Juventus headed into the second leg of their UEFA Europa League Round of 16 tie against Freiburg on Thursday with a slim 1-0 advantage — and that was entirely their own fault.
In the first leg, they should have scored more than just the solitary goal, and realistically Thursday’s game shouldn’t have been nearly as tense as it was at the start. Given the team’s tendency for second-leg brain farts the last few years, concern was, if not exactly warranted, certainly understandable. Heart rates only started to intensify when Wojciech Szczesny was forced into an excellent save early on, and when Dusan Vlahovic had a first-half goal disallowed for offside. The sense that one unfortunate moment could have turned the night into yet another unhappy one on the European stage was starting to creep up from the depths of the collective consciousness of Juventini everywhere.
Fortunately, by halftime, the blood pressure could drop a bit.
A VAR-assisted (and quite properly awarded) penalty for handball, plus a second yellow card for the man who made the infraction, gave Juve an aggregate cushion, and left Freiburg a nigh-on insurmountable task to get back into the tie. They made the occasional second-half threat to turn the game into a race for the finish, but were overall controlled. It can be said that Juve perhaps erred in electing that control over imposing themselves on their hosts and polishing the tie off early, but Freiburg rarely made a true threat of themselves, and Juve finally collected a second with the game’s final kick in anger, sealing a 2-0 win on the night and a 3-0 win on aggregate that sent them to their first quarterfinal in a European competition since 2018-19.
Massimiliano Allegri had another injury crisis on his hands as he headed into the match. Along with the ever-absent Paul Pogba, Arkadiusz Milik and Kaio Jorge were long-term absentees, joined on the treatment table by Leonardo Bonucci and Alex Sandro. Angel Di Maria and Federico Chiesa weren’t fit to start but were both on the bench, as was Fabio Miretti, who was kept out of the XI with a muscle knock. Allegri’s decision to employ a 3-5-2 was therefore a relatively easy one. Szczesny started in goal, while Federico Gatti won out over Daniele Rugani for the starting spot vacated by Sandro and Bonucci. Juan Cuadrado and Filip Kostic manned the wing-back spots, sandwiching the midfield of Nicolo Fagioli, Manuel Locatelli, and Adrien Rabiot. Vlahovic partnered up with Moise Kean up front.
Freiburg manager Christian Streich made a few changes of his own to his 3-4-3 setup, one forced and one by a very surprising choice. Mark Flekken again started in goal. Defender Philipp Lienhart, who had come off injured in the first leg, failed a late fitness test and was replaced by Manuel Gulde, who joined Matthias Ginter and Lukas Kübler in defense. Kiliann Sildillia and Christian Günter set up on the wings, with Nicolas Höfler and Maximillian Eggestein as the double pivot. The biggest surprise came up front, where Streich benched his top goalscorer, Vincenzo Grifo, relying on a trident composed of Ritsu Doan, Michael Gregoritsch, and Lucas Höler.
Early on it looked like the inexperience of Gatti was going to be a problem for Juve. He made a attempt to maraud into Freiburg’s half four minutes in, only to misplace a pass and be caught badly out of position for the counter. Gregoritsch moved the ball on to Doan, who made an early shot attempt with Szczseny a few steps out of his goal, but pushed it wide.
But any early fears that that misstep would evolve into Juve enduring a game-long siege were quickly allayed. Possession was roughly even throughout the half, with each team trading periods of advantage. In the 15th minute, Fagioli went down in the Freiburg box under contact with Gunter, but was judged to have gone down far too easily. Cuadrado recycled the ball and Locatelli cracked a long shot that Flekken caught with ease. On the other end, Freiburg thought they had leveled the aggregate in the 22nd minute when Ginter rose up to meet a corner kick with an excellent header, but Szczesny reacted perfectly and parried the ball away, with Bremer sliding desperately to block Gregoritsch’s attempt to put in the rebound.
Five minutes later, Juve thought they had scored a potentially sealing goal. Bremer’s thunderous header into the ground from a free kick bounced a fraction too high and hit the crossbar, then skimmed off Kean’s knee in the 6-yard box. Both teams scrambled for the loose ball, but Vlahovic got there first, sweeping the ball in on the turn and celebrating wildly after what he thought was the end of a month-long goal drought.
Unfortunately, Vlahovic had been in an offside position when the second ball was played, and VAR buzzed down to instruct Dutch referee Serdar Gozubuyuk to disallow the goal. Vlahovic was undeterred, shooting wide from range and then having another effort blocked as he continued to try to end his run of bad luck.
Meanwhile, Gulde was living a charmed life for the hosts. The Freiburg defender had been booked in the 26th minute for wiping out Rabiot, and 10 minutes later he committed a pair of potentially bookable offenses within a minute of each other, first wiping out Fagioli on the sideline and then taking down a streaking Vlahovic as they went for a ball over the top. Gozubuyuk declined to call either of the incidents as fouls, let alone give the German his marching orders. But the defender’s luck was about to run out.
The sequence started only four minutes before the half, when Kean was released for a run into the box by Rabiot, only to be met by an impressive kick save from Flekken. The ball came back down the field, and an excellent back-heel flick by Fagioli released Gatti, of all people, into the right channel. The center-back looked like a forward as he tried to curl the ball to the far post with his left foot, but the ball was cleared off the line by Ginter. Closer inspection, however, saw why Ginter was able to get to the ball: it had come off Gulde’s arm as he tried to move in for the block. The defender’s arm was clearly extended out in front of him, and after a quick consultation with the screen on the sideline Gozubuyuk awarded Juventus a penalty and gave Gulde the second yellow that he had by that point deserved for 10 minutes or so.
Up to the penalty spot stepped Vlahovic, who just days earlier had seen a penalty smack off the post to prolong his agonizing goalscoring drought. This time, the Serb put his shot right down the middle. Flekken’s legs were trailing in just the right spot and he got a foot to the shot, but it was too powerful for him to do anything but redirect it into the roof of the net as Vlahovic peeled off to celebrate — for realsies this time. Juve almost immediately made the extra man pay in stoppage time when Rabiot poked a Vlahovic cross just over the bar, and as the two teams headed for the locker room, Juve were now firmly in control of the tie.
Up a goal and a man, Juve would ideally have pressed both advantages and put the tie beyond doubt with an early show of strength in the second leg. But, the Bianconeri instead elected to try to control the flow of the game and see out the tie via containment rather than snuffing it out. Freiburg showed early on that that might not have been the best solution, as Gregoritsch sent a long-distance free kick swerving narrowly wide, while Szczesny had to make another smart save from the Austrian striker in the 57th minute, after which Freiburg desperately begged the referee for an indirect free kick when it appeared that the keeper handled a back pass from Locatelli. Despite their disadvantage, the hosts could set up a grandstand finish with only a single goal as they looked to force extra time.
By the middle of the half, Juve started probing the Freiburg goal again, with Flekken stopping efforts from both Kean and Danilo. Streich threw in Grifo on the hour and Nils Petersen with 15 minutes to go, but Juve used their man advantage to snuff out any threats on the attacking end.
Juve continued their efforts to put the tie completely to bed, but as the minutes ticked by it was becoming clear that the result was a fait accompli.
Kean turned an errant defensive touch on goal with six minutes to go and narrowly missed the top corner, and frustration began to set in for the German side. Substitute Roland Sallai was booked as he chopped Kean down from behind, while Streich was then shown a card on the sideline as he argued that Kean was milking his injury treatment for time. It wasn’t until stoppages that Juve finally turned their advantage into a clinching goal. Chiesa, who had come on with 20 minutes to go, was denied his first attempt, cutting inside only to somehow be stopped by Flekken, who simply threw body parts in the direction of the ball hoping he would hit it. But a scuffed clearance by Kübler went right to Rabiot, who set the Italian up in the box. Three men converged on the winger, but he angled a beautiful shot that clipped the post on its way in, sealing the victory with the game’s final kick.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 8. Made two really excellent saves, one in each half, but the bulk of this grade rests on the first one. Had he not pushed Ginter’s header away from the line in the 22nd minute the complexion of both the game and the tie would have been altered entirely. Kept the defense organized as well.
FEDERICO GATTI - 6.5. That early mistake made people start to worry, but he ended up turning in what was easily his best game as a Juventus player to date, making a pair of tackles and a team-leading seven clearances. He also did a few impressions of Giorgio Chiellini, bombing forward to join the attack and eventually contributing to the decisive event of the tie when Gulde handled his shot. Hopefully this will buy him some confidence for a few more minutes in Serie A.
BREMER - 7. Imperious defensively, with two interceptions and four clearances in the back, and he very nearly put Juve up with an impressive header that only just bounced off the bar.
DANILO - 8. Everywhere in the back. When Freiburg put in a cross, odds were it was him heading it out. Finished with five clearances and a lot more uncounted defensive contributions that Juve couldn’t have lived without.
JUAN CUADRADO - 6. Led the team with four dribbles, but didn’t record a key pass and failed several times to take on his man. He was quite solid defensively, however, and kept Höler from making much of any impact on the game from the Freiburg left.
NICOLO FAGIOLI - 6. Odd that he only touched the ball 35 times, but he did well with what he had, recording a key pass and looking threatening when he did get the ball in position to do something with it and had the second-most dribbles on the team with three.
MANUEL LOCATELLI - 6. Like the first leg, his impact was greater defensively than offensively. He made two tackles and three clearances in that regard, once again shackling the Freiburg midfield.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 7. Very nearly scored at the end of the first half, which would have been a fitting addition to his assist and five overall key passes, Contract year Rabiot continues to be the player we all thought we were getting four summers ago.
FILIP KOSTIC - 6. A pair of key passes and some good defending, at least once making a recovery run on the shifty Doan.
MOISE KEAN - 6. Made the right runs and played the right balls, just couldn’t get the ball to find the net, especially when he was denied by Flekken. It was a pretty solid day for him, all things considered.
DUSAN VLAHOVIC - 6.5. His emotion both times he put the ball into the net was wonderful to see. He seemed more determined than ever to end his scoring drought and now the hope is he can keep it going.
FEDERICO CHIESA - 6. As stoppage time began, I had reflected on Chiesa’s lack of impact in the 20 minutes or so of the game he’d entered. Then, of course, he rips off a pair of excellent shots in the dying seconds of the game, reminding you just what kind of player he is.
SAMUEL ILING-JUNIOR - 5.5. Didn’t have a huge impact on the game, although he did have a key pass and a pair of tackles. A rather funny moment was him jumping in front of a free kick as Freiburg were trying to set up for it. The teenager’s going to need some lessons in the dark arts from more experienced players.
ENZO BARRENECHEA - NR. Giving Locatelli a rest before Sunday’s big game, Barrenechea actually made two clearances and started stamping himself as a little bulldog.
MATTIA DE SCIGLIO - NR. On to seal off the right flank in the game’s end stages.
MATIAS SOULE - NR. Into the fray in the dying seconds of the game to see it out.
Allegri’s initial lineup and substitutions left little to be questioned given the choices he had.
Unfortunately, what Allegri’s fingerprints were all over this in another way, and that was less than positive.
The effect of negative football that Allegri has espoused the last two years was on full display Thursday night. Allegri can gripe as much as he can about how much better Juve need to be when playing up a man for the entire half, but he needs to look at himself before he does anything else.
The cautious, bordering on fearful way he’s coached over the last two years is going to pull the team backwards regardless of their situation. The early stages of the second half were the time for Juve to put their foot on Freiburg’s throat, end the tie with another goal or two, and then go into coasting mode for the rest of the game by using the man advantage to control the flow of the game the way they did.
The fact of the matter was that, while in a position that was highly advantageous, Juve hadn’t put the tie to bed, and had Freiburg managed to sucker-punch them and put the tie back in the balance, anything could have happened. But the team took the passive approach, and that’s in large part because it’s become this teams default under a coach whose first priority is to not lose as opposed to win.
I know it sounds crazy to get this negative when Juve won the tie 3-0 on aggregate, but with all due respect to Nantes and Freiburg, they aren’t the teams that you’re going to have to beat in order to win this competition and guarantee a place in the Champions League next season. The potential quarterfinal opponents are, in general, a few steps above the two teams Juve have beaten, and to let them hang around in a tie like this is asking for serious trouble. Allegri needs to actually push the action in the next rounds, because if he doesn’t, his opponents could take serious advantage of him.
Juventus are now in the quarterfinals of the Europa League. The draw for the next round will be on Friday (afternoon European time, morning North American time). Juve’s potential opponents are Manchester United, Sevilla, Sporting, Feyenoord, Union Saint-Gilloise, Bayer Leverkusen, and Roma.
Next on the docket for the Bianconeri is another big match: the Derby d’Italia against Inter on Sunday. That’s the last match before the international break.