It was a night of two tales for the Italian contingent in the Champions League on Tuesday. Atalanta’s loss to Shakhtar Donetsk was as harsh as Juve’s victory over Bayer Leverkusen was comfortable, yet the key word in both games is a vital one: experience.
Following their 4-0 pounding at the hands of Dinamo Zagreb on matchday 1, Atalanta knew that they had to beat the Ukrainian champions if they were to have any realistic chance of making it through to the last 16, especially with two back-to-back games against Manchester City lying in wait.
For spells throughout the game, the Dea had Shakhtar on the ropes, but they lacked the cutting edge to deliver the knockout blow they so badly needed. They played the game in their usual style, interchanging between using the width of the pitch and seeking out Alejandro Gomez in search of some magic through the middle.
As good as Josip Ilicic is in Serie A, this game made it clear that the Slovenian isn’t cut out for Champions League football. Whilst his languid style can make the difference in the League, the pacier flow of a Champions League game exposes his deficiencies. Even discounting the penalty miss, Ilicic had a poor game and was taken off for the much-quicker Luis Muriel not long into the second half.
And while Atalanta searched for the second goal that would’ve surely won the game, the Ukrainians hung in, using their wealth of experience in this competition to keep them at arm’s length, despite the building pressure. Manor Solomon’s late goal completely went against the run of play and probably signalled the end of Gian Piero Gasperini’s hopes of making it through the group.
Juventus, meanwhile, had no such trouble dispatching Bayer Leverkusen. In truth, Juve scarcely got out of second gear, raising their levels when needed but controlled the game in a manner that underpinned their vast experience in this competition. Had Cristiano Ronaldo not uncharacteristically missed two gilt-edged chances, they could’ve won by a lot more.
This was Gonzalo Higuain’s best performance in a Juve shirt since his first season at the club. His goal was reminiscent of the old Higuain, and his link-up play with Ronaldo showed signs of further development, with similarities to the latter’s old partnership with Karim Benzema at Real Madrid.
Juan Cuadrado showed there was the potential for him to be converted into a rampaging right-back. The Colombian commented after the game that Andrea Barzagli, rejoining the club as a defensive Coach, was constantly on his back about improving. And should he get his positioning correct defensively, he could become an alternative during the fixture-loaded months of the season.
Juve, much like Shakhtar, were content to let the opposition have the ball for large periods of play but sprung to life when it mattered most. This is something that comes with experience - an issue that Atalanta can only learn through continual qualification for Europe’s premier competition.
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