A few weeks ago, before Juventus started Champions League play, Massimiliano Allegri pointed to the home game against Benfica in Round 2 as the biggest of the group stage for his squad.
At the beginning of said game Wednesday night, it looked like he had treated it as such. Juve took an early lead on a set piece and ran Benfica ragged for the first 15 minutes of the game.
Unfortunately, matches last significantly longer than 15 minutes, and from that point on the Juve that looked like they were going to roll to a victory completely disappeared. It’s what has sadly become a classic Allegri game at this point — the team slowly dropped back further and further, reacting to their opponents as opposed to trying to impose themselves. By the end of the first half, the Portuguese giants were in complete control and had come a whisker from equalizing twice. When Fabio Miretti mistimed a tackle in the box by that much, the equalizer that had slowly started to look inevitable arrived, and in the second half Benfica completely dominated. Only the heroics of Mattia Perin kept the scoreline close, and Juve only had a couple of last-gasp attempts at a second goal of their own go begging.
The end result was 2-1 loss, dropping them six points behind Benfica and Paris Saint-Germain. They’re now staring down the prospect of crashing out of the competition at the group stage for the first time since 2013-14 — and we can only hope that this is indeed rock bottom.
Allegri was severely limited in his options thanks to a plethora of injuries that included the usual suspects of Federico Chiesa, Kaio Jorge, and Paul Pogba, as well as Alex Sandro, Manuel Locatelli, Adrien Rabiot, and Wojciech Szczesny. He sent out a 3-5-2 formation anchored by Perin. Bremer, Leonardo Bonucci, and Danilo screened the keeper, with Juan Cuadrado and Filip Kostic playing as the wingbacks. Miretti was joined in midfield by Weston McKennie and Leandro Paredes, while Arkadiusz Milik and Dusan Vlahovic made up the strike pair.
Benfica coach Roger Schmidt countered with a 4-2-3-1, using the same lineup he’d used to defeat Maccabi Haifa 2-0 last week. Odysseas Vlachodimos started in goal behind the defensive line of Alexander Bah, Nicolas Ottomendi, Antonio Silva, and Alejandro Grimaldo. Florentino Luis and Enzo Fernandez formed the double pivot, while David Neres, Rafa Silva, and Joao Mario supported Benfica’s latest striker revelation, Goncalo Ramos, in attack.
The day started with so much promise. After Cuadrado earned a free kick along the right-hand touchline, Paredes sent in an excellent delivery that met Milik in the right channel. Vlachodimos was already cheating toward his near post, so when the Poland international flicked his header across goal he had too much ground to make up and could only flap at air as the ball bounced into the net to give Juve a fourth-minute lead.
Milik was close to another ball two minutes later when McKennie flicked another free kick on to him, but he was offside. Then Kostic made a couple of nifty moves, one a cross that barely missed Vlahovic, the other a run into the box to meet a cross from Cuadrado, his shot only just deflected wide by Bah. Then, in the 18th minute, a beautiful combination between Kostic, Vlahovic, and Miretti saw the latter steal in to the byline and shoot a ball across the face of goal that somehow evaded the touch of Milik.
That was pretty much the high water mark for Juve.
From that moment on, Benfica began to build pressure, and Juve looked to have blown themselves out. Vlahovic became isolated in a way that is unfortunately familiar, and Juve began to drop back farther and farther toward their own goal. The first warning sign came in the 27th minute, when Neres wasn’t closed down in the box and hit an excellent cross that was met by a towering header from Ramos. Luckily for Perin, the shot was right at him, and it stuck in his gut.
The pressure continued to ratchet up. After taking three of the game’s first four shots, Juve only took one of the next eight. In the 39th minute, they came even closer after Silva tried to curl a shot inside the near post that just didn’t bend quite enough and instead whacked off the outside of the post.
Juve was inevitably going to get punished for their reversion to Allegri’s mean, and that punishment duly came in the final phases of the first half. It was unfortunate exactly how it had arrived, as initially Miretti had timed a risky sliding challenge in the box perfectly, taking the ball off Neris. With the ball sitting on the endline, he and Ramos both went after it and the Portuguese got there just a fraction faster, with Miretti coming down on the top of the striker’s foot. German referee Felix Zweyer let play go on at first, but was buzzed by VAR official Bastian Dankert for a review, where he promptly (and correctly) made the penalty call.
Joao Mario stepped up, and after a bit of a dispute over where he was placing the ball on the spot, the midfielder was finally set to take it. The stutter in his run-up was borderline illegal — he looked like he came to a complete stop after his first four steps, but apparently Zweyer thought he was moving forward just enough — but he slammed the ball into the roof of the net. He then celebrated by straight-out taunting the Curva Sud, causing both Bonucci and Perin to interject themselves into Benfica’s celebration to confront him. Joao Mario and Perin both ended up with bookings, but nothing else came of it, and Juve headed into the half even on the scoreboard and very much on the short end of the game’s momentum.
Things didn’t start so well in the second period, either, as successive attempts to clear the ball out of the box failed to get it out of danger, though fortunately Bah skewed his shot wildly off-target when he finally latched on to it. Juve also had an early chance five minutes in, when Milik took a pass from Paredes, cut inside a little, and drove the ball at goal from just outside the area. It took a tiny deflection off Joao Mario on its way through, altering the ball’s flight path and forcing Vlahodimos to throw a hand back the way he was coming and got enough on it to parry it around the post.
But that shot was the first Juve had put on target since Milik had scored, and Benfica continued to completely dominate the game. Ten minutes into the half, they got a deserved lead. Grimaldo headed a Perin clearance back toward the Juventus half, then Fernandez wriggled around Milik and put the ball through to Ramos. Bremer tackled the ball off the striker, but it sat teed up for Silva, who was right behind him. Perin managed to save that one, but the rebound went right to an unmarked Neres in the left channel, and the winger volleyed it home.
You would have expected some kind of response from Juve knowing how huge this game was, but absolutely nothing came. Instead, Benfica repeatedly sliced through the center of Juve’s defense, requiring either saves from Perin or last-ditch tackles from defenders — Bonucci in particular had several — to keep the game from getting out of hand. Benfica could realistically have had four or even five goals by the end of the night, while Juve were often dispossessed far too easily and continued to be forced back into their own half as the night wore on.
Allegri didn’t have much firepower off the bench, but he did what he could with what he had. Angel Di Maria made his first appearance since coming off injured against Fiorentina and did an OK job trying to inject some life into the attack. Moise Kean also came off the bench and very nearly turned things on their head with one of his first touches, hitting the base of the post with a cross/shot from the left. In the 83rd minute, Mattia De Sciglio — another one of Allegri’s second-half subs — found Vlahovic for a header that the big striker buried, but the full-back had been a step offside in the buildup and the flag went up.
Juve had one last real chance to equalize with two minutes left on the clock, when Di Maria flighted a nice ball into the six-yard box. Bremer had been up for a free kick and was still in the box, and Juve was perhaps unlucky that the ball dropped to him and not Vlahovic, who was standing right beside him, because the big center-back’s first touch was just a bit too strong, causing him to get under his shot and blaze it over from point-blank range.
Four minutes of stoppage time didn’t see Juve come anywhere close to mounting a threat, and at the final whistle the jeers justifiably rang out as the team came off the field in a deep crisis.
MATTIA PERIN - 7. Had it not been for him, Benfica would’ve won this game by a whole lot more. He made five saves overall as the defense in the middle simply broke down.
BREMER - 6. Made five tackles and five more clearances, and was always close to danger points on his side of the field. It’s a shame he missed that late chance, but that’s the kind of play you need a striker making as opposed to a defender.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 5.5. Blocked three shots, some of which were true last-ditch moments that prevented sure goals, but simply doesn’t have the pace anymore. It was painful watching him try to keep up with the Benfica attackers in some cases.
DANILO - 6. Had some really good counting stats — two tackles, three interceptions, four clearances — and stepped out to support the attack as much as he was able.
JUAN CUADRADO - 5. Made a single key pass, but was again repeatedly unable to beat his man on the dribble, and is looking more and more washed by the game.
WESTON McKENNIE - 5,5, Made two tackles and two interceptions and pressed the ball hard when he could, but couldn’t make much of an impact on the rare occasions the team went forward.
LEANDRO PAREDES - 6. Made the assist on Milik’s goal and racked up four tackles and four overall key passes. I knocked his grade down a few pegs because of his part in allowing Benfica to simply walk through the defense in the latter stages of the match. If Juve were to ever play on the front foot, though, he could be an immense presence in this midfield.
FABIO MIRETTI - 5. The penalty he conceded was a mix of inexperience and bad luck, as he only missed winning the ball by inches — indeed, he looked to genuinely believe he had when he shouted at a fallen Ramos to get up — but with maturity he’ll also know that with Ramos moving away from the goal to recover the ball there wasn’t the need to make that second challenge. His talent remains immense, and he made some nifty moves during the first 15 minutes, but he needs to get more time at this level to get himself right.
FILIP KOSTIC - 5.5. Very unlucky not to have a goal when his shot was blocked wide, but he wasn’t quite as impactful the rest of the game. He puts in cross after cross, but they’re not always particularly accurate. He needs to pick up his head for a split second to figure out where everyone is.
ARKADIUSZ MILIK - 6. Scored a fantastic goal and came inches from a second early in the second half. It was a real surprise to see the the only man in the starting XI come off, because he was doing industrious work and producing some of the only end product.
DUSAN VLAHOVIC - 5. In fairness, he got absolutely no service, but he also didn’t produce much with what he did get. When your top player and best striker touches the ball 26 times and had as many clearances as he does shots, you’ve got a problem.
ANGEL DI MARIA - 6. Did what he could after being introduced and did run by a few men where Cuadrado didn’t manage. He had three dribbles in 33 minutes when no one else managed more than one.
MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - 5. Offside on the best chance Juve had in the game’s latter phases.
MOISE KEAN - 5.5. Nearly had his cross/shot drop into the bottom corner but bonked it off the upright. After that he was kinda anonymous.
NICOLO FAGIOLI - 5. Only managed to touch the ball 10 times in the 20 minutes he was on the field.
This dude was hyping this game up as the big one in the group stage, and he came up with this.
I felt like this was coming the minute the 3-5-2 formation was confirmed. It was actually a pleasant surprise that Juve came out the way they did. But, by this point, Allegri’s negative approach has been ingrained into this group of players, and rather than turn the screw and put the game away, they gradually dropped back into a defensive shell and ceded control of the game to Benfica. Even with the BBC around that would be exceedingly difficult to do for 86 minutes. With what Allegri has now, the results were plain to see. Juve was repeatedly gashed right through the middle of the field. It was awful.
Now, the players are even wondering what’s going on. Footage from the Amazon Prime broadcast in Italy showed Angel Di Maria asking Arek Milik why on earth Allegri had replaced him with Moise Kean in the 70th minute. If that question exists, I’d be willing to bet there are others questioning the man’s decisions as well.
We’ve been through this before. Allegri has been a disaster since he came back. No players have improved under his watch, and good players like Manuel Locatelli have actively regressed. His in-game tactics are timid to the point of fear, failing to impose the team even against clubs battling relegation. This return has been an unmitigated failure, and it needs to end soon so that the season can be salvaged. The financial aspect of dismissing him is irrelevant now, because the financial implications of crashing out of this Champions League and perhaps not even qualifying for next year’s competition will be immense by comparison. It’s time for him to go. Punto basta.
Juve’s next Champions League match comes on Oct. 5 when they host Maccabi Haifa.
The final game before the last international break ahead of the World Cup comes on Sunday with a trip to newly-promoted Monza. Marco Landucci will be in charge with Allegri suspended — so maybe things will actually be watchable? Who knows.