Somehow, someway, Juventus continues to find ways to emerge victorious in continental competition this season.
(I’m going to refer to European competition as Europa League only because the less we talk about the first half of the season in Europe, the better.)
In what is becoming a recurring theme for the Bianconeri in April, the home side didn’t bring their A-game for large stretches of Thursday night’s match, but took control when it mattered. Thanks to outstanding performances from unlikely heroes –- more on that in a second –- Juve came away with a tough but earned 1-0 victory over a pretty decent Sporting Lisbon side.
The win gives Juventus their third in the competition overall as they remain undefeated ever since they started to play Europa League earlier in the calendar year.
MVP: Mattia Perin
Speaking of unlikely heroes!
We’ve mentioned before — ad nauseam you could argue — that Mattia Perin could be starting for almost every club in the country and that Juventus is insanely lucky to have him as a backup again this season. Some may call it a luxury, but having a keeper as capable as Perin is when it was needed like we saw on Thursday night was anything but.
His last-ditch double save in the second half is going to get all the headlines — and it should — but the sheer personality to come into a big game like that after the starting keeper had to be subbed out due to what at the moment felt like a major medical issue, putting it all in the backburner and perform to that level is something very few players — let alone backups — could do.
Thankfully, all signs point to Wojciech Szczęsny being OK and his removal from the game being more of a precautionary thing more than anything else. Either way, when you have a guy like Perin ready to step in at any moment, Woj can take as long as he needs to get himself right.
Runner Up: Bremer – Just a monster match from everyone’s favorite Brazilian center back. Sporting was largely kept quiet due to the efforts of this man who continues to be an absolute bulldozer and the lynchpin at the back for this team.
Gatti in his bag
The most pleasant surprise in 2023 for Juventus, Federico Gatti, continued his rise on Thursday night, scoring the game-winner off a set piece and playing another excellent game defensively.
Gatti’s come up came at just the exact time for a Juventus team that desperately needed another solid defender at the back to solidify the defensive side of the ball.
His progress from talented but raw and flawed prospect early in the season to bargain bin Giorgio Chiellini is, honestly, pretty incredible to watch. This is a guy that was getting absolutely mangled by Paris Saint-Germain and Kylian Mbappe not six months ago.
(And I get that most people get mangled by a guy like Mbappe, but the point remains.)
Considering Leonardo Bonucci is as over the hill as a player can be and Daniele Rugani is a B-minus player at best, the fact that Juventus can now count on two legit center backs is a nice little wrinkle for the end of the season.
Pick Your Poison
On Thursday we got a nice little showing of a problem that Max Allegri has had to deal with this season.
Juventus started up with a more aggressive 3-4-3 formation. In theory, this was what many fans have been asking of the Italian manager, as the formation was chockfull of offensively inclined players. Despite starting well, the handle of the match was quickly taken by the Portuguese side as the new formation and offensive proclivity of it demanded that the Bianconeri play with only two midfielders.
Adrien Rabiot is having the best season of his career and Manuel Locatelli has been improving as a center midfielder, but neither of them can hold a two-man midfield for very long, something that Sporting quickly took advantage off as they had a number of dangerous chances to close out the half.
Allegri rotated to a three-man midfield when he brought on Nicolo Fagioli in the second half, and while that helped solve the hold that Sporting had on the game — and it was the formation in which Juventus scored the winning goal — the team became markedly more fragile on the wings as the team’s lack of reliable fullback play almost cost them in the end.
And that, in a nutshell, is Juve’s main squad problem right now: it’s impossible to find a formation that doesn’t have at least one glaring hole in it.
You are much better defensively in a three-man backline, but that either means fielding an undermanned midfield in which you are very prone to getting overrun or play your best attacking wide players — Federico Chiesa and Angel Di Maria — out of position to accommodate a three-man midfield.
The other option is to switch to a four-man backline and solve the midfield and attacking issues, but you are relying on either Alex Sandro or — gulp — Mattia De Sciglio in a permanent fullback spot. And that’s nobody’s idea of an ideal scenario.
Whether this is the fault of the sporting direction, managing or both the fact is that despite the bright spots and talented players that Juventus can afford to field, this remains a very flawed team and this issue with formations is a perfect example of it.
Pogback Take Three
Hey, Paul Pogba played again!
Last time he did, I wrote about how his return had all the potential to be a massive boon to Juventus and a legit difference maker in their fortunes this season. Shortly thereafter, he got hurt practicing free kicks (!!!) and we hadn’t seen him again until Thursday night.
So, in an effort to not jinx anything this time, all I will say is that Pogba played well in his short cameo and that his shooting sleeve look is funky, but I guarantee will catch on in a few months time.
Parting Shot of the Week
Considering both teams form, the fact that Juventus is taking a lead into Estadio José Alvalade is as good of a scenario as we could have hoped for.
Still, as long as the trend continues in which Juventus manages to bring their best game forth in the Europa League, I’m cautiously optimistic about their chances in the second leg. All that said, it sure would help if Sporting got themselves in an early hole with a red-carded player much like Nantes and Freiburg had the decency to do.
Can’t hurt to ask, no?
See you Sunday.