Of course, it had to be Gonzalo Higuain. Regardless of whether or not Max Allegri is simply benching an underperforming player or was resting one of his star men, it would have to be Higuain who came off the bench and gave the Bianconeri a vital win in a less than convincing performance at the Allianz Stadium.
Allegri would be dealt a mini blow during the warm-up when Miralem Pjanic pulled up with a muscle problem, leaving 20-year-old Rodrigo Bentancur to start his second consecutive European match. Bentancur on this occasion played further back with Blaise Matuidi than his more forward-facing role against Barcelona. Juan Cuadrado took his place on the wing with Mario Mandzukic the sole forward in Allegri’s 4-2-3-1 setup.
The performance in the 3-0 defeat to Barcelona was not anything to particularly worry the Juventus support, but their lack of conviction against Olympiakos should be.
At the Nou Camp, the central midfield duo of Pjanic and Matuidi completely closed out Barcelona in the first-half. Even though it would be down to the Bosnian and Bentancur for failing to track Lionel Messi for the game’s opener, they played fairly well.
Yet, the first-half against Olympiakos midfield-wise was below par. The Bianconeri could not run the game the way they did against Torino in the Derby della Mole, where they won 4-0 just a few days before.
Playing a pretty much identical formation, the Piraeus midfield pair of Sasa Zdjelar and Alaixys Romao had covered, on average, 5.5km over the course of the opening 45 minutes. In comparison, Bentancur and Matuidi averaged just 0.1km more, matched almost completely by the Greek side. Missing Miralem? Probably.
This closely contested game in the middle of the pitch meant Juventus were unable to properly run the match their way, even though they had close to 70 per cent possession. Aside from the midfield, the high-press that was so successful against Toro was nothing more than just a hatful of wasted corners. If anything, the telling point of the first half was that Juventus’ best chance was thanks to away defender Bjorn Engels deflecting Douglas Costa’s low cross on to the post.
Juventus did look steadier at the back than they did against Barcelona, but the difference was mainly due to Medhi Benatia being left out in favour of Giorgio Chiellini. The Moroccan was at fault for both of the Catalans’ second and third goals, though the decision to include Chiellini was bittersweet – Daniele Rugani left wondering when he’d start in the Champions League this season.
It was a moment of quality, though – the introduction of the ‘rested’ Higuain - that changed the game completely. A clever flick from Mandzukic to Alex Sandro allowed enough room for the Brazilian to pick out the Argentinian, that saw the game’s opening goal.
The passion showed, proving to some doubters that he’s still one of the world’s best on his day – a match winner.
A first win in Europe this season was confirmed when what appeared a brilliant clearance from Paulo Dybala’s goal-bound dink fell perfectly to Mandzukic. The Croatian’s goal pretty much summed up the match and Juventus’ performance – sluggish but successful, Higuain’s introduction the difference.
One point of note, Bentancur, who had been quite shaky in the first half, played a much more astute game in the following 45. Both Bentancur and Matuidi, who had covered just 0.1km more in the first half than their opposition midfielders, bettered them at full time by 0.6km.
Juventus were by no means dreadful, but far from their best. The only real benefit of such a lacklustre display was that it was against a supposed ‘lesser’ team.
Even though there were issues, Juventus got exactly what they needed to – three points – against a team they need to be winning against to qualify for the knockout rounds. The Italian side must have more conviction in their play, just as they have in Serie A, to really succeed this season in Europe.
Group qualification is never a foregone conclusion, or even a given right for a club of their stature, but ironing out the issues in these six matches is a necessity.
If they do so, whilst also welcoming back their strong contingent of midfielders from injury, then maybe, just maybe, they can learn from their mistakes in this competition and finally lift the trophy.
But based solely on this performance, a lot of work needs to be done.