Juventus frailty at set-pieces cost them a memorable win away to Atletico Madrid, as Group D of the Champions League kicked off in style. The group’s top ranked teams took a while to warm-up at the Wanda Metropolitano, but after subdued first half, the fans were treated to a scintillating second.
It was Maurizio Sarri’s first outing in Europe’s elite football competition with his new club and he almost made the perfect start. The Bianconeri boss made one change from the team that played against Fiorentina at the weekend. With Douglas Costa ruled out though injury, his Colombian counterpart Juan Cuadrado stepped in.
Diego Simeone’s Atleti made the brighter start and began to test Juve in wide areas with their expansive set-up and use of long diagonal passes. It was a feature of the opening 45 minutes and saw the home side probe down the flanks, raining crosses into Wojciech Szczesny’s box.
Juventus defended in a narrow 4-4-2 and Los Rojiblancos had come prepared for, it as they positioned their full-backs in advanced positions, seeking to exploit spaces outside the Juve block. This attacking strategy was more prominent on Atleti’s left, as Renan Lodi was found on numerous occasions in acres of space. Juve new boy Danilo was being dragged inside by the clever positioning of Joao Felix and the free roaming Thomas Lemar. This smart ploy created an overload and space for Lodi, who was a constant threat in opening stages. On the opposite side, Kieran Trippier posed a similar danger when he was released following sharply executed switches of play.
To their credit, the Turin giants defended deliveries from wide areas well and began to find their feet as the first half developed. In possession, Sarri’s team resorted to his more recognisable 4-3-3. Build-up from the back was focused mainly through the right as Juve began to develop play successfully. Patient possession through the pitch allowed The Old Lady to commit bodies to attacking areas. Full-backs Alex Sandro and Danilo rotated well with the wingers ahead of them. Cristiano Ronaldo and Cuadrado were often see occupying spaces inside or dropping slightly deeper to receive the ball, allowing space outside and beyond them for their Brazilian team-mates.
Atletico rarely pressed and having weathered early attacks, Juve were building in confidence. Taking up clever positions, stretching the pitch and with numbers around the ball, the Italian Champions began to find dangerous areas, but were guilty of wasting of possession in the final third. Blaise Matuidi, Sami Khedira and Cuadrado were all at fault, as was Gonzalo Higuain, whose lack of quality movement meant he found space hard to come by.
It was all level at the break, but that would change quickly as play resumed. Sarri’s team started excellently and after Cuadrado had found the top corner following a slick counter, Juve were invigorated. Atletico Madrid started to press higher, opening spaces beyond their midfield and Juve began to find those gaps. Play was now more fluid; those stray passes from earlier on were now finding their destination and Juve looked increasingly menacing. Alex Sandro was bombing down the left and looking more like his old self, playing a key role in his team’s second goal as his cross found Matuidi to head home.
The Spanish side were never likely to go quietly, even when two goals behind, and reacted instantly. The game was now being played at a superior intensity with both sides aggressively looking for control of proceedings. It now felt a real Champions League tie between two of Europe’s top teams.
Atleti had looked threating from dead balls all night and in truth, it appeared to be their best way of finding the net. Having fired several warning shots, they pulled a goal back after dominating the Juve box from a free-kick. At 2-1 and with a little over 20 minutes to play, it felt somewhat inevitable an equaliser would come.
Having surrendered a three-goal advantage against Napoli just a couple of weeks ago, Sarri and his team will hope that this early inability to hold on to a lead is just part of their growing pains in this new era. Hector Herrera’s stoppage time leveller will have come as a blow and will leave a bittersweet feeling.
There were certainly more positives then negatives in the Spanish capital. The second half performance gave an insight into the potential of Sarri’s Juve. Captain Leo Bonucci was at his dominant best. It was a throwback display from Bonucci, who has come under heavy criticism for his performances in the last two seasons, but he deserves praise for the way he intelligently led the game. Miralem Pjanic was the standout midfield player as he continues to enjoy his adjustment under Sarri and there will also be hope that Alex Sandro can continue in this form.
To come away from this tough opener disappointed with a draw says a lot about what Juve achieved in Madrid. There are undoubtedly aspects to work on and improve, but they will take a point and look to build on the positives as they head home to prepare for Verona at the weekend.