The second leg of the UEFA Europa League quarterfinal against Sporting was going to be a test unlike the ones Juventus had seen in the previous two rounds of the competition.
While they came into the Estadio Jose Alvalade leading the tie 1-0, their opponents were on a level above Nantes and Freiburg, the teams that Juve had confidently handled in the second legs of the previous rounds. Both of those teams were demonstrably inferior to Juve, and, importantly, both had obliged the Bianconeri by having a man sent off before the end of the first half, significantly simplifying matters.
No such assistance was forthcoming for Juve in this game. Sporting kept their full compliment of players and, after Juve added an early goal to the aggregate, they let their opponents right back into the tie by giving away a penalty.
But after they duly converted the spot-kick, Sporting managed precious little to truly threaten to level the tie. There were a couple of moments of concern, but Sporting continually failed to hit the target, only doing so on one occasion other than their goal. Juve weren’t particularly ruthless, either. Their goal was their only shot on frame, and they had a couple of egregious misses in the second half that could have put the tie away.
While Juve bent now and again, they never broke, and they ended the night with a 1-1 draw that was enough to send them through 2-1 on aggregate, setting up a date with Sevilla in the semifinal.
Massimiliano Allegri had the rarity of an almost full squad to work with, missing only Moise Kean. He surprised pretty much everyone by starting the game in a 4-3-3. Wojciech Szczesny made his return after his scary heart palpitations in the first leg, screened by the quartet of Juan Cuadrado, Danilo, Bremer, and Alex Sandro. Fabio Miretti started in midfield in place of Nicolo Fagioli, joining Manuel Locatelli and Adrien Rabiot in midfield. Angel Di Maria and Federico Chiesa bracketed Dusan Vlahovic in attack.
Ruben Amorim was missing a few players, chief amongst them defender Jerry St. Juste, who had left the first leg with a hamstring injury. He sent his team out in a 3-4-2-1 setup, with Antonio Adan in goal. Ousmane Diomande, who had replaced St. Juste in the first leg, joined Goncalo Inacio and Sebastian Coates in the back three. Ricardo Esgaio and Nuno Santos bookended the midfield duo of Hidemasa Morita and Manuel Ugarte, who was back from a red card suspension. Pedro Goncalves and Marcus Edwards supported Trincão in attack.
Before the game could even get going the hearts flew into the mouths of Juventus fans everywhere when Chiesa stayed down after a challenge with Esgaio. Trainers looked at his ankle for a lot longer than everyone was comfortable with, and most were probably girding themselves to see him replaced early. But the young Italian superstar managed to grit through it and eventually run it off, although it looked like it was still bothering him for a long while after.
The moment Juve fans had been desperately hoping for came quite early. After Chiesa had a cross headed behind for a corner, his back-post delivery was headed back across and pinballed off of Coates and then Sandro before setting neatly at the feet of Rabiot, who drilled the ball home, putting some vital breathing room between Juve and Sporting in the aggregate.
Just how vital it was came into stark relief nine minutes later, when Rabiot went from hero to potential goat. One of Sporting’s first truly consequential attacks saw Edwards drill a low cross into the six-yard box. The ball bounced off Danilo and onto the post, rebounding all the way to Ugarte, who was then brought down by a clumsy tackle for an easy penalty call. Edwards stepped up to take the kick and he took his kick straight down the middle to even the score on the night and give Sporting hope that they could do the same to the aggregate in the next 70 minutes.
For a horrific few minutes it looked like Juve was going to start collapsing mentally after letting their opponents right back into the tie, and in the 25th minute a terrible touch by Vlahovic as he came back to get the ball triggered a short field counter, but the defense was able to cover Ugarte’s options and force him into a long-distance shot, which even then didn’t miss by all that much. Ten minutes later, Diomande must have thought he had the touch that brought things level when he got in front of Bremer on a corner, but his header flashed a hair’s breadth wide of the far post.
But Juve’s composure didn’t break fully, and by the end of the half Di Maria had had a pair of shots blocked. Headed into the break it was still very much anyone’s game, with everything to play for in the final 45 minutes of the tie.
Sporting were screaming for a penalty five minute into the second half when they thought Mirette had handled a free kick, but a second look at replay showed he had just missed it. Vlahovic then had an amazing chance to put the tie away when Di Maria jumped Morita and fed Cuadrado down the right side. The Colombian drive into the box and had a wide open lane to cross to Vlahovic. He did so, only to see the unfortunate Vlahovic prove unable to do anything but skim the ball so wide the ball was recovered by the defense before going out. Cuadrado’s cross had been perhaps a little high, but it was still at a height that, having beaten Adan’s attempts to intervene, any striker should have put on frame, let alone for one of Vlahovic’s quality. A minute later he had aa shot off a neat Miretti pullback blocked by a quick-thinking Diomande.
Bremer had to leave the field with 20 minutes to go, looking like he was either badly cramping or had pulled a hamstring. Federico Gatti replaced him as part of a triple change on 70 minutes that also included the introduction of Paul Pogba and Arkadiusz Milik. A few minutes later, Sporting’s only other shot on target came a quick effort off a turnover that was right at Szczesny for an easy save.
But a combination of nerves and perhaps fatigue was starting to show. Danilo made an uncharacteristic error with 15 minutes to go when he let a ball bounce and allowed Esgaio to latch on to it, but he could only blaze the ball over the bar from close range. A few minutes later Filip Kostic entered for Chiesa and Juve’s shape changed to a 3-5-2 in an effort to see things out.
Gatti was perhaps quite lucky in the 83rd minute when he attempted to shoot after Diomande had headed a free kick delivery from Di Maria. Instead of the ball, he got all of Diomande’s throat, and was fortunate to only see a yellow card when the degree of the contact has seen some players be shown red in that situation.
Sporting pushed until the very end. In the 88th minute, Edwards beat Sandro to the byline to cross and found Coates, who fired his shot over the bar from point-blank range. As the clock ticked into the 90th, the center-half stayed up and directed the ball toward goal again, only to see it hacked clear by Danilo. Five minutes of stoppage time were added, but by the end of that period Juve had broken out of their half of the field and possessed it downfield for the last two minutes, sealing the win and a place in the semifinal.
WOJCIECH SZCZESNY - 7. Wonderful to even see him on the field after what transpired last week, and he did his job excellently, commanding his area and saving the only savable shot on his goal with ease.
JUAN CUADRADO - 7.5. A huge day for Cuadrado, who completed 95.9 percent of his passes and made two key passes, three tackles, two clearances, and two interceptions. He might’ve even had a higher grade, but his inability to beat his man off the dribble continues to plague him.
DANILO - 6. Made seven clearances in the back, including a late one that was bouncing perilously toward goal, but had nearly gifted Esgaio a goal late.
BREMER - 7. A day low on stats but high on the intangibles, Bremer was an excellent marker today who constantly smothered whoever was trying to make himself into a reference point in the Juve box.
ALEX SANDRO - 8. His assist was a bit fortuitous, as he knew very little about where that ball is going, but he was immense in the back, making a massive nine clearances to go with three tackles and a pair of interceptions.
FABIO MIRETTI - 6. Had a pair of key passes and generally looked confident in a big start for him.
MANUEL LOCATELLI - 6. Could perhaps have been slightly more productive in his passing game, but was at his typical high level defensively.
ADRIEN RABIOT - 6. Rabiot giveth, Rabiot taketh away. His goal was excellent, the penalty he gave away was simply a foolish tackle, and everything else was pretty normal for Contract Year Rabiot, giving him a grade smack in the middle of satisfactory.
ANGEL DI MARIA - 6. Had a pair of shots blocked and as many key passes, but simply looked a tiny bit off on the attacking end. He did defend with aplomb from the forward positions, though, though, which pushes his grade up ever so slightly.
DUSAN VLAHOVIC - 4. Yes, the cross from Cuadrado in the 55th minute was a little high, but it was well within the range where a striker of his caliber should be turning that ball on frame. The fact he didn’t means it’s all mental right now for him.
FEDERICO CHIESA - 6. Worked hard, which was good to see after what had initially looked like an ankle injury that was going to force him off early. Led the team with four dribbles, but only turned it into one key pass. His defending pushes him into the passing grade.
ARKADIUSZ MILIK - 5.5. Got fed practically nothing at all but was industrious AF.
PAUL POGBA - 4.5. Did very little with the ball at his feet and his defending was likewise a little lackluster, including a big mistake late that wasn’t pounced on.
FEDERICO GATTI - 7. Got to every ball that was remotely close to him in the penalty area, but was real lucky not to be sent off for his high boot.
FILIP KOSTIC - NR. Did some really good defensive work on Edwards, matching him step for step until he finally threw himself into so blatant a dive as to get booked for it.
I’ve been advocating a switch to a 4-3-3 for the last few weeks now, and was pleasantly surprised when it actually happened. While not bossing things by any means, Juve were far more in the game from a possession and attacking standpoint than a lot of games we’ve seen this year. Sporting ended the match with nearly 60 percent possession, but a lot of that came in the closing stages when Juve were trying to keep them out.
Allegri’s in-game management was always going to be critical here, and it turned out to be pretty good as well. He did eventually switch to a 3-5-2 as the game got to its later stages, but he didn’t do so prematurely, which was a worry I had in the initial stages of the second half. Overall, it’s hard to find fault with Allegri outside of maybe sticking with a clearly mentally compromised Vlahovic for a little too long.
Juve will face Sevilla in the semifinals. The first leg will be in Turin on May 11, followed the next week by the return in Spain on May 18. Juve have played Sevilla four times in their history, all in the Champions League group stage. Juve have won two, lost one, and drawn one.
Juve’s week doesn’t get any easier from here, as Napoli come to Turin on Sunday. Then Juve travel to the San Siro to face Inter in the second leg of the Coppa Italia semfinal. The aggregate of that tie currently stands at 1-1.