If one were to come up with a takeaway to Thursday night’s first leg of the Europa League Round of 16 tie between Juventus and Freiburg, the first and most obvious would overwhelmingly positive: Juve won.
The second thought is less positive: Juventus left a couple of goals on the field.
Despite being an old club — they were founded only seven years after Juventus was, in 1904 — Freiburg are relative newcomers to high-level European football. They didn’t make it to the Bundesliga for the first time until the 1990s. They’ve never played in the Champions League, and until Thursday the club’s only experience in a European knockout tie had come in 1995-96 and 2001-02, when the then-UEFA Cup was still a straight knockout competition. They had never been beyond the round of 32.
That gulf in experience was evident. Juve thoroughly outclassed their German visitors. They only allowed them a single shot the entire night — two if you count the goal that was rightly disallowed just after the hour mark — and that came from a direct free kick. Juve put up 20 shots of their own — the first time they’ve hit that number in quite some time — and put a good amount of pressure on the Freiburg goal.
Unfortunately, they left the field with the feeling that they could have done more. While the winning goal came from a fantastic cross and header, it was one of only five shots on target. Had the Bianconeri been more clinical, they could be carrying two or three goals back to Germany next week as opposed to the slender 1-0 lead that they secured by the end of the night at the J Stadium. It remains to be seen whether they will be made to rue those missed opportunities, but overall a win is never a bad thing — especially considering that this was the first time Juve had won the first leg of a European knockout tie since the Champions League semifinal against Monaco in 2017.
There was some late drama when it was reported Thursday morning that Massimiliano Allegri had dropped Paul Pogba for the game after he was late to a team meeting on Wednesday night. Pogba joined the injured Mattia De Sciglio, Arkadiusz Milik, and Kaio Jorge on the unavailable list. Without the option of starting Pogba, Allegri returned to his 3-5-1-1 setup, making only one change. Wojciech Szczesny started in goal. Alex Sandro had come off injured over the weekend against Roma, but passed a fitness test to join countrymen Danilo and Bremer in the back three. Juan Cuadrado and Filip Kostic manned the wing-back spots, while Fabio Miretti was given his first start since coming back from his ankle injury, joining Manuel Locatelli and Adrien Rabiot in midfield. Angel Di Maria took up his usual role playing behind Dusan Vlahovic up front.
Longtime Freiburg coach Christian Streich opted for a 3-4-3 formation. Mark Flekken started in goal, covered in defense by the trio of Philipp Lienhart, Kiliann Sildillia, and Matthias Ginter. Lukas Kübler and Christian Günter bracketed the midfield pivot of Maximilian Eggestein and Nicolas Höfler. Freiburg’s biggest weapon, Italy international Vincenzo Grifo, lined up opposite Roland Sallai on the wings, with Lucas Höler rounding out the attacking trio.
The nerves were evident for Freiburg in the early moments, when a defender ignored Flekken calling him off and tried to head a loose ball clear, only to allow Di Maria to get back on it and fizz the ball across the 6-yard box, only to put it too far in front of Miretti.
Juve started the game in a place that some fans aren’t often used to seeing them: on the attack. Unfortunately, their final balls weren’t quite going right. In the sixth minute, Vlahovic sent a gorgeous pass downfield for Rabiot, only for the Frenchman to overrun the ball and have to resort to attempting an awkward return pass that was headed away from the striker. Rabiot then wasted a great pass from Di Maria, dinking the ball toward goal for Flekken to easily parry away. Rabiot then had the ball in the net, but play had already been blown dead for a foul against Locatelli, who had looked to have won the ball cleanly on the slide.
Flekken was given his first real test in the 19th minute, when Di Maria gained a free kick just above the left corner of the box. It was almost exactly the same position from which Cuadrado had hit the post against Roma over the weekend, and the Colombian’s kick was just as good this time, this time forcing the Dutch keeper to get down and parry the ball away from the bottom corner. Six minutes later, Vlahovic lined up a shot in the middle of the field just outside the penalty arc, but his shot was too central and Flekken palmed it away.
In between those two free kicks, Juve was forced into a change when Sandro suffered a recurrence of his injury and was forced from the field, replaced by Leonardo Bonucci. Despite the change, Juve was still governing the game, refusing to let Freiburg move the ball out of the midfield third. Particularly excellent in this phase of the game were Locatelli, who made multiple successful sliding challenges to regain possession, and Bremer, who along with Danilo, constantly stepped out of defense to cut out passing lanes. The former defender also had an excellent chance to open the scoring when Flekken flapped at a corner kick from DI Maria, only to head the ball over at the far post. Miretti had a goal-bound shot blocked in the 41st minute, then in the last minute of first-half normal time Cuadrado unleashed a belter from 22 yards that Flekken managed to parry at his near post, and was then fortunate to see Vlahovic head the rebound over the bar.
Miretti was only fit enough to play a half on his return from injury, and he made way for Nicolo Fagioli at halftime. The midfielder instantly added a spark to the midfield, and Juve came out of the break revved up and looking to get the opener that had eluded them in Rome. Locatelli had a good-looking shot from range blocked, then Vlahovic again headed the ball over, this time off a good cross from Di Maria. Fagioli then slipped a ball across the top of the 6-yard box, but it was too far ahead of his targets.
Having watched multiple key passes turn into chances that went begging, Di Maria finally decided that if you want things done right, you have to do them yourself. He spotted a gap between Günter and the center backs and attacked it, meeting a beautiful early cross from Kostic and heading the ball just under the bar to give the Old Lady a deserved lead.
That lead was only nine minutes old when it looked like it was over. A Freiburg free kick was lofted into the box, met a tangle of bodies, and then squirted into some space, where Höler happened to be standing. He hooked it first time into the far netting, sending the German Cinderellas into a frenzy.
But it didn’t last long. It soon became clear that a VAR check was taking place, and Greek referee Anastasios Sidiropoulous was called to the monitor. When the replays rolled, it was apparent that the ball had bounced off the hands of Ginter before falling to Höler. It likely wasn’t intentional, but with the rules the way the rules currently read there was only one option, and Sidiropoulous waved the goal away.
Any hopes that that warning would spur Allegri into pushing harder for a second goal quickly evaporated, and the team did what they always seem to do with a lead: let the opponent take control of the ball and defend. It didn’t help that Allegri had also made the curious move to substitute Federico Chiesa for Vlahovic. While Vlahovic was very much not having his best night, the resulting lineup had no one to aim for up top, allowing Freiburg to better disrupt Juve’s ability to get the ball out of their own half and retain possession for themselves. But Juve dealt with everything that came their way, and continued to hold their visitors without a shot.
That first Freiburg shot finally came with a quarter of an hour to go when Di Maria caught Grifo’s heel just outside of the penalty area. The Italian stepped up to take the kick himself, but fired just too high.
Allegri used his final substitution window to send Moise Kean onto the field for Kostic. Unlike Sunday, his impact on the game was almost immediately positive, leading a counterattack within seconds of coming on. It was a promising run, but he triggered Cuadrado just a little late, and the winger’s returning cross was a little too high for him to get purchase on.
Moments later, though, the hearts of every single Juve fan watching the game in person and on television collectively leaped into their throats. After a long run with Danilo that saw him get into a good position but tangle himself up, Chiesa sat on the ground with what appeared to be some sort of knee sprain. It was the right knee he was looking at, not the one he blew out last year, but he was certainly in some significant pain. With Juve out of sub windows, the winger came back out onto the field in order to take up space and prevent his team from going down to 10 men, but he clearly couldn’t run and played no more meaningful part in the game, with Fagioli pushing forward to press whenever the ball was with a Freiburg defender.
Juve continued to see the game out, breaking only occasionally over the last 10 minutes of the game. In the dying minutes of stoppage time Fagioli got into a good shooting position in the right channel, but Ginter jumped in front of his shot at the last second to prevent a second goal. Sidiropoulous blew his whistle for the final time just 60 seconds later, and Juve had secured a vital lead headed into next week’s second leg.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 7. Had almost nothing to do except take the occasional back pass, but when a defense so thoroughly keeps a team away from the net the keeper has to take some credit for keeping them well marshaled. A good game.
DANILO - 7. Stepped out of defense to jump passes on several occasions, picking up three interceptions and making a pair of clearances. He got forward as well, racking up three key passes on the night.
BREMER - 7. Let absolutely nothing get by him. An excellent performance, but now he has to carry it into the next few games.
ALEX SANDRO - NR. A shame he had to come off again, and this time we’ll likely see him have to sit out a bit.
JUAN CUADRADO - 6. Was a threat going forward all day, while on the defensive end he helped keep Grifo completely bottled up. Very nearly scored at the end of the first half. and he added in two tackles to boot.
FABIO MIRETTI - 6. Did a lot of running and got into some dangerous spots, but the last ball didn’t quite materialize for him.
MANUEL LOCATELLI - 7. He was everywhere in midfield. Made half a dozen or more strong and well-timed sliding challenges. He was credited with three tackles, but that number could easily have been quite a bit more. Also had four interceptions and kept the midfield humming all day. Easily his best game in weeks, if not months.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 5.5. Credited with two shots on target, but both of them were tame, and he generally couldn’t keep attacks going when they got to his feet. Did make more clearances (3) than anyone in the starting XI, which keeps him from getting a complete fail, but I’d have liked to have seen more from him going forward.
FILIP KOSTIC - 6. He only attempted 12 passes, which is a pretty incredible number, but one of them was a picture perfect cross to supply the winner.
ANGEL DI MARIA - 8. Another fantastic goal in the Europa League, his fourth in two games, Also led the team far and away with six key passes, and even tied for the team lead with three tackles. Right now he’s the leading force on this team.
DUSAN VLAHOVIC - 5. One of the first times Vlahovic has been truly bad in his own right as opposed to being limited by Allegri’s tactics. His first touch was nowhere to be found, his headers were all over the place, and even the free kick he took ended up far too central. He very much needs to pick it up.
LEONARDO BONUCCI - 6. Led the team with five clearances in only 45 minutes, and even had a key pass out of the back. He’s likely going to have to get back up to speed quick with Sandro out.
NICOLO FAGIOLI - 7. Added a creative edge in midfield when he came on in the second half. along with some tenacious energy in defense.
FEDERICO CHIESA - 5.5. Wasn’t 100 percent involved even before he hurt himself, but we’re all going to be sweating this one out in the next few days. It’s commendable that he went out for the last 10 minutes or so to keep the team at full strength even if he couldn’t do much.
MOISE KEAN - NR. Anything would have been an improvement over Sunday, but he actually played pretty well. Didn’t quite time that opening run right but ran hard, defended with the team at the end, and provided more of an outlet at the end of the match.
There wasn’t a lot to quibble with about this match until close to the end. Obviously, it was exceedingly disappointing that the team once again gave in to his conservative energy and dropped back to defend after taking the lead rather than continuing their momentum and going for the jugular. Against a team like Freiburg, who for all the justified praise they’ve been getting for their season don’t have a ton of firepower beyond Grifo, going into the second leg with a multi-goal lead would have been a huge boon.
Instead, the team once again hung back to defend, and they nearly gave up the kind of cheap equalizer that have characterized Allegri’s second tenure with the club. That was also exacerbated by a curious substitution. Removing Vlahovic was not a bad idea—he was having a terrible game—but to insert Chiesa on in his place left the team without a reference point for long balls and holdup play, leaving Freiburg with an easier job of regaining possession and keeping their attacks up.
Fortunately, a VAR call actually went in Juve’s favor this time and the Freiburg equalizer was rightly chalked off. But the better sub would probably have been to send Kean out onto the field for Vlahovic and pull someone else to bring Chiesa out. That could have seen a more physical presence up top to keep the ball and make the team’s efforts to break out a little easier.
Juve proved themselves a demonstrably better team than Freiburg in this game. They should have been able to score more than once. While they were far from clinical in the first half, only taking five shots after taking the lead isn’t going to cut it. In the second leg, Allegri has to press his talent advantage and take the game to them. If Juve can hit them in the mouth early, they could wrap the tie up relatively easily. But Allegri has to have the stones to do that instead of simply trying to hold the 1-0 for 90 minutes in Freiburg. Otherwise, you might not get the VAR call to hold the game.
The return leg is Thursday in Freiburg. All Juve have to do is avoid defeat, and they’ll be in a European quarterfinal for the first time since 2018-19 — albeit not exactly the one they would’ve liked to be in.
Before that, though, Juve have a Sunday home date with rock-bottom Sampdoria in a game that has trap written all over it, especially with a couple of players likely to be added to the injured list in the meantime.
(P.S. Don’t forget that Daylight Saving Time starts in Italy over the weekend, so all games starting with Samp will be an hour later than usual in North America until the clocks move forward here.)