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Juve beat Malmö in Champions League opener for first win of the season

At long last, a victory and a clean sheet for the Bianconeri.

Malmo FF v Juventus: Group H - UEFA Champions League Photo by Daniele Badolato - Juventus FC/Juventus FC via Getty Images

The schneid is a terrible place to be. When you’re on the schneid, things go wrong all the time. Things that should be easy end up exploding spectacularly in your face. Your stress levels go up. It gets harder to sleep. Your food tastes blander. Your pet doesn’t love you as much. And most importantly, you’re not winning games.

Juventus have been solidly on the schneid since the 2021-22 season began, and as they started their Champions League schedule they desperately needed a victory to get themselves on track after starting the season with only one point in three games.

The early stages of the group stage opener against Malmö had some nervy moments and were maybe starting to raise a couple of questions, but by halftime Juve suddenly found themselves running away with the game. The team generally looked better against an overmatched but doggedly determined opponent, several key players in bad runs of form saw real improvement, and, by game’s end, they had not only posted their first victory of the year but their first clean sheet since March 2 — March 2! — sweeping the Swedish champions away 3-0 and, hopefully, firmly displacing themselves from the schneid ahead of Sunday’s match against AC Milan.

Massimiliano Allegri got his South American contingent back after they were all left at home in the weekend loss to Napoli due to the late finish of CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying — amounting to a full half of the starting outfield players. However, he was still missing perhaps his best player, Federico Chiesa, who remained sidelined with a muscle injury sustained during international duty last week. With the schneid still looming over everyone’s shoulder and perhaps some simplicity needed, Allegri elected to go with a 4-4-2 setup. The embattled Wojciech Szczesny retained his place in goal, with Danilo, Leonardo Bonucci, Matthijs de Ligt, and Alex Sandro protecting him. Manuel Locatelli made his Champions League debut paired up in midfield with Rodrigo Bentancur, with Juan Cuadrado and Adrien Rabiot bookending the pair out wide. Alvaro Morata and Paulo Dybala partnered up front.

Malmö coach Jon Dahl Tomasson is highly acquainted with playing Juventus, having done so with relative frequently in his playing days during his three years with AC Milan. Those Carlo Ancelotti-led sides were far more talented that the squad at his disposal, and he was missing key pieces in defender Niklas Moisander, midfielder Sergio Pena, and goalkeeper Johan Dahlin. He countered Juve’s superior talent with a 5-3-2 formation, with Ismael Diawarra anchoring the team in goal. Jo Inge Berget, Anel Ahmedhodzic, Lasse Nielson, Franz Brorsson, and Soren Rieks stretched across the back five. Anders Christiansen, Bonke Innocent, and Erdal Rakip made up the midfield trio, and Antonio-Mirko Colak and Veljko Birmancevic tipped the spear as the strike pair.

The two teams probed each other in the early minutes, with Sandro getting the first look at goal three minutes in with a header over the bar. By the 10th minute, Juve had had their first really good chance, when Morata made use of a good advantage call by referee Artur Dias of Portugal to find Dybala over the top, but the ball bounced awkwardly and Dybala couldn’t get any control on his shot, ballooning it over as he tried to get it past the keeper one-on-one.

Malmö had a fair bit more of the ball in these stages than one might have expected them to. They were at moments playing the better football, and Juve very nearly got caught out in the 17th minute when Berget sent in a cross at the end of a slick passing move that Reiks, ghosting in at the back post, volleyed just over. The Bianconeri were having some trouble breaking the spirited press of the hosts, and when they did get forward the telegraphed their passes a little too easily. As the half progressed another factor in the game also started to make itself apparent: the pitch, while looking perfectly adequate, had the general characteristics of a Slip-’n-Slide, and players from both sides — and at one point even the referee — frequently lost their footing and crashed to the turf.

It looked like the run of play was starting to really turn against Juve when they broke open the scoring. Juve moved the ball all the way across from left to right in a neat passing move, setting up Cuadrado for the cross in. It’s intended target looked to be Bentancur at the near post, but the Uruguayan slipped (this will be a recurring theme) and could only get a slight backwards flick onto the ball. The ball might’ve gotten to Sandro with or without that touch, but it got Bentancur credit for the assist as the Brazilian stooped down and fired a bullet header past Diawara to put Juve up 1-0.

FBL-EUR-C1-MALMO-JUVENTUS Photo by ANDERS BJURO/TT News Agency/AFP via Getty Images

Of course, Juve had lost points from winning positions in two of their first three games this year, so things were far from certain. But the goal kicked Juve into gear and started pushing for a second immediately. Four minutes after the goal Bonucci found Sandro with a glorious long pass that called back to the days he spent in the middle of Antonio Conte’s back three, putting the full-back clean on goal only for him to place his shot just wide of the far post.

Balls over the top became a constant problem for the Malmö defense, and in the 32nd minute it was Locatelli’s turn to provide, flipping one up for Morata, who fended off Nielson and tried to flick over Diawara, but the keeper made himself big and got a hand to it. Morata became more and more involved in things around the Malmo box, creating a chance for Locatelli on a one-two that went just wide, then blowing the top off the Malmo defense yet again, this time via the foot of Danilo. He was all alone and Nielson had help coming, but the defender got into an unnecessary wrestling match, clearly grabbing onto Morata’s arm and pulling him over. There was a VAR review to determine whether or not Morata was offside, but when it was confirmed that he’d been level Dybala stepped up to the penalty spot. Once again, the state of the pitch came into play as Dybala slipped as he planted to take his kick, but he hit the shot low down the middle with enough power to rattle it under the feet of the keeper, who had dived to his right.

Sixty seconds later it was all over. Szczesny booted a long clearance that found its way to Rabiot, whose attempt to center the ball bounced off a defender and directly into the path of Morata, who took a quick touch to settle and this time successfully lifted it over Diawara to make it 3-0 and take the game from close to settled in the space of two minutes.

Malmo FF v Juventus: Group H - UEFA Champions League Photo by Daniele Badolato - Juventus FC/Juventus FC via Getty Images

The second half boiled down to seeing the game out, making sure they avoided the kind of boneheaded mistakes that have become common, and ending the streak of games without clean sheets that had reached 18 after Saturday. There was the occasional sloppy moment, but the defense recovered, and was backed up by a strong second-half performance from Szczesny, who looked far more confident than he has in much of 2021. Over a six-minute stretch midway through the half, he came out for a strong punch off a good cross from the left, then came out aggressively to close down Christensen along the byline for a corner, then snuffed out a potential problem with another punch after Bonucci made a loose pass in his own half.

Juve had a few chances to extend their lead, the best of which came in the 62nd minute after a slick move between Morata, Cuadrado, and Dybala that saw the Spaniard feed Cuadrado, who popped the ball into the air first time for Dybala, who hit a first-time back-heel into the path of Morata, whose first-time shot was a little too close to Diawara. Morata gave way to Moise Kean a few minutes later, and the youngster had the ball in the net within three minutes but was offside. On the stroke of full time, Kean came close again when Dejan Kulusevski played him into the left channel, but Diawara won the one-on-one and kept him out. Szcesny received his only real test in stoppages, stopping and holding a shot from Malmo sub Martin Olsson with Colak lurking.

Dias’ final whistle came soon after, and Juve had their first winning effort of the year in the bag.

LE PAGELLE

WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 7. Had little to do in the first half and only saw one shot on target at the very end, but was worlds better on balls in and around his box in the second half. His punches were strong, his only save was stopped dead with a striker lurking for the rebound. Hopefully that was a huge confidence booster.

DANILO - 6.5. Strong in the back, picking up two tackles, an interception, and two clearances while completing 88.5 percent of his 96 pass attempts. His pass created the penalty late in the first half.

LEONARDO BONUCCI - 6.5. His passing was vintage, completing nine of 12 long balls to go along with two tackles and a team-high three interceptions. This was a really good game from him, although the number gets backed down a tiny bit because of a couple of moments in the second half where he got sloppy with a shorter pass and gifted Malmo with the ball in advanced areas.

MATTIJS DE LIGT - 7. Mistake-free at the back, he looked solid and had a good passing day from the back, completing 93.6 percent of his attempts.

ALEX SANDRO - 7.5. Picked up a gorgeous goal and added in three key passes from the left side, along with three tackles at the back. A turn-back-the-clock day for him, providing attack and defense in equal measure.

JUAN CUADRADO - 7. This team so obviously misses him when he’s not in the lineup. He registered three key passes today and had a couple more that weren’t considered as such but were just freaking gorgeous. Bentancur got the assist on the first goal cause he had the last touch, but it was all Juan. Keep being you, Juan.

RODRIGO BENTANCUR - 7. A low-key excellent night for the Uruguayan. Finished the day with two key passes, including his assist, and three tackles. He’s been up and down so far this season, but today was a definite up.

MANUEL LOCATELLI - 7. The quality he brings to the midfield is so evident. He set up teammates with some great balls, particularly his pop over the top that Morata eventually had saved, and was dangerous himself going forward when he wanted to. If Allegri gets the midfield right around him there will be an improvement, and any improvement in this unit will be welcome.

FBL-EUR-C1-MALMO-JUVENTUS Photo by JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP via Getty Images

ADRIEN RABIOT - 6.5. Made three tackles but was a little bit limited going forward as the wide left mid in the 4-4-2. He can do it there, but it’s not his best spot and that was clear in his game today, even though he was effective overall.

PAULO DYBALA - 7. Perhaps a little lucky to score his penalty after his slip, but the pitch was terrible today so I can’t blame that on him. He buzzed around the forward areas all night, leading the team in dribbles (4) and helping on the creative side. He even notched two tackles.

ALVARO MORATA - 8. Dude was great Tuesday night. Made three key passes, drew the penalty, scored a beautiful poacher’s goal to seal the win, and had chances at two others at different points over the course of the game but was beaten by the keeper. He took five shots and hit the target with four of them.

SUBS

MOISE KEAN - 6. Moved well and found all the right positions, was just lacking the finish. The goals are coming if he plays like this with regularity.

WESTON McKENNIE - 6. Combined well with Kean a few times and helped keep the game under control as the second half wore on.

DEJAN KULUSEVSKI - NR. Notched a nice key pass in his home country, but needed to play with a little more control.

AARON RAMSEY - NR. Can’t believe I’m saying this, but a calm presence in the middle of the park as Juve saw out the last 10 minutes.

DANIELE RUGANI - NR. A late-game run out with nothing at stake, he only touched the ball three times.

MANAGER ANALYSIS

It’s hard to say much about this match from a manager’s standpoint. Allegri kept things simple in a tough stretch and put players in the right spots to succeed. My one nitpick would be maybe Rabiot, who has worked on that left side of the midfield before but, in my opinion, doesn’t do his best work there. McKennie or even Kulusevski might’ve been a better fit, although the latter would’ve been a bit of a defensive issue. In the meantime, Morata might be on the beginnings of a hot streak, and his creatives are looking like they’re finding a groove.

The question will be what happens to Chiesa when he returns, but that’s a good problem to have. Now Allegri’s problem is making sure this isn’t a blip but the start of an upward trajectory. Keeping things consistent and allowing the team to create an identity will be key for the next few games as Juve try to dig themselves out of their awful start to league play.

LOOKING AHEAD

Juve’s next Champions League match will come at the end of September, at home against Chelsea.

Next on the docket overall is another big league contest, as Milan come to Turin hot on the heels of a dominant 2-0 victory over Lazio. It’ll be as tough a test as anything. After that, they have a midweek matchup against Spezia on the road before hosting Sampdoria.