Over the last month, it’s been hard to argue that anyone other than Alvaro Morata has been Juventus’ MVP. With Cristiano Ronaldo out for the majority of that time after testing positive for COVID-19 during the last international break, Morata has stepped up in a major way. He’s either scored a goal or registered an assist in five of his last six games, in addition to a number of other goals that were chalked off by VAR on the slimmest of margins.
He’s clearly happy to be back in Turin, and he’s playing with a ton of joy and confidence.
On Wednesday night against Ferencvaros, Morata made his 100th competitive appearance for Juventus, and he celebrated with yet another standout performance. The Spanish striker scored twice in Hungary as Juventus put in a good shift. It wasn’t perfect. They could have put the game away long before they actually did, and once in a while their mental focus dipped and they let the Hungarian champions have a few chances that were easily avoidable, including the 90th-minute consolation by Franck Boli that provided the final 4-1 score. But they left Budapest comfortable winners, putting themselves in position to potentially clinch a spot in the knockout stage two rounds early if results go their way in Round 4.
Andrea Pirlo’s formation was tough to work out when you watched it on the field, but most every outlet has reported it as a 4-3-3. Wojciech Szczesny took back the starting spot in goal after taking the weekend off, and he was protected by a back four consisting of Juan Cuadrado, Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini, and Danilo. Aaron Ramsey, Arthur, and Adrien Rabiot made up the midfield, while Morata was flanked by Cristiano Ronaldo and Federico Chiesa up front.
Ferencvaros coach Sergiy Rebrov countered with his own 4-3-3 setup. Denes Dibusz started in goal behind Gergo Lovrencsics, Lasha Dvali, Miha Blazic, and Endre Botka, a natural right-back who was playing on the left due to injuries. Brazilian midfielder Somalia joined David Miklos Siger and Ihor Kharatin in the middle of the park, while the attacking trident was made up of Oleksandr Zubkov, Isael, and Tokmac Chol Nguen.
Juventus have had a bad habit over the years of letting lesser teams settle into games, but on Wednesday didn’t make that mistake. It was seven minutes into the game Bonucci sent a pass down the right side that was latched on to by Cuadrado. The Colombian ran onto it and flashed the ball through the six-yard box. Ronaldo might have been slightly offside, but the ball went through his legs without him getting a touch on it, and it rolled toward the back post, where Morata stole in behind Lovrencsics and tapped it home with Dibusz, who had gone to ground expecting Ronaldo to get contact on the ball, nowhere near able to intervene.
The hosts tried to muster a reaction and in the next 13 minutes took five shots, including three by Tokmac, but none of them were anywhere close to the target. It wasn’t until the 25th minute that Juve mounted another threat, but when they did it was a serious one. Chiesa showed a nice bit of dribbling skill to free himself up for a long pass to Ronaldo, who picked it up at the byline, dribbled back into field of play, and then laid off to an arriving Chiesa. The keeper had come out to confront Ronaldo and was again in a different zip code when the 23-year-old opened his body and stabbed at it, but Botka was in place for a critical block, and Cuadrado’s first-time rip at the rebound was sent into orbit.
Ferencvaros again responded to the threat, this time with Lovrencsics getting down the right side and finding Zubkov with a square ball, but the Ukranian’s shot sailed on him and missed the near corner by a fair margin. The game continued with Juve enduring some Ferencvaros possession but keeping the ball fairly well themselves, partly thanks to an effective press that hounded the home team into turnovers and giveaways. They had another chance to take the lead in the 35th minute when Morata was slipped into the channel by Ronaldo. He was in excellent shooting position but instead tried to return the ball to his teammate, who was around the charging goalkeeper (that’s becoming a theme here), but Blazic came in with a last-ditch tackle to prevent the shot from getting away.
By the time the teams went in for halftime Juve were probably kicking themselves over missed chances. They could easily have been up 3-0 by that point, but instead the margin was still just one goal, with an opponent that had a crowd behind them (Hungary has unfortunately not taken COVID prevention measures particularly seriously) that could get them back into the game. It didn’t help that Arthur, who had come into the game battling a stomach illness, couldn’t keep going and was replaced by Rodrigo Bentancur.
Ronaldo immediately tried to double the lead when he took on a direct free kick and put it through a gap in the wall, hitting the target but unfortunately putting it right at Dibusz. Pirlo was forced into another change not long after when — stop me if you’ve heard this one before — Ramsey was felled by a muscle injury and was replaced by Weston McKennie. A selfish streak ruined Juve’s next two chances, the first when Chiesa tried to dribble into a crowd instead of returning a pass from Cuadrado, the second when Ronaldo jumped on a terrible back pass and tried to put it in at the far post as opposed to squaring the ball to a completely unmarked Morata.
Three minutes later, however, the superstar did turn provider, passing the ball to a pair of runners in the middle. McKennie performed an excellent dummy, leaving the ball to Morata, who dispatched an excellent finish, bending it around the diving keeper and into the net.
That let the air out of the stadium, and Juve started into see-it-out mode.
Pirlo sent Paulo Dybala on for Morata with 23 minutes left, and between him and some outrageous mistakes by Dibusz the game was put beyond doubt. The first came in the 73rd minute, when a bad back pass by Blazic was made worse by a terrible touch Dibusz that served the ball up on a platter for a pressing Dybala to tap in for his first goal of the season. The Argentine’s muted celebration, avoiding calling attention to the egregious error, was a sportsmanlike gesture worthy of commendation. But that didn’t stop him from taking advantage of another incredible mistake from Dibusz. This time the keeper didn’t even see Dybala pressing, hitting a pass almost straight to him. Dybala tried to go through Dibusz’s legs, and while he managed to get a touch to it, he couldn’t stop it. The ball was destined for the net anyway, but was nudged over the goal line by Dvali’s desperate attempt to clear it off the line. UEFA ruled it an own goal — a somewhat harsh decision for Dybala, whose shot was never redirected away from the target.
With the game fully out of reach, Juve’s concentration levels dipped a little bit. Chiellini failed to sense Boli behind him as he tried to pass the ball back to Szczesny, forcing his teammate to scramble the ball clear. Then, in the last minute of normal time, substitute Federico Bernardeschi lost the ball at the top of the box, and Chiellini’s clearance was eventually brought back to the danger zone, and Boli picked up a deflected pass near the penalty spot. His first shot was stopped by Szczesny, but the Pole could do nothing about the rebound, and the Ivorian striker potted the consolation. Rabiot very nearly re-established the lead at four with a powerful strike in stoppage time, but after three minutes the referee ended proceedings, putting Juventus in excellent position to advance.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 6. There wasn’t much at all for him to actually do, but he made a couple good stops late when Juve’s focus slipped a little bit.
JUAN CUADRADO - 7. Excellent moving up the field, notching two key passes and an assist. Didn’t need to defend all that much either, with a lot of Ferencvaros’ attacks targeting the other flank.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 6. Led all players with 113 attempted passes, completing 92.9 percent of them. However, he was again timid defending when an attacker was coming right at him.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 6.5. Also attempted upward of 100 passes. and led the team with four clearances. Frankly, it’s also wonderful to see him complete 90 minutes.
DANILO - 6. A workmanlike shift, with a tackle and two interceptions. Overall, though, this was another solid performance in an excellent season so far.
AARON RAMSEY - 6. Made a big contribution in the press, with a tackle and two interceptions to go along with a key pass. Unfortunately, he came off with what looked like a hamstring or quad injury after only 52 minutes.
ARTHUR - 5.5. Completed 97.2 percent of his passes, but not a lot of those were particularly incisive. If he was ill, it’s not a particular surprise if he was a step off.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 7. Made a game-high seven tackles and was recovering the ball all over the place in midfield. He’s doing what the club was hoping for when they first signed him, and doing it very well.
FEDERICO CHIESA - 5.5. He can pop up with one great passage of play one moment and then makes a really dumb decision the next. Both happened Wednesday night, but the latter outweighed the former a little in this game. For the second time in two games he failed to finish a chance he really should have buried. He’ll improve, but it wasn’t his best today.
ALVARO MORATA - 8. Dude keeps rolling. Two excellent finishes, and his run to ghost behind Lovrencsics for his first goal was expertly run. He’s riding high right now.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 6.5. Made a good pass for that assist and racked up two key passes all told, but was also a tiny bit selfish in the second half when he had Morata alone in the box but went for it himself instead.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 6.5. Excellent in a half of work. Notched two tackles and two interceptions, as well as a key pass and an overall completion rate of 91.2. A big improvement over his last time out.
WESTON McKENNIE - 6.5. Active both offensively and defensively, and his dummy on Morata’s second goal was sweet. He’s been playing well since his return from COVID-19.
PAULO DYBALA - 7. Johnny on the spot while pressing in the box, and added a key pass to go with his goal and forced own goal. Here’s hoping that score starts bumping up his confidence.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 5.5. Actually wasn’t that bad going forward, getting credit for a key pass and nearly getting on the end of a good Dybala pass that was deflected away from him at the last moment. But he was dispossessed in his own end in the run-up to the Ferencvaros goal, another rough moment for a guy who really needs something to go right.
GIANLUCA FRABOTTA - 6. Solid enough on the left as Juve looked to see the game out.
It was hard to figure out Pirlo’s actual on-field shape in this game. The combination of players could have been configured in any number of ways. The 4-4-2 in the defensive phase seems to have stayed, but it was harder today to determine how the formation shifted in attack, whether it was a 4-3-3 or the 3-4-1-2 that Pirlo has used for most of the year. One thing that wasn’t in doubt, though, was how well Pirlo’s press worked today, especially in the first half. Juve was harrying their opponents into turnovers and bad passes all night long. It was probably the most effective we’ve seen since the opener against Sampdoria. If this continues to develop, a major element of Pirlo’s plan will be in place.
One thing the manager does need to address was the lack of concentration in the end of the game. Chiellini also admitted that the team, including himself, got too comfortable as the lead stretched and allowed Ferencvaros some decent chances. It was a little different than the first half, when the hosts were getting in some shots but not creating much in the way of true danger. This lack of focus is going to get punished by better teams than this one, and needs to be addressed.
Juventus are currently in second place in Group G with six points after three matches. Barcelona are ahead of them by three, with Ferencvaros and Dynamo Kyiv both sitting bottom with one. That means there is in fact a clinching situation in the next round. Should Juve beat Ferencvaros and Kyiv fail to defeat Barcelona, Juve will secure a spot in the knockout rounds.
There’s only one more game before the international break, a Sunday lunchtime kickoff against Lazio. After that the international call-ups will scatter to the winds for the break. Whether that’s a good idea given the state of the world ... that’s a discussion for another time.