Juventus had one option on Tuesday night if they wanted to stay alive in the Champions League this season. They had to go to the Estadio da Luz and beat a Benfica team that hasn’t lost a game this year and wiped the floor with Juve at the J Stadium a month ago. In order to flip the head-to-head tiebreaker, they would want to do so by at least two goals.
It was an incredibly tall order. Losing this game wouldn’t have necessarily been a shameful thing.
But to lose the way they lost it is another matter entirely.
Don’t let the 4-3 final score fool you. Juventus were thoroughly humiliated in Lisbon. Benfica outplayed them in every facet of the game. They were first to loose balls, they passed the ball with assurance, and they completely nullified Juve’s game. The fact is, they weren’t even completely ruthless with their chances — if they had been, Rafa Silva would’ve scored four or five times and this scoreline would’ve been so completely embarrassing that perhaps not even Andrea Agnelli would’ve been able to avoid pulling the trigger and firing Massimiliano Allegri, who was once again completely and utterly outcoached and didn’t so much as inspire Juve’s late comeback attempt as run into it when he threw on a couple of youngsters with absolutely nothing to lose at the end of the game.
This was a result that laid bare a lot of this team’s shortcomings, from the players to the manager to the front office that bought the wrong players and hired the wrong manager. Juventus, simply, don’t deserve to be in the knockout phase of the Champions League this year. It’s just unfortunate that we had to have that shown to us in just so emphatic a way.
Allegri made only one change to the team that beat Empoli last Friday night. Wojciech Szczesny stood at the base of a 3-5-2. The only alteration was in the back line, where Federico Gatti was surprisingly handed his first Champions League start after Alex Sandro strained something pregame and ended up only fit enough to come off the bench. Gatti, with only two previous appearances to his name this season, joined Leonardo Bonucci and Danilo. Juan Cuadrado and Filip Kostic flanked Weston McKennie, Manuel Locatelli, and Adrien Rabiot in midfield, while Moise Kean got the start along with Dusan Vlahovic.
Roger Schmidt attacked Juve with his usual 4-2-3-1, with a lineup that was a blend of experience and youthful exuberance. Odysseas Vlachodimos started in goal, behind the defensive line of Alexander Bah, Nicolas Otamendi, Antonio Silva, and Alejandro Grimaldo. Enzo Fernandez and Florentino made up the double pivot, while Joao Mario, Rafa Silva, and Fredrik Aursnes supported Goncalo Ramos in attack.
The warnings were blaring early when Cuadrado had to make a very good defensive header to prevent a cross from Joao Mario from reaching Ramos at the back post just three minutes in. Six minutes later Benfica ran a crazy sequence of no-look passes that were worthy of a 90’s Brazil side and left the Juve defense at sixes and sevens only for the final ball to be a little too cute and go through the box untouched. Three minutes later, a miscommunication between Danilo and Bonucci allowed a ball to bounce for Rafa Silva, only for the Portugal international to skew his shot wide.
Juve, meanwhile, didn’t look like much of anything going forward. They were passive from the very beginning, looking to defend and counter, without doing either particularly well. The most threatening they were was when Kostic was able to get himself up the left side and line up a cross, and Grimaldo equalling Cuadrado’s defensive header with one of his own in front of Vlahovic.
But it was Benfica who were by far the better team, and in the 17th minute they opened the scoring. Fernandez took a short corner and immediately got the ball back. The Juventus defense made absolutely no attempt to close on the ball. The closest player to the Argentine, McKennie, faced him up five yards away, as if he was waiting to attack on the dribble. That gave Fernandez all day to line up a cross, while Antonio SIlva ran across Gatti’s face and slammed a header past a stranded Szczesny. It was the 18-year-old’s first senior team goal, and it gave Benfica a highly deserved lead.
But, just five minutes later, Juve suddenly pulled even out of nowhere.
After Kostic had a cross blocked, his out-swinging corner was flicked on by Danilo to Vlahovic, who had peeled off at the back post. His header was a powerful one that Vlachodimos couldn’t control, and the ball popped back out to the striker, who tried to bundle it over the line. Kean was there with him and eventually slammed the ball into the roof of the net, only for everything to be pulled up by the assistant’s flag. But soon referee Srdjan Jovanovic was listening intently to his earpiece, and replays on the broadcast started showing that Grimaldo had played Vlahovic onside. Kean had been offside when Danilo flicked the ball on but was even with the ball when Vlahovic hit his first shot. Eventually, on the advice of VAR Marco Fritz, the Serbian ref gave the goal — originally assigned to Vlahovic before eventually being given to Kean —handing Juve a major lifeline.
Unfortunately, that lifeline was snuffed out in an instant.
Play had only been resumed for 120 seconds when Locatelli blocked a cross by Grimaldo. Cuadrado and Aursnes both went for the carom. Cuadrado attempted to take the ball on his chest and failed, and when Aursnes leaped up and nudged it forward with his midriff the ball struck the outstretched arm of Cuadrado. Jovanovic pointed for an immediate penalty. The Colombian went through several stages of footballing grief, starting at incredulous and gradually moving to fury, continuing his remonstrations toward Jovanovic to the point where the referee is actually to be commended for keeping his cool and not giving out a booking. Joao Mario stepped to the penalty, and send Szczesny the wrong way, burying his shot to the shooter’s left and cutting any momentum the equalizer might have given Juve off at the knees.
Juve made a couple of attempts to respond in the following minutes. McKennie took down a ball with immense class but delayed in getting the ball in to a good run from Vlahovic, resulting in the defense heading the ball away. Then, Vlahovic wasted a really good cross from Kostic, hitting the ball first-time into the ground but well wide.
That miss was magnified a few minutes later when Rafa Silva sent Joao Mario down the right, then charged down the middle of the box. Once again, the crosser wasn’t remotely closed down, and Bonucci was focused entirely on the ball and never realized Silva was going by until he saw him execute an outrageous back-heel flick to put his team up two.
Juve had it all to do coming out of the break. Arkadiusz Milk came on for Kean, and Juve finally started to look a little more proactive pressing the ball, but it was too little far too late, but after Bonucci finally won what seemed like his first tackle all game long he gave the ball right back to Grimaldo, who swept forward and found Rafa Silva, who had a 3-yard halo around himself from the nearest defender. He took the pass in stride and had all day to chip Szczesny, who about now must have been fantasizing about the horrible things he was going to do to his defenders.
The jig was well and truly up at this point, so much so that Allegri hauled Bonucci off the field not long after the fourth goal. Szczesny had to make a double save on Ramos and Aursnes, and Ramos glanced a header off a free kick just wide. Benfica were dominant, pure and simple, while Juve simply looked like they had no ideas what to do.
When Allegri brought Vlahovic and Kostic off for Matias Soule and Samuel Iling-Junior with a full 20 minutes to go, it seemed a clear white flag. Things certainly weren’t looking good when Rafa Silva again found tons of space to volley a Joao Mario cross at goal, sparing Juve even worse humiliation when he hit his volley over the bar.
But then, something fun happened.
The kids started playing like people with nothing to lose. Iling, in particular, started to bloom. With 13 minutes to go, he took a pass from Alex Sandro and turned Bah completely around. He sent a gorgeous cross into the box that Milik calmly volleyed into the net. It looked like a simple consolation, but two minutes later, Iling sent in another cross. Vlachodimos attacked it, but could only palm it into empty space in front of the six-yard box. Soule pounced but had his shot blocked by Antonio Silva, only for McKennie to run back to the rebound and hook it into the net to very suddenly put the game in the balance.
Both teams had chances in the last 10 minutes. In the 86th minute Rafa Silva had one last chance at his hat trick when he ran on to the clearance of a corner, beat Iling as the last line of defense, and had a clear run to goal. He send Szczesny diving the wrong way only to thump the ball off the post to keep Juve alive. Two minutes later, Iling hit yet another great ball, but Soule’s attempt to open himself up and guide the ball into the far post rolled wide. In the first minute of stoppage time Gatti rose for a corner but nodded it just wide when hitting the target would likely have set up a true grandstand finish.
When Jovanovic blew for time three minutes later, it was ultimately all window dressing for an embarrassing elimination from the Champions League.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 6. Nearly gave this grade a massive drop late in the game with a really loose pass in the box, but otherwise he did everything that could have been asked of him. None of the goals were his responsibility in any way, and he pulled an excellent double save in the middle of the second half in order to keep the game where it already was. His defense left him badly exposed throughout the entire game.
FEDERICO GATTI - 5. Let Antonio Silva get the wrong side of him for Benfica’s opener, but other than that had an OK day. He made a number of good interventions and had a team-high six clearances. As the second half wore on, he bombed forward on more than one occasion and actually led the team in dribbles, which is astounding. He’s got a good sense of the game, he’s just got to rid himself of his naivete at this level. He needs experience.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 3. The way he played those last two goals ... dear God. On Rafa Silva’s first goal in the first half, his actions were patently absurd. As he tracked back he checked behind him once, on Ramos practically half the field away, and then never even perceived Silva’s presence. On the second one, he hit a terrible pass and then spent his time upset that his teammate didn’t get to it instead of getting back into position, giving Silva all kinds of room. Unlike Giorgio Chiellini, who before he left was still playing at a relatively high level when he was healthy, Bonucci has deteriorated. The fact that he was hauled off in a straight swap for Alex Sandro down 4-1 speaks volumes.
DANILO - 4. Not a particularly good day for the Brazilian, either. He failed to close the man with the ball on multiple occasions, none more so than Joao Mario on Benfica’s third goal. He’s also incredibly lucky he wasn’t sent off for a high tackle in the second half, and even then the booking he received rules him out against PSG next week. He wasn’t the worst of a bad day for the defense (see above) but it was pretty poor.
JUAN CUADRADO - 5. After a good performance on Friday against Empoli, Juan once again dropped into Washed Watch. He completed more than 90 percent of his passes, but didn’t set up a single shot. It’s coming to the point where it’s time to start phasing him out.
WESTON McKENNIE - 6. Stuck with the goal to bring Juve within one, although his contribution before that was a little lackluster.
MANUEL LOCATELLI - 5. Surprise, the not-a-regista struggled once again playing as a regista. Did better when he started pushing forward late in the game.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 5. Chasing the ball around midfield for much of the game, he could never get himself going moving forward with Benfica dominating the game.
FILIP KOSTIC - 6. Made four key passes before being hooked in a white flag move that ironically turned into anything but. For a while Juve’s only real danger came from his crosses.
MOISE KEAN - 5.5. I don’t often give someone who scored a goal a rating this low, but Kean only had six other touches in 45 minutes, which simply isn’t enough. At the very least, he was in proper position most times, and he was obviously Johnny on the spot on the goal.
DUSAN VLAHOVIC - 5. Most people thought the first goal was his before he was officially given the assist. He couldn’t get himself into the game beyond, and had a major miss at 2-1 that had some serious repercussions.
ARKADIUSZ MILIK - 5.5. Took his goal really, really well but couldn’t get into the game otherwise.
ALEX SANDRO - 5. Tried to help solidify the back for an ineffective Bonucci but still watched as the home team sliced through the defense, only missing another finishing touch.
FABIO MIRETTI - 5.5. Tried to turn the game around in midfield but wasn’t able to do much of substance, although he did have one nice pullback late that was defended well.
SAMUEL ILING-JUNIOR - 7. What a fantastic Champions League debut. Had one assist, another cross that was an assist in everything but name, and could’ve had a third at the very end. This kid is good. He needs to play more.
MATIAS SOULE - 5.5. He was eager and almost tied the game late, but perhaps should’ve gone for power rather than placement. But he still brought a little electricity that Juventus has sorely lacked this season with Cuadrado on the decline. He also needs to play more.
Max Allegri fucked this game up from the start.
Juventus needed to win this game to have any shot to advance in the Champions League. In order to flip the tiebreaker, they needed to win by at least two goals. But instead of going after the game from the start and putting Benfica under pressure, Allegri set the team up to defend and counter. By his own admission in his post-match press conference, Allegri’s intention for the game seemed to be to hold the line and then use Milik and Miretti to hit a tired Benfica defense in the second half. The problem is, that kind of strategy is often only good for a 1-0 smash-and-grab, which would perhaps have kept Juve in the tournament another week but wouldn’t have turned the table on the tiebreaker, removing an avenue through which Juve could’ve advanced (had they claimed the tiebreaker and beaten PSG, they could’ve then gone with a draw or a Maccabi Haifa win in Benfica’s final game).
Worse than that, the passive setup clearly rubbed off on the players to the point of becoming almost submissive. They constantly sat back on a ball carrier instead of closing down, allowing Benfica’s creative players all sorts of time to measure up their deliveries into the box. The team went into a big game playing scared, which is exactly how Allegri has coached since he returned to the team.
The contrast between these two coaches and the way they prepare their teams was stark. Benfica’s players seemed to know where they were going to go with the ball while it was still rolling toward them. They had a concrete plan and they executed it to perfection. Juve’s players, on the other hand, would receive the ball, then look up and survey the field before they even formulated an idea about what to do next. Allegri simply has no more ideas about how to be competitive in the modern game, and coaches that do are simply moving past him. The players see it, too, and they’re responding to him less and less often.
Buried in the greater story of this game was a single scene just after the referee officially gave Juve’s first goal after the VAR review. While most of the team celebrated, Allegri was having a demonstrative argument with Cuadrado along the touchline.
Meanwhile, as Allegri struggles, Paolo Montero’s Primavera team beat Benfica’s youth side in the UEFA Youth League earlier in the day, overcoming a 2-0 deficit to do so. The contrast there is pretty clear.
If Juventus had a management team that functioned properly, Allegri would’ve been sacked by the time he reached the locker room after this game. Unfortunately, they don’t, and as journalists like Nicolo Schira have reported after the game, Allegri will be retained until at least the World Cup break. Frankly, he should’ve been gone a long time ago, but such is how life will be so long as Andrea Agnelli refuses to admit his mistake in reappointing Allegri for the sake of his own ego.
But it’s clear that the current manager is holding this team back in the worst way.
Juventus are officially eliminated from the Champions League. They remain in third place in Group H thanks to overall goal difference with Maccabi Haifa, who were blitzed 7-2 by PSG. Unless Maccabi manages to better Juve’s result in Round 6 next Wednesday, the Bianconeri will head to the Europa League.
Before Wednesday’s date against PSG, Juve will head to the south of Italy to play Lecce. Hopefully there’ll be some kind of reaction against the newly-promoted side.