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Juventus white-knuckle their way to first UCL win against Maccabi Haifa

Juve walked a tightrope against the group minnows, but managed to reach safety after a late wobble.

Juventus v Maccabi Haifa FC: Group H - UEFA Champions League Photo by Marcio Machado/Eurasia Sport Images/Getty Images

In order to make the Champions League knockout stages, Juventus had to put themselves on a four-step plan. Each of their remaining group games represented a step. The plan? Win.

Step 1 arrived in Turin on Wednesday in the form of Maccabi Haifa. The rank outsiders of Group H, Israel’s most successful club had quickly established themselves as a tough out. They gave both Benfica and Paris Saint-Germain strong competition before ultimately capitulating to more talented competition. Unlike the last time they faced Juventus in this competition, when they earned the dubious distinction of being the first team to ever lose all six of their group games without scoring a goal, this Maccabi was going to be a sterner test — especially given the form the Juve have been in for the vast majority of the season.

That showed through throughout the entire game, which was a constant swing between the good and the bad. Juve carved out more chances than we’ve been used to seeing, which is good, but they didn’t finish nearly as many as they should have, which is bad. They went looking for more goals after they took the lead, which is good. But they very nearly crumbled after a late mistake let Maccabi back in the game, which is bad.

Ultimately, though, thanks to a banner day for the likes of Angel Di Maria and Adrien Rabiot, and the score finished 3-1 in Juve’s favor, which is very good. It was a difficult win indeed — far more difficult than it should have been given the gulf in on-paper talent between these two clubs — but wins are wins and points are points, and Juventus have successfully completed Step 1.

Massimiliano Allegri was playing from a fuller deck than he had been over the weekend thanks to access to Di Maria, whose suspension doesn’t extend to Europe and so was available to play from the off. Federico Chiesa returned to training this week but is still some weeks away from game action, while Paul Pogba and Kaio Jorge remained long-term absentees. New to the injury list was Arkadiusz Milik, who had been dealing with muscle fatigue. He was on the bench, but Allegri went in hoping not to use them.

With that squad, Allegri turned back to the 4-3-3 he’s tried for much of the year. Wojciech Szczesny made his first Champions League start of the year, protected by the back four of Juan Cuadrado, Bremer, Danilo, and Mattia De Sciglio. Rabiot was joined by Leandro Paredes and Weston McKennie in midfield, while Di Maria combined with Dusan Vlahovic and Filip Kostic up front.

Maccabi manager Barak Bakhar was dealing with an unusual complication in the run-up to the game. Being an Israeli team, several of his players — as well as he himself — had fasted throughout the day in observance of Yom Kippur. That meant several key players, especially creative winger Omer Atzili, were only fit for the bench. As a result, Bakhar set his team up with defense in mind. His 5-3-2 setup was anchored by American-born keeper Josh Cohen. Daniel Sundgren, Dylan Batubinsika, Sean Goldberg, Abdoulaye Seck, and Pierre Cornud spread themselves across the back. The midfield was made up of Mohammad Abu Fani, Tjaronn Chery, and Ali Muhammad, while Mavis Tchibota and Frantzdy Pierrot joined forces in attack.

Juve started the game on the front foot. Within three minutes of the start they’d created their first shot, when De Sciglio played in a good ball that Vlahovic got a head to at the top of the box, but it popped well over the bar. Three minutes later Di Maria tried to slip through the defense and fire on goal, but he caught the defender behind him with his backswing and skewed it wide, going down in a heap in the process.

It was the 11th minute when the game’s first real chance came. The move started on the left with Kostic. The winger had few options, but spotted Cuadrado in space on the other side of the field and blasted a ball over the box to him. Cuadrado measured up his man, and when Abu Fani gravitated toward him as well, it left a huge hole for Vlahovic, who had been hovering at the edge of the box. Cuadrado laid it off, and Vlahovic hit a first-time worm-burner for the far post. Vlahovic was already wheeling around to celebrate when Cohen, who saw the ball late, somehow managed to dive to his left and get his hand to the side of the ball and push it around the upright.

Two minutes later, Vlahovic had another amazing chance. This one came from a lightning counter, with a long ball forward springing Vlahovic toward goal. He held his run long enough for Kostic to get up in support. The two countrymen exchanged passes as Vlahovic again ghosted just above his marker, but he dragged his shot wide with half the goal gaping at him.

Let off the hook by the early missed opportunities, Maccabi started to try to get themselves into the game. They ramped up their press in the Juventus half, and soon the chances started drying up for the Bianconeri. The visitors didn’t create much in the way of danger, every minute the game remained goalless was another minute for that one moment that Juventus would dig themselves a hole to come. By the time McKennie and Kostic failed to turn a pinball in the Maccabi box into anything just after the half-hour mark, the J Stadium crowd — at least the ones who decided to show up — started unleashing a smattering of whistles that gradually gained in intensity.

But those whistles were abruptly silenced when Juventus opened the scoring. Muhammad had intercepted a square pass from Cuadrado just above the box, but his touch was heavy and Rabiot regained possession. The Frenchman made a simple pass to Di Maria, then slipped behind Muhammad and burst forward into an empty left channel. There, he met a perfectly weighted through ball from Di Maria and slammed home into the roof of the net. It was Rabiot’s first goal since the final day of the 2020-21 season, a total of 50 appearances in all competitions.

Juventus v Maccabi Haifa FC: Group H - UEFA Champions League Photo by Jonathan Moscrop/Getty Images

The atmosphere of the game turned on its head in an instant. The crowd was appeased, and Juve put in a few more dangerous crosses before halftime, all of which were well defended by Maccabi. As the teams went into the looker rooms, Juve looked to be on top of things for once.

That feeling was only heightened five minutes into the second half when Juve smothered some nascent Maccabi momentum with a lightning-quick counterattack. After Bremer snuffed out an attack, he cleared the ball straight to Di Maria, who played an absolutely gorgeous pass to Vlahovic to put him one-on-one in Cohen. The keeper had no shot as the striker rifled the ball past him to double the lead.

Juve could’ve been three or more to the good in the next 13 minutes. Vlahovic was given another glorious through ball by Di Maria, only to put the ball right at Cohen. Rabiot was the next recipient of an excellent ball, but the midfielder’s first touch was too heavy and the keeper was able to snap the ball up. The Argentine then linked up with Vlahovic again in the 63rd minute. This time he rounded the keeper and eased the ball into the net, but the flag went up immediately. UEFA’s newfangled 3-D semiautomated offside system showed that Vlahovic’s head was just poking out over the offside line — a position that gives him no advantage over the defender, but is offside by the letter of the rule. (The sport really needs to address situations like this, because it’s really kind of absurd that goals like this get chalked off.)

All of these missed opportunities kept Maccabi’s nose above the water, waiting for the moment to pull themselves back into the match. Bakhar’s substitutions started to make a difference the instance he made them. Atzili was introduced just after the hour and immediately forced Szczesny into a sprawling save, palming the ball onto the post. Then, with 15 minutes left, another sub, Dean David, who had scored twice at the weekend in the Israeli Premier League, pulled out that vital goal. After being put through toward the goal, he charged out and evaded Szczesny, who had charged aggressively off his line but completely missed his challenge, leaving the striker to slot the ball into an empty net.

The goal left Juve visibly shaken, and Bonucci had to remove a cross from the foot of David to keep the team in the lead. Atzili came agonizingly close to equalizing in the 81st minute when Sandro gave away a free kick and the winger slammed an effort off the outside of the bar. Just as it looked like the visitors were going to mount an all-out siege on Juve’s goal for the final phase of the game, McKennie won a corner on the right side, and after an extended delay in which Di Maria complained of having things thrown at him from the visiting fans’ section as he lined up, the Argentine fired in a near-post offering that Rabiot rose to meet and flick across goal and in to restore the two-goal lead and calmed a whole lot of nerves.

Juventus v Maccabi Haifa FC: Group H - UEFA Champions League Photo by Marcio Machado/Eurasia Sport Images/Getty Images

Still, Maccabi wouldn’t stop pushing. After Moise Kean nearly put a bow on things after being put through by Manuel Locatelli, only to hit the ball right at Cohen, Atzili hit the post again, this time via a curler from the top of the box in stoppage time. Then in almost the same move he fired at the other post and forced a save out of Szczesny. But those last pushes came to nothing in the end, and when the whistle blew, Juve were in with their first European win of the campaign — Step 1 on the road to redemption.


WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 5.5. The Maccabi goal is going to be talked about for a bit. The way I see it, Szczesny was likely to be in the unenviable position of being one-on-one with David anyway. He might have come out a little bit too aggressively, and the whiff he made was pretty epic, but I’m not so sure that the attempt wasn’t warranted because I’m not sure Bremer recovers. He was very good besides that.

JUAN CUADRADO - 6. He made a pair of key passes and was pretty good going forward, but the defending was equally pretty not good. Overall he did more of the former, so he gets this grade, but the idea that he’s losing it is still hovering over every game he plays.

BREMER - 6. Led the team with four clearances, some of which were very good reads. This would’ve been higher had he not let David slip behind him for the goal.

DANILO - 6. Notched a key pass in addition to his typically solid performance in the back, one that spanned two different positions after Allegri’s late tactics shift. Steady as always.

MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - 6. Made some really good overlaps going forward. He had one key pass ant a couple of other crosses were put into good positions only to see the defense play it well. Frankly I’m not entirely sure why he was pulled at the half.

WESTON McKENNIE - 5.5. Was kinda there in several areas but didn’t distinguish himself in any of them. Just generally meh.

LEANDRO PAREDES - 6. Completed 94.7 percent of his passes and made four tackles on the defensive end. Didn’t exactly boss the midfield, as some of Juve’s best attacks bypassed the unit, but he was good in front of the back four.

ADRIEN RABIOT - 9. Took both of his goals with considerable aplomb, but that was just the tip of the iceberg in this match. He made seven tackles and made a key pass, filling out the stat sheet of a guy Juve really, really needs to step up in a big way. This was easily his best game in a Juve shirt and perhaps his best in several years.

ANGEL DI MARIA - 8. A hat trick of assists, all of which were really excellent plays, and a ton of excellent passes beside. He finished the day with six key passes, several of which should probably have turned into even more assists. It more than made up for a relatively anonymous first half. Juve needs this Di Maria permanently.

Juventus v Maccabi Haifa FC: Group H - UEFA Champions League Photo by Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images

DUSAN VLAHOVIC - 6. Put three of five shots on target and was active all over the attacking third. He finished his goal beautifully, but he should have had at least one more goal and potentially more. In some cases he was unlucky—Cohen’s early save was a sparkling effort after Vlahovic did pretty much everything right, and the offside call was a pedantic application of the rule that needs to change—but he also failed to finish a couple of really good chances tha fell into his lap.

FILIP KOSTIC - 5.5. Buzzed around the attacking third but his end product left a lot to be desiresd. A lot of his crosses are just kinda blind hits intothe box.


ALEX SANDRO - 6. Good defensive numbers, with two interceptions, a tackle, and a clearance. He did a good job down that side aside from a booking.

MANUEL LOCATELLI - 6. Slipped a key pass in late and very nearly caught Cohen off his line late on. He seemed to play a little freer today, making a few flicks and other flair moves playing a little further forward.

LEONARDO BONUCCI - 6. Made a critical block on David to prevent an equalizer as Allegri moved to shuffle the back line for a little more solidity.

MOISE KEAN - 5. He was caught offside twice, at least once while straight-up looking down the line, and really should’ve scored late on when Locatelli sprang him on Cohen.

FABIOT MIRETTI - NR. On to put in some fresh legs late on.


Allegri set the team up properly from the start. Deciding to rest Bonucci from the start was a bit of a risk, but he clearly had an eye on Saturday’s game against Milan while managing his minutes. What was somewhat questionable were his in-game subs. De Sciglio was having a decent game and replacing him at halftime was somewhat unnecessary, unless De Sciglio is joining the injury brigade again. He clearly went defense with his next set of changes, reinforcing the midfield at the expense of Kostic and the back line at the expense of Cuadrado, but it’s worth wondering if that was the right call so early on. Maccabi was able to claw back into the game against that unit, and his decision to remove Vlahovic so early could’ve backfired after it became clear that another goal was needed.

Fortunately, Rabiot went and did how Rabiot do, but it looked like Allegri was looking ahead a little with a 2-0 lead and trying to give one or two people a rest ahead of another big game on Saturday. Fortunately, it didn’t hurt him, but he can’t make that mistake again.


Juve have the return with Maccabi next week on Tuesday. Before that, a trip to the San Siro presents the team its sternest test yet in the form of the defending champions Milan. The Rossoneri are pretty banged up right now, and if there was ever a chance to beat them, it would be now. After the Maccabi game we’ll see the away leg of the Derby della Mole.