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Manu’s Grab Bag: Perspective

We talk big Champions League nights, bad setups and a scary precedent.

Villarreal v Juventus - UEFA Champions League Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images

As we previewed the upcoming game between Villarreal and Juventus in the first leg of the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 on the latest episode of The Old Lady Speaks Podcast — listen, subscribe, rate, review and all that good stuff — I made the claim that I’d be happy if Bianconeri came out of Spain with a draw.

Lo and behold, Juventus went out and did just that, drawing 1-1 against Villarreal on Tuesday evening — which, if I go by what I said I wanted, I should technically be happy.

For the first time in a couple of years, Juventus did not lose their knockout round opener, and given the myriad of injuries to key players before the match, it’s arguable that this was as good as it would get.

Still, it's hard to be super pumped about drawing a game in which you managed to score within the first minute and then get pretty soundly outplayed for the remaining 89.

Juventus managed to do just enough to have the chance to secure qualification to the quarterfinals with a win at home in little less than a month’s time. On paper, that’s a good result. Then again, what is on paper has been pretty unkind to the Juventus faithful in the last few years.

Let’s cook.

Offensive/Defensive Player of the Week: Weston McKennie

Arguably the biggest L Juve caught on Tuesday had nothing to do with the result.

Reports late Tuesday night suggested that the American international will be out of circulation for the next two to three months with two broken bones in his left foot. Injuries are always huge bummers, but this one especially so given the level McKennie was showing lately as well as in this particular game.

He was his usually active self, helping disrupt Villarreal’s attack and making it difficult for the hosts to establish particularly dangerous possessions. However, it was his attacking prowess that was the real eye opener. McKennie has grown leaps and bounds since signing for Juventus last year, and this was one of the game’s were that growth was in full display.

He was making assertive runs and surprisingly accurate long passes as one of the few players that was effective going forward. He was easily Juve’s best midfielder on Tuesday and if the reports are confirmed and he indeed loses the next three months — AKA pretty much the rest of the season — due to injury, the team’s weakest unit will suffer a major, major blow that could jeopardize pretty much every competition Juventus still is competing in.

Grab Bag MVP Season Leader: Paulo Dybala (15 Points)

Winner: Dusan Vlahovic

Scoring a goal within a minute is pretty much as good as it gets for your European debut, no?

And what a goal that was, too — between two defenders, with his back to the goal and striking the ball with his weak foot without even seeing where he was shooting. That’s a striker’s goal right there, purely on instinct and skill.

Also, this:

DUSAN SAW YOUR SLANDER, ITALIAN MEDIA.

He struggled to get any kind of service the rest of the match, but he still managed to be involved in pretty much any and all dangerous opportunities that Juventus had. With more and more Juve players booking their stays at J Medical, Vlahovic will have to keep bearing the brunt of the Juve attack.

Winner: Matthijs de Ligt

Again, de Ligt was tasked to be the point of reference for Juve’s defense and he again delivered. Did not put a foot wrong all game long and bailed Juventus out time and time again.

The most encouraging thing about de Ligt’s recent form is that he was finally thrusted into being the No. 1 center back and he not only answered the call, but he did so by playing some of the most impressive football of his Juventus career.

He was recently asked about the captaincy and while he answered in the most political way possible — is there anything this kid can’t do? — and there’s a reason he was asked in the first place. He has everything to be a Juventus captain for the next decade, at least.

Loser: Max Allegri

Lord knows I defend Max Allegri more than most.

I don’t begrudge him playing defensively in this match — or defensively in general, that's who he is. A defensive coach, it is what it is — it was always going to be tough to dominate this matchup with so many missing players. And despite lucking out with an early goal, his initial setup wasn’t without merit all things considered.

The real problem starts with his halftime substitutions. Not bringing Leo Bonucci — who was pretty good and brought much needed solidity in defense — but bringing him in for Alex Sandro instead of Mattia De Sciglio.

I’ve said my peace about De Sciglio — the cliff notes: I think little of the guy — but he was by far one of the weakest players on the field in the first half. If you were going to sacrifice someone to bring Bonucci in, De Sciglio was the one that should have gone. He got dribbled out of his boots numerous times by Samuel Chukwueze and provided nothing going forward.

(EDIT: After the writing of this piece, it came out that Sandro was subbed out due to injury. To be fair to Allegri here, if that was the case and Pellegrini maybe didn’t have 45 mins on his legs, I will give him a pass. How fair of me, indeed.)

That trend remained for the rest of the game and when it ended, it was a miracle that he didn’t cost a goal or two to his team.

(He was mercifully subbed out for Luca Pellegrini late in the second half. In limited minutes Pellegrini won a couple one on one duels and my brother - who was watching the game with me but not paying too much attention — teased me with “Hey, look at De Sciglio, he finally won one!” until realizing that it was no longer De Sciglio at right back and laughing heartily.)

Allegri then waited far too long to make his second sub of the game — a trend that is becoming recurrent for the Italian manager — and when he did, he once again lifted the wrong guy in Manuel Locatelli instead of Adrien Rabiot, who authored truly one of the worst halves I’ve seen a Juve player have in a long time.

The Frenchman got caught napping in defense for Villarreal’s only goal of the game and should have been red carded after a criminal foul on Chukwueze. He had a decent first half, but he should have been lifted in the second, not played the whole 90 minutes.

(EDIT PART DEUX: The blame on that goal is maybe shared a little bit more with de Ligt after watching a few replays. The point remains he was awful in the second half.)

Allegri’s continuous refusal to play Locatelli in a more offensively inclined position remains baffling, even more so when you now have two natural central midfielders in Denis Zakaria and Arthur. I get Allegri likes to tinker with his players and I do see the vision in trying to make Locatelli a deep-playing midfielder given his great passing abilities, but this seems like such an easy change to make that I just cannot keep defending it anymore, especially when the team is still struggling to win the midfield battle in the current setup.

I still think Allegri is a good coach and that he will figure it out at some point. He has a contract that leads me to believe that the Juve board believes that as well, but some of his decisions remain pretty hard to explain and Juventus needs those decisions to either change or start making more sense, sooner rather than later.

Parting Shot of the Week

One of those games in which you can tell pretty quick if you are talking to someone with a glass half full or half empty way of seeing the world.

As mentioned up top, a draw is a decent result and will put Juventus with as straightforward a path to the quarterfinals as they could get given the circumstances. Win and you are in. Their big money striker showed up and the beleaguered defense stood solid — outside of Rabiot’s lapsus brutus — this was fine.

Then again they also got outplayed for most of the game, Villarreal could have easily scored more than one goal given the chances they generated and you know lost one of your most in form midfielders. This is a disaster.

As always, there is room for interpretation. I, for one, will stand by my earlier take. I’m just happy they didn’t lose.

See you Saturday.