Ever since he touched down in Turin at half-time of the World Cup Final, the talk about how Cristiano Ronaldo would help Juventus in the Champions League has not stopped. With CR7 in their lineup, the Bianconeri rightly looked towards this season as the one which would end their 22-year wait for European glory, the Portuguese megastar viewed as the man who could make the difference for a team who has constantly fallen short in UEFA’s elite competition.
Then he got sent off.
With just 29 minutes on the clock of the first game with Valencia, Jeison Murillo and Ronaldo tangled in the penalty area, the latter appearing to pull the former’s hair after he threw himself to the floor. When referee Felix Brych flashed the red card, the five-time Ballon d’Or winner burst into tears, while Juve fans across the globe recalled that the Colombian was formerly a player of bitter rivals Inter.
The best laid plans of Max Allegri instantly went out of the window, all that chatter about a bright new dawn for the Old Lady sent packing along with their club record signing. Given that the Bianconeri had not won their first group stage game since 2015 (1-2 at Manchester City), those same supporters could be forgiven for fearing the worst, but what followed was a superb backs-to-the-wall display that showcased qualities much more familiar with Italian football of yesteryear.
Indeed, rather than the headline grabbing goals of Ronaldo, this became a reenactment of the old stereotype, Juve completely denying their opponents time and space to play despite being at a numerical disadvantage.
By the time of the dismissal, Sami Khedira had somewhat fortunately been substituted off already, replaced by his compatriot Emre Can. Younger, quicker and far more mobile, the ex-Liverpool midfielder helped the rearguard action, working well with Blaise Matuidi to snuff out any potential danger in front of the backline.
Whenever Valencia did press forward, Giorgio Chiellini was there to repel them, the new club Captain leading the way with one tackle, two interceptions, four blocks and a staggering 10 clearances by the time the final whistle blew. Alongside him, Leonardo Bonucci turned in his best display since returning from Milan, while Mario Mandzukic was the same warrior he always is, spending as much time at left-back as he did leading the line in attack.
Miralem Pjanic coolly despatched two penalties beyond former Juve team-mate Norberto Neto to hand the Bianconeri a morale boosting victory, while Federico Bernardeschi certainly repaid Allegri’s faith in him as a constant attacking threat. Preferred to both Douglas Costa and Paulo Dybala in the starting XI, the 24-year-old completed five successful take-ons, repeatedly leaving would-be defenders trailing in his wake in a performance that deserves immense praise.
That is true of the whole team, as the players and their Coach shrugged off the early red card to earn three vital points at a stadium that is a notoriously difficult place to play. The Mestalla was a cauldron as always, but it was the Juventus contingent who were left singing when the final whistle blew thanks to a defensive masterclass.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
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