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Manu’s Grab Bag: Flop

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We talk VAR Controversy of the Week, Bentancur’s fall from grace and the possibility of the BWRAO jinx.

FC Porto v Juventus - UEFA Champions League Round Of 16 Leg One Photo by Jose Manuel Alvarez/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

You have now entered the fifth dimension.

It’s a place where the easy becomes impossible, where everything that can go wrong will go wrong, where logical decisions are nowhere to be found and no matter what you do, think or say, there is only disappointment ahead.

You are now in the European Juve Zone.

Another Champions League knockout round matchup and another baffling loss — it’s all part of everyday life here in the European Juve Zone. So what if Juventus were huge favorites over Porto on Wednesday, there are no rules here, so of course they will allow two goals in the opening minute of each half.

That’s the thing about the European Juve Zone, not a thing will go this team’s way and everything will be a million times harder than it has any right of being. With that in mind, the team’s 2-1 defeat in Portugal should surprise no one who has been following the Bianconeri in this strange, exhausting, frustrating search for the Champions League trophy.

Let’s cook.

LVP: Rodrigo Bentancur

This is was a pretty clear-cut choice, to be honest. His gaffe put the team down early in the game and then he did very little to help the team to get over that hole as time went on.

I don’t really know what happened to Bentancur. His development seemed to be on the rise and his performances at that holding midfielder position were starting to be so good late last season that I’m convinced they were a big reason why they felt so confident letting Miralem Pjanic walk.

Maybe it was the reported burnout he experienced in the latter moments of the Maurizio Sarri era or that development is not linear exactly but we are not seeing the player many thought would be the heir to the Bosnian playmaker. He’s still a capable player and when deployed in a midfield where someone else can handle the responsibility of holding the ball and distributing he can still put good performances, but at the moment Bentancur is simply unplayable as the nominal regista.

The BWRAO Jinx?

The main objects of praise in this here blog for the last few weeks had mostly been as follows:

  • Giorgio Chiellini’s surprising healthy streak and his solid play
  • Juventus finally having most of their players fit or on their way to being fit
  • Juventus having great depth in all sectors of the field
  • Weston McKennie’s revelation as the team’s top midfielder
  • Wojciech Szczęsny being the clear-cut No. 1 choice keeper

On Wednesday pretty much all of our praise turned back on us.

Chiellini limped off the field midway through the first half, sounding the alarms for the Bianconeri faithful yet again and giving way for youngster Merih Demiral, who outside of his lackadaisical role in Porto’s second goal was pretty good.

(Then again if you are a defender and you were pretty good outside of that moment when you allowed a goal is not saying much, is it? That’s literally your main job. It’d be like saying that the Titanic was a pretty good ship outside of that whole wreck business.)

Injuries were key as players who had been instrumental in this recent turnaround like Arthur, Juan Cuadrado and — can’t believe I’m saying this but — Leonardo Bonucci were all out with different ailments. And even a guy who hasn’t been healthy at all like Paulo Dybala was supposed to be ready to go for this match. Alas, he wasn’t, so we can only imagine what potential difference bringing him in the second half could have made.

That much ballyhooed depth fell flat on its face, with Dejan Kulusevski putting forth a very disappointing performance in arguably the biggest game of his career and the aforementioned failures of the makeshift midfield combo. A combo that included McKennie — who is in the midst of a streak of average to below average performances for the team, a first for the young American after being a sparkplug for the team the whole season.

Lastly, Woj. Can’t really blame him on the first goal that much, he trusted Bentancur to not give a perfect through pass to Mehdi Taremi and could barely react. The second goal was laughably bad however, that shot had no business being in the back of the net but Woj played it as bad as humanly possible.

I’m still not quite ready to claim a BWRAO jinx is in full effect but maybe we should stop giving praise to anyone for the time being. Or, well, let’s try the scientific method here, if the following player suddenly starts rolling off a streak of bad performances you know who to blame!

Winner: Alvaro Morata

It was baffling that the leading scorer of the Champions League group stage was not starting the game. Of course later on we learned that Morata was feeling very ill and that was the cause for his absence.

Despite that — and reportedly almost fainting after the game — the team looked significantly better after he was brought in. Morata does a lot of the things that Kulusevski cannot in that second striker position, he holds the ball well and is much better at pairing with Cristiano Ronaldo in attack. Putting it simply he does all the little things that a striker has to do.

You could see his impact on the play that leads to Federico Chiesa’s goal. As he makes a run inside the box he pulls the coverage towards him, leaving Chiesa with a clear lane to the goal. Kulu might be many things, but at this point in his career and against this type of opponents, a second striker he is not.

(I’ve been kind of harsh on Kulu but he’s also being put in an unfair position. He shouldn’t be playing where he’s playing but given the current setup that’s the closest position to where he should actually line up.)

You know who could be a hell of a second striker, though?

Winner: Moise Kean

Look at that, Kean scoring big Champions League goals like we all hoped he would when he broke out with Juve a couple of years back. Unfortunately, he’s doing it for Paris Saint-Germain and not the team he came out of.

I’m still upset at this move, I will never let this go.

VAR Controversy of the Week

I’ll say this: Right before Cristiano Ronaldo was brought down in the box late in the second half, I was very pleased with referee Carlos del Cerro Grande. All game long he refused to call ticky-tacky, soft calls equally for both teams. That might be due to personal preference, but I like that policy of letting soft fouls go. Of course, the players were annoyed because they are used to getting calls the minute they go to the ground but I enjoy having a more fluid game in general.

So, when Ronaldo fell and motioned for a foul, I thought it was just another really soft contact that shouldn’t be called according to the precedent del Cerro Grande had established all game long.

Upon further inspection, however, I think it probably should have been a foul. It would have been a soft PK, don’t get me wrong, Ronaldo is already kind of going to the ground before Zaidu Sanusi makes contact with him, but you have to give that one if you are going by the book. I’d have been fine if the ref had gone to the VAR and decided that it wasn’t a PK. Again he had established a precedent of how he was going to call those borderline plays, but to not even go to the replay to make a decision?

What is VAR supposed to be for if you don’t even go check? What are we doing here, how does that make sense? Did del Cerro Grande just want to go home? This is possibly one of the biggest plays in the game and you decide you don’t even need to give it a cursory review?

OF COURSE IT’S WITH JUVENTUS IN THE CHAMPIONS LEAGUE THE ONE MOMENT IN HIS CAREER RONALDO DOESN’T GET A SOFT CALL IN THE BOX.

VAR is stupid. Abolish VAR.

Parting Shot of the Week

The optimist in me sees those last 15 minutes and genuinely believes there’s hope. All you really need to do is go back home and beat Porto and you are through.

Bonucci, Cuadrado, Dybala and maybe even Arthur will be back. A fully fit Morata should be available. It’s an eminently manageable situation is my point.

But with Juventus having a deflating performance in back-to-back games it’s hard to remain all that optimistic. After all they had manageable ties against Lyon last year and Ajax the year before that. They came all the way back against Real Madrid a season before that only to be undone in the last second, I could go on.

We are in the European Juve Zone, nothing is easy here.

See you Monday.