With the absurd pace of the season this past month, we haven’t had the chance to take a really in depth look at the next phase of Juventus’ European adventure.
It was Dec. 14 when the Bianconeri were drawn with FC Porto for the Champions League Round of 16. It immediately bought back memories of the last time Juve had to face down the Portuguese giants. That was in 2017, when they were drawn together at this exact same stage. Porto were badly outmatched in that tie. Massimiliano Allegri’s 4-2-3-1 “Five Star” lineup was rolling everyone it was encountering at that point, and Porto didn’t help themselves by getting a man sent off in both legs. Juve emerged from the two games with an easy 3-0 aggregate victory. The tie ended up being better known for the visual of Leonardo Bonucci — then at the height of his powers — sitting awkwardly on a stool in the team’s box at the Estadio Dragao after he was benched for the first leg for disciplinary reasons. In the grander scheme of things, of course, it was the first step on a road that ended at the final in Cardiff ... which we don’t need to talk about much.
Indeed, Andrea Agnelli has already joked that they need to find another stool for Bonucci. Those who are superstitious would undoubtedly see being matched with Porto as an auspicious sign. Drawing them was certainly about as good as fate could have treated Juve, but we all thought that last year when Lyon came out of the bowl last year. The games still has to be played on the field, and it’s hard to tell just how that might go given the team’s general unevenness as they try to click into Andrea Pirlo’s style.
So how does Porto stack up against Juventus? Let’s take a look at them.
I honestly didn’t know anything about Porto’s No. 1 keeper, Augustin Marchesin, until I started doing research for this piece.
After having done said research, I’m a little concerned.
Marchesin, 32, came to Europe relatively late, but don’t let that fool you. He started his career in his native Argentina before spending five years in Mexico with Santos Laguna and Club America, winning five trophies overall. He came to Portugal in the summer of 2019 as the replacement for none other than Iker Casillas when the legendary keeper’s career came to an abrupt end after suffering a heart attack in training that spring.
He’s been just as good on the other side of the Atlantic. Marchesin has incredible reflexes, and excels at making himself big to win one-on-ones. More than a few highlight videos also show a fantastic ability to adjust to balls that don’t end up going where he expects them to go, and more than once he’s ended up stopping a shot with an unexpected body part as a result. Watching highlights of him makes one wonder why in the heck he’s never gotten a bigger role on the international level for the perennially keeper-challenged Argentines.
Marchesin has all the hallmarks of the kind of keeper that can go all Stefano Sorrentino on you and keep Porto in striking distance long enough for something bad to happen. If he does, Juve’s margin of error will shrink in a major way. The likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Alvaro Morata, and Paulo Dybala are going to have to be clinical with a guy like this in goal.
While he has put out a three-man defense once this year, Porto coach Sergio Conceicao is very much a four-man coach, although he has deployed a five-man back line twice in the Champions League. Unsurprisingly, both of those occasions came against Manchester City.
While Juve are the favorites on paper, they’re not currently at juggernaut level, which makes one think that a four-man line will be the order of the day for Conceicao, at least in the first leg. Leading that line will be Chancel Mbemba, who has appeared in all but one of Porto’s games this year. Mbemba is the kind of defender that impresses even in the absence of huge counting stats. He’s a good passer out of the back and reads the game very well, but he displays a weakness in the air that’s uncharacteristic of a center-back. Between the League and Europe, he’s lost a full third of his aerial duels this year, which could be an advantage for the likes of Morata and Ronaldo. He’s been paired with both Pepe (the one who used to beat people up for Real Madrid) and Malang Sarr. The latter has been preferred in the Champions League.
The club took a hit on the flanks early in the year when Alex Telles — who was sent off in the first leg when the teams met four years ago — left for Manchester United. That has left the full-back spots to Wilson Manafa and Zaudu Sanusi. Manafa is the attacker of the two, while Sanusi is more of a defensive presence. Neither, however, are particularly excellent tacklers, which could give Juve’s wide guys like Juan Cuadrado and Federico Chiesa the chance to get themselves into good positions.
While there are some decent players on this line, their defensive record has been mixed. In the Champions League, they haven’t given up a goal to a team not named Manchester City, and even then they only scored in one of the two games, but in the Liga NOS they’re in the bottom third of the league defensively. They’ve conceded 15 times in their first 11 league games — one more than rock-bottom Portimonense — and have given up three in a game three times. Which of those defenses shows up to the two games will go a long way toward determining which way this tie will go.
The middle of the park might be where Porto poses their biggest threat to Juve. Midfielder Sergio Oliviera is the team’s scoring leader, finding the net nine times in all competitions. Mateus Uribe provides some more of the steel in midfield, while 25-year-old Brazilian Otavio has flitted all over the place, both inside and wide, as a creative force.
Just how those three — and the rest of the team’s midfield depth — might be deployed will depend on exactly how Conceicao feels that day. The former Portugal international has used at least seven different formations this year, none more than four times. But one thing that’s certain is that the Juve midfield is going to have to pay special attention to their opposite numbers. The pressing of Weston McKennie and Adrien Rabiot will be crucial in disrupting Porto’s top players, but the question will be whether or not Andrea Pirlo will decide to use the two of them together or use one as a disruptor and use two more creative types to trigger the attack. This will be a big test for a unit that, while better than it was a year ago, still seems not quite a finished product. The winner here will probably decide who advances.
The big threats up front for Porto is Moussa Marega and Luis Diaz, both of whom have scored six times in all competitions. The latter is the dribbler of the two, while Marega is a pure finisher has hit the target with nearly half of his shots this year. Depending on formation, Otavio might also move into this unit in a wide role, and former Lazio man Felipe Anderson could also have a say if he settles and works himself into more playing time.
Marega will be the guy that Matthijs de Ligt is assigned to. If they stay focused and play as a unit it’s likely that the Juve back three will be able to blunt the tip of Conceicao’s spear, but Porto definitely has the quality to punish them for any lapses. Marega in particular has a Duvan Zapata vibe to him, and letting him get into a shooting position is a dangerous thing given how accurate he’s been this year.
There’s also the question of which Bonucci will show up — the one who can effectively supplement de Ligt in the back and help orchestrate the attack with his passing, or the one who showed up against Fiorentina who was a millstone around the team’s neck. If it’s the latter, then the idea of a guy like Diaz or Anderson dancing past him while he does that little lean-away-and-hope-my-trailing-leg-stops-something move for the umpteenth time isn’t is quite plausible indeed—and that could spell disaster.