I feel like I’ve been writing the words “missed opportunity” after every Juventus match for the last month.
But here I am, saying it again, as Juventus squandered one of the most incredible starts in their Champions League history to draw the first leg of the round of 16 against Villarreal, 1-1, on Tuesday night.
Given the depleted state that the team was coming into the game in, plus the incredibly negative attitude Massimiliano Allegri has shown all season, it was highly likely that Juve would sit back and soak up pressure for the majority of the game. But when Dusan Vlahovic scored with the literal first touch of his Champions League career only 33 seconds into the game, the calculus changed. Allegri had indeed set up his team to defend and then attack Villarreal’s relatively slow-footed center-backs with long balls, but now they were holding on to a lead. A little pressure one way or the other could have seen another goal scored and send Juve home with a decisive advantage in the second leg three weeks from now.
But instead Allegri opted to continue with how he’d planned things. Unlike other games, Juve did in fact come up with some chances to extend their lead — chances that they squandered before, halfway through the second half, they did what they’ve done all season in situations like this: make one single mistake that blows the lead.
Now, one must decide how to regard the match’s endgame, with the glass half full or half empty. On the former’s side, Juve just went into a really tough place to play in a severely depleted state, could very well have won had it not been for that single, solitary mistake, and have everything to play for in the second leg. But in the case of the latter, this tie could have been close to sewn up by the time the final whistle blew on Tuesday. Whichever side you come down on, one thing is clear: the second leg is going to be one of the most interesting matches we’ll see in quite some time.
Allegri was dealing with a massive list of absences. Three-quarters of his natural center-backs were injured. Giorgio Chiellini and Daniele Rugani were out altogether, while Leonardo Bonucci was only deemed fit for the bench. Additionally, Juve were missing Paulo Dybala and Federico Bernardeschi in attack, as well as long-term absentee Federico Chiesa. Faced with the selection crunch, Allegri surprised everyone when when it became clear that he’d sent the team out with a five-man backline in front of Wojciech Szczesny. Juan Cuadrado, Danilo, Matthijs de Ligt, Alex Sandro, and Mattia De Sciglio stretched across the back of the field, while Weston McKennie, Manuel Locatelli, and Adrien Rabiot manned the midfield behind Alvaro Morata and Vlahovic.
Villarreal coach Unai Emery was missing his top striker in Gerard Moreno, and he countered with a 4-4-2. Geronimo Rulli set up in goal, with Juan Foyth, Pau Torres, Raul Albiol, and Alfonso Pedraza in defense. Samuel Chukwueze, Etienne Capoue, Daniel Parejo, and Alberto Moreno made up the midfield line, while Giovani Lo Celso and Arnaut Danjuma made up the strike pair.
Juve was in the lead in the blink of an eye. Villarreal took the opening kickoff, but Capoue put a pass toward Moreno, he dummied it without realizing that the man behind him had gone in a different direction. Danilo jumped the pass, then launched a gorgeous ball over the top for Vlahovic. The striker took the ball down with his chest, then, without even looking up at the goal, fired a shot between Torres and Albiol that easily beat Rulli and nestled into the net just behind the far post. It was the second-fastest Juventus ever scored in the Champions League, after Alessandro Del Piero’s 20-second strike against Manchester United in 1997, and he also became the second-youngest Juve player after Del Piero to score on his Champions League debut.
Vlahovic got behind again three minutes later, but the offside flag went up after he latched on to an excellent flick by Morata. Villarreal started playing Emery’s possession-based game, and in the 13th minute they had their first opportunity when Pedraza leaped on a loose ball after Danilo intercepted a pass, cutting hard inside and then squaring for Lo Celso, who had to reach behind himself to put the ball on goal and could only hit it off the post. Three minutes later Szczesny was forced into an excellent save on Danjuma, whose back-heeled effort was deflected by Danilo.
Juve weren’t totally sealed into their half the way they’ve been in other games this season. In the 18th minute Rulli had to make a desperate punch to keep Morata from heading in a well-placed cross from Cuadrado. A few minutes later, the Spanish striker got stuck looking for a lane to pass the ball when he probably should’ve taken the shot himself, then Vlahovic held the ball up brilliantly in the box and laid it back to Locatelli, who fired high from the top of the box. Morata likewise skied a shot from the left channel in the 33rd minute, and five minutes later, McKennie had a shot from close in blocked after latching on to a low cross from De Sciglio.
The hosts, meanwhile, were doing everything they could to try to dislodge a dug-in Juventus defense, but they were largely limited to shots from distance and, without Gerard Moreno as a target, low cross attempts that were dug out by De Ligt and the rest of the back line. As the teams went into the half, Juve were poised to take home a big result.
As the teams came out of the locker room, Allegri made what was clearly a planned change, sending on Bonucci for Sandro to supplement the defense. Within two minutes of the restart, Juve should probably have doubled their lead, but Morata’s volley of a beautiful cross-field ball by McKennie went wide of the near post. Bonucci’s presence was felt immediately, blocking a Foyth header off a free kick and generally sticking his nose wherever a ball was sent in, looking every bit the player that had been on display at the Euros this summer.
Juve actually looked like they might threaten to take full control of the game in the early stages of the second period, producing a couple extended periods of possession in the Villarreal half, but soon the home side started to get themselves moving back in the direction of the Juve goal. There certainly wasn’t a siege mentality going on, but Villarreal was still in the ascendency, and with only a one-goal lead all that was required was a single mistake to put them back into the game.
in the 66th minute, Rabiot duly provided them with that mistake. There was some culpability to go around, particularly the fact that Bonucci and de Ligt had congregated around a single player and produced the space that Parejo ended up bolting into, but the Frenchman was ball-watching and allowed the midfielder to get into the channel completely alone, first-timing Capoue’s pass past a stranded Szczesny to tie the score.
The home side immediately took the bit between their teeth and searched for more gaps in Juve’s armor. They very nearly got a boost in that regard in the 73rd minute, when Rabiot came in late on a challenge on Chukwueze and raked him down the knee with his cleats. German referee Daniel Siebert opted for a yellow card, though Villarreal players argued fiercely for a straight red, to the point that Rulli ran all the way out from his goal to argue the point, earning himself a place in the book alongside the midfielder. There was no VAR review, and Rabiot played on, a lucky boy, but one who had rapidly undone a lot of the good he’d actually done in the first half.
Over the final 10 minutes both sides seemed content to let the draw play out, although there were a couple of nervy moments on both sides. Villarreal was nearly given a gift at the top of the Juve penalty area by Arthur, who had subbed on for Locatelli, but the Brazilian was able to follow up his mistake and eventually draw a foul. With five minutes to go Vlahovic took a pull-back from Cuadrado and forced an excellent save out of Rulli, who got down low to parry the effort with one hand.
Unfortunately, that was all overshadowed by the awful injury suffered by McKennie some moments before, when Pervis Estupiñán slid to try to tackle the ball off him but caught the American’s foot in his followthrough. He clearly knew something was badly wrong, at one point punching the turf, and he was completely unable to put weight on his foot, which is understandable considering the multiple reports that say he suffered two broken metatarsals in his left foot, an injury that could keep him out eight to 12 weeks and potentially end his season.
Losing their best performer on the night cast a shadow over the end of the game, which passed without incident as neither team put in a shot in the last five minutes plus stoppage time, content to go into the second leg in Turin with a very clear objective: win and advance.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 7. Made one really great save on Danjuma that was made all the trickier with a deflection, and was otherwise solid. Didn’t have a whole lot to do in the air, as Gerard Moreno’s absence meant Villarreal kept the ball on the deck for much of the game. Could do nothing for the goal after Rabiot left him completely stranded.
JUAN CUADRADO - 6. Did a good job keeping Pedraza and Moreno from getting crosses in, but couldn’t get forward as much and wasn’t asked to create anything from his wide position.
DANILO - 7. Made an absolutely gorgeous pass over the top to assist Vlahovic, and was a huge defensive presence, tying for the team lead in both tackles (three) and interceptions) (four).
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 7. Made four interceptions and three clearances, and often forced his man deep into the Villarreal midfield where he was less of a threat. This might’ve been a little higher had he not been minorly complicit in Villarreal’s goal.
ALEX SANDRO - 6. Solid defensively on the inside left of the five, making a pair of interceptions before coming off at half for Bonucci in what looked like a planned move.
MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - 5.5. It was backwards day for De Sciglio on Tuesday. He looked good going forward and was the only Juventus player to complete a successful cross (he was three of four on the day) and contributed a key pass. But defensively he struggled, getting beaten for pace by Chukwueze enough times to offset some pretty strong counting stats.
WESTON McKENNIE - 7.5. Led the team with three key passes, constantly buzzed around to try to recover the ball, and had a shot blocked. He was perhaps the best player on the field for Juve, which makes his injury all the more awful. We wish him a speedy recovery.
MANUEL LOCATELLI - 5.5. Blocked a shot and completed eight of 12 long balls, several of which were quite pretty, but only completed 84.1 percent of his passes overall and wasn’t able to exert much influence on Juve’s attacks. This is as much a scheme issue as anything else as Allegri continues to refuse to play him further forward, but he also just looks exhausted, having put in huge minutes this season following a full Euros.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 4.5. He actually had a good first half, but was completely the opposite in the second half. He made an elementary mistake — one that, according to reports, Max Allegri had yelled at him not to make moments before he actually made it — then compounded that by making a really bad tackle on Chukwueze that could have seen him sent off. With McKennie looking likely to be out for a lengthy amount of time, he has to shape up — and fast.
DUSAN VLAHOVIC - 7. He got precious little service, only touching the ball 24 times overall, but he made those count, scoring a wonderful goal and nearly adding a second late only to be denied by Rulli. He immediately proved big enough for the moment.
ALVARO MORATA - 5.5. He gets credit from me for putting in a really tough shift defensively, tying for the team lead with three tackles, but was something of a disaster going forward, either looking to pass when he could’ve been more selfish or missing the target from pretty good positions, especially that volley early in the second half. Had his finishing been better Juve might have won.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 6.5. Excellent for most of the second half, although the issue with himself and De Ligt bunching up to allow Parejo the space to run into for the equalizer brings down his grade ever so slightly. Still, he led the team with four clearances in only 45 minutes and stepped up big time.
ARTHUR - 5. Only completed 81.3 percent of his passes and was very nearly guilty of a massive mistake at the back similar to the one he made against Benevento last year.
DENIS ZAKARIA - NR. Did his best to fill McKennie’s shoes but had limited opportunity to make any kind of mark.
LUCA PELLEGRINI - NR. On after De Sciglio cramped up late, put in some good defensive work against Villarreal sub Yeremi Pino and scratched out a clearance in only about seven minutes total between normal and stoppage time.
This is usually where I rail about Max Allegri and his negative tactics. And while I still think he’s far too negative overall, in this game, in this situation, given the number of players he had out — particularly the center-backs — I can see the sense in setting things up the way Allegri did.
I can’t even be super upset — at least not with him — about the game not being killed off, because Juve did have some clear chances to do so that were simply missed. But I do see some space to quibble around the edges. There was a period early in the second half where Juve were gaining some nice possession in the attacking half that was a potential opportunity for Allegri to turn the screw, perhaps by introducing Arthur and/or Zakaria and allowing Locatelli to move further forward. Instead, he stood pat until after Villarreal had already tied the game, leaving the subs he did use scrambling to use the time they had left to try to exert some kind of influence when the momentum had already swung away from Juve. Leaving Rabiot on the field after his close call in the 73rd minute was also questionable, as Siebert was probably keeping a close eye on him following that incident.
Still, this was, for once, a game where Allegri’s natural instincts toward conservative play largely fit the situation, and had Rabiot not had that brain fart in defense, one has to concede it looked like it was going to work. But with everything to play for in the second leg, maybe the situation will force Allegri to actually push hard enough for the victory.
The second leg will be in three weeks at the J Stadium. With the away goals rule no longer in play, the situation couldn’t be more simple: whoever wins in Turin will go through to the next round. Refreshing to see that the tie will be decided by the actual score and not an archaic rule that gives certain goals more weight simply because they were scored in the right building.
Juve’s next match overall will come Saturday with a trip to Empoli, where Juve will hope to avenge the humiliating defeat they suffered in Round 2 this season. Then comes yet another midweek fixture, this time a trip to Florence for the first leg of the Coppa Italia semifinal. No major storylines there, right?