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Manu’s Grab Bag: Grit n’ Grind

We talk underdog Juve, defensive masterclasses and unlikely heroes.

Juventus v Chelsea FC: Group H - UEFA Champions League Photo by Chris Ricco/Getty Images

Sure, why not.

Just over a month ago, this team was losing to Empoli. Last week, they were barely beating Spezia and Sampdoria while allowing four goals combined and were seemingly unable to stop even the feeblest of offenses from scoring.

They lost their two most in-form attackers on the eve of their biggest European game to date and decided to play with no natural strikers for said game against Chelsea on Wednesday night.

So, sure, why wouldn’t they shut out Chelsea — the reigning European champions — in a straight-up flawless defensive performance on their way to a nervy, but convincing 1-0 win. At this point, any attempt to predict anything with this team is a fool’s errand.

This is a weird, awful, great, bad, phenomenal team. Buckle up and enjoy the ride.

Let’s cook.

MVP: Leonardo Bonucci

This one could have gone to five or six guys at least and you wouldn’t be wrong going with any of them.

Danilo was at his absolute adaptable best doing everything and anything on the right side of the field, somehow leading the team in clearances and doing his part to shut down the potent Chelsea attack.

Alex Sandro continued his resurgent season by being similarly defensively stout while offering good distribution playing under pressure. Matthijs de Ligt was a wall in which attack after attack went to die and Manuel Locatelli was at his Euros-level best distributing and throwing a few crunching tackles, too.

But, I have to give it to the man who led said defensive effort and turned back the clock to his peak years. Not only did he have Romelu Lukaku in his pocket for pretty much the whole game, but his positioning and passing from the back was key to make this defensive grindfest work.

It’s no secret that Bonucci lost a lot of fans in Turin after his acrimonious exit to AC Milan in 2017. The fact that when he came back one year later and looked like a significantly downgraded version of the Bonucci that we were accustomed to only added to the fall from the one time fan favorite.

On Wednesday, however, it sure looked like the Bonucci of old never left. Late in the game, my guy was throwing out chest outlet passes amidst a sea of blue kits and connecting on them. It was a virtuoso performance and Juventus needed every single minute of it to secure the win.

Runner Up: Federico Chiesa - He is a superstar already and will only get better. Knew the offensive game was going to have to run through him and took the responsibility with aplomb. His finish for the goal was worthy of a natural striker. It’s really, really fun watching him play.

Grab Bag MVP Season Leader: Manuel Locatelli and Federico Chiesa (5 Points)

Winner: Max Allegri

They don't call him “Mad Max” for nothing, huh?

When the lineup was announced before the game and we all had to come to grips with the general concept of “Federico Bernardeschi as a false 9,” spirits were not high for many in our BWRAO slack channel. I guess that’s why Allegri is the coach and we are just a bunch of guys on the internet.

It’s hard to think that this team is the same one that was making defensive mistakes galore only a week ago but we definitely saw an Allegri coached defense finally show up. Every player knew exactly where to be and where to rotate to cover for their teammates. Chelsea completely dominated possession with 73%, but they did very little with it, circulating the ball in midfield trying to find a chink in Juve's armor — unsuccessfully. All the English side had to show for their possession at the end of 90 minutes was one shot on goal, the exact same amount that Juventus had in the game.

This was a performance reminiscent of that 3-0 victory over FC Barcelona in the 2016-17 Champions League quarterfinals in which the vaunted trident of Lio Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar were similarly frustrated by an expertly drilled Juventus defense.

That team made the Champions League final. I’m sure as hell not implying this team will have a similar destiny just because of this one good game. But there were a lot of similar stints of play and defensive positioning that makes me hopeful that Allegri is starting to instill his style on this team.

Sooner or later, Karma will get you.

I kinda dislike Chelsea, if we are being quite frank. It all stems from that 2011-12 squad led by Roberto di Matteo. It was an objectively really good team, but I hated the way they played.

All defense, no offense. Just a 90 minute slugfest that they would end up winning on a counterattack or a set piece. At the time, I was partial to the style of Barcelona, who was operating at the post-peak of their tiki-taka glory days and I was rooting for them in their semifinal matchup against the London side as a neutral observer.

It was a frustrating evening of football watching as the Blaugranas tried and failed for an entire match to break Chelsea’s defense. Of course, they never did and their elimination was secured on a Fernando Torres counter in the dying minutes of the second-leg match. Which led to a dull freaking final against Bayern Munich that Chelsea ended up winning on penalty kicks.

As I grew older, I kinda came to appreciate a team that can defend and frustrate their opponent and grew to begrudgingly respect those old Chelsea sides and how they broke down the much more watchable and enjoyable sides of their day.

Almost 10 years later, Juventus paid the Blues back with a taste of their own medicine.

Winner: European Underdog Juventus

In last week’s Grab Bag, I threw out the thought that for one reason or another Juve tend to do better when they are not favored in big European matchups. It was just kind of a gut feel kind of statement, but after Wednesday’s win I thought to look more into it and see if it actually holds up.

And you know what? It does! And its not even a coach specific thing, for whatever reason they just seem to save their best for when the circumstances are more dire and they faceplate against teams they should beat — see Porto, Lyon and Ajax — let’s go through it chronologically.

  • The first example is last season, Juventus travels to Camp Nou with a long, almost non-existent chance at topping the group,. In order to do so, they need to win by three goals. After getting dominated in Turin, Juve trounce Barcelona 3-0.
  • 2018/2019 season, you already know, the Atletico Madrid comeback. Nobody really thought they could get three past Diego Simeone’s vaunted defense, but they did.
  • 2017/2018 season, after unfavorable results in the first legs against Tottenham and Real Madrid, they bounce back with their best showings in the second legs to convincingly win both matches. It’s enough to beat Tottenham, it was sadly not enough to move past Real Madrid. They still beat them 3-1 in Madrid, though!
  • 2015/2016 season, low key one of my favorite Juventus teams. Nobody likes their odds against Manchester City in the group stage, but they end up beating them home and away in the group stage. They get a super unfavorable draw against Bayern Munich and come a Patrice Era clearance away from a massive shock.
  • 2014/2015 season, essentially the whole year. The peak moment is their semifinal win against Real Madrid but they were decidedly not supposed to make it even that far. An entire tournament in which they were favored probably only against AS Monaco in the quarterfinals and they made the final.

I hope they never make Juventus a favorite in any game ever again. We’ll be unstoppable.

Winner: Federico Bernardeschi

Not quite a Man of the Match performance for our beloved failson Federico Bernardeschi, but honestly? Not that far away, either!

He was legitimately, no caveats, no ifs or buts about it, pretty damn good! It’s unbelievable, I can’t believe I’m typing this, but he was a key part in a Juve win in a big European game. I don’t think we have been able to say that since the aforementioned Atletico Madrid game freakin’ two years ago.

His assist to Chiesa was perfectly placed and he showed legit poise and workrate in Juve’s makeshift lineup. Sure, he scuffed a clear goal opportunity in the second half that could have made this game a lot calmer in the dying minutes but if that’s all I have to complain about his performance I think we can consider it an overall win.

I don’t think Bernardeschi will magically become a key player for Juventus going forwards. I maintained early in the season that his ceiling was a serviceable role player and I stand by it but at this point who knows, I’ve given up on trying to understand this team. All I know is that it was pretty damn fun to watch Bernardeschi play up to the level that was once expected of him, anything beyond that is gravy.

Parting Shot of the Week

Earlier in the week, Allegri was openly saying that their real rival in the Champions League group stage was Russian side Zenit as they would battle it out for second place in the group.

Now, Juventus sits pretty atop the table with two wins and miraculously no goals allowed. At this rate, I don’t know if Europe Juve will ever show up in Serie A, but this was the most encouraging sign of something finally awaking in this team.

I’m not ready to claim that this is a definite turning point, but there are far worse places to start than a convincing win over the reigning European champions.

See you Saturday.