On the final evening of the first leg matches of the Champions League round of 16, group A runners-up Atletico Madrid welcomed group H winners Juventus to the Wanda Metropolitano Stadium.
Atletico manager Diego Simeone couldn’t count on defender Lucas Hernandez due to a knee injury, but midfielder Koke was ready having recovered from the same problem.
The Argentinian coach opted for a 4-4-2 shape, with Jan Oblak in goal, Diego Godin and Juan Maria Gimenez as the centre-backs, Felipe Luis on the left defensive flank and Juanfran on the right. Rodrigo Hernandez and Thomas Partey held the middle of the park, joined by Saul Niguez and Koke out wide. Diego Costa and Antoine Griezmann led the line in attack.
Massimiliano Allegri in the Juventus dugout was without winger Juan Cuadrado who is still recovering from knee surgery, as well as midfielder Sami Khedira, who has been diagnosed with irregular heartbeat. A statement from the Old Lady said:
“Sami Khedira remained in Turin for medical examinations, after which an electrophysiology study was carried out and he underwent treatment for atrial fibrillation.”
The Serie A champions were arranged in a 4-3-3. Wojciech Szczesny stood between the posts. Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci were in the hear of defence, flanked by Alex Sandro on the left and Mattia De Sciglio on the right. Miralem Pjanić anchored the midfield completed by Blaise Matuidi and Rodrigo Bentacur. Paulo Dybala, Mario Mandžukić and Cristiano Ronaldo formed a formidable attacking line.
The First Half
Atletico were the more dynamic team early on, pushing forward and looking to break through the opposition defence, and there was an slight controversy straight away as Matuidi lifted his foot high to block a volley from Griezmann, and the Frenchman went down, but referee Felix Zwayer wasn’t interested.
However, the game soon developed into a proper two-way street as the visitors sprang alive.
Ronaldo earned his team a free-kick in the eight minute 30 yards out. After some commotion during which Costa unwisely picked up a yellow card and ruled himself out of the return leg, the Portuguese sent a powerful drive under the crossbar and forced an excellent save from Oblak. Juventus threatened again from a set-piece three minutes later as Pjanić’s corner found the head of Bonucci in the air, but the defender’s header went high over the bar. In the 15th minute, Thomas ended Atletico’s attack but whacking a strong low shot from over 30 yards and it was Szczesny’s turn to make a fine save.
A few minutes of strong pressure from Atleti followed during which Juventus had to defend with all they had, but they had enough to survive.
Matuidi was doing a very good job for the Italian side in the middle of the park. He was extremely industrious and involved in both phases of the game, often popping up where the opposition did not expect and making smart interceptions, as well as running upfront to add to the numbers in the forward section.
But despite the Frenchman’s work-rate, Atletico dominated at that moment and in the 27th minute, a good pass from midfield got Costa in behind De Sciglio and the Spain international got clipped from behind by the fullback on the very edge of the box. The referee initially gave a penalty but changed his mind having consulted the VAR. It was a free-kick on the corner of the box, from which Griezmann sent a cunning shot into the near top corner and forced another great save from Szczesny.
Juventus tried to hit back in the 34th minute through Dybala who hit one from range, but it was easy work for Oblak.
Atletico’s shape when defending was extremely disciplined, as you’d expect from a Diego Simeone team. As soon as the ball entered their half, the two lines of four were clear to see, very tight to one another, leaving no space in between for the opposition to exploit.
Three minutes before the break, Juanfran was very lucky to get away with a deliberate stamp on Ronaldo’s foot without so much as a free-kick given, never mind a card. Thomas, however, wasn’t as fortunate, and his booking picked up for a needless late tackle on Dybala will also see him miss the rematch in Turin.
The Second Half
The game continued after the break as it had been going before, but five minutes in, Diego Costa wasted a golden opportunity to give Atletico the lead as Griezmann brilliantly volleyed him in behind the Juventus back line. The striker charged forward and held off a challenge by Bonucci before scuffing his shot far from the target. Griezmann came much closer from a less favorable position two minutes later as his attempt at a lob from the edge of the box was finger-tipped onto the crossbar by Sczeszny and Chiellini cleared the danger infront of the onrushing Costa.
Not happy with the chance missed, Simeone took off Costa in the 58th minute and sent on Alvaro Morata, just before Godin stopped Ronaldo from scoring after the former Real Madrid star easily got around Gimenez and charged into the box.
At this point, Atletico started raising their game gradually and Juventus allowed themselves to be pushed back step by step.
On the hour-mark, Thomas Partey made way for another Thomas Lemar, and six minutes later, Simeone used up his last substitution by replacing Koke with Angel Correa. Allegri soon responded by fielding Emre Can instead of Pjanić.
With 20 minutes remaining on the clock, Felipe Luis whipped in a good cross from the left and found Morata between Chiellini and Bonucci, and the striker who spent time with Juventus on loan from Real Madrid slammed a header into the top corner and beat Sczeszny. However, the referee reviewed the situation via the VAR system himself, and eventually judged that Morata had pushed Chiellini from behind and the goal was disallowed.
But it didn’t take long for the home team to put the ball in the net again. Minute 78 was passing when an Atletico corner caused a scramble in Juve’s box, and Gimenez eventually slammed it in from close range. This time it did count, despite Bonucci going down and his teammates asking for another foul.
Five minutes later, Atletico made their late domination really count from another set-piece. Griezmann swung in a free-kick from wide on the right, Mandžukić half-cleared it and Godin managed to volley it in from a very tight angle.
The home team seemed in full control for a minute or two, but it didn’t last. The confidence and composure the comfortable lead should have given them vanished in a puff of smoke as Griezmann mowed down Sandro wide on the edge of the box and earned a yellow card. Ronaldo took it and pulled it back towards Bernardeschi who forced a good save from Oblak. A minute later, Bernardeschi returned the favour as his long pass found Ronaldo in the box, but Ronaldo couldn’t hit the target with his header from a tight angle.
But in the end, the four minutes of stoppage time weren’t enough for Juventus to get something from the game.
Atletico won this game deservedly, and there’s not much more to say. It was an even contest for the most part, but they tightened the screw as it approached its end and showed more focus and more determination than their opponents.
Juventus are now left to reflect on what went wrong for them, but it seems a lot of it lies upfront. Despite having players like Ronaldo, Dybala and Mandžukić in the line-up, it wasn’t very clear who was supposed to do what up there. Ronaldo seemed motivated, but the other two looked like they don’t know how to play around him. The Portuguese was often seen directing his teammates movements and passing, increasing the impression of a lack of attacking organization. As has been mentioned, it wasn’t easy for them to find any space between the disciplined opposition lines, and they created very little.
It’s a steep hill the Old Lady has to climb in the second leg which is being played on March 12th in Turin, but it’s far from impossible; bigger turnarounds than that have been recorded in this competition. Even though he didn’t have a great game, the absence of Diego Costa will be a blow to the Spanish team, but a two-goal advantage is a tangible one.
Nothing is settled yet, but Atletico Madrid are certainly the favorites to qualify for the quarterfinals now.
ATLETICO MADRID: Oblak 7.5, Godin 8, Gimenez 7, Juanfran 7, F. Luis 7, Rodrigo 7, Thomas 7.5 (61′ Lemar 6), Koke 6 (67′ Correa 6), Saul 6.5, Griezmann 8.5, D. Costa 6 (58′ Morata 6).
JUVENTUS: Szczesny 7.5, Chiellini 7.5, Bonucci 6.5, De Sciglio 7, A. Sandro 7, Pjanić 6.5 (72′ E. Can 6), Matuidi 7.5 (84′ Cancelo N/A), Bentacur 6, Dybala 6 (70′ Bernardeschi 7), Mandžukić 6, Ronaldo 7.
GOALS: Gimenez 78′, Godin 83′.
YELLOW CARDS: D. Costa 8′, Thomas 45′, Sandro 55′, Griezmann 89′.
REFEREE: Felix Zwayer.
DATE & VENUE: February 20, 2019, Wanda Metropolitano Stadium, Madrid, Spain.
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