Juventus came into their Champions League Group H finale with a chance to win the group, but it was very much an outside chance. They’d had their opportunity to win the group outright in their last match against Chelsea. Instead, they had been played off the field at Stamford Bridge, not only wasting that opportunity but roundly losing out on the head-to-head goal difference, putting themselves at the mercy of the Blues’ result against Zenit St. Petersburg.
Of course, Juve had to beat Malmo on the final day to have any real chance.
This, at least on paper, was a high probability. The Swedish side, who over the weekend managed to come out on top of a close race in the Allsvenskan that came down to goal difference, were still one of the worst teams in the Champions League, and Juve had downed them 3-0 in the opening match of the group back in September. Even with Massimiliano Allegri rotating the squad significantly, Juve could be — would be — reasonably expected to take maximum points in this game.
And take them they did, albeit in a much less than dominating fashion thanks to some more profligate finishing limiting the score to 1-0. But despite being unable to kill the game off, the Bianconeri were never under serious threat from their opponents, and everyone in the stadium had one eye on the zig-zag affair in St. Petersburg. With Chelsea leading 3-2 after a late Timo Werner strike (that really probably should’ve been disallowed for offside), it looked like Juve would be consigned to the daunting unseeded pot when, just as referee Irfan Peljto blew his whistle to end the game in Turin, Magomed Ozdoev hit a magnificent half-volley in the fourth minute out of six of added time, tying the game 3-3 and giving Juve the result they needed to top the group.
Perhaps as a nod to the somewhat long odds of taking first place, certainly as a concession to a number of injuries, Allegri made eight changes to the team that beat Genoa this past Sunday. It was hard to figure out just what shape was being used, but to my eyes it behaved most like a 4-3-2-1. Mattia Perin emerged from contact tracing protocols just in time to take the gloves in relief of Wojciech Szczesny. Koni De Winter made some history as the youngest player ever to make a start for Juventus in the Champions League, relieving Juan Cuadrado at right-back and joining Leonardo Bonucci, Daniele Rugani, and Alex Sandro along the back line. Rodrigo Bentancur, Arthur, and Adrien Rabiot manned the midfield, with Paulo Dybala and Federico Bernardeschi playing behind Moise Kean.
Malmo manager Jon Dahl Tomasson deployed his charges in a 5-4-1 setup. Ismael Diawara took the start in goal, with Jo Inge Berget, Anel Ahmedhodzic, Lasse Nielsen, Niklas Moisander, and Martin Olsson arrayed in front of him. Erdal Rakip, Anders Christiansen, Bonke Innocent, and Veljko Birmancevic took up places in midfield, while Antonio-Mirko Colak was the reference point up top.
Juve came out quickly, with the game’s first shot coming from Rugani, of all people, off a corner kick. Diawara was hip to that, as well as Bernardeschi’s shot from the edge of the box three minutes later. Seconds later Dybala sent the ball back downfield, sending Kean clean into the right channel only for the Italy international to skim it off the side netting.
It was pretty much one-way traffic, but Juve were the slightest bit off with their passing and would often miss setting up the final move. That is, until the 18th minute, when Bernardeschi pulled out an outrageous cross with the outside of his foot. It was a glorious ball met with an equally excellent run by Kean that split Nielsen and Ahmedhodzic so well that neither defender rose to try to challenge him as he thumped a header past Diawara to give Juve a deserved lead.
The rest of the half was relatively uneventful.
The heavily-rotated lineup weren’t quite playing like they’d never met before, but the lack of chemistry was also clear as they tried to link up passes with runs in the attacking third. Fortunately, Malmo were coming up with nothing to trouble Perin, even after a decent spell of possession two-thirds of the way through the half. The closest they came was the mishit of the year by Innocent, who loaded up from very long range only to have his shot bend all the way to the other side of the field for a throw-in. After being buoyed by the news of two Zenit goals in four minutes, Juve made a last run at putting the game away early, with Arthur actually moving the ball forward for once, getting it to Kean in the left channel before firing his pull-back just wide of the top corner.
Dybala was subbed out at halftime, later confirmed by Allegri because he was feeling ill. Alvaro Morata came on for him, but without the Argentine the team’s overall cohesiveness seemed to go downhill. Even so, the patchwork buildup held possession for much of the half, and created a few halfway decent chances. Rabiot just missed the top corner from the left channel, then Kean was denied a second when Diawara stopped him low at the near post after Morata sent him through. Meanwhile, Malmo finally managed their first two shots on target, but they were both long-range prayers that posed little challenge to Perin.
The balance of possession slowly started to move toward Malmo as the game continued, but the 1-0 result didn’t ever truly look like it was in doubt. Kean came ever so close to adding to his tally with a pair of rebounds. First he hit the side netting from an extreme angle after Diawara had parried a long-range Bernardeschi shot, then he was denied by a remarkable double save after the keeper blocked a cracker from the top of the box by Rabiot into his path.
But Malmo was never able to take advantage of Juve’s inability to put the game away, only ever really threatening with the occasional long-range bomb that was never going to bother Perin. The time ticked down, and maybe those who were keeping track on their phones in the stands might have seen Ozdoev catch his shot just as the final whistle blew.
MATTIA PERIN - 7. Had very little to do but did well to come off his line on the occasions required, and kept the defense tight in the back.
KONI DE WINTER - 7. Tied for the team lead in dribbles and looked composed far beyond his years in his first extended action in the first team. Did all the fundamental things right. The occasion was never too much for him.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 7.5. Was in all the right places in the defense, finishing with five tackles, two interceptions, and three clearances. Led an excellent defensive effort.
DANIELE RUGANI - 7. A really strong game. Had a couple of moments when he stepped out of the back to press the midfield and won the ball, and overall didn’t put a foot wrong.
ALEX SANDRO - 6.5. Made a pair of key passes and four tackles, locking down the left flank defensively.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 6. Had a whopping six tackles in midfield, but was scattershot in his passing and his contribution going forward was limited.
ARTHUR - 6. The fact that he had two key passes was actually a bit of a surprise to me, because the majority of the time he seems constitutionally incapable of moving the ball forward in a straight line. There was one moment midway through the first half where he had a golden opportunity to trigger a counterattack, but instead of running through with it he made a lateral pass to Dybala that killed the momentum and the team had to be content with simple possession. The few times he did actually pass the ball forward things got promising — he just doesn’t do it enough.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 6.5. Would you look at that! Play Rabiot as a midfielder and he performs! The Frenchman was a menace going forward, forcing one really good save out of Diawara and barely missing with two others, while contributing a pair of tackles on the defensive end. Maybe this is a bit of a clue, Max?
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - 7.5. That cross was absolutely gorgeous. Seriously a work of art to put the ball in with that accuracy at that distance from the outside of his foot. The rest of his shift was pretty excellent as well, racking up a total of two key passes and hitting the target with both his shots. He put in the work defensively as well, registering a pair of tackles and assists.
PAULO DYBALA - 6. A little restrained given the form he’s been in, but if he was under the weather that might not be a surprise. He did pick up a key pass for his sweet ball into the channel for Kean, and the team had problems linking themselves together without him. He’s becoming the fulcrum on which the rest of the team can get forward.
MOISE KEAN - 6.5. Made excellent runs all night long, none better than his goal when he split two center-backs so well that neither even attempted to go up with him. He was unlucky not to score more, suffering a pair of near-misses and an equal number of excellent saves by Diawara. If he plays like this all the time the goals have to come.
ALVARO MORATA - 6. Played a couple of nice one-twos with Kean, registering a pair of key passes. The end result is still eluding him, but this seemed like a better performance than, say, the Morata of three weeks ago would’ve displayed.
MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - 6. Made three tackles in only 20 minutes of game time. He was what he always has been: solid in defense without putting anything special in at the other end.
JUAN CUADRADO - NR. Put on to maybe shift things after Malmo had been in the Juve half for a while. Only attempted three passes but one of them resulted in a shot, making a heck of an impact for only 10 minutes of work.
FABIO MIRETTI - NR. A kid’s dream comes true as he runs on for his pro debut in a Champions League game.
COSIMO MARCO DA GRACA - NR. A favorite of Pirlo’s on the end of the bench last year, he actually had one or two interesting runs into the attacking third in the last few minutes.
It was an interesting game tactically for Allegri.
Rotating the team against the bottom team in the group was the right thing to do, with players like Cuadrado and Manuel Locatelli in desperate need of rest. Giving a guy like De Winter some playing time is wonderful to see, and the kid gave a performance that should give Allegri the confidence to use him again should the fullback depth start getting thin again — or if injuries further forward require Cuadrado’s presence up front. One wonders if he would’ve maybe given someone like Matias Soule a run had he been eligible for the B list.
As for his actual shape, it was hard to tell. Some services referred to it as a 3-5-2, others a 4-3-3, others a 4-2-3-1 with Bentancur (?) playing left wing, the way Stefano Sturaro and Mario Lemina did when there was no depth in the Five Star back in 2017. I think it acted more like a 4-3-2-1 Christmas tree, with Dybala and Bernardeschi given free reign to roam behind Kean.
It was effective enough, although the players didn’t look quite in sync with each other. That’s to be expected as so many players who 1) haven’t played a lot together and 2) haven’t played all that much period try to get used to each other, but it was enough to do the job, and now Juve are going into the knockout stages with far more forgiving prospects in the round of 16 than they would have otherwise.
What? No, don’t look at Paris Saint-Germain. Stop, don’t look at them and it won’t happen.
Juve will head into Pot 1 in the knockout stage draw, which will take place on Monday, Dec. 13. Juve can’t play their own group’s runner-up in the round of 16 nor can they play a team from their own country. That means they won’t get Chelsea or Inter. Atalanta’s game against Villarreal was postponed due to heavy snow in Bergamo, and they could still qualify should they win on Thursday. That makes Juve’s potential opponents PSG, Atletico Madrid, Sporting, Benfica, Red Bull Salzburg, and (potentially) Villarreal.
As for the next action on the field, Juve will take a trip to Venice on Saturday to face Venezia, who will potentially be the trickiest test left in the andata. An away game to Bologna will follow, then a home game against relegation-threatened Cagliari to finish out the first half before Christmas.