It’s “What If ...” week at SB Nation.
I have to admit to procrastinating when it comes to this particular post, because “What If ...” stories tend to be really awful to write. Nine times out of 10 you’re reliving an extraordinarily painful moment in your team’s history. In the particular case I’ve chosen, it’s even more so, because the anger is still very fresh, even two years on.
Rewatching the game that I now refer to as the Madrid Heist — the second leg of the Champions League quarterfinal against Real Madrid during the 2017-18 season — is a chore and a half. Heroic attempts at comebacks that ultimately result in failure are nothing new in sports, and the pain they cause isn’t specific to any one sport or any one team’s fans. But the way that game ended — on a call so terrible by a referee so clearly out of his depth in what we knew by that point was Gianluigi Buffon’s last chance to win the only trophy he was missing as Juventus’ starting goalkeeper — still makes me want to take out some anger on the nearest soft inanimate object. I’ve never hated writing something as much as the post-match piece of that game. Not after the Champions League final in Cardiff, not after Berlin when I was at Bleacher Report, nothing.
Still, I was inspired to take a good look at how things might have shaken out if the referee had been up to the task? Or if Massimiliano Allegri had decided to insert Juan Cuadrado earlier in the match, when Real were truly on their heels, as opposed to waiting to unleash him in extra time? Could there have been a storybook ending for Buffon’s first tenure at Juve? Would Buffon have played on at all?
Let’s look into this.
First off, the real history as we know it.
The first leg of the tie had, of course, been an embarrassing 3-0 Juve loss at the Juventus Stadium. Absolutely nothing had gone right. Cristiano Ronaldo scored two — one in the third minute, setting the tone, and then an absurd bicycle kick that’s in the conversation for the best goal he’s ever scored. Juve barely threatened that night, and to add insult to injury a frustrated Paulo Dybala was sent off two minutes after the second goal for a second bookable offense.
A week later, the situation was stark. Juve had to win in Madrid by three clear goals, without one of their best players in Dybala, and with their attacking depth further hit by the absence of an injured Federico Bernardeschi. Few gave Juventus any sort of chance.
That attitude probably extended to the UEFA referee assignors. The man they chose to oversee the second leg, Englishman Michael Oliver, was incredibly green. It was only his second year refereeing in the Champions League. He’d only gotten his first knockout stage assignment the month before, in the second leg of the round of 16 tie between Besiktas and Bayern Munich. The fact that the Germans had won the first leg of that tie 5-0 clearly indicates UEFA’s thinking: let a younger referee that they thought had some potential gain a little experience in the knockout rounds in ties that might not be competitive. It’s hard to imagine them giving a game between Juventus and Real Madrid at the Bernabeu to a referee with so little experience if they thought the tie would be in the balance at the 90th minute.
But the day before, Roma had stunned Barcelona, overturning a 4-1 deficit with a 3-0 win at the Stadio Olimpico to go through to the semis on away goals. Not to be outdone, Juve came out guns blazing, and by the time the clock shifted into stoppage time on April 11, 2018, the tie was in the balance.
Without Dybala, Allegri had lined up in a 4-3-3 with the attacking trident of Douglas Costa, Gonzalo Higuain, and Mario Mandzukic. Many have maligned Mandzukic for not being a prototypical winger, but in this game being atypical made him deadly. In the second minute, he found so much space behind Dani Carvahal that the right back didn’t even try to catch up to meet him, and the big Croatian thundered home a header. Real woke back up and forced Buffon into a save or two, but in the 37th minute Stephan Lichtsteiner lofted a cross to the back post. This time, Mandzukic simply abused Carvahal in the air, beating him easily and beating Navas with a near-post header. The teams traded opportunities in the second half until Navas gifted Juve the aggregate equalizer, dropping a cross from Costa straight into the path of Blaise Matuidi, who tapped home to put the quarterfinal in a flat-footed tie. It was the first time any visiting team had ever gone up 3-0 over Real in Madrid in a European match.
From this point on it was clear Oliver was out of his depth. With the Bernabeu crowd turning desperate and roaring every time two players came close to each other, Oliver was clearly panicking. By the end of the game, he had called 20 fouls against Juve as opposed to only eight for Real.
The final of those 20, at the very end of stoppage time, was the most egregious. Ronaldo had headed a ball across to Lucas Vazquez, who was under pressure from Medhi Benatia from behind. Vazquez threw himself forward, and Oliver couldn’t see past the wall of sound from the crowd. He called a penalty. Juventus players ringed him to protest, and the ref, clearly terrified, compounded his error by showing Buffon a straight red for dissent. Wojciech Szczesny came on to face Ronaldo and correctly guessed where he was going, but the shot was perfectly executed and Szczesny couldn’t get anything on it. Madrid went through, and eventually won their third consecutive European title.
But what might have happened if Oliver’s mistake hadn’t decided things?
It would take far too much time to go in-depth into what might cause the change. Things could have hinged on that play again, with a more experienced referee — or even Oliver, if he had put on his big-boy pants instead of looking like he was ready to soil himself by the end of the game — declining to call the penalty and the game going to extra time.
At that point, Allegri, who had two subs in his back pocket, would have deployed Cuadrado, who could have left devastation in his wake against the tired legs of Real’s defense. That, plus another set of fresh legs — Claudio Marchisio and Kwadwo Asamoah were the best candidates to be the third sub — could decisively turned any extra time to Juve’s favor. Navas have both had success in penalty shootouts over their international careers, but this game had more goals in it and I’m pretty sure Juve would have gone through scoring a goal in stoppage time, winning 4-3 or even going through 4-4 on away goals if Real had responded.
Now we need to look at what lay ahead. Bayern Munich, Liverpool, and Roma were the other three teams that made the semifinals that year. For the sake of brevity, I’m going to assume the rest of history happened the same way, meaning that Juve would be paired up with Bayern. This Bayern was the last hurrah of the Robben/Ribery era in Bavaria. They were under an interim coach — yes, one who had previously led them to the Champions League title, but still, interim — and were still adapting to absence of longtime captain Philipp Lahm, who had retired the previous year. Joshua Kimmich was emerging as an effective replacement on the field, but there was still something of a leadership gap. Perhaps most critically, Bayern was missing Manuel Neuer, who had been out almost the entire season with recurring problems stemming from a foot fracture the season before, giving Juve a distinct advantage in the goalkeeper area and further diminishing their on-field leadership.
That’s not to say a semifinal tie would have been easy. The actual semifinal between Real and Bayern ended 4-3 on aggregate, with Real receiving the benefit of a questionable call or two in the second leg, though nothing so egregious as Oliver’s mistake. But this Bayern wasn’t the buzzsaw Antonio Conte ran into in 2012-13 or even the Pep Guardiola team that Allegri just missed knocking off in 2015-16. Add to that the fact that this Juve was better than either of those two losing sides, and this was very much a winnable tie.
If Juve did win, they’d have Liverpool to contend with.
Apart from anything on the field, the emotions of this match have been insane. It would have been only the second meeting between the two teams since the Heysel disaster, and would have doubled as, for the moment, Buffon’s last match in a Juve shirt and last chance to win the Champions League. In terms of on-field analysis, the Liverpool starting XI against Madrid was almost exactly the same as it was a year later against Tottenham, though perhaps not quite gelled into the tremendous machine that the team is now. The biggest weakness would have been Dejan Lovren at center back, a stress point Allegri would almost certainly have schemed to take advantage of. Another point Allegri probably would have pressured would have been Trent Alexander-Arnold, then an inexperienced 19-year-old who, at 5-foot-9, would likely have been at something of a disadvantage if forced to defend Mandzukic with a cross coming his way. Jurgen Klopp’s deadly attacking trident would certainly have posed a threat — especially if Benatia started making brain farts at the back, which had been a thing late in the year — but in general the team was far more organized than most of the defenses they would have seen, to say nothing of the fact that Allegri certainly wouldn’t have repeated the tactical error then-Roma manager Eusebio Di Francesco made in the first leg of the semifinal. It would have been a pretty even match. The emotions of the moment would have either been Juve’s downfall (again) or pushed them over the final hurdle. I like to think it would have been the latter.
Is it possible to say with certainty whether Juventus would have ended their quest for Champions League glory if Oliver hadn’t handed Madrid the tie in the second leg? Of course not. Not in this universe, at least. But I think it’s safe to say that there are more than a few parallel realities where that call wasn’t made, and that Juve did have the chance — a very good chance — to win it all.
A toast, friends, to what might have been.