I’ll be honest with you.
Going into Juventus’ Champions League opener against Paris Saint-Germain on Tuesday night, I was 100 percent expecting the Bianconeri to be on the wrong end of an epic beating. After the way they played against Fiorentina on Saturday, and given Massimiliano Allegri’s tendency to treat games like this like it’s 1965, I had images of PSG’s alien attacking trio of Kylian Mbappe, Lionel Messi, and Neymar flying around the box repeatedly punishing a Juventus defense that had settled into a permanent low block.
Seriously, the scenarios I was envisioning were probably illegal in a dozen or so states.
So the fact that Juventus rebounded from a dismal start and ended up looking credible in a 2-1 loss to the Parisian side ended up being a pleasant surprise. The fact that looking OK in defeat is a positive these days doesn’t exactly scream good things about the state of the team, but it’s certainly preferable to being keelhauled and having a huge tiebreaker problem later in the group stage.
What was clear is that PSG’s front line is a cut above anything that Juventus can offer right now. The three men were all clicking Tuesday night, with Mbappe slashing through the Juventus defense on a regular basis, while Messi orchestrated things from a little further back and Neymar served as the connector between the two. Add their superlative skill to the overall quality of the rest of the side, and you have a team that, frankly, should have busted Juve in the mouth and won this game by three or four goals instead of one. Instead, a combination of PSG falling off and Juve spurring themselves after the half allowed the Old Lady to climb back into the game. It could even be said that a draw would’ve been deserved had they managed to find an equalizer.
Allegri made several changes from Saturday’s debacle, most significant of which was the formation, switching to a 3-5-2 setup. Mattia Perin remained in goal in place of the injured Wojciech Szczesny, and and he was protected by Bremer, Leonardo Bonucci, and Danilo. Juan Cuadrado and Filip Kostic played as the wing-backs. Fabio Miretti made his first career Champions League start in midfield alongside a pair of former PSG men, Leandro Paredes and Adrien Rabiot. Dusan Vlahovic and Arkadiusz Milik made their first appearance together from the start.
Christophe Galtier had PSG coming in on a blindingly hot run, and he set them up in what has become a customary 3-4-3. Gianluigi Donnarumma started at the base of the formation, with Marquinhos, Presnel Kimpembe, and Sergio Ramos making up the back three. Old rival Achraf Hakimi paired with Nuno Mendes on the wings, with Marco Verratti and Vitinha in midfield. Neymar, Mbappe, and Messi manned the attack.
The early indications were that Juventus were going to surprise us and get out on the front foot. They pressed hard in the game’s opening moments, which looked like it was setting the stage for something interesting, when Mbappe struck out of nowhere with a goal that looked superhuman. It started with the young Frenchman simply passing the ball to Neymar. Then he immediately continued to move, catching Bremer as he was about to step forward toward the Brazilian. Neymar, for his part, flipped a gorgeous rainbow pass to the exact right spot in the left channel for Mbappe to hit a rocket volley past Perin.
It was a world-class goal from Mbappe, who has only gone into the stratosphere since the club first encountered him in 2017 as a teenager in Monaco. Four minutes later, he almost did it again, slipping through the back with ease but this time being unable to latch on to the pass through the middle. That left the door open just a crack and Juve nearly exploited it in the 19th minute, when an early cross by Cuadrado found Milik for a point-blank header, only to see Donnarumma throw up a hand and parry it. The rebound was back-heeled back into the mix by Vlahovic, then Ramos’ rushed clearance attempt only went as far as Kostic, who tried to score with his first touch but dragged wide.
Powerful though it was, Milik’s header was right at Donnarumma, and would have gone in had it been six inches to either side of him.
Juve were quickly made to rue that mistake. Mbappe started and finished things this time, sending the ball in to Hakimi before receiving a return pass in space after Bonucci had no choice but to move toward the Moroccan. Almost before he had taken a full step Hakimi squared the ball back to Mbappe, who hit a ferocious first-time volley that a stranded Perin again had no shot at stopping.
By this point, PSG were simply dominating proceedings. Shortly after the goal Bremer took a bite out of Mbappe and ended up in a fracas on the field, with yellow cards coming out for both he and Ramos. The Brazilian then completed a rough half when Neymar passed the ball to himself off of him, then got nutmegged for good measure, only to sully a great move with one of his trademark flops that English referee Anthony Taylor fell for not in the slightest.
It was a bad half that could have been even worse.
Allegri needed to do something, and he responded to the poor showing by inserting Weston McKennie into the team in place of Miretti. Kostic had a shot go right at the keeper before PSG had a glorious chance to put Juve away and put an emphasis on the game six minutes into the half. After a nice cross from the left was just defended away from intended target Milik, Messi used one gorgeous touch to get himself free and send Mbappe clear down the field. The Frenchman had Neymar hustling down the middle of the field practically unmarked to his left, but he had the hat trick in his mind and went for goal himself, hitting the side netting instead and sparing Juve the sword.
Three minutes later, Juve had themselves back in the game. The goal came after Kostic had earned them their first corner of the night. It was taken short, which is usually a recipe for disaster, but this time it produced a gorgeous outswinger from Kostic. Donnarumma came out for it but too late realized it was over his head, leaving him in no man’s land as McKennie out-jumped Mendes and slammed the ball home to give Juve life.
PSG very nearly re-established their lead immediately when Mbappe found himself on the left side with two unmarked teammates to aim at, but Hakimi couldn’t get onto his pass. Immediately after that Cuadrado fired in a cross in from the right that found the pocket of space that Vlahovic had won against Marquinhos. His header into the ground was met with a fantastic reaction save by Donnarumma, redeeming himself somewhat for his error on McKennie’s goal.
Juve had slowly climbed their way back into the game. Everything about them was different in the second half compared to the first — the attitude, the grit, and the creativity. That didn’t mean PSG had been completely defanged, and as Juve started to push for an equalizer they left some spaces for their lightning counter to exploit. In the 64th minute Mbappe probably should’ve finished off his hat trick after Bremer let himself get sucked in to challenge Neymar and Mbappe surged into the vacated space. But he didn’t get good contact on the shot and shinned it just wide, keeping Juve in the game. Not long after that Messi lined up a shot to the far post from just outside the box but didn’t get the curl on it that he needed.
Allegri, to his credit, actually did something to actively pursue a result this time. Having likely identified the problems PSG was having with crosses, he started tinkering, withdrawing Milik and sending in Manuel Locatelli. Five minutes later, he sent Mattia De Sciglio in to replace Cuadrado, which was a little odd on its face when pursuing a result but put more players in his reformed 4-3-3 into better positions. In between those two subs, Danilo very nearly sent Vlahovic 1-on-1 with the keeper, but he was foiled at the last minute by a desperate interception by Marquinhos. Locatelli was active going forward, hitting a layoff over and then getting into a great position in the left channel, but his layoff to Vlahovic in the six-yard box was interdicted at the last second by a stretching Verratti.
PSG weren’t rolling over, either. Neymar put a free kick about a foot over the bar with five minutes left, then Perin had to make a pair of saves in the last two minutes of regulation time, one of which was a rather crazy kick-save on Neymar after he guessed wrong with his dive but was given a chance with his trail leg by the shot. Three uneventful minutes of stoppage time capped the game off, and Juve left the Parc des Princes with a loss but, perhaps, their honor, and a little bit of something to build off of.
Of course, we’ve been saying that last sentence for quite some time now, haven’t we?
MATTIA PERIN - 7. There wasn’t anything he could do about either goal, but he made a ridiculous save in the last minutes to keep Juve in striking distance and was solid besides.
BREMER - 5.5. His numbers were pretty good, but his first taste of Champions League football will probably leave something bitter in his mouth. Far too often he stepped out to confront a player with the ball only to leave a big space behind him. That’s something that experience will teach him not to do.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 5.5. He wasn’t directly responsible for either goal — on the second one he was put in an untenable position, as he simply had to try to step in to Hakimi or else the wing-back could’ve just kept the ball and run through on goal — but boy, his lack of pace was evident Tuesday night. Mbappe, in particular, flew past him, and it was a little painful to watch him try to keep up.
DANILO - 6. Played three different positions against PSG, and did pretty well all told. Stepped out of the back three to join the attack on a couple of occasions and very nearly found Vlahovic for a potential equalizer only to be thwarted by Marquinhos at the last minute.
JUAN CUADRADO - 6. Not quite at the level of season’s past but a definite upgrade on his performance against Fiorentina. He made two key passes, led the team in dribbles, and intercepted two passes to go with a tackle and a clearance on the defensive end. The two key passes were both the kind of lethal crosses we’re used to seeing from him.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 6. Had a key pass and a pair of tackles in midfield, where he completed 92.9 percent of his passes. He’s having a decent year so far, even if that doesn’t immediately leap out at you at first glance.
LEANDRO PAREDES - 6.5. Became the real fulcrum of the team in the second half, leading the team in touches by a huge margin with 103 (next was Bonucci with 67). He completed 95.4 percent of his passes (86 attempts) and tried more than once to break the lines with one ball, something we never saw Arthur try to do and that Locatelli is only capable of from different positions. I need to see more of this before I’m 100 percent sold on him but my initial reservations about him could be unwarranted.
FABIO MIRETTI - 5. Welcome to the big leagues, kid. The talented 19-year-old certainly had his head turned by his first significant Champions League action, and he didn’t make the kind of impact he’s been making domestically. He’s too talented for that to be permanent—he simply needs to experience this level of the game more.
FILIP KOSTIC - 6.5. Assisted the goal with a great outswinging cross, and finished the day with two key passes and a team-leading three tackles. He looked lively in his more natural wing-back position.
ARKADIUSZ MILIK - 6. Worked hard up top but didn’t have a whole ton of service save the one big one, which he really should’ve scored. Overall given the circumstances of the first half, though, he did the best that he could.
DUSAN VLAHOVIC - 6. Denied a goal by a fantastic Donnarumma save, he worked up top but his teammates couldn’t quite get him the ball where he needed it to be save the one Cuadrado cross.
WESTON McKENNIE - 7. A huge boost of energy to the team when he came on. His goal was smartly taken, and he was all over the field, registering two tackles and completing 90.5 percent of his passes—which isn’t a number we usually see for him in that column.
MANUEL LOCATELLI - 6. Starting to make a bit more impact further forward with Paredes in front of defense. He’d probably have assisted the equalizer had it not been for a stretching Verratti—which ironic, considering how little of Verratti there is to stretch.
MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - 5.5. He only touched the ball 10 times and got forward not at all, but his presence on the field led to a little more balance elsewhere after Allegri switched to a 4-3-3.
MOISE KEAN - NR. A late dice throw to see if anything would come up sevens, but never had the chance to do much of anything in the few minutes he was on the pitch.
When the lineups came out and I saw a 3-5-2 with a pair of primi punti up top, I was not filled with confidence. However, it did look like Allegri was going to jump out on the front foot and press a little bit before Mbappe’s first goal turned everything on head so early. After that everything fell apart until halftime. It’s hard to say what he might’ve said in the locker room to bring the team to its senses, and the energy of McKennie was a big plus when he sent him in after the break.
While he certainly wasn’t working with a full deck on the bench, he obviously recognized that PSG’s weak point defensively is in the air (no wonder they tried so hard to sign Milan Skriniar this summer) and did his best with what was available to exploit it. His 4-3-3 was slightly wonky as it necessitated McKennie to move to a right-wing position, but if Allegri’s post-match comments are to be believed his intention was to build attacks on the left and have Kostic cross balls in to Vlahovic and probably McKennie, who would hopefully be working on someone like Mendes again. The moves made sense and would likely have been more effective if he’d had better options off the bench, but this was a step in the right direction for a coach that over the weekend had played himself straight into the hands of his opposite number.
Juve will host Benfica in the Champions League next week in a massive game that could be decisive when it comes to qualification out of the group. But before that, Salernitana comes to town for a Serie A game that will hopefully serve to hone the team before the Portuguese side arrives.