Scored a fantastic goal and hit a pair of key passes as well, but there were also long stretches where the packed-in Ferencvaros defense managed to quiet him down, and his failure to round the keeper was very out of character.
ALVARO MORATA - 7.5. Did what he’s done all the time in a Juve shirt: come up big in a Champions League game. He was exactly where he needed to be for the winner, and he nearly put the team ahead far earlier, both as provider when Ronaldo was stopped by Dybusz and as a shooter when he hit the post. With respect to the president of Atletico Madrid, I think that option to buy is a foregone conclusion at this point.
FEDERICO CHIESA - 5.5. Registered a key pass but didn’t make a major impact beyond that.
DEJAN KULUSEVSKI - 5. Only made five passes in half an hour on the field, which doesn’t feel all that great.
AARON RAMSEY - NR. Took over for Arthur and distributed well enough over eight minutes plus stoppages.
ADRIEN RABIOT - NR. His energy in the middle of the park was obvious. There’s a big difference in the midfield when he’s not in there.
It was clear by the midpoint of the first half that Juve needed to open up the game and use the wings more. Pirlo’s press conference (especially what he said about Arthur) and his in-game moves, sending on an extra header guy in Morata and attacking wide players in Kulusevski and Chiesa. The fact that the latter two didn’t have too much impact is partly to do with the issues to Arthur that have already been mentioned, and some to just a general failure to get into the game. Still, it’s clear that Pirlo recognized the problems that the Ferencvaros defense was presenting and was trying to adapt to address them. I suspect Maurizio Sarri wouldn’t have been so proactive and kept throwing rocks at the wall in front of him hoping something broke.
Pirlo navigated his selection crunch at center-back well, but it might do well for him to bring up someone from the Under-23 team to slot in against Benevento to try to avoid grinding Danilo, who has played all but four minutes this season, into the ground. The next few weeks will show just how adept the new manager will be when it comes to rotation.
Juve are now through to the knockout stage. They still have the chance to top the group, but their path to that won’t be 100 percent clear until after next week.
The games are still coming thick and fast. Next up on the program is Saturday’s matchup against newly-promoted Benevento, then Wednesday the Bianconeri welcome Dynamo Kyiv for their return match in the Champions League, then they stay home for the season’s first Derby della Mole.