I can’t even with this one.
The last three years have certainly been devastating for Juventus from a Champions League standpoint. In each of those seasons, they’ve gone from having a relatively favorable draw to crashing out of the competition.
At least in the last three seasons they did so with their battle ensign still firmly on the mast. In the last two, it was the away goals rule that bit them in the rear.
This time, Juve didn’t afford their fans even that level of honor. Instead, they capitulated in about the most embarrassing way possible.
Yes, their first half against Villarreal was fantastic. They pinned the Spanish side back and created multiple excellent chances. They were far and away the better team in those 45 minutes. The only thing missing was the important one — a goal. Thanks to a combination of poor fortune and some excellent play by Villarreal goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli, the game was still, somehow, goalless at the break. And then they completely invalidated that half with their play in the second. They ended up bogged down and outcoached, eventually shipping three completely avoidable goals in the last 14 minutes of the game, succumbing 3-0 on the night and 4-1 on aggregate.
Massimiliano Allegri got a bit of a boost in the injury department headed into the game, with both Giorgio Chiellini and Paulo Dybala returning to action, albeit only passed fit for the bench. He set the team up in a 3-5-2, with Wojciech Szczesny at its base. Danilo, Matthijs de Ligt, and Daniele Rugani set up on front of him, with Juan Cuadrado and Mattia De Sciglio serving as wing-backs. Manuel Locatelli, Arthur, and Adrien Rabiot made up the midfield, while Dusan Vlahovic and Alvaro Morata tipped the spear.
Unai Emery had also recovered a key piece that was absent for the first leg, with striker Gerard Moreno likewise fit for the bench, if not to start. Emery set himself up in a 4-4-1-1 setup. Rulli was screened by Serge Aurier, Raul Albiol, Pau Torres, and Pervis Estupiñán. The midfield strake was made up of Yeremi Pino, Etienne Capoue, Daniel Parejo, and Manu Trigueros. Giovani Lo Celso set himself up in the hole behind Arnaut Danjumna.
As the game began, a cagey battle began to develop.
Both teams had a few turns at possession and probed and prodded at the other side, looking for weaknesses to try to exploit. Cuadrado was the first to find one in the 11th minute, who flew a cross to the far post that found the head of Morata, whose powerful header was beaten away by Rulli. Three minutes later a good ball in from the left ended up loose in the box, with both Morata and Cuadrado chasing after it. There was a miscommunication, and rather than one or the other letting fly Cuadrado tried to force a pass in to Vlahovic, who couldn’t get any room and gave the ball away.
Rulli was again called upon in the 20th minute when Vlahovic let fly with a long-range belter that forced him into a flying parry. Barely 60 seconds later Juve came as close as they’d come to getting themselves on the scoreboard when Vlahovic cut in front of Albiol and met a rolled ball in by De Sciglio, cracking his first time shot off the crossbar.
It continued to be mostly one-way traffic, although Villarreal did manage one or two moments of danger, most notably a long-range shot from Lo Celso that didn’t have the bend to squeak on target at the near post. Ten minutes later, Aurier lashed wide after Lo Celso couldn’t get his feet right to shoot on a ball in from the left. But Juve were very much the ascendant side at that point, and in the 35th minute a corner bounced through the scrum and found Vlahovic on the back end, whose point-blank header was somehow denied by Rulli’s face, with the rest of him knowing very little about where the ball was. The half ended with Cuadrado trying another Olympico off a corner, this one flying just over the bar.
It was a half that was both exhilarating and frustrating. Juve had actually played on the front foot and created some sterling chances, but they hadn’t managed to convert. As the players went into the locker room, the optimism of what had just been seen was tempered by a nagging concern that they would end up regretting the missed opportunities.
Regrets, they had more than a few.
The second half started far more slowly. Juve maintained the majority of possession, but that possession became more and more sterile as the minutes wore on, with the only Juve shot for the first 13 minutes of the half being an airmailed shot from distance by Morata. Rulli was forced into another good save in the 58th minute by Rabiot, of all people, and two minutes later Cuadrado loaded up from distance and just missed the post.
But by this point long shots like that was all Juve were resorting to, and Emery, sensing that his opponent was bogged down, went to his bench, introducing Francis Coquelin and Samuel Chukwueze, then playing the ace up his sleeve 10 minutes later by sending on Moreno.
Two of those three would factor in the game’s major turning point in the 75th minute, when Coquelin was sent through the right channel with a through ball. Rugani tried to make up the ground and slid in to try to make the tackle. He missed the ball, and while there was contact, Coquelin very much made the most of it. Referee Szymon Marciniak at first swallowed his whistle, and was called to the monitor. He returned pointing to the spot. While the call may not have been egregious, it was, in my opinion, very much a bought penalty. But given it was, and as Moreno stepped to the spot, there was still a glimmer of hope in the form of Szczesny, who had stopped three-quarters of the penalties he’d faced so far this season. He guessed right on this occasion and even got his fingertips to Moreno’s shot, but just couldn’t get enough purchase to push it all the way around the post.
Allegri, who had done nothing as his team had ground to a halt, finally had a fire lit under his ass after the goal. He went full-on desperation mode, pulling Rugani in favor of Dybala, then sending on Federico Bernardeschi for Locatelli. Loaded up as Juve were on attackers, it opened some spaces for Villarreal as Juve desperately piled forward, and after Danilo had managed to interdict a strong counter with a last ditch challenge, the ensuing corner saw de Ligt completely lose Torres at the far post, and the Spain international side-footed the ball home with seven minutes to go.
Juve desperately tried to do something, anything, to get onto the scoresheet and give themselves some chance of coming back, but that was snuffed out with finality when Danilo didn’t feel Moreno coming behind him as he tried to control a cleared ball, leading to a two-on-three break that ended when De Ligt hurled himself head-first to try to stop a shot from Danjuma, blocking the shot with his arm in the process.
One Dutchman was booked, the other stepped up to the spot, sending Szczesny the wrong way to complete Juve’s utter humiliation.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 6. What a weird freaking day for him. Until the 69th minute, I don’t think he actually touched the ball with his hands while it was in play, but by the end of the night he’d picked the ball out of his net three times. Definite points for guessing right on the first penalty, though I disagree with the Paramount+ analyst who blamed him for not stopping the shot, Moreno had hit it with a lot of power.
DANILO - 5. Led the team with four clearances, but made a mental error for the ages in the final minutes when he let Moreno jump him. Like the rest of the back three, it was a good game for him until it wasn’t.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT - 5. Looked like his usual self until that corner, when he simply lost his man and allowed Torres the easy tap-in. The second penalty was a desperation move that was born out of having to decide which of the two Villarreal players in his side of the box to defend before Moreno finally passed the ball, but it too wasn’t the best look.
DANIELE RUGANI - 5. He was having a great game until he very suddenly wasn’t. Perhaps the challenge on Coquelin wasn’t necessary, but I still personally think Coquelin bought it. Regardless, it was a messy end to a great game where he tied for the team lead with four tackles.
JUAN CUADRADO - 6. It wasn’t quite the carry-job he did against Porto last year, but he led the team with five key passes and four dribbles, and was a constant danger out wide when Juve were in the driver’s seat. A pity no one managed to convert the chances he created.
MANUEL LOCATELLI - 5.5. Couldn’t do the things he managed against Sampdoria over the weekend thanks to Villarreal clogging the middle and forcing Juve to use the wide areas. Worked very hard, but couldn’t force the openings.
ARTHUR - 5. Only Danilo came close to attempting the number of passes he did (112), and he completed 93.8 of them, but it brings us back to a familiar refrain: so many of them were lateral or backwards. He didn’t do nearly enough to set things up to try to break Villarreal down, simply settling for recycling the ball over and over and over again. He and Locatelli together is probably the best version of this midfield right now, but it very much remains to be seen if he’s the right man for this job long-term.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 6. It is a supreme irony that Adrien Rabiot was Juve’s best midfielder Wednesday night. He forced a good save out of Rulli, made three tackles and two interceptions, and tied Danilo for the team lead in pass completion (94.8 percent). Still, when Rabiot is doing that much better than the rest of the midfield, a long day is in the offing.
MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - 6. Had a quietly good game, racking up two key passes — including the one that set up Vlahovic’s assault on the crossbar — while tying for the team lead in tackles.
ALVARO MORATA - 5.5. Made three key passes and forced the first save out of Rulli with a bullet header that the keeper somehow kept out. Faded as the second half wore on.
DUSAN VLAHOVIC - 5.5. Denied twice by Rulli and hit the crossbar, but was a passenger in the second half,
PAULO DYBALA - NR. Was thrown against the wall after going down a man but never really had the time or chance to make any impact.
FEDERICO BERNARDESCHI - NR. Another desperation heave that had little time to make any sort of difference.
MOISE KEAN - NR. Had no chance to do anything in four minutes of work.
I’m about to reveal some major nerd here.
In the old Star Wars Extended Universe — the continuity that Disney immediately declared null and void when they bought the franchise, then promptly tried to copy — there exists the concept of “shatterpoints.” At its most basic level, a shatterpoint was a fault line in the Force. Those few adept at perceiving them could influence not only objects, but the actions and the chain of events that would be affected by them.
If this game had a shatterpoint, it appeared sometime around the hour mark. Juventus had bogged down, and were on the receiving end of the game they usually play, trying to break down a Villarreal team that had dropped into an effective low block.
Unai Emery perceived that shatterpoint, and he acted on that perception, sending on new legs and, eventually, turning the game on its head when Coquelin drew the penalty kick. Allegri, on the other hand, either didn’t perceive it or decided that staying the course was the better option.
This was a drastic mistake. Yes, Allegri’s bench was still quite short, but with Juve as bogged down as they were it was perhaps worth simply making a move for the sake of making a move. This is the coach that did just that four years ago when he swapped out both his full-backs in the second leg of the round of 16 against Tottenham Hotspur, a move that improbably turned that game around and saw Juve advance. Sending on, say Bernardeschi closer to the hour mark in place of Rabiot, with Dybala coming on a little later, could have dug Juve out of their rut and kept the momentum on their side.
Allegri doesn’t deserve all the blame here — there were some major mistakes by players on the field, especially on the last two goals — but he certainly does deserve a chunk of it for coaching reactively instead of proactively, ceding the tactical initiative to his opposite number and frankly getting outcoached in the second half. That reluctance to act arguably put the Juve defense into the positions they ended up in to make those mistakes, and it cost Juventus the chance to advance.
The fact that in his post-match press conference he insisted he would do nothing different is what really grinds on me. His insistence that “the lads did well for 65 minutes” rings hollow when the final 25 went the way they did in part because of his decisions. Allegri has a tendency toward toxic positivity in interviews and this was one of the starkest examples yet.
Hopefully, behind the scenes, Allegri is taking stock of this and accepting responsibility for this loss, the way Danilo did.
Juve stay home for a date with Salernitana on Sunday before the March international break — a period in which I hope the Italian national team doesn’t make me feel even crappier about this sport than I already do.