Football Features

Defensive weaknesses take shine off Juventus’ Champions League knockout qualification

By Harry Edwards

Published: 20:12, 6 November 2019

Juventus confirmed their place in the last-16 of the Champions League thanks to a 2-1 win over Lokomotiv Moscow on Wednesday night.

Aaron Ramsey gave the way side the lead in the fourth minute, tapping in on the goal line after Lokomotiv goalkeeper Guilherme allowed Cristiano Ronaldo’s free-kick from a wide angle to squeeze through his legs.

Lokomotiv pulled level shortly after, with Aleksey Miranchuk tapping in from close range after his initial header had evaded Wojciech Szczesny and bounced off the post.

And just as the game looked to be petering out to a draw, substitute Douglas Costa raced through on goal to win the game for the Bianconeri.

However, despite the qualification-settling win, Juventus weren’t at their best and questions may be asked about whether Maurizio Sarri is the man to lead them all the way to Champions League glory.

Under Massimiliano Allegri, Juventus had built a reputation of being defensively rigid, focusing on sorting things out in front of their own goal before attacking opponents on the counter.

Domestically it worked wonders as Juventus romped to five-straight Serie A titles under Allegri, adding to the three they won under Antonio Conte – another defence-minded coach.

When Sarri replaced Allegri in the summer, everybody knew the former Napoli and Chelsea coach would bring a change in style with him to Turin, but there had been hopes that Juventus’ defence would not completely suffer. After all, Chelsea did have the third-best defence in the Premier League last season – albeit conceding 16 more than second-best Manchester City.

In 14 games across all competitions this season leading up to Wednesday’s game, Juventus have conceded a respectable 11 goals, keeping five clean sheets. But prior to their 1-0 win over local rivals Torino at the weekend, the Bianconeri had conceded in five games in a row.

Sarri had hoped to build off that clean sheet with another against Lokomotiv Moscow, saying: “We’ve gone too long without keeping a clean sheet and now we hope that we can begin a run, having kept a clean sheet in the last game.

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“I’m part of one of the best teams that there are, right now we feel strong and now I just think of giving my best.”

However, his hopes were washed away after just 12 minutes as Lokomotiv came from a goal down to frustrate Juventus.

Given the differences between the two squads and their Champions League records, many would have expected Juventus to cruise to victory after Ramsey’s early goal but it was quite the contrary.

Juventus looked uneasy at the back, allowing Lokomotiv several chances to score, including their equaliser. That came from a lapse in concentration from Juventus’ back line that could only watch on as Miranchuk reacted quickest to get onto the end of his own rebounded effort.

This only added to the confidence of the home side, who smelt blood and had the better chances before Costa’s cruel winner. In total the home side managed 18 shots in total compared to Juventus’ 17, though only six hit the target including Miranchuk’s goal and Joao Mario’s effort that required a goal-line clearance from Leonardo Bonucci.

Juventus had particular trouble in keeping Miranchuk quiet, with the 24-year-old Russian midfielder having six shots and creating two chances.

Fortunately for Juventus they were handed lifelines by Lokomotiv rushing some of their 15 chances created, allowing Costa the opportunity to win the game late on.

For that goal, Sarri must be given some credit, for taking big risks with qualification at stake. Midway through the second half, Sarri looked to his bench to change the game, bringing Rodrigo Bentancur and goalscorer Costa on for Ramsey and Sami Khedira.

But things still weren’t going Juventus’ way. Paulo Dybala remained on the bench, and naturally Sarri called upon him. But rather than taking off one of their deeper midfielders or Gonzalo Higuain, Sarri risked the wrath of an already frustrated player by replacing Ronaldo.

The Portuguese would already have been annoyed by Ramsey stealing his goal – that would have seen Ronaldo break the record for scoring against the most Champions League opponents – and he was visibly annoyed at Sarri’s decision.

Higuain remaining on the pitch allowed him to set up Costa for the winner, thus confirming Juventus’ place in the last-16.

Sarri himself has admitted Juventus are undergoing changes that will affect certain parts of their game, and not always for the better.

“The balance sheet for me has been positive so far, both in the League and the Champions League,” he said prior to Wednesday’s game in Moscow.

“We still have room to grow. If you look at the data of the last few seasons and this one, it’ll differ in terms of the team’s centre of gravity, attempts at goal and goals conceded.

“They won’t always be for the better but they’re different. We’re working in a different way now.

“I have the feeling that, luckily, our players have room for improvement.”

Juventus can relax knowing they will be in the Champions League come February, but Sarri still has to prove that he can be the one to take the Bianconeri all the way.