Perhaps because my mind wanted to think about something other than Juventus, I realized at some point right before the start of the Bianconeri’s 2-1 Champions League loss to Paris Saint-Germain that some of the best nights in my life have variously transpired in both Paris and Turin. I’m fortunate enough to have spent a fair amount of time in each, at very different times of my life — some nights as a rather precocious, solitary young man; some nights as a slightly-older young man with a wife. They are both lovely towns in starkly different ways.
Juventus, although they acquitted themselves well, did not have fun in Paris, and they did not have fun in Turin on the return leg Wednesday night, as the visitors rode Kylian Mbappe’s lone marauder strike in the first half and secured the win — but not the group, thanks to our friends in Portugal — when second-half substitute Nuno Mendes lasered a shot into the back of the net.
While Juve fans have, unfortunately, become all too accustomed to injuries over the last couple of seasons, the beleaguered Massimiliano Allegri had ridiculously few choices at his disposal, as the injury bulletin was longer than Santa’s naughty list for Las Vegas. The starting lineup, therefore, was vaguely interesting, with a number of youngsters — Federico Gatti, Nicolò Fagioli, and Fabio Miretti — getting the green light from the get-go.
But I would be lying if I did not suffer immediate heart irregularities at the thought of Leonardo Bonucci attempting to match Mbappé for speed, or Gatti attempting to match Lionel Messi for craftiness. Alas, there was really no other choice, I suppose. (Well, there was, technically speaking, but it was Daniele Rugani.)
The whistle blew and, for better or worse, the action commenced.
The first thing that stood out to me was the involvement of the Juventus crowd; their role in proceedings seemed more vociferous than I can remember, which is quite interesting given the fact that the squad had already been eliminated from the Champions League and its manager is under constant fire. But the supporters seemed to earnestly be backing the team, and were noisy as hell until Mbappe’s strike took the wind out of their sails in the 13th minute. (More on that in a bit.)
Juventus started the game, and played much of the entire 90 minutes, on the front foot. PSG, for their part, took about 15 minutes to realize they were playing a Champions League game, which is not really a thing you want said about your team. The visitors hardly touched the ball for the first five minutes.
Through the first segment of the game, neither team threatened much, and after Juve’s initial control the game did balance out. Manuel Locatelli fired a long-range effort that set the tone for the rest of his evening, and, I kid you not, just a few moments before Mbappe broke the 0-0 tie I was thinking to myself: “This has looked a lot like the first leg, where Juve outplayed PSG but then Kylian—-”
And then he scored.
An awkward pass from Adrien Rabiot and a heavy touch from Locatelli spurred a PSG counter-attack, and with Juve’s No. 5 then out of position defensively, it took all of two passes to spring a 1-on-1 confrontation of Mbappe and ... Federico Gatti.
The Cat-Man did not cover himself in glory. Attempting to jump the pass, he grossly mis-judged the velocity of the ball and found himself on the wrong side of the Frenchman. He then resorted to pulling Mbappe’s jersey with both hands, like a kid trying to slow down his older brother, but instead of going down, No. 7 charged forward, pushed the ball onto his right foot to miss a sliding Locatelli (who barreled into Gatti) and send a pinpoint accurate shot past Woj. Not great, guys! A yellow card for Gatti added insult to injury.
As I mentioned earlier, the crowd, after this goal, was stunned. They had shown up to support with all the energy they could muster, but Mbappe took it out of them. Juventus, too, seemed stunned, and for a few minutes I wondered if this was one of those games that’d finish with an ugly scoreline.
Fortunately, there’s a bit of fino alla fine left in the lads. Maybe more than a bit. Locatelli had a decent look at goal from distance again after combining nicely with Miretti and Fagioli. It was somewhat reminiscent of those wonderful back-and-forths with Pipita and La Joya. That sequence, along with the players’ renewed energy, got the crowd back into the game.
There were, honestly, a lot of good things. Johnny Square attempted a left-footed shot that wasn’t too far off the mark. Miretti fired off another. The spacing and roles looked a lot better in this game than many in the past. Even so, down 1-0 with the moral victory of looking like the better side, I wondered how sustainable this solace could be.
The captain clawed one back for Juventus a few minutes into the spirited response. After Fagioli drew a foul, the team quickly played the free kick, spitting the ball out to the right side before returning to Locatelli in the middle. The midfielder spotted a nearly wide-open Cuadrado on the right flank, but rather than simply hitting it to Cuadrado, he led the Colombian toward the box, floating a perfect ball just over the defender’s head, which Cuadrado either crossed or shot with his wonderful head of hair, the ball just passing PSG’s big Italian goalie to Bonucci. Mouth-rinse for the win, tie game.
Much of the second half happened like the first. For large segments of this game, Juventus were the better team. The Old Lady had more energy, more will to fight. While PSG more than doubled Juve’s shots on target (5-2), the hosts more than doubled the visitors’ total shots (15-7). It’s a small thing, and it doesn’t help you win, but we’ve seen games against small-town teams where Juve are drastically out-shot.
What I’m saying is that, to me, there was a lot more grinta here for the full 90 minutes. Yes, there were still momentary lapses like the first goal and the second goal — in which PSG sliced through the entire Juventus team, from top to bottom, with a few slick passes — and PSG are talented enough to punish you immediately for those, but we did not witness a bright first half followed by a wet blanket second half.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY — 6. There was basically nothing he could do on the Mbappe goal, and even on the second it’d be fairly harsh to say he should’ve gotten there, such was the pace the shot was hit with. Woj stopped the shots he should’ve stopped, but he did spill a couple of rebounds that didn’t get punished.
FEDERICO GATTI — 5. If you take away Mbappe’s goal, it wasn’t a terrible day for Juve’s newest center back. But you can’t take away the goal! He misjudged the pass terribly.
LEONARDO BONUCCI — 7. The captain scored! He chose a great moment to involve himself offensively, and he was rewarded for it. He also put in one of his best shifts defensively of the season and generally organized the defensive block well.
ALEX SANDRO — 6. Don’t look now, but the Brazilian is quietly putting together a very solid stretch of games.
JUAN CUADRADO — 6. Considering some of Cuadrado’s recent performances, this was a step in the right direction. He technically got an assist on the Bonucci goal, whether he meant to or not. He certainly got burned on the second PSG goal. Johnny giveth, Johnny taketh.
NICOLO FAGIOLI— 6.5. It was great to see Beanman get a start, and he did not look out of place. I mean that as a pretty high compliment: he was literally in the correct area virtually all the time, something that can’t really be said for Weston McKennie (or Rabiot, for that matter). I’d love to see him play more.
MANUEL LOCATELLI — 7. The club’s best player on the pitch Wednesday night. He was sound with his passing, but on the defensive side he was an absolute pitbull, leading the team in tackles and tenacity. It’s almost unbelievable how well he played and how natural he looked there when you think back to some of his poor performances, but man. How can we order another one of those performances?
ADRIEN RABIOT — 6. Rabiot did as Rabiot does; he existed on the field. There were some moments where he displayed his ball-possession strength, and there were some other moments that left you scratching your head.
FILIP KOSTIC— 5.5. With Federico Bernardeschi, I never had any idea what to expect. With Kostić, I know exactly what to expect. So, too, unfortunately, does the other team, as the Serbian completes approximately 2% of his crosses.
FABIO MIRETTI — 6.5. I’m probably going to get flack for this, but I thought Miretti was really good. He tallied four shots, although none of them hit the target, but the thing I first liked about this kid was what I saw on display against PSG: he finds the space. He makes really intelligent runs. He’s got his head on a swivel. If he improves a bit technically on the shot, as well as calms himself in front of goal, he’s going to be a very good player.
ARKADIUSZ MILIK— 6. The Polish striker touched the ball 20 times, and I maybe remember three of them. He did have some nice distribution, but was otherwise pretty disconnected from play.
FEDERICO CHIESA — 10. Because he’s Freddy Church, and he looked energetic and happy and lethal like he did before he went down with an injury. It’s fantastic to have this guy back on the pitch, and my only concern is how to reconcile what appears to be our best tactical approach (three at the back) with putting our best attacker (Churchman) on the field. Not my problem to solve.
MATIAS SOULÉ — N/R. Very interesting hair situation! He wasn’t on for super long, but he did have one silky run through the midfield, the kind of thing that makes you wonder if he really could turn into something substantial with more time.
ENZO ALAN TOMAS BARRENECHEA— N/R. Winner of the long name award, though. The youngster came on for a quick cameo at the end.
TOMMASO BARBIERI— N/R. Another cameo, had to be fun for him!
Allegri did about as well as he could have with the players at his disposal, as noted already. He didn’t get three points; he didn’t even get one point. But for the first time in a long time, Juventus looked mostly consistent across a full 90 minutes of football. Even with one head missing from their three-headed dragon, PSG are a tough squad to play, and they have Mbappe and Messi! Considering the fact that the back line was Gatti-Bonucci-Sandro, I think things could’ve been a lot worse (and they might’ve been, but for Mbappe hitting a couple shots straight at Woj).
Still, Allegri needs to win. He didn’t particularly need this one, given the probability of us advancing to the Europa League. But one imagines he needs to win two of the last three to have any sort of argument for his head not to be on the chopping block over the break.
Christmas roast, anyone?
Europa League it is! Like we always dreamed ...
The Old Lady has two more chances before the World Cup break to prove that she is capable of beating a team that isn’t from a provincial Italian town that probably has some sort of centuries-old festival centered around the pilfering of a clove of garlic of the landed gentry in the terminal stages of feudalism that inspired the coming together of the peasants, or something, when they face dreaded rival Inter Milan this weekend and, in the final game before the break, Lazio.
Right now, most things do not look good. The results are not good. The injuries are not good. And even when you think things may just look a little bit better on the pitch, the team still loses consistently to good competition.
But “most” is not “all,” and that, in the end, is probably better than we would’ve said a week or so ago. Chiesa is back and looking energetic. The youngsters are contributing meaningfully. But at the end of the day, what matters is winning, and this club is not winning.