Juventus’ game against Dynamo Kyiv on Wednesday night had relatively low stakes. Juve were already through to the knockout round, and while they knew a win would mean they would be assured of at least the chance to pass Barcelona at the top of the group next week, there wasn’t immense pressure as the teams walked into the J Stadium.
Or at least not from a competitive standpoint.
But after their dismal performance against Benevento on Saturday, the Bianconeri certainly needed some kind of response, both to assuage their own minds and to stave off talk of a full-blown crisis. They couldn’t afford to put in another subpar performance against a team that, on paper, they should be beating comfortably.
But they got the performance they needed. It wasn’t anything flashy, and there was a period bookending halftime where one wouldn’t have been blamed for getting that sinking feeling in your gut again. But Juve broke Dynamo Kyiv’s back with their second goal, scored against the run of play, and then locked things down with about 25 minutes to go, leaving the visitors to look for a consolation that, thanks in part to the efforts of Wojciech Szczesny, never came. In a game that made history, played under the auspices of the first female referee ever appointed to a men’s Champions League game, Juve’s 3-0 win was a welcome respite from the wobbles that we’ve seen this year.
Andrea Pirlo got a big boost going into the game in the form of Leonardo Bonucci and Merih Demiral, who both returned from injury, allowing a little more flexibility and the ability to finally give some rest to Danilo and Juan Cuadrado, who had shouldered huge workloads so far this season. The returnees joined with Matthijs de Ligt to form the defense ahead of Szczesny in Pirlo’s 3-4-1-2. Federico Chiesa and Alex Sandro served as the wingbacks, bracketing the midfield duo of Rodrigo Bentancur and Weston McKennie. Alvaro Morata and Cristiano Ronaldo rounded out the formation up top.
Wednesday was Pirlo’s second duel with Mircea Lucescu, the Romanian coach who gave the midfielder his debut when he was coaching at Brescia. Lucescu used a 4-1-4-1 setup, with Georgi Bushchan at its base in goal. Tomasz Kedziora, Denys Popov, Illia Zabarnyi, and Vitalii Mykolenko made up the defensive line. Serhiy Sydorchuk sat in front of them, with a bank of four in front of him consisting of Viktor Tsygankov, Volodymyr Shepelev, Mykola Shaparenko, and Gerson Rodrigues. Serbia international Benjamin Verbic sat up top.
The players stood at the center circle a little longer than usual before the opening whistle, giving the cameras plenty of time to focus on referee Stephanie Frappart. When the Frenchwoman did blow the whistle, she officially made history, becoming the first woman in charge of a Champions League game. The highest compliment I can give her is to say that I will not be mentioning her name again, as she controlled the game brilliantly and made few, if any, mistakes.
The game started started quite slowly. Ronaldo registered the first shot of the night only three minutes in after a nice press by Morata, but scuffed it well wide. In the next 15 minutes or so, the only action on either side was a deflected shot by Chiesa. It wasn’t until the 17th minute that things started to pick up again, the start of a four-minute sequence that saw both teams take aim at the goal before the breakthrough was made.
The first shot was made by McKennie, who met a corner kick with a glancing header that Bushchan could only parry away, but the ball remained in danger and Popov had to be alert to Chiesa’s followup, blocking it out for another corner. That delivery was hooked toward goal by Morata at the near post, with Buschchan again spilling the ball into traffic before being able to breathe a sigh of relief when the rebound bounced just past a lurking Ronaldo. Two minutes later Rodrigues registered Kyiv’s first shot, putting the ball way over the top after latching on to a defensive header. But Juve responded brilliantly. A ball over the top from Ramsey was met by Morata in the left channel. He was forced wide and left the ball off to Sandro, who took one touch and then whipped in a vintage cross that was met by Chiesa, who had drifted in from the right side and gotten the drop on Mykolenko. The cross ended up slightly behind him, but he reached back and got off a good header that skipped off the ground at the feet of Bushchan — who could maybe have done a better job stopping it — and in for Chiesa’s first goal as a Juventus player.
Things got cagey again for another 10 minutes or so, until Ronaldo was given a golden chance to double the lead. Demiral sent a diagonal ball that landed a little short but still allowed Sandro to take it in stride. An excellent first touch put him past Kedziora and a second got him away from Zabarnyi and left it off to an onrushing Ronaldo, who usually pots opportunities like this but this time cracked the ball off the crossbar.
Over the last 10 minutes before halftime, Kyiv finally started to get their foot in the door. They gradually began to swing the momentum toward finding an equalizer, and they very nearly managed it with four minutes until the break when De Ligt made a rare mistake and completely missed a cross by Kedziora allowing Verbic to execute a perfect chest pass to tee up Tsygankov eight yards out. Szczesny rushed off his line and made himself big, catching Tsygankov’s shot with his trailing foot and booting it clear.
One hoped that Juve would start the second half better, but the Ukrainians picked up where they left off, and nine minutes into the period Szczesny needed to be alert to palm away a cross that had eeked over Popov’s head but would’ve bounced into the goal had he not intervened. It was looking like Juve were really starting to get their backs pushed against the wall.
But then they broke out against the run of play. Ronaldo hit a thunderbolt down the middle that Bushchan had to tip over. Then both Morata and Bushchan went after low cross by Chiesa, with the latter diving and parrying the cross off of Morata’s shin. It squirted across toward the far post and would’ve rolled in anyway, but Ronaldo was there to make sure and easily tapped home.
Nine minutes later, the game was put away when Chiesa slipped a pass in to Morata just to the left of the penalty spot. Morata took a deft touch that took both Kedziora and Popov out of play, then side-footed it past a stranded Bushchan.
The 3-0 lead left Pirlo confident enough to dip deeper into his bench. Having already withdrawn Bonucci for Danilo so as not to overtax him on his return, he sent on 18-year-old Radu Dragusin for his first-team debut to replace Demiral for the same reason. Juve had one or two half-chances at a fourth, but for the most part just saw the game out, with the only real danger of a consolation coming at the very beginning of stoppage time, when Dejan Kulusevski mishandled a pass and allowed Shaparenko to dribble through a man and fire it for the far post, but Szczesny got across and parried it away, preserving a clean sheet that was confirmed two minutes later with the final whistle.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 8. Made three excellent saves to keep the sheet clean. The one a the end of the first half was particularly crucial, as that goal could have completely flipped the momentum of the game.
MERIH DEMIRAL - 6. Made a pair of tackles and won more aerials than anyone on the field, but was also somewhat shaky in his passing and at one point gave away a cheap corner when he skewed a clearance. Didn’t make and dramatic mistakes but needs to avoid the small ones he did make so that they won’t snowball against a bigger opponent.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 6. A good return from injury, completing four of five long balls and 94.6 percent overall. Defended well throughout the hour he was on the pitch.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 7.5. That miss in the first half proved he was human, but he was excellent aside from that one bobble. Shared the team lead with four tackles and led outright with four clearances, and completed 95 percent of his passes.
FEDERICO CHIESA - 8. Had a hand in all three goals, scoring the first with an excellent header. His cross for Morata led to Ronaldo’s tap-in, and he got the assist with his pass for Morata on the third. He had three key passes overall and also made four tackles at the other end, exerting his influence all over the pitch.
WESTON McKENNIE - 7.5. Easily his best game since the opener against Sampdoria and maybe better. He registered three key passes — not usually a big part of his game — and was as active as ever on the defensive end, making three tackles and two interceptions.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 7. A much-needed quality performance from the Uruguayan. When paired with McKennie he has to be more creative, and he made three key passes on this night, completing 94.6 percent overall. Good defensively as well, including a really excellent slide tackle early on.
ALEX SANDRO - 8. This was a welcome sight. The cross he put in for Chiesa was a throwback to his early days at Juve, and he was excellent on the defensive end, with two tackles, two interceptions, and two clearances (duces wild, people!). If we start getting this Sandro on the regular, it will be huge for the team as a whole.
AARON RAMSEY - 5. The only Juve player that I thought had a bad game. He just felt ... not there. He was hardly ever involved with anything that created danger, with the exception of the initial ball for the opening goal, but that was only the first link in a longer chain. He needs to take a more active role further up the field.
ALVARO MORATA - 6.5. Wasn’t much in the game up until his goal, which was confidently taken. It was a little surprising to see that he had three key passes as well, but that’s kinda how his season has developed: doing the dirty work and being clinical with his chances when they’re presented to him.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 6.5. Unlucky not to have two after he hit the crossbar, but he was on the spot to get the game’s second goal when Juventus really needed it. He also registered four clearances while defending set pieces.
DANILO - 6. Kept things tight after he came on for Bonucci on the hour, sliding out to the right flank when the team was in defense.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 6.5. Took three shots in half an hour’s work, hitting the target once, and providing a key pass and three dribbles.
RADU DRAGUSIN - 6. Kept any butterflies under wraps and stayed solid when he was brought on to keep the lead.
ARTHUR - NR. Made one or two of the incisive forward passes that he needs more of as he tries to lead the midfield.
DEJAN KULUSEVSKI - NR. Nearly gifted Kyiv a consolation goal at the end, but worked hard defensively otherwise. Didn’t do as well going forward, as he’s yet to learn how to apply his immense talent to a passing-based buildup as opposed to bombing forward on the counter. It’ll come.
With more center-backs available, Pirlo was able to go back to his morphing 3-4-1-2/4-4-2 setup Wednesday night, and the team was able to control things overall. It was good to see the likes of Danilo and Cuadrado get a well-deserved rest, even if the former did spend 30 minutes on the pitch. It’s rare to see two-thirds of the back three get substituted without rending one’s garments about injuries, but Pirlo seems very cognizant of keeping players coming back from injury from overexerting themselves, and the 3-0 lead gave him a good situation to let Bonucci and Demiral kick up their heels as they ramp back up.
The team looked crisper and more inventive in possession, and were far more clinical, hitting the target with seven of 17 shots and hitting the woodwork with one more. What Pirlo now has to do is figure out how to get this type of performance out of the team on a regular basis.
The dizzying pace of this season continues, and next on the docket is the first Derby della Mole of the season on Saturday. After Torino comes the final group stage match in the Champions League, a trip to Barcelona. Juve can still win the group, but need to win by three goals in order to do it — a tall order, but in such an unpredictable season, anything could be possible.