I would like to take this opportunity to publicly apologize to Angel Di Maria.
During the summer and the opening phases of the season, I openly questioned whether or not signing Di Maria really cared about his job at Juventus, and whether or not he simply figured the Old Lady a vehicle to stay sharp for the World Cup over the winter. That he was often injured in and not playing the days before players traveled to Qatar certainly seemed to lend credence to that line of thinking. Indeed, the majority of Juventini likely were of a similar frame of mind as they waited for one of the summer’s biggest signings to even see the field.
That assumption, however, turned out to be deeply wrong.
Whatever was behind Di Maria’s struggles in the early parts of the season, apathy wasn’t one of them. Since returning from Argentina’s World Cup victory, Di Maria has been on fire. He has been the creative force in attack that this team has desperately needed, and instead of his departure, many fans — including a couple whose stuff you read about on this blog, too — have changed their tune as to whether or not to attempt to renew him in the summertime.
Di Maria punctuated that run of form with a performance for the ages against Nantes in the second leg of their Europa League playoff round tie. He kneecapped a strong Nantes start with an absurd goal on the five-minute mark, then won a penalty that put Juve up two, and with that the red card that made the rest of the match a formality. Then he nudged the ball over his hat trick to finish things off once and for good 12 minutes or so before the final whistle.
It was a masterful display, and it secured Juve’s first European knockout round tie victory since 2019 — which, incidentally, also happens to be the last time the team had a hat trick scored for them. It was truly one of the games of the year for Juve, and sent them into the round of 16 draw Friday, where they’ll see which of the Europa League group stage winners they’ll have to face.
Federico Chiesa wasn’t able to pass fit for the game, so Massimiliano Allegri was without his star wide man. Likewise out were Paul Pogba, Arkadiusz Milik, and Fabio Miretti. With Chiesa out, it was more than a little surprising that Allegri started the game in what was announced as a 4-3-3 setup. Wojchiech Szczesny started in goal, with Mattia De Sciglio, Danilo, Bremer, and Alex Sandro. Nicolo Fagioli, Manuel Locatelli, and Adrien Rabiot made up the midfield, while Di Maria and Filip Kostic flanked surprise starter Moise Kean at the tip of the spear.
Nantes coach Andre Kombouare, once again deployed a further location spill, sent his team out in a 5-3-2 not unlike what we saw in the first leg. Alban Lafont stood in goal, protected by Fabien Centonze, Andrei Girotto, Jean-Charles Castelletto, Nicolas Pallois, and Moses Simon. Moussa Sissoko, Florent Mollet, and Pedro Chirivella operated in midfield, while the strike pair saw Andy Delort and Ludovic Blas working off each other.
The first three or four minutes of the match were, frankly, terrifying. Nantes, playing like the team with nothing to lose they in fact were, attacked and pressed hard in the opening exchanges. The action almost exclusively took place in and around the Juve penalty area, and there were a couple of panicked clearances and pinball moves in closer, evoking some of the weekend’s worst moments against Spezia.
But that all changed almost immediately as the game ticked into minute five. Some good work by Fagioli regained possession of the ball after an errant pass by Locatellil and the young midfielder strode foward, then found Di Maria at the top corner of the box. The winger didn’t think twice and hit it first-time with outrageous curl, dropping the ball into the upper 90 of the far post. It was truly one of the goals of the season, and it set the tone for everything to follow.
Nantes tried to pick up where they left off and attack to get back into things, but the early goal decidedly against the run of play took some of the wind out of their sails. They did get their first shot of the game, off, a tightly angled attempt by Blas that went off the side netting, but despite losing the possession battle 66-34 over the first 15 minutes, the initial surge had been blunted.
It was then melted down in the 17th minute. Di Maria was the protagonist again, receiving a beautiful diagonal pass from Rabiot and driving to the byline, where he tightroped the boundary while beating an onrushing Lafont by tapping the ball to himself off of the sliding keeper. The only man between him and slotting home the simplest of finishes was Pallois, but as he slid to keep the ball out the ball hit his hand and caromed upward. Referee Jose Maria Sanchez Martinez let play go briefly to see whether or not the ball would go in, but once it was cleared blew his whistle and pointed to the spot. He then immediately went to his pocket and brandished a straight red card to Pallois. Di Maria stepped up and stroked the ball home. Just like that, Juve had a commanding lead and a man advantage for upwards of 70 minutes.
Di Maria, who at that moment was quite possibly the most confident footballer on the planet, tried one out from long range two minutes after play resumed, forcing Lafont into a sprawling save. Then he turned provider, sending in a cross that Rabiot couldn’t get over top of to head down. Locatelli likewise had an opportunity after Fagioli held off what seemed like the entire defense to lay it back to him, but he was just wide. Stoppage time in the first half saw Kostic get in behind the defense and rip a low shot under Lafont’s hand, only to have it crack off the woodwork and bounce right back to the grateful keeper.
But Nantes had a mountain to climb, and Juve quickly took control of the game in a way that they hadn’t even in the aftermath of Pallois in the first half. A quick flurry of action saw Lafont forced into a pair of saves in 60 seconds. For most of the half, Juve kept possession and probed the short-handed defense, waiting to deliver the coup-de-gras. That finally came with 12 minutes left, when Di Maria chased a loose ball into the box and headed it goalwards. It looked as though Lafont has saved it, but goal line technology confirmed the ball had crossed the line by the slimmest of margins.
With a lead that by this point was unassailable, Juve finished the game out in relatively east fashion, winning a knockout stage tie for the first time in four years.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 6. Had hardly anything to do, but when he was plated he was deserve to anyone.
MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - 6. Solid but not spectacular, De Sciglio defended well and got himself forward on occasion on the overlap of Di Maria on the right.
DANILO - 7.5. Recorded three tackles, two interceptions, two clearances, as well as a pair of key passes from the back. Overall pass completion at 97.9 percent on 93 attempts.
BREMER - 7. Made nine clearances and continued to retain his rocklike posture in the back.
ALEX SANDRO - 6.5. Two key passes to go along with three tackles and three clearances. Joined the attack whenever possible even after Juve shifted formation.
NICOLO FAGIOLI - 7.5. A performance far more in line with what we saw before the World Cup. He completed 95.5 percent of his passes, making two key passes and finding Di Maria on the assists for the opener. He also led the team with four tackles. More of this, my large adult son.
MANUEL LOCATELLI - 6.5. A lot of value on the defensive end with five clearances, as well as a key pass and 92.1 percent pass completion. He’s still best away from the regista position, but he can still perform in that spot when he’s got a successful ball player like Fagioli elsewhere in midfield.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 6. Feels like there could have been more here from Rabiot, even though his raw numbers look good. It just feels like he could well have had a goal in here as well and just wasn’t quite clinical.
ANGEL DI MARIA - 10. I can count the number of non-honorary 10s I’ve given out on one hand, but Di Maria surely achieves one here. Apart from the hat trick, he tied for the team lead in dribbles, had two key passes, and, amazingly, put all seven of his shots on target. He could probably have had his hattie earlier had Lafont not put in a really good display. He was a force of nature today.
MOISE KEAN - 5. The lone dull part of the knife edge on Thursday night, it’s a little weird how Kean’s day went. When an opponent is playing with 10 men for 70 minutes or so, you expect the striker to really get involved, but Kean only touched the ball 12 times before being pulled in the 65th. That just seemed odd, but in the end Di Maria was very much the focal point today.
FILIP KOSTIC - 7. Had a pair of key passes and was desperately unlucky not to score, seeing one excellent shot thump the post and another saved.
DUSAN VLAHOVIC - 6. Got the assist on Di Maria’s third.
JUAN CUADRADO - 6. Matched Di Maria in dribbles in only half an hour of playing time.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - NR. On to help close things out in the end. He’ll keep getting runs like this until he gets his sea legs.
SAMUEL ILING-JUNIOR - NR. Gave Kostic a deserved rest at the end.
LEANDRO PAREDES - NR. On to keep other guys fresh at the end.
It was deeply intriguing that Allegri deployed a 4-3-3 at the beginning of the game. That was the formation we all expected we’d see all year, the one that the roster, holes and all, is ostensibly built for, but Max has barely used it. Every formation has its strengths and weaknesses given the roster construction, but the 4-3-3 might be the best, especially if Paul Pogba ever returns from being declared legally dead.
Whether it worked is an open question, thanks in large part to those terrifying opening moments where it looked like Nantes were about to put the screws to the team, but once they got a little offense going, it allowed Di Maria to cook in his natural wing position as opposed to a trequartista. Given that two of his three best players (Di Maria, Chiesa and Vlahovic being the other two) are wingers, this formation could be a boon to attack.
Once the game had been put relatively away after 20 minutes, the team clearly reverted back to a 3-5-2. Not a fan generally of doing that this early in the game, but with Nantes down two goals and a man it made sense. What didn’t make sense were some of his substitutions. The one that sticks out the most is sending on Vlahovic. I know with Milik hurt he’s the only other striker, but send on Soule or something and get amorphous up there, cause Vlahovic needs some dang rest, and exposing him to potential injury and certain fatiuge in a game that is totally beyond doubt seems an odd choice.
The draw for the round of 16 will be Friday. You can see what teams Juve might face by clicking here.
Juve’s next matchup on the schedule is the Derby della Mole, which has been pushed back to Tuesday to allow Juve some more recovery time. After that comes a Sunday tilt with Roma at the Olimpico.