Complaining about the performances of a team who are 18 points clear at the top of the Serie A table is most definitely a case of #FirstWorldProblems but, as their return match with Atlético Madrid approached, things could hardly have been worse for Juventus. They were once again dominating Italian football, sure, but their first outing in the last 16 of the Champions League had justifiably left them open to criticism on all fronts.
The skipper, Max Allegri, had made a huge miscalculation with his game plan in Madrid, opting for a negative, defensive approach that played directly into the hands of Diego Simeone. His up-tempo style and the relentless pressing of his side saw them gain a seemingly unassailable 2-0 lead, putting the Bianconeri on the brink of elimination.
An outfit assembled to win the competition — not go out in the first knockout round with barely a whimper — Juve came under intense scrutiny. The fact Cristiano Ronaldo had gone from record-breaking goal tallies at Real Madrid to netting just one goal in Europe was, perhaps fairly, held up as proof of Allegri’s suffocating approach. Already out of the Coppa Italia to an Atalanta side who embody the same vibrant zeal as Atléti indicated a pattern, while the loss in Spain was followed by utterly drab wins over Bologna and Napoli in the league.
A 4-1 over Udinese hinted at the attacking potential of the squad, particularly as homegrown striker Moise Kean (19 years old) grabbed two goals. But in the stands there was something akin to civil war: an on-going silent protest by Ultras in the Curva Sud ending only so they could insult fans in other sectors, the unrest palpable as they whistled and booed each other.
On social media, a bombastic campaign told supporters to “get ready” for a comeback, followed by a crassly timed tweet explaining just how much money the club was making from the second leg gate receipts. Given that the hardcore supporters were already angry at the profiteering Juve were enjoying at their expense, it was neither the time nor the place to be sharing such information and the replies to the tone-deaf post were predictably negative.
But none of that mattered because, faced with the very real prospect that the season would be viewed as a failure if they did not progress, Tuesday night saw the true Juventus stand up when it mattered. It began with a message from the Curva Sud, the Ultras suspending their protest with a simple message: “We won’t bend, we won’t be sold, but we cheer on for love,” read a brief statement. “Only for the shirt. On Tuesday, get your voices out.”
As they entered the stadium, the team news gave them plenty to shout about, Allegri being far bolder in his choices as he fielded the strongest possible XI. The match began in exactly the fashion anyone of a Bianconero persuasion would hope, the home side taking the game to the visitors and clearly intent on grabbing an early goal.
In the stands, supporters were true to their word as the atmosphere crackled from start to finish, song after song inspiring wave after wave of attacking football from the team on the field. VAR was called upon to rule out a Giorgio Chiellini goal on his 500th appearance for the club, Jan Oblak relieved to see it chalked as the officials deemed Ronaldo had kicked the ball out of the goalkeeper’s hands.
It didn’t matter, though, as shortly afterward Federico Bernardeschi picked out the Portuguese striker at the far post and he headed home emphatically. A second goal came just after halftime as a ball from the dangerous João Cancelo was nodded in by Ronaldo and the tie was transformed, Juve now in the ascendancy and Atléti clinging on in the hope they could find an answer.
But they were being outplayed all over the pitch. The Bianconeri backline was at its imperious best, conceding no shots on target and not even giving Simeone’s men a corner, a crucial stat given both their first leg goals came from set pieces. Emre Can provided excellent protection from midfield, Cancelo was excellent at right back, and so too was Leonardo Spinazzola on the opposite flank.
Much was made about the 25-year-old making his Champions League debut, but it must be remembered he was a vital part of the Atalanta side that eliminated Everton from the Europa League, playing in difficult matches against Olympique Lyonnais and Borussia Dortmund.
Atlético have been knocked out of every Champions League knockout stage they have been in since 2013/14 by a team containing Cristiano Ronaldo.— Richard Martin (@Rich9908) March 12, 2019
With just five minutes left to play, Bernardeschi cut into the box and was pushed in the back, the referee instantly pointing to the spot. That allowed Ronaldo to step up and complete his hat trick, simultaneously continuing the one-man demolition act of Atleti highlighted by the tweet above and ensuring his match-winning display will dominate the global headlines.
As he said himself in a post-match interview with Sky Italia, “This is why Juve brought me in, to help on magic nights like this!” That is undoubtedly true, but his success on Tuesday night was underpinned by Allegri’s decision to start Bernardeschi over Paulo Dybala.
It is a theme discussed at length in this previous column, but it was one the Italian seemed determined to vindicate from the moment the first whistle blew in Turin. Starting out on the right flank, the former Fiorentina man tormented the Atleti defense in a variety of roles; it was no surprise that Opta statistics showed he was the most fouled player on the pitch.
Federico Bernardeschi #Juventus vs Atletico Madrid (12/3/19): 2 shots on target, 20/25 passes completed, 1 assist, 3 successful take-ons, 1 tackle, 1 interception, 5 fouls suffered, 1 penalty won (via @StatsZone) pic.twitter.com/0WxLmfW94c— Adam Digby (@Adz77) March 13, 2019
He came close to scoring with a well-struck free kick and an extravagant bicycle kick, created one goal and facilitated another when he was brought down for the penalty, his display prompting praise from the Coach at full time.
“It’s a step forward for Bernardeschi and I am well aware of how good he is,” Allegri told reporters at his post-match press conference.
But the biggest “step forward” was the one taken collectively, the Old Lady moving not only into the quarterfinal draw but simultaneously shaking off the malaise that has gripped her for months. This is what this Juventus is capable of when the coach is bold enough to let them off the leash, when Allegri is brave enough to go for a win instead of playing not to lose.
Long may it continue.
Adam Digby is an Italian football writer for FourFourTwo, The Independent, and elsewhere. Author of "Juventus: A History In Black & White." Follow Adam on Twitter.