The story of Federico Gatti was already inspiring. Going from being a builder to signing with a team in the Promozione — the sixth division of Italian football — to his year-by-year climb up the pyramid to one of the world’s most storied clubs is the kind of story you’d only see in movies. That’s to say nothing of the fact that he immediately inherited the No. 15 shirt that until recently belonged to one Andrea Barzagli.
On Thursday, Gatti wrote the ending to the film — or at least of Part One.
In a game that saw Massimiliano Allegri finally send out an attack-minded setup with most of his best attacking players, it was Gatti who proved decisive. He was already a man of the match candidate for his defensive play when he popped up at the right place at the right time to poke home a rebound after a corner kick. It was his first goal with Juventus and in the top flight, and it provided all the difference in the Old Lady’s 1-0 win over Sporting CP in the first leg of their Europa League quarterfinal.
Equally decisive — and equally unlikely to be so — was Mattia Perin, the backup goalkeeper who came in just before halftime after a scary situation involving Wojciech Szczesny. The No. 2 keeper showed once again how lucky Juve are to have two starting-caliber goalkeepers in the team at once, keeping the result intact with a sparkling double save at the end of the match.
Alex Sandro and Mattia De Sciglio were the only players missing for Allegri, who sent out a 3-4-3 formation. Szczesny was in goal, screened by Gatti, Bremer, and Danilo. Juan Cuadrado and Filip Kostic bookended Manuel Locatelli and Adrien Rabiot, while Federico Chiesa made his first start in weeks opposite Angel Di Maria. Arkadiusz Milik rounded out the lineup.
Sporting coach Ruben Amorim was a player the last time Juve played a Porutugese side in the Europa League, playing a role in Benfica’s midfield when they eliminated Juve in the semifinal in 2013-14. He also went with a 3-4-3, with Antonio Adan at its base. Jeremiah St. Juste, Goncalo Inacio, and Sebastian Coates covered him defensively, while Ricardo Esgaio and Nuno Sanches manned the wing-back spots. Hidemasa Morita and Pedro Goncalves were the double pivot in midfield, backing up the attacking trident of Marcus Edwards, Youssef Chermiti, and Trincão.
The game started with an extended feeling-out period that gave way to Juve actually being the aggressors. Both sides had shots from distance fly over early on, but it was the 12th minute when Juve provided the first moment of true danger when Di Maria hit a beautiful long pass to Chiesa, who had gotten behind the defense. The winger brought the ball under his spell with a single beautiful touch, then waited for Esgaio to overrun him and stabbed a shot at the goal with his second, forcing Adan into a diving parry, the rebound from which fled just over Milik’s head.
Chiesa switched sides four minutes later to leave Sanches flapping at air, but his low cross was snatched by Adan before it got through to Milik. Two minutes after that, Chiesa’s touch let him down as he barreled downfield with Rabiot on the counter, wasting a really good opportunity.
It was around then that momentum slowly started to shift. Juve seemed to run out of puff around the 20th minute and Sporting began to take control of the match. A training ground set piece saw the ball bounce off Danilo’s back and into the path of Coates, who hit an acrobatic volley that forced the first save of the game out of Szczesny. A minute later, Esgaio pulled back for Goncalvez in the right channel, and the midfielder forced Szczesny into a near-post parry. Even more danger came when Edwards easily accelerated past Kostic and his cross squirmed through the defense to Santos on the other side. Szczesny scrambled across the goal, but Santos went to the far post, only to be met by a last-ditch clearance by Bremer.
Sporting continued to exert complete control over the match, but just before the end of the half both teams lost major pieces at the back. In Juve’s case, the incident was deeply disturbing, as Szczesny suddenly looked to be in serious distress, holding his chest and seemingly having trouble breathing. It was a worrying sight after the sports world has seen several high profile cases of cardiac problems from Christian Erickson to the NFL’s Damar Hamlin. Fortunately, Szczesny never lost awareness, and after several minutes being attended to by the training staff on the field he was escorted to the sideline, albeit almost in tears, and was replaced by Perin. Having suffered a heart palpitation, he was immediately taken to get medical exams which thankfully showed no major problems, and he spoke to the media after the game.
Sporting’s loss was a far more traditional in nature when St. Juste bombed forward in stoppage time only to pull up with a hamstring injury. He was replaced by Ousmane Diomande, which would end up being extraordinarily consequential.
Getting into halftime initially seemed like it hadn’t had much of an effect on Juve’s fortunes, and Goncalves forced a diving parry out of Perin within the first 90 seconds of the second period. The sloppy passing that allowed Sporting so much of their match control continued, keeping the Portuguese side in the ascendency and snuffing out a lot of Juve’s attempts to carve out any attacks. That lasted until about 10 minutes in, when they suddenly started get closer to Adan’s goal. Coates’ marking ability came into play several times, making good clearances just ahead of his man.
Allegri leaned into this better spell of form, and changed the entire tactical setup just after the hour. Dusan Vlahovic was sent on for Milik, but the key change was Nicolo Fagioli for Kostic, turning the formation into a 4-3-3. Juve kept up their pressure, and Fagioli nearly found Vlahovic in the middle with a great cross, but Coates continued to play fantastic defense.
The deciding moment came with 17 minutes left on the clock. Chiesa showed some of his old shiftiness on the left wing when he turned Esgaio around and put in a cross that bounced across the face of goal before being put behind. The ensuing corner was taken short, with Di Maria crossing the ball in to the far post. Adan made a rather inexplicable miss when he went for a punch, and Vlahovic headed the ball toward goal. Coates was again there, stopping the ball with his stomach just before it went over the line, but Diomande’s touch gave the ball right to Gatti, who easily stroked it home to give the team the lead and giving birth to a wild celebration from both goalscorer and his teammates.
It was now time to sweat out the inevitable Max Allegri drop back into a deep block with a late lead, but for much of the rest of the half Juve’s defense was able to keep the Sporting attack contained. Perin was off his line to claim pretty much any cross that came within a few feet of him, and much of Sporting’s passing was forced lateral. A somewhat comical moment occurred when it looked like Juve was going to make their final sub only to delay it several minutes because a last minute change in plans required Leandro Paredes to get his shirt back from the kit men after initially not expecting to come into the game. Eventually both he and Paul Pogba came on for the last push.
As well as the Bianconeri had managed the game after the goal, the final minutes turned frantic. A cross from Hector Bellerin was headed narrowly wide by Morita, then Pogba made an acrobatic clearance in the 90th minute as the Spanish full-back tried to ghost in at the back post. The heart-in-mouth moment came in the first minute of stoppage time, when Goncalves stole his way in front of Danilo and got on a cross from substitute Arthur Gomes, poking it goalwards from 5 yards away. Perin made a fantastic reaction save, then got up quickly and denied the follow-up attempt by Bellerin. He made both saves with his legs, sealing the game and giving Juve the slender lead to head into Lisbon in seven days.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 7. Made two really excellent saves before his scary medical issue. All signs point to him being OK, but I hope they take things very slow with him to make absolutely sure.
FEDERICO GATTI - 8. A coming out party every way you look at it. He was fantastic defensively, making four clearances, two interceptions, and blocking a shot, but his goal was just wonderful to see, and his celebration nearly brought tears to my eyes.
BREMER - 8. Just as immense as Gatti. His goal-line clearance in the first half was an underrated key to the match, and his six clearances overall was a game-high to go along with two tackles and two interceptions.
DANILO - 7.5. A tiny knock down for losing Goncalves on that last attack, but he was his usual effective self, making a ridiculous six tackles and often pushing up into midfield to act as a regista when Juve was in possession in the first half.
JUAN CUADRADO - 5.5. Did relatively well keeping Trincão, who had just scored a hat trick in league play, largely bottled up. His decision making and execution going forward were lacking, though, and he simply doesn’t have the acceleration he used to to get by people. It’s sad to say, but his days as a volume creator are probably over.
MANUEL LOCATELLI - 5.5. His defensive effort was on par with his previous form, especially in this competition, where he’s been an absolute beast. He filled up the stat sheet with three tackles, three interceptions, and two clearances. But his passing was absolutely awful, and was a major hamper in the first half when Sporting were largely dominant.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 5.5. Worked his tail off and was the co-leader on the team in dribbles, but his passing was just as suspect as Locatelli’s and he had to be careful after getting himself booked in the first half.
FILIP KOSTIC - 5. Made a pair of tackles defensively but was also cooked by Edwards a few times, and his crossing—the thing that makes him a weapon in the first place—straight-up evaporated. He’s having a bit of a valley right now.
ANGEL DI MARIA - 5.5. His three key passes were the most on the team by a lot, and his cross fueled the eventual winner, but was also sloppy in the first half, and can’t give the ball away as much in the second leg.
ARKADIUSZ MILIK - 5. Being the striker in a Max Allegri team is one of the most thankless jobs in this sport. Milik only touched the ball 19 times in 61 minutes, and his only shot came six minutes in. He did rack up a pair of tackles defensively and was a plus defending Sporting’s numerous corners, but without service it was relatively difficult to do his job.
FEDERICO CHIESA - 5.5. Save for his shot on goal in the 12th minute he was slow to get into this game. The formation change really helped him, and he made some really dangerous runs in the second half, including the cross that forced the corner for the ultimate winner. Throw in that he played 90 minutes, and the signs look encouraging again.
MATTIA PERIN - 8. That double save is gonna get played a lot around Italy over the next day or two. Got to pretty much every cross that came his way, too.
DUSAN VLAHOVIC - 6. Deserved a goal on that good header, but was denied by what was likely millimeters. Encouraging.
NICOLO FAGIOLI - 6. Made a really nice cross into the box shortly after coming on and generally made the midfield much more stable after coming on.
PAUL POGBA - NR. That interception was probably the most consequential thing he’s done on a football pitch for any team in a year or more. Now can he actually stay on the field?
LEANDRO PAREDES - NR. On to see out the regista position for five minutes plus stoppages.
Allegri ended up using three different formations in this game. He started in a 3-4-3, moved to a 4-3-3, and finished the game in some sort of 4-5-1 setup (if you go by who was playing on the field)
The idea of switching back to a 4-3-3 — the formation this team was essentially built for in preseason — hasn’t really been considered feasible for the last few months as Allegri has preferred his three-man back line. But the results of using it are becoming harder and harder to ignore. Just like the weekend against Lazio, Juve simply looked better when they played in a 4-3-3, which allowed wingers Di Maria and Chiesa to shine more in their natural environment. Chiesa’s form certainly ticked up after the change. The lack of quality full-backs outside of Danilo right now is a problem, but the 4-3-3 might be the best way to get Juve’s attack going right now, and that’s a critical factor in getting this team over the line as the season progresses.
Juve will head to the second leg in Lisbon next week with a simple task: don’t lose. If they manage that, they’ll be in the semifinals for the second consecutive time they have contested the Europa League.
But first, they’ll have to go through Sassuolo on Sunday. Normally I’d say to expect heavy rotation, but Juve still have points to chase in Italy this season, to say nothing of the fact that Sassuolo has always been particularly pesky.