“Maybe we need to remember that games start from 0-0 and the first minute.”
That remark, uttered post-game by Danilo, pretty much summed up the first leg of Juventus’ Champions League Round of 16 tie with Porto. Juve clearly forgot that each half starts the first time the referee blows his whistle. The colossal errors they made in the opening seconds of each period, allowing goals 63 and 19 seconds in, respectively, put them into a massive hole and played right into Porto’s hands, allowing them to settle into their defensive lines and absorb Juve’s pressure.
Not that there was all that much pressure to begin with. Perhaps unmade mentally by the early blow they took, Juve’s attack was disjointed in the extreme. At times it looked like 11 guys who had just met trying to come up with a cohesive plan. Passes went everywhere except where they were intended to go. Players were jumped in possession as they sat trying to decide what to do with the ball, or while waiting for someone, anyone, to get themselves into some semblance of a dangerous position off the ball. They didn’t muster a shot on target for 40 minutes, and anything Porto keeper Augustin Marchesin did have to do was relatively simple.
Juve were heading toward another gargantuan task in the second leg when they managed to pull an invaluable away goal out of absolutely nowhere with what was pretty much their only substantial opportunity of the game. It was a vital lifeline, one that turned mountain the second leg was looking like into a much more manageable hill. But down 2-1 on the aggregate, there’s still a climb involved, and Juventus is going to turn in a completely different performance in order to make it without falling.
Andrea Pirlo was restricted badly by injuries heading into the game. Despite the hopes that he would be ready in time, Paulo Dybala’s knee injury had not healed enough to allow him to participate in the game. Leonardo Bonucci suffered a setback in training and was likewise unavailable, while Juan Cuadrado was ruled out by the hamstring injury he suffered against Napoli over the weekend. Aaron Ramsey and Alvaro Morata weren’t ready to start as they recovered from injury and illness, respectively. That left his 3-5-2/4-4-2 hybrid setup relatively thin, though on paper it was still a strong side. Wojciech Szczesny stood at the base of the formation, with Danilo, Matthijs de Ligt, and Giorgio Chiellini in front of him. Federico Chiesa and Alex Sandro — who along with Danilo had spent four years in Porto colors in the 2010s — played as wing-backs, flanking the trio of Adrien Rabiot, Rodrigo Bentancur, and Weston McKennie. Cristiano Ronaldo and Dejan Kulusevski joined forces up front.
Porto coach Sergio Conceicao has been the definition of tactical flexibility this year, and he decided to counter Pirlo with a straight 4-4-2 in front of Marchesin. Wilson Manafa, Chancel Mbemba, Pepe, and Zaidu Sanusi made up the back four, with Jesus Corona, Mateus Uribe, Sergio Oliveira, and Otavio making up the next bank. Moussa Marega and Mehdi Taremi rounded things out as the strike pair.
Things went south from the off. Juve kicked off, and began passing between themselves. The ball eventually had to head all the way back to Szczesny, who passed the ball short to Bentancur in the middle of the box. The Uruguayan had his back to the rest of the field and was completely unaware of where Taremi was behind him. He tried to return the ball to Szczesny, but left his pass painfully short, and the Iranian pounced, and slid in to beat the keeper to the ball and knock it into the back of the net with barely a minute off the clock, the fastest goal in the Champions League knockout rounds in eight years. Some blame falls on Szczesny for not realizing the trouble his pass put Bentancur in, but the error by the midfielder was absolutely inexcusable.
Juve’s response was what you get when you look up “disjointed” in the dictionary.
Passes were played fast but without accuracy, and without thought. Off-ball movement was non-existent, and players were losing the ball left and right. It wasn’t until the 16th minute that they registered their first shot, a nice volley by Chiesa on a deep cross that was blocked by Sanusi. Meanwhile, Szczesny’s day wasn’t getting any better, as he continued to try to play short out of the back and continued to make completely avoidable mistakes, the worst of which was a pass right at Oliveira, whose shot was blocked by de Ligt for a corner.
Nothing was going right at all, and it went from bad to worse in the 35th minute when Chiellini received a pass and hoofed the ball over the line, signaling to the bench that he needed to come off. Merih Demiral was scrambled on to take his place, as Chiellini — whose presence has been instrumental in the team’s good form at the end of January — made his way to the dugout and indicated to the training staff that he was dealing with yet another calf injury.
Demiral was the man who ended up finally taking Juve’s first shot on target in the 40th minute, a header off a free kick that Marchesin easily fielded. Rabiot then forced the Argentinian keeper into a diving parry, but play was called back because a teammate was obstructing the keeper in an offside position.
Some changes were needed at halftime to get things going, but the change ended up for the worse when Juve somehow managed to gift the hosts a goal even faster. Porto took the kickoff and immediately walked the ball down the right wing. Manafa got into a huge hole between Sandro and McKennie and squared it to Marega, who was in all kinds of space with de Ligt paying attention to the ball and Rabiot and Demiral trailing behind. The Malian striker stabbed the ball toward the near post, and Szczesny reacted way too late, letting it trickle into the net.
The situation was now serious, and it nearly became desperate in the 52nd minute when Oliveira was allowed to walk almost a third of the length of the field, getting all the way into the box and letting fly completely unchallenged. Szczesny broke to his right and was lucky that the midfielder’s shot wasn’t particularly good, hit centrally enough for him to reach back with one hand and stop the shot to keep the score from getting completely out of control.
Juve were in dire straights, but it was Conceicao who made a substitution first, replacing Otavio, who was making a run at the record for most fouls committed in a match without being booked. Pirlo finally made his change in the 63rd minute, sending Morata into the fray. But there was still no sting in the tail, while at the other end Corona, who had been relatively quiet, started going into battle mode, and Szczesny had to palm an overhead kick over the bar. Juve were reduced to a spray-and-pray approach from long distance.
Ramsey was sent on to try to make a difference in midfield, but it was one of the starters that finally managed to get Juve some semblance of a response. Rabiot was the one who found himself getting behind the Porto defense to latch on to a good ball from Sandro. Pepe hung back to make sure Morata wouldn’t make any dangerous runs, opening up just enough space for the Frenchman to silp the ball across the box into the path of Chiesa, who had been left completely alone by Sanusi on the far side. The shot it presented was actually really difficult, but he opened up his body and side-footed the ball first time back where it came from. Marchesin had run to protect his near post and never saw the effort to the far post coming. It was actually a really gorgeous shot, and it gave Juve a huge boost with a hugely valuable away goal.
That seemed like it actually woke Juve up for real, and Morata ended up a fraction offside when he was fed into the goal and it wouldn’t have counted hd he managed to score.
The seconds ticked by, and both teams wanted things from Spanish referee Carlos Del Cerro Grande in stoppages. Sandro was booked for taking Taremi down after an errant header by de Ligt, but the presence of the Dutchman prevented the desired red card. Then, with almost the last touch of the game, Ronaldo took down a pass before going down under some contact with Sanusi. The superstar roared for a penalty, but it wasn’t clear whether or not he’d actually be able to get back to the ball he’d left behind before the contact, and no call was forthcoming by Del Cerro Grande or the VAR booth.
The night ended with the team down 2-1 on aggregate, but still very much in the tie thanks to the away goal.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 4.5. Building from the back is the way soccer is played these days, but Szczesny needed to recognize earlier that Porto’s press was going to cause problems and alter his approach. That was bad enough, but he made a huge hash out of the second goal, late to get down to it. It was one he really should’ve saved. This might’ve been his worst game in a Juve shirt.
DANILO - 6. Made two tackles and three clearances. Porto’s dangerous moments tended to come when the ball was on the other flank, but his late yellow will rule him out of the return.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 5.5. Got sucked into the ball on the second goal and couldn’t get anywhere close to Marega. He also nearly gifted Taremi that late third with a wayward header, and wasn’t his usual self in the back when Porto did get forward.
GIORGIO CHIELLINI - 5.5. Marega didn’t do all that much against him before he had to come off, but his passing was ... wild, might be the word? Not his best game, and now he could be facing yet another spell on the sideline.
FEDERICO CHIESA - 6. Played hard all game even though he didn’t get all that much support, but that goal was a really difficult finish in an incredibly clutch situation. Also added in two tackles defensively.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 6. Finally made the one run behind the Porto defense that the team needed to unlock the away goal. Overall, he made three key passes and was one of two players who completed more than 90 percent of his passes, and added two tackles and a team-leading three interceptions.
RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 4. This is one where the stats like in the negative sense, cause you could have told me Bentancur had made three key passes on the day before I read it on the stat sites I would’ve laughed in your face. The mistake he made on the opening goal was unconscionable, and he just didn’t make the team go. He was improving when he was playing alongside Arthur and McKennie, but when the creative onus is on him he’s just not up to it right now.
WESTON McKENNIE - 5. Another quiet day for the American, who made a key pass but was otherwise second best to most every ball and was badly beaten for position for Porto’s second goal.
ALEX SANDRO - 5.5. Found Rabiot in the lead-up to the goal but let Manafa waltz down the wing unchallenged at the beginning of the second half.
DEJAN KULUSEVSKI - 4. Got completely handled by the Porto defense. We’ve said it ad nauseum, but it remains true: he’s got talent like crazy, but needs to learn how to play in possession.
CRISTIANO RONALDO - 5. This was not a case of Ronaldo heroically trying to get the team on his back. He was constantly dispossessed far too easily and failed to find any space inside the Porto defense. His night was summed up late on when an attempted shot turned into a comical whiff, although the play would’ve been called back for offside had he made contact.
MERIH DEMIRAL - 5.5. Nowhere near Marega on the second goal, far out of position. Apart from that a good job filling in for Chiellini.
ALVARO MORATA - 5.5. Took three shots and made a key pass, but he was offside a little too much and couldn’t act as the fulcrum for the attacking game, although his physical condition probably had something to do with it.
AARON RAMSEY - NR. Made a key pass in his 14 minutes but didn’t have a huge impact.
It was hard to figure out just what Pirlo’s game plan was, because that opening gut punch seemed to have cracked them mentally. In my book, this was a fiasco caused more by the players not showing up than Pirlo making mistakes.
During the match, it definitely looked like the choice of Kulusevski over Morata was a mistake, but after hearing in his post-match press conference how bad Morata felt after the game — he reportedly felt quite ill after the match — it was clear that that wasn’t exactly a choice at all and that Morata wasn’t physically up to starting. What could be classified as a mistake is not instructing Szczesny to ditch the short buildups from the back earlier in the game, because Porto’s press had it sniffed out today and were getting some good chances out of the mistakes that resulted. One has to hope that he learns from that for the second leg, but it’s easy to imagine that he can, considering the improvements he made after the loss to Inter last month.
At the end of the day, a lot of this game came down to Pirlo having really bad luck when it came to his player availability. Morata wasn’t able to go a full game, while creative outlets like Cuadrado, Arthur, and Dybala weren’t available at all. One can only hope that Pirlo has a few more pieces at his disposal for the second leg, and that combined with a few lessons learned this tie can be turned around.
The return leg is in three weeks on March 9. Juve must win to advance, but their away goal means they’ll get through if they manage to win 1-0. A 2-1 win will trigger extra time, while anything higher than that will require a two-goal victory.
Next on the schedule comes a home game against Crotone on Monday, followed by an actual week without a midweek game and then a trip to the Bentegodi to face Hellas Verona. Both teams took points off Juve in the andata, and if Juve want to keep pace in the title race they’ll need maximum points in both.