Back in December, when Juventus drew Lyon as its Champions League Round of 16 opponent, it was a welcome change. The last two years Juve had been paired up with tough opponents at this stage of the tournament. Lyon, on the other hand, are the worst team left in the competition. They’re sitting in seventh place in Ligue 1 and their best player, Memphis Depay, is on the shelf for the rest of the year after tearing his ACL just before Christmas.
It looked like a perfect situation for Juve to ease their way back into continental play as the Champions League resumed.
So much for that.
On Wednesday, Juventus went into the Groupama Stadium for the first leg of the round of 16 tie and promptly embarrassed themselves against Lyon. Few Champions League games in recent memory have been quite so limp and lifeless. Even the 3-0 loss to Real Madrid in the first leg of the quarterfinals two seasons ago was a better performance than this. Juventus failed to put a shot on target the entire game. There was no urgency, no sense of occasion, no sense at all that they were playing in one of the biggest games of the year to this point. Even in the game’s end stages, when Juve dominated possession and kept the ball in the attacking third, they struggled to create anything to truly threaten Lyon’s goal. A defensive brain fart just after the half-hour mark saw the home side — who only hit the target with two shots themselves — take the lead, and no amount of huffing and puffing could find an equalizer and all-important away goal.
The result: a 1-0 loss that, for the third year in a row, sends Juventus into the second leg of the round of 16 needing to make a comeback. But that only scratches the surface. This was a game so devoid of prospects for the future that it left fans feeling hollow and more pessimistic about the team than they have throughout all of the team’s stumbles throughout the year.
Maurizio Sarri set the team up in the 4-3-3 that he seems to have moved back to full-time. Wojciech Szczesny started in goal, fronted by the quartet of Danilo, Matthijs De Ligt, Leonardo Bonucci, and Alex Sandro. Miralem Pjanic returned after the injury he suffered against Brescia, reclaiming the regista position with Rodrigo Bentancur and Adrien Rabiot flanking him. Paulo Dybala once again served as the false 9, with Juan Cuadrado and Cristiano Ronaldo manning the wings.
His opponent in the technical area was a familiar face: Rudi Garcia, manager of the Roma teams that, along with Napoli, were Juve’s main challengers through the middle part of the title streak. He had a few absences in his squad besides Depay, and put out a 3-5-2 setup. Anthony Lopes was the starting goalkeeper, with a back three of Jason Denayer, Marcelo (not that one), and Marcal arrayed in front of him. Leo Dubois and Maxwel Cornet settled in as wing backs, with Bruno Guimaraes, Lucas Tousart, and Houssem Aouar — who was being closely watched by the Juve brass — in midfield. Karl Toko Ekambi and Moussa Dembele formed the strike pair up top.
What was even more galling was that Juve started the first half strong. In the fifth minute the ball came down the left-hand side in a move punctuated by a pretty back-heel feed by Sandro to Ronaldo. The latter powered down the wing and popped a cross toward the far post, where Cuadrado charged after it. It was in a spot where almost any touch would have led to an early opener, but the Colombian was just too late at full stretch, almost slamming himself into the post in the effort.
That was the closest the team came to scoring for 82 minutes of game time.
They remained on the front foot for the first 15 minutes or so before they started showing some severe deficiencies. The passing was slow, the passes themselves often not hit with enough power to get to their intended target without a defender sealing off the lane. It didn’t help that there was hardly any off-ball movement. As Juve’s pace slowed, Lyon started to take advantage and take control.
In the 21st minute, they unleashed their first salvo. Ekambi beat Bentancur to the spot on a near-post corner, flicking a header back across the grain and beating Szczesny, only to have the ball bounce back off the post. De Ligt was needed for a big defensive intervention moments later, although Juve did manage to break out not long after, Ronaldo again breaking down the left side and putting in a good cross, but Cornet did well to head it away with both Cuadrado and Bentancur waiting to send it home into the goal.
It wasn’t until the 27th minute that Juve finally took their first shot, a long drive from Sandro that carried over the bar. A minute later, Marcelo got a measure of luck when he reached out to fend off a pressing Dybala only to whack the striker in the throat. Depending on the day, it wouldn’t have been a surprise to see a red card come out, but Spanish referee Jesus Gil Manzano only pulled out the yellow — which, to be fair, was probably the right call, as the Brazilian was facing away from Dybala and couldn’t have known where his hand was headed.
The decisive moments of the game came wrapped themselves around the half-hour mark. The first of them came at the Lyon end of the field, where the home side was defending a free kick. They cleared it, but in the scrum de Ligt was pulled down and a Lyon player stumbled backwards on top of him, cleating him in the head. It was completely accidental, but it also opened up a gash in his head. It didn’t take long for Manzano to notice the significant amount of blood coating the side of the Dutchman’s head, and he stopped play to send him to the sideline for treatment.
Temporarily down to 10 men, Danilo tucked in to the center back position and Cuadrado dropped into right back. But there still seemed to be some confusion as to who went where, and Lyon took advantage. After a quick one-two following a throw, it was Aouar — perhaps aware of the eyes on him — that created the danger, shrugging off the attentions of Bentancur and getting himself to the byline. He pulled the ball back to a box in chaos. Marking was lax or nonexistent, and the plethora of Lyon players in the box had space and lanes. Tousart took advantage of Sandro being in the next town over and popped in a reflex finish as the ball bounced to him.
Ronaldo was afforded the opportunity to score only four minutes after restarting play, getting a feed from Dybala in the left channel and trying to curl it in at the far post but hitting the ball far too straight. Beyond that, Lyon had Juventus pinned into their end of the field. They appealed for handall when it appeared for a second as though Cuadrado had brushed his arm against the ball inside the box, but replays showed it hit him in the chest. In the final phases of the half they came as close as ever to doubling the lead. In the 41st minute, a comically bad back pass from Pjanic left Bonucci in no man’s land, but Ekambe couldn’t put his shot on frame, nor could he again three minutes later when he finished a quick counterattack with a shot that whistled over the bar.
The second half started out much like the first, with a quick start for Juve followed by Lyon starting to impose themselves again. At this point some changes were obviously needed, but the first of them was a little surprising: Aaron Ramsey came on on in place of Pjanic, who was wholly ineffective on the night. Things started to improve. Ramsey moved more off the ball than practically the entire team up to that point, and his runs into the box added an element of danger to the attack, even if they still were struggling to threaten Lopes’ goal.
Juve slowly began to turn the screw and pile on some of the pressure, but shooting opportunities were still few until the 69th minute, when Dybala burst into space on the end of a cross from Sandro, but he skewed the volley wide. Gonzalo Higuain was introduced to give the attack a bit more of a focal point in the box, but they still couldn’t get the ball into the right areas fast enough to realistically look like equalizing.
It was Higuain that spurned one of of the best chances they put together on the night when he controlled a Dybala ball, but again he couldn’t put the ball on frame despite being about eight yards from goal. The referee then came front and center with just a minute left in normal time when Dybala tried to keep possession in the six-yard box. His back was to goal, and Guimaraes wrapped his arm around him, planted his hand in his sternum, and yanked him down. Incredibly, Manzano immediately waved play on, and even more incredibly the VAR official didn’t do anything to intervene, allowing the home squad to get away with a stone-cold penalty.
Five minutes of stoppage time were added on, and five became six once a pitch invader made himself known in the final minute. Juve had Lyon well and truly pinned at this point, but the danger was only fleeting, mostly in the form of a towering header from Ronaldo that he wasn’t able to put on frame, putting a capper on a recurring theme and sealing the game, giving Juve all to do in the second leg.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 6. Had hardly anything to do with proceedings Wednesday night. He wasn’t at fault on the goal, and had hardly anything to do in the second half.
DANILO - 3.5. After a string of good games, the Brazilian laid an egg when it mattered most, routinely getting beaten defensively and not doing all that much to add to the attack in a meaningful way.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 6. Solid in back and did well to deal with balls in the box during the first half when Lyon was dominating. Co-leader on the team with three clearances. His brief absence led to Lyon’s goal being scored.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 5.5. Was at sixes and sevens trying to pick up a man as the goal was scored, and had a couple other shaky moments, especially at the end of the first half when Ekambe pounced on that Pjanic back pass. He wasn’t in a great situation there, but he also could have attacked the ball earlier.
ALEX SANDRO - 5. Was in nowhere land when Tousart scored. Came alive a bit in the second half with a couple of good crosses and a pair of key passes, but overall this wasn’t his day.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 5.5. Dropped a key pass and led the team with five tackles in midfield, but it was the one he didn’t make, against Aouar, that was the costly one. Allowing the Frenchman to get the drop on him as he got to the byline could be a decisive moment in the tie. Ticked up the tempo when he had to jump into the regista position.
MIRALEM PJANIC - 3. Remember early in the season where Pjanic said Sarri wanted him to make 100 passes a game? In this one, he attempted ... 37. He couldn’t move the ball with the necessary speed and didn’t move off the ball. One of the enduring images of the game for me will be from early in the second half, where he just stood there letting Dembele man-mark him out of the play, removing a passing outlet for his teammates. Oh, and another one of those crazy back passes as well.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 3. This was his chance to really stake a claim to a consistent starter’s spot, but he fell on his face in his return to France. His effort level didn’t look high and he was constantly misplacing passes and mishandling ones coming his way. Blaise Matuidi certainly wouldn’t have been worse than this.
JUAN CUADRADO - 4. Couldn’t do much of anything right in this game. Credit to him for getting back and defending when he could, but his attacking game was decidedly meh, full of bad control and the head-scratching decisions we’ve all come to expect from him.
PAULO DYBALA - 5. Tried really hard to make the right impact, but was shackled for much of the evening. Still, he had an excellent chance to equalize that he scuffed. With such an unproductive midfield he was asked to do too much.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 6. Tried hard, but he can’t win a game by himself—not at his age. He didn’t get much in the way of good service, save one nice ball by Dybala that he then turned wide.
AARON RAMSEY - 6. He changed things around when he came on. Started moving the ball faster and, rather crucially, stated making strong runs inside the box that no one had made before.
GONZALO HIGUAIN - 5. Turned aside a golden chance late in the game. Needs good service and apart from that didn’t get any.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - NR. Tried to bring a little impetus to Rabiot’s position but didn’t really serve as that much of an improvement, although he certainly wasn’t worse.
Maurizio Sarri has used this formation and lineup for the last two weeks and the attack has looked pretty good, but there was one major difference: Miralem Pjanic. He was rested two weeks ago and then sat out against SPAL over the weekend nursing the injury he suffered as a sub the week before. Bentancur had taken his place and had the ball moving far quicker than Pjanic had been, and once Pjanic came off Juve finally developed some sort of a pulse.
It’s amazing how far Pjanic has dropped in the space of a season. After the first few games of the season he looked like the second coming of Andrea Pirlo. Now, serious consideration has to be given to benching him, because the team can’t afford any more games like this where he actively drags down the team.
Apart from Pjanic, there wasn’t much different from the 4-3-3 and it wasn’t a bad move to use the formation per se. He made the right changes that finally gave the team a little bit of a heartbeat, but it’s really distressing that the team can go out so flat for a Champions League game. After the game Sarri was visibly frustrated with how the team performed, indicating that the ball was moving twice as quickly in training as it was during games. While a performance like this isn’t necessarily the fault of the manager—the team simply didn’t come to play today, it’s that simple — the fact that Sarri couldn’t get a reaction out of the team until it was essentially too late was a concern.
The problems the team is facing can be traced back to the deficiencies in how it was built in the summer, but Sarri’s got to start getting them motivated for big games like this — especially given the game that’s next on the agenda.
It’s pretty simple: when Lyon head to Juventus on St. Patrick’s day for the second leg, they need to win by two goals. If they manage to win 1-0 the game will go to extra time, but in other cases anything other than a two-goal win will see Juve eliminated at the earliest stage since 2013-14.
Up next on the docket: one of the biggest games of the Serie A season as Inter come to Turin—a game that will be played behind closed doors because of the coronavirus scare in northern Italy. After that, it’s the second leg of the Coppa Italia semifinal against AC Milan.