A week ago, Juventus played Maccabi Haifa in an interesting situation. For some reason, UEFA had decided to schedule an Israeli team to play on Yom Kippur. That meant that, for their more observant players, the game would be played just after they completed the fast that their faith requires on that day. Those players were, of course, in no shape to play a full game, and started on the bench.
One of those players was Omer Atzili. You might remember him as the one who gave Juve fans a couple of ulcers in the final half hour of last week’s game, hitting the post twice and having another shot tipped off the woodwork by Wojciech Szczesny. Despite Juve’s win, one couldn’t be blamed for having a sense of foreboding at the prospect of having Atzili play a full game in the return game.
On Tuesday, that sense was proved to be fully justified.
Juventus arrived at the Sammy Ofer Stadium in Haifa for a must-win game and were humiliated on Tuesday night. Their 2-0 loss was not a case of an underdog executing a few smash-and-grabs while otherwise desperately holding the line. Maccabi were the better team on the field from the word go. The bare statistics might say that Juventus put more shots on target than the home side, but few of those shots were true threats to beat keeper Josh Cohen. At the other end, Atzili repeatedly tore Juve’s defense apart, scoring a deserved brace and leading a Maccabi team that could easily have scored more than just their two goals. Juve, on the other hand, were completely devoid of ideas, of presence, of fight, to the point that the commentator working the game felt compelled to ask “Where are Juventus?” after only 12 minutes.
There were issues aplenty.
The players themselves were as flat as they’ve been all year. The injury problems continued. The coaching continued to be prehistoric, and was dragged down further by some truly shocking team selection. And what’s worse than anything, no one who has the power to change things at the club seems to be willing or able to admit what changes need to be made. Post-match, both Massimiliano Allegri and Andrea Agnelli were obstinate, pinning the blame on the players for a fiasco that is very much of their own making.
No one is taking responsibility for their part in the failures that have led to this moment — and until they do, it’s hard to see things getting even marginally better.
Allegri had almost a full team at his disposal, minus long-term injury concerns Paul Pogba, Federico Chiesa, and Kaio Jorge, while Mattia De Sciglio also remained on the shelf. In the face of a must-win game, Allegri somehow decided it was time for some squad rotation. Szczesny started at the base of a 4-4-2. Daniele Rugani started in place of Gleison Bremer, partnering Leonardo Bonucci in the middle of defense for his first start since late-August. Danilo and Alex Sandro bracketed them on the flanks. Juan Cuadrado, Leandro Paredes, Adrien Rabiot, and Weston McKennie made up the midfield strake, while Dusan Vlahovic and Angel Di Maria partnered up front.
Barak Bakhar went with a more attacking lineup than the 5-3-2 he sent out in Turin, and had several regulars back in the starting lineup. Cohen was protected by Daniel Sundgren, Dylan Batubinskia, Sean Goldberg, and Pierre Cornud. Atzili joined Neta Lavi and Ali Muhammad. Tjaronn Chery, Frantzdy Pierrot, and Din David made up the attack trident.
The klaxons were sounding a warning early.
It was only the fourth minute when Cornud whipped in a cross that Pierrot rose to meet while holding Rugani off. Fortunately, he headed it right at Szczesny. who made a smart reaction save. Three minutes later, though, Atzili glided into the penalty area without anyone picking him up. He rose up to meet another good delivery for Cornud, spinning around in midair as he did so. The ball ended up bouncing off the back of his neck and flew toward goal. Szczesny was slow to move, and ended up only getting his hand behind it after it slipped its way past the goal line.
An early goal can leave a lot of the game for a comeback — if your team is up for it. And Juve were decidedly not. Only minutes later Maccabi had a pair of players standing over a free kick just outside the box, and Cheri fired it on goal, only sparing Szczesny more blushes when he clipped the top of the crossbar. A minute later, Atzili ran all the way through on his own on the counter, forcing a save out of Szczesny.
After that, it finally looked as though Juve was starting to wake up. The first shot came from a cross by Rugani, of all people, who very nearly found Vlahovic for a tap-in header, but Goldberg did some great marking to deny the connection. But Juve’s comeback effort took a major blow when Di Maria, who had so tormented Maccabi last week, pulled up chasing a long ball down the middle of the field. He immediately stopped moving and signaled to the bench, limping off in favor of Arkadiusz Milik.
Maccabi remained the team that was most dangerous, and just before the half-hour mark David was begging for a penalty kick when his shot came off Bonucci’s arm, but he had it tight in against his chest and a VAR review resulted in no penalty call. Atzili just missed another shot, and any Juventus response was blunted by their own lack of impulse. They often picked the right passes only to completely fail to execute them properly.
As they struggled to come up with any kind of response, the home side continued to threaten, and just before the half Atzili once again raked them over the coals.
The move started when Cuadrado lost the ball at midfield, and Pierrot charged toward the Juve goal. Sandro was caught between a rock and a hard place having to chose between covering Atzili and Chery, but he could have done better to close when Pierrot chose Atzili to pass to. The midfielder had shown an affinity for a Dybala-like far-post curler last week, and Szczesny was clearly expecting that to come again, because he was cheating toward that post when Atzili instead blasted it into the top near corner. Szczesny’s misread hampered his ability to get to the shot, once again getting a hand to it without being able to stop it.
Juve finally mustered up some kind of response two minutes later when Cuadrado found him with a good cross and he headed back across goal, only for Cohen to make a sprawling one-handed parry. Goldberg then put Milik off just enough to prevent him from tapping in the rebound and smuggled the ball back over the line for a corner.
Allegri tried to make adjustments at halftime, sending on Manuel Locatelli and Filip Kostic in place of Paredes and McKennie. Rabiot tried to engineer a quick opportunity three minutes after kickoff when he burst into the box from the left, but Lavy tracked his run and poked the ball away from him from behind at the last moment before the pair of midfielders both crashed into Cohen, leaving all of them down on the field for a few moments. In the 54th minute, Rugani got his head to a corner, a shot that was headed for the upper 90, but Cohen flew up to tip the ball over the bar.
But those opportunities were outliers.
For the most part as the second half progressed it was clear that Juve had little to no capability to mount a successful attack. Without any sort of tactical plan, the onus ended up on individual players to come up with some kind of moment of brilliance, something that, without Di Maria, was looking increasingly unlikely. They were, frankly, screwed out of a chance to claw themselves back into the game by referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz, who somehow saw fit to wave play on when Cuadrado was barged over from behind in the Maccabi box. VAR was equally unmoved, leaving the clear foul bafflingly uncalled.
As the clock ticked on, Juve still proved incapable of coming up with a comeback. Even had they not managed to pull even, a consolation goal would have guaranteed them the head-to-head tiebreaker with Maccabi, but as the minutes went by it seemed the only thing the team was capable of was putting the ball wide and flinging crosses into the box, hoping one would stick on someone’s head. The one shot with any venom that Cohen faced in the closing stages came from Cuadrado with nine minutes to go, but a diving parry preserved his clean sheet.
Aside from that, Juve simply slogged their way through desperate, but ineffective and ultimately futile attempts to create some kind of offense, and when Lahoz blew his whistle, a season that had been full of lows had reached a terrifying new one.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 4. One of his worst games in a while. Simply too slow off the mark on the first goal, while he got fooled into committing early on the second and Atzili burned him near post. It’s not often that he bears that kind of responsibility for opposing goals, but on this occasion he was very much part of the problem.
DANILO - 5.5. When the right-back leads the team in dribbles (3), the offense is in trouble. His defending also left a few things to be desired at times, especially early when Cornud was allowed to send in repeated crosses from that flank.
DANIELE RUGANI - 5.5. The counting stats were there, racking up two tackles, three interceptions, and four clearances. He also won a team-high five aerial duels, but he showed a lack of strength against Pierrot on numerous occasions.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 5.5. Blocked a pair of shots and completed 11 of 12 long balls, which was kind of a surprise based on the eye test in this game. He was constantly trying to bypass the midfield and feed the forwards over the top, but the Maccabi defense usually swarmed his target once they actually received the ball.
ALEX SANDRO - 4.5. Didn’t close Atzili hard enough on the second goal, and wasn’t able to contribute going forward at all.
WESTON McKENNIE - 4. Unsurprisingly ineffective out on the wings. Swapping between the right and the left, he only completed 61.1 percent of his passes and did little to nothing to create danger, either with the ball or without.
LEANDRO PAREDES - 4. Dude was brought in to help control the midfield and let other players do their thing, but showed a whole lot of nothing in hat regard. If this is what we’re getting while Nicolo Rovella is doing well at Monza, it’s time for some explaining from the front office.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 5.5. Ran all over the place and did what he could to make his mark, but he had little support in midfield, or anywhere else, really, to make his industry pay.
JUAN CUADRADO - 5.5. Another day where the numbers and the eye test are kind of at odds. He let the team with four key passes—indeed, he was the only player with more than one—and forced one of the few difficult saves Cohen had to make, but he also continues to show a pronounced lack of ability to beat his man one-on-one as Father Time continues to creep up on him.
ANGEL DI MARIA - NR. Showed very little of the dominant player we saw last week against the same opposition before suffering what looked like a potentially serious hamstring injury just 20 minutes in.
DUSAN VLAHOVIC - 5. Got in that one nasty header just before the half, but beyond that cut a forlorn figure waiting for someone to get him the ball in a place that he could use it. He’s been hit harder by Allegri-itis than most anyone.
ARKADIUSZ MILIK - 5.5. Made a key pass and tried to drop deeper to help move the ball between the lines, but only put the ball on frame once, and not very well at that.
MANUEL LOCATELLI - 5. Made a pair of tackles but couldn’t muster much threat going forward, either as an attacker himself or a distributor.
FILIP KOSTIC - 5. Put nine crosses in in 45 minutes, but only one found its mark. That resulted in his one and only key pass, but too often he just whacked the ball toward the box in hope someone was there.
MOISE KEAN - 5.5. Showed some gumption with a few determined runs through traffic with the ball, but couldn’t put the ball in on the end of them to create the kind of danger required.
MATIAS SOULE - 6. His most significant action of the season was actually impressive. He operated very well in traffic, picked up a key pass, and even had a clearance in his 15 minutes of work. But, yeah ... Juve’s best player on the day was on the field for 15 minutes as a desperation move.
This ... wow. This.
Allegri’s team selections for this game were baffling. While the desire to rest Bremer is an admirable thing, for Allegri to do so in this game — a must win that would determine whether or not Juventus had even a semi-realistic shot to get out of this group — was inexcusable. Given the situation the team was in, Bremer simply had to be playing. Unless he was truly hurting/gassed and asked out, there was no excuse for not having your best defender sitting on the bench in a game of this magnitude. Likewise, giving Kostic a rest wasn’t terrible in a vacuum, but to do so while replacing him with a midfielder playing out of position did little to nothing to improve the team.
Then there was his continued obstinance in the face of his own performance.
During the post-match press conference, he straight-up threw his players under the bus, insisting “It’s not a technical or tactical issue, this team lacks heart and passion.” What he seems to be missing here is the fact that as the coach it’s his job to inspire that, and when a team seems so clearly checked out it’s usually because they’re no longer buying what the coach is selling. Another sound bite from the presser called the team out for playing as individuals as opposed to the team, but it’s clear that he has not imparted any sort of plan to his players in terms of how to do the latter. He continues to live in his own world where his ideas are perfectly sound, when the results are clearly showing him that he needs to change and evolve in order to survive.
But even more infuriating than that was Andrea Agnelli’s turn on Sky Sport Italia after the game, where he appeared to discuss the game. When pressed on Allegri’s job security, he insisted that the coach could not be the problem if the players “don’t win a single tackle on the field.” This is another master class in self-delusion on the part of the president. As it becomes clearer and clearer that his decision to hire Allegri on such a stupid contract is turning into a massive mistake, Agnelli seems more concerned with saving face than he is with making the team better. While the players certainly do get some share of the blame for this mess, the lion’s share falls into the lap of himself and Allegri, and his public effort to shift the blame entirely toward the players is quite frankly pathetic.
It’s time for Agnelli to take responsibility for his mistake and rectify it before it’s too late.
Juve’s next Champions League game comes on Oct. 25 against Benfica in Portugal. Tuesday’s loss leaves Juve and Maccabi in a flat-footed tie on UEFA’s head-to-head criteria, meaning that overall goal difference will become the tiebreaker between the two for third place and the chance to play in the Europa League, so if they want to play in Europe at all in the new year they’re going to have to make sure they stay ahead in that category.
Another away game looms on Saturday when Juve meet Torino in the Derby della Mole. Then comes a Friday date with Empoli at home.