Raise your hand if you were expecting this.
Put your hand down, you liar.
It was difficult for most people to see Juventus doing what they needed to do against Barcelona to jump them in the table and win Group G. Having lost 2-0 in their first match in Turin, Juventus had a mountain to climb: they had to score at least three goals, and once they did that keep the margin of victory at at least two. Not the kind of thing you’d expect to happen at Camp Nou, regardless of whether or not Barcelona was in form. They weren’t, of course — they came into the game ninth in La Liga, a full 12 points behind leaders Atletico Madrid, and had just lost to newly-promoted Cadiz over the weekend. Juve, of course, weren’t firing on all cylinders, either, with their form up and down from game to game since the international break in November.
With all that in mind, this game promised to be unpredictable in the extreme.
Oh, and did I mention the Ronaldo vs. Messi thing? Yeah, there was that, too — and the former definitely came out the better in this latest edition of their rivalry.
While the Blaugrana talisman took 11 shots and hit the target with seven of them, he was stopped by Gianluigi Buffon each and every time. Ronaldo, by comparison, took only three shots, but two of them were from the penalty spot, both of which he buried. Combine that with a goal of the season candidate from Weston McKennie and the fact that no one else at Barcelona had a shot on target, and it all added up to a 3-0 victory, giving Juve the top spot in the group and avoiding the likes of Bayern Munich, Manchester City, and Liverpool in the round of 16.
Andrea Pirlo chose a 3-4-1-2 setup long on continental experience as he searched for the result he needed. Buffon came back from a muscle injury to start in goal over Wojciech Szczesny. Danilo, Leonardo Bonucci, and Matthijs de Ligt made up the back three, with Juan Cuadrado, Arthur, McKennie, and Alex Sandro making up the midfield. Aaron Ramsey took a place behind Ronaldo and Alvaro Morata.
In the first game between the two clubs in October, Juve were in a serious selection crunch between injuries and COVID-19 infections. As the return fixture arrived, it was Ronald Koeman who was feeling the pressure, with Gerard Pique, Ousman Dembele, and Ansu Fati all out with long-term injuries. That led to a thin bench behind his 4-2-3-1 setup. Marc-Andre ter Stegen made the start in goal. McKennie’s international teammate Sergino Dest started at right back, along with Clement Lenglet, Ronald Araujo — who was making his first appearance since coming off injured at halftime in the first half of the first game — and Jordi Alba in defense. Frenkie De Jong joined Miralem Pjanic in midfield, with Trincao, Lionel Messi, and Pedri sitting behind Antoine Griezmann.
Juve got on the front foot early. They pressed hard, making it very hard for Barca to play out of their own half. They got in the first shot of the game on eight minutes when McKennie won the ball well upfield and played a long square for Ronaldo, who passed up a runner in Cuadrado on his right and toe-poked it at ter Stegen. A minute later, he was a little less selfish, teeing up Danilo for a long-range shot that he pulled wide.
But within three minutes of that miss, Ronaldo was standing over a penalty that he’d won after taking a long pass from Cuadrado and driving into the left side of the box. Araujo came across and blocked him off from the ball, and German referee Tobias Stieler pointed to the spot. In real time it looked like a soft penalty, but on replay it was clear that the young Uruguayan never played the ball. Ronaldo blasted the ball straight down the middle, sailing past ter Stegen, who had dove to his right.
Juve kept up the pressure after the opener, not allowing Barca to mount any sort of response. In the 20th minute, the pressure paid again, when Ramsey took the ball after a throw-in and passed to McKennie at the top of the box. The American shuttled the ball to Cuadrado on his right and made a run straight ahead. Cuadrado clipped the ball back into the box with his first touch. Ronaldo had also made a run, pulling two defenders with him and leaving McKennie completely alone. The ball arrived slightly short, so he left his feet and hit a flying scissor-kick volley that saw him almost parallel to the ground when he struck the ball. It flew past ter Stegen almost before he could move, and just like that Juve had a 2-0 lead and were on the verge of turning over the tiebreaker.
The home team finally managed to start exerting a force of their own soon after Weston’s wonderstrike. Messi got them on the board in the shot count within two minutes of the resumption of play, challenging Buffon on a long-range effort that was tipped around the post. For the last 15 to 20 minutes of the half, Barca played a bit more like Barca, keeping the ball the Juve half as the Bianconeri misfired on their passing trying to break out. But Juve started defending like the Juve teams of old, aided by the direction of Buffon, whose voice could constantly be heard ringing around the empty stadium. Messi forced three more saves out of Buffon, the last of which came with a bunch of penalty shouts from Barcelona, but VAR did not call down, and the teams went into the locker rooms at the half with Juve only needing that one moment to turn the tiebreaker on its head.
They got it within five minutes.
The play would have been all about ter Stegen, who made an excellent diving save on Ramsey to end the passage, but the issue came in the buildup. Araujo had headed a cross from Cuadrado away from Ronaldo, but McKennie was bearing down on the ball to gather it and shoot — until it hit Lenglet’s hand, which changed the flight of the ball and forced the midfielder to lay off to Ramsey instead. Stieler held play up, and when he signaled for a VAR check Cuadrado picked up the ball and carried it from the corner to the penalty spot, confident in the inevitable outcome of the review. When Stieler awarded the penalty he was assailed with the protests of not only Barca players but Juve as well, as Lenglet had been booked earlier and was lucky to get off without a second booking here. The urging so annoyed Koeman that he turned to the Juve bench to holler at them to shut up, getting laughed at by the entire bench for his trouble. This time Ronaldo went to his left, while the keeper again moved to the shooter’s right. It was 3-0, and Juve were on top of the group.
Having sent on Martin Braithwaite at halftime, Koeman had little else to change things on his bench. His next move was to replace two defenders, lifting Lenglet to protect him from a second booking and swapping Alba for Junior Firpo. But whatever he could have done, it wasn’t going to change things, because no one beyond Messi was posing any kind of threat. Griezmann did hit the top of the bar on a header from a free kick, while Messi came closest in the 65th minute when he took a smart De Jong back-heel and fired in a shot that Buffon could only parry, but Braithwaite was called for offside on the rebound, negating a corner kick after De Ligt had whacked the ball clear. They thought they had a way back with 18 minutes left when Stieler pointed for a penalty of their own, but Griezmann had received the ball from an offside position before de Ligt brought him down, and the flag overrode the foul.
By this time Pirlo had made moves of his own to preserve the advantage, introducing Rodrigo Bentancur and Adrien Rabiot to beef up the ball-winning in midfield. He very nearly got an insurance goal in the 75th minute when Sandro flicked a corner across the box and Ronaldo’s shot was bundled over the line by Bonucci, but the captain was offside and VAR confirmed that, chalking off the goal.
But that would’ve been the cherry on top of the sundae, because Barca wasn’t presenting any threat apart from the occasional pot shot from Messi, who was constantly stonewalled by Buffon. After four minutes of stoppage time, Stieler blew his whistle for the final time, prompting a roar of triumph from the Juve bench as they celebrated toping the group.
GIANLUIGI BUFFON - 8. The man played like he was 25. Stopped all seven of Messi’s shots, and you could constantly hear his instructions to the defense booming over the soundtrack of the game, even when the defense was set up all the way at the midfield stripe. The goalkeeping GOAT still got it.
DANILO - 7. Made four tackles and four interceptions, including several good face-ups of Messi. His passing was a little scattershot and that put the team in a problematic situation or two as the game went along, but his defensive effort more than made up for it.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 6.5. A much lower pass completion rate than usual for him (87.7 percent), but he held the defense together well even though his counting stats weren’t particularly high.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 6.5. It’s a testament to how good he is that he still had a solid game despite making a couple of rather glaring errors. He whiffed on a clearance in the second half that got through to Griezmann, who fortunately slashed it wide, and was lucky that his foul on the Frenchman was nullified by the offside flag.
JUAN CUADRADO - 7.5. An excellent night for him. Another great assist — his eighth in all competitions so far — and two key passes overall, and backed it up with two tackles and an interception on defense.
WESTON McKENNIE - 8. That goal is going to be up for goal of the year when things are all said and done, and while his counting stats on the defensive end weren’t particularly high, he was very disruptive on the press and was constantly making life difficult for Barca on the ball.
ARTHUR - 6.5. Made three tackles and also led the team in dribbles, and completed 90.4 percent of his passes. Kept the ball moving when Juve had it in Barca territory and defended well, although Messi blew by him a few times.
ALEX SANDRO - 8. A force on defense, making four tackles and a game-high five interceptions. He also connected on half of his crosses, including one in the first half that Morata just nodded over. If he solidifies the left side, he’s gonna be a big piece for Pirlo.
AARON RAMSEY - 7. Was the initial trigger man for McKennie’s goal and very nearly made Lenglet’s handball irrelevant with what would have been a fantastic goal that ter Stegen palmed away. Worked really hard defensively as well, with three tackles and four interceptions. His best game since the season opener, and it’s not close.
ALVARO MORATA - 6.5. Did a metric ton of dirty work, holding the ball up and keeping it moving for his teammates. Dropped back and did some defending when it was needed.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 7.5. He wasn’t all that involved in open play, but he was money on both penalties, and that was the difference between Juve being in Pot 1 and Pot 2. He even popped up in his own box and took a ball away from Messi at one point in the second half.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 6. Made his presence felt in midfield in the game’s last 20 minutes, helping to lock in the lead.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 6.5. Two tackles in 20 minutes, he was excellent as Juve looked to close out the game.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - NR. Gave Cuadrado a well-deserved rest on the right and registered a clearance on the defensive end.
PAULO DYBALA - NR. In mainly to prevent a second yellow for Morata and see things through.
FEDERICO CHIESA - NR. A time-wasting sub.
Pirlo managed this game about as well as he could have from a tactical standpoint. He got out of the gates really fast, used his press to put the team in good situations. When Barca started gaining traction after the second goal he rolled with the punches and started moving to the counterattack. Had Juve not scored a third goal so quickly it’s likely that we would’ve seen the likes of Dejan Kulusevski come on to add to that counterattack, but with the result he needed in hand Pirlo managed the lead very well, putting out his midfield ball-winners and defending like the old Juve teams of the early Allegri days did. The last half-hour of the game reminded me a lot of the second leg of the 2016-17 quarterfinal, when Juve came to Camp Nou and saw out a goalless draw to preserve their first leg edge, defending hard and keeping Barca out of the main danger areas.
It all added up to kind of signature win a new coach like Pirlo needs — the first time an Italian team has ever scored three at the Camp Nou and a big leg up in the draw on Monday.
Now, as always, the question is how Pirlo can take this game and use it as momentum moving forward. We’ve seen good performances this season followed by absolute flops, especially against teams that Juve should be beating handily. With a game on Sunday against 19th-place Genoa looming, Juve needs to bottle this kind of performance and carry it on to the Marassi and maybe generate a little momentum ahead of a string of games against some of Serie A’s better sides.
The Champions League may be on the back burner until February, but the pace won’t slow down, as Juve will run a gamut of four games between now and Dec. 22, at which point they will get the benefit of an abbreviated Christmas break.
The first game in the gauntlet is the trip to Genoa on Sunday. Then Atalanta arrive for a big matchup at the Allianz, a road game at Parma, and a home fixture against Fiorentina.