Writing the Grab Bag this year has felt a lot like Groundhog Day.
How many more times can we write about Juventus getting blown out? How many more times can we say that they played poorly and deserved to lose?
This was the confirmation of something that we all knew was coming for about a month now, as Juventus failed to get out of the Champions League group stage for the first time in nine years. Not only did they bow out with a 4-3 loss to Benfica on Tuesday night, but they bow out in embarrassing fashion considering the expectations and resources this club has.
The final scoreline was generous to a Juve squad that got outplayed, outcoached and outhustled by a Benfica side that is simply a better team in all facets of the game outside of wages and brand recognition.
(In all honesty, Benfica is a legitimately great team, and beating Juve’s [backside] is not as much of a test right now but they went toe to toe with Paris Saint-Germain. They are going to be the team no one wants to get come the knockout rounds.)
Now we hope and wait that Juventus don’t get blown out too bad against the Parisian side in the last group stage game to squeak by and into the Europa League. This is the best-case scenario right now, for a club that likes to think of itself as the class of Italy and one of the best in the world, things are looking bleak.
LVP: Leo Bonucci
We have given the LVP award to Leo Bonucci in literally every single loss in the Champions League group stage this year.
(Four and counting!)
This is not so much on him anymore. Everyone and their mother knows that the former Italian great just can’t hang against elite competition anymore. He is too slow to react, too washed to keep up and too error prone to realistically think he can be the defensive leader of any backline that has aspirations.
Yet, for whatever reason, he continues to get starts in big games as if we are in freakin’ 2014 and Bonucci is still a top defender. It’s not like our cupboard is full in the position — especially with Bremer out. Federico Gatti ... now I get why you are not getting a ton of chances, my guy. But it’s hard for me to imagine that the results would be that much worse if Daniele Rugani or literally any average defender took that spot.
Bonucci is a symptom of an organization clawing desperately to the last vestiges of success that they had a good seven years ago. With only losses to show for it.
Grab Bag MVP Season Leader: Dusan Vlahovic (10 Points)
Dead Club Walking
While Tuesday’s game confirmed the fact that Juventus would not be playing in the knockout stages of the biggest club competition in the world. Everyone kind of already knew that, but this was just the confirmation of something that was widely expected.
Then again, this was only in perception, on paper and in numbers, Juventus could still make it. It was complicated, borderline impossible, but the chance was still there. It all began with a win against Benfica. You’d expect at least the team to know that, to give it a shot at least, for professional pride if not for anything else.
That was the worst part of Tuesday’s game. Not one single starter played in a way that made you believe that they themselves had any hope of pulling off a result. This was not a team that played like their hair was on fire, like they were playing for their European lives. Juventus went out sad, meekly. With a captain that was the worst player on the field and a squad with no idea of what they were doing.
This club has lost games before, it happens - as certain coach would say “These things happen in football” - but this is the saddest performance I remember in a do or die game in a while. That, more than anything, might be the biggest indictment of where Juventus currently is.
One Shining Moment
I had no idea who Samuel Illing-Junior was one week ago and neither did any of you.
However, after his scintillating Champions League debut, I’m more than ready to anoint him as the cornerstone player for Juventus to build around for the next 15 years.
In a moment that was widely considered as waving the white flag, Max Allegri brought in the aforementioned Illing-Junior and fellow youngster Matias Soule to the field for Filip Kostic and — shockingly quiet in Champions League matches — superstar striker Dusan Vlahovic, who reportedly came off due to a muscle issue.
Nobody expected this sub to be the revulsive that caused Juventus to have their best stretch of football in the game but that’s exactly what happened. In a squad that desperately needed someone — anybody— to show the slightest hint of testicular fortitude the Bianconeri found it in players that are not old enough to legally drink in the US.
Neither Illing nor Soule were perfect they both had moments in which their youthful inexperience showed but the good far outweighed the bad.
(Specifically, Illing missing a tackle as the last man defending on a corner kick counter and Soule scuffing a clearcut chance that could have tied the game in the dying minutes.)
Illing seemed like the only player on the squad capable of dribbling against an opponent and actually winning those one on one battles. No coincidence that the two second half goals from Juventus came from plays initiated on the young Brit’s feet.
While Soule’s impact wasn’t quite as big on the counting stats, he was also one of the more incisive players and while he didn’t score the third goal of the match, his calmness to not just shoot the ball but actually dribble the keeper and finish with his other foot was the type of action befitting a much more experienced player.
Not all talented young players pan out, but it’s not like Juventus is currently starting Ballon d’Or candidates on the wings currently. Filip Kostic is fine, Juan Cuadrado is washed, Angel di Maria is hurt — and currently looking for flight fares on the PJ back to Argentina — and Federico Chiesa has played all of one warm-up match against the primavera.
In a season that is looking more and more doomed rolling the dice with two incredibly talented youngsters feels at the very least more entertaining than what we currently have.
Parting Shot of the Week
ARE YOU READY FOR SOME HOT, EXCITING, THURSDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL?!
It’s no secret that I’ve been an ardent supporter of playing in the Europa League because I’m honestly sick and tired of having expectations for this team. Even if we pulled off a comeback win against Benfica, what were we realistically doing in the knockout rounds?
This team has been knocked out three years running in the Champions League Round of 16 in increasingly disappointing ways, wouldn’t it be fun to move through once? Even if its in the second tier of European competition?
(Now, of course, this assumes that we make it through and Maccabi Haifa doesn’t pull an upset against Benfica or PSG doesn't score ten on us, but I’m optimistic.)
Sure, there’s a chance that we are also bounced in the Europa League and we play two games and say goodbye, with the way this team is playing everything is on the table, but at the very least you are going to be able to get a jersey with a cool patch on it.
I’m desperately trying to find joy wherever I can find it this year with Juventus.
See you Wednesday.
(PSA: No Grab Bag for the Lecce game because I will be in attendance for the F1 Mexican Gran Prix. Many beers will be consumed and fun will be had by all. I shall be toasting Sergio Perez, Samuel Illing-Junior and literally nobody else related to sports. Cheers.)