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Manu’s Grab Bag: Zenith

We talk water finding its level, elite talents and the hair in the soup.

Juventus v Zenit St. Petersburg: Group H - UEFA Champions League Photo by Chris Ricco/Getty Images

If they built the entire footballing world out of Zenit St. Petersburg, how many wins would Juventus have this season?

Clean sweep?

Do you think Zenit ekes out a draw here or there?

Whatever it is, I sure hope that Juventus continues to play as if every opponent is Zenit because this is probably one of the — if not the most — complete performances we have seen this team put forth all year long, as they romped over the reigning Russian champs 4-2 at the Allianz Stadium.

With the win, Juve break out of their two-game losing streak and secure Champions League qualification with a couple matches to spare. As far as positive results go, I don’t really know what more we could have asked for. Well, maybe a clean sheet, but come on, I’m not picking nits after this game.

Let’s cook.

MVP: Paulo Dybala

Sometimes you can just tell when a player is on another level compared to their competition. You can more clearly see this phenomena in youth games or lower divisions. I remember once playing pickup football against a guy who was a reserve in the local professional team and it legitimately felt like we were not even playing the same game.

The reactions were quicker, the movements smoother, the vision was operating a couple of planes above everyone’s head. It really felt like we had no chance to take the ball away from him, not even fouling worked because he was stronger and faster than everyone on the pitch. It felt helpless.

Paulo Dybala just did that to a bunch of grown-ass professionals.

Lost amidst the discourse that revolves a player of his stature, sometimes it's good to have a reminder of the virtuoso levels La Joya can get to when he’s on. Juventus has had players who can have dominating performances throughout recent history. Especially guys like Cristiano Ronaldo or Federico Chiesa — who we will return to later in this piece — but when Dybala is on one, it feels different.

Ronaldo specially — and Chiesa to an extent — feel like they physically overpower their opponents, almost like if by sheer will and muscle fiber they will get their way. When Dybala dominates, it looks almost effortless, opening lanes and finding the net with swift movements and flawless vision. And when you're hot, you're hot, as his only bad moment of the evening — a legitimately ghastly PK attempt — was erased thanks to Zenit players crossing the box line before Dybala took his shot.

(For all his talents, Dybala is a legitimately shaky PK taker. I once complimented Ronaldo on his ability to take PKs and people felt like it was disrespect but its a legit skill! In the last decade only Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez felt to me like they were 100% burying it when it came to penalty kicks.)

The Argentine didn’t waste the second chance and buried it to get the brace and the MVP points for this game.

Also, this ...

Is it a bit pandering? Sure, but who doesn’t like to be pandered to on occasion.

Runner Up: Weston McKennie - He was not dead! After a legitimately disappointing start of the year, he played his best complete game in a while, looking a whole lot more like the 2020 Weston that had fans excited about his potential. Good stuff from the American international.

Grab Bag MVP Season Leader: Manuel Locatelli (8 Points)

Winner: The Wings of Fede

Shoutout our guy haaandyvandy, who not even in his wildest, most feverous, cultish dreams did he imagine that both Federicos would be putting together these types of performances in big Champions League matches.

To be fair, the duo had already shown to be effective in the win against Chelsea, but that was much more of a workman-like performance in which their pace and work rate were the things that stood out. Tuesday’s performance was a lot closer to what Juventus envisioned when they signed the former Fiorentina wingers.

The work rate was still there, but you had some legitimate good offensive wing play to go alongside it now. We all knew that Chiesa had this in him, but Bernardeschi is the one that continues to shock people with his performances. He finished the night with seven key passes, and while that stat might feel deceiving at times, if you watch the game he earned every single one as he was remarkably effective on the left wing and a constant threat to Zenit’s defense.

It’s been an impressive comeback season for a guy who many people — me — thought was destined to become Stefano Sturaro 2.0

And for Chiesa, man ...

That’s just silly, those are grown men at the top of their profession that he just made look completely foolish. That dude is a monster.

Loser: Italian Defenders

In a game in which Juventus defended pretty well outside of two howlers, we gotta recognize the people responsible for those howlers.

To Leo Bonucci’s credit, that was a superb header, just beautiful touch, really didn’t give Woj a shot on that one. Sure, he scored it on his own goal, but as a former defender who also scored an own goal on a gorgeous header right on the upper corner I appreciate the craftsmanship.

The person I remain having zero patience for is Daniele Rugani, who owns the most possibly Daniele Rugani stat of all-time:

How are you this catastrophically bad, Daniele? At one point you were good! I swear! It’s insane how little safety he provides whenever he steps on the pitch. At the end of the day his most recent mess up didn’t end up mattering a whole lot in the large scheme of things but as the season progresses and the inevitable Giorgio Chiellini injury happens he is going to have to step up, at the very least in Coppa Italia games, and we all should be very, very scared of when that time comes.

Winner: Alvaro Morata

That’s the relieved expression of a guy who knew that he needed that goal like you and I need to breathe.

We have said it a lot, but it bears repeating: Morata is a guy who absolutely needs confidence to be successful, and when that is lacking he cannot seem to get out of his own way. Sometimes you just need to see the ball hit the net to get your mojo back and from the celebration alone you could tell how much this meant to a guy who was riding a bad streak of form.

Fool me once ...

In the last Grab Bag I went on a long tirade about how this team just wasn’t good enough to win on a consistent basis. They had too many guys that just couldn’t put forth good performances reliably and that was that.

The take remains true and one good game does not change that reality. With that being said, logically, if a team has a bunch of down moments, at some point you start getting good moments, too. And this game was a showcase of that, almost nobody had a poor game and pretty much every single player put their best foot forward.

Juventus is not a talentless team, they never have been, and the optimist in me wants to say this is the turning point for the season, but I have forgotten how many “turning points” of the season we have had in the last couple of years.

(A lot will be made of the team going into ritiro after the loss against Hellas Verona and while I think it was a glorified PR stunt, at worst it was a manager sending their team a message. Whether or not it has a long term effect is yet to be seen, but count me amongst the ones that don’t really think that locking up a bunch of grown ass men in the super swanky J Hotel for two days is a very stern “punishment.”)

Parting Shot of the Week

It’s tough to believe, but with a draw in their visit to Stamford Bridge in late November, Juventus could secure the top spot in their group with one game to spare.

A superb European campaign coupled with an incredibly disappointing domestic challenge was not one of the things that I expected of this team, but I’ll take what I can take at this point.

Maybe Juventus comes out flat against Fiorentina next weekend and continue their precipitous slide down the table, maybe this indeed is the fabled turnaround game we have been expecting for so long. Sometimes the best thing to do is to give another watch to the highlights, smile and be happy that our bum ass team managed to make us happy for at least one day.

See you Saturday.

(PSA: Your boy will be attending the Formula 1 Mexican Grand Prix this weekend, so the trusty Grab Bag for the Fiorentina match will be pushed back to Tuesday due to the shenanigans that will surely transpire. Fun will be had by all, up to and including the fine people of the banks that have foolishly granted me a credit card and whom I will almost assuredly owe a lot of money come Monday.)