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Manu’s Grab Bag: Europa Rolls On

We talk the best player on the field, a superb Sorrentino awardee and moving on.

FC Nantes v Juventus: Knockout Round Play-Off Leg Two - UEFA Europa League Photo by Catherine Steenkeste/Getty Images

For the first time since 2019, Juventus won a knockout round in a European competition. And in what a fashion they did just that.

Led by a superb performance by Angel Di Maria — there will be plenty more on him in a second — Juventus thumped Nantes 3-0 in France on Thursday night to secure a spot in the Europa League Round of 16.

Despite the less-than-positive result in the first leg of the UEL playoff round tie, Juve ultimately ended up showing their marked superiority over the French side as the Bianconeri had — for once — a drama-free game to keep their European season alive.

Let’s cook.

MVP: Angel Di Maria

Earlier in the season when Juventus played Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League group stage, we all felt that the Italian side didn’t play particularly poorly in those matches. But the differentiating factor and the reason why PSG won both games was simply because one team had Kylian Mbappe and the other didn’t.

Sometimes it happens and all you can do is throw your hands up and acknowledge that there are some players that are just a level above and that you got beat by one of those transcendent talents.

Well, in this match, one team had Angel Di Maria in their lineup and the other one didn't.

El Fideo had a transcendent performance against Nantes that started with a goal of the year nominee in the fifth minute and only got better from there. There was no pass he couldn’t make, no dribble that he couldn’t complete and no wrong that he could have done.

Di Maria pretty much sealed the result singlehandedly in the first 20 minutes by scoring that aforementioned gorgeous curler early on and then dribbling past pretty much the entire Nantes defense to cause the PK and straight red card that would end up deciding the game for all practical purposes. His final goal was the cherry on top of an incredible performance and one of the best individual showings that we’ve seen from a Juve player in a while.

Runner Up: Nicolo Fagioli - Good showing from Fagioli, who not only provided the assist for Di Maria’s opener but was everywhere on the pitch for the rest of the game. Max Allegri has given him opportunities to play in these big games and the young gun has answered the bell. Not unreasonable to suggest that Juventus has that spot in the midfield secured for the foreseeable future.

Water Finding its Level

Juventus are a better team than Nantes.

The first leg result didn’t show it on the scoresheet, but now that it's all said and done, it’s hard to argue that the more deserving team is not going through.

Adding up the two legs, Juventus outshot Nantes by a solid margin, 33 to 17. The Bianconeri had more shots on goal (18) than the French side had in total. While the second leg was more disproportionate because of Nantes playing most of the match with 10 men, Juventus won the possession battle in both games, too — and by large margins.

Considering how many times Juventus hit the woodwork and the many missed opportunities they had in both games this could have — and maybe should have — been a way more lopsided result.

(Which, if you want to throw some rain on the parade, it is kind of worrying with how much better they were you would hope to see the team convert more of those chances. Nitpicky, sure, but it matters.)

Even if it’s in the Europa League, finally getting the monkey off their back in knockout rounds has to be a huge boon mentally speaking for a team that has had to deal with their fair share of on and off the field setbacks this year.

Stefano Sorrentino Memorial Award: Alban Lafont

Lafont allowed three goals in a losing effort while also playing a huge role in that defeat not being more lopsided.

Just a perfect example of the Sorrentino award.

There was nothing he could do on any of the di Maria scores but he still finished the day with eight saves and a 7.9 match rating on WhoScored — which, funnily enough, was the second highest score on the day for any player on the field. He only trailed — of course — Angel Di Maria.

At only 24 years old, Lafont is someone I would keep my eye on if I needed a keeper. It really is hard to be one of the standout performers when you allowed three goals but that’s exactly how it went down. Good on him.

Staying Alive

I’m writing this with the knowledge that Juventus got paired up against German side Freiburg in the Europa League Round of 16 — which is a good but not great draw for the Bianconeri.

Freiburg is in the midst of a pretty impressive campaign in the Bundesliga, as they sit fourth in the table, only thee points off leaders Bayern Munich. Still, this is another matchup that at least, on paper, Juventus should be favorite.

(And with the oddsmakers as Juventus is currently a -150 favorite to move forward in the tie.)

As with every knockout round competition, a lot can change between now and when the matches are actually being played, but if a few results break Juve’s way their path to a potential title looks pretty promising. I know, I know, it’s a long way from beating a shorthanded Nantes to the Budapest final but, hey, Juventus is still in it! That’s not nothing!

Parting Shot of the Week

It’s currently all good vibes regarding Juventus after this win.

It was drama free, comprehensive and we got to see a worldie of a goal, what can you not love?

Most important of all, they break their streak of bad luck and bad performances in Europe which was starting to become an incredibly depressing trend for a team that should in theory be competing for the final spots every year.

The European adventure rolls on, I can say for sure this is a lot more fun than the previous knockout rounds that we had in our memory.

See you Tuesday.