Before a ball had been kicked it was clear to us all that we were set to face a very stern and interesting test against Benfica. Our own sluggish form of these last three months was reason for concern. Add to this the recent championship victory of our opponents as well as their determination to right the mistakes they suffered in a terrible week last season during which they lost the league, Europa and domestic cup. Indeed we were up against not just a well organized, talented squad but one with a score to settle.
Whilst we were expecting Caceres to deputize for Barzagli, due to the Italian’s lack of match sharpness since returning from injury, it came as a horrid shock to find Mirko Vucinic chosen to partner Tevez in attack. Since his start in the home tie against Lyon two weeks ago, the front-man had played barely ten minutes of competitive action. Facing a team renowned for their strident rearguard, it was the wrong move to deploy a player whose form has been far from consistent over the course of a season interrupted by injuries and a transfer to Inter aborted at the last minute in January.
The game kicked off at a vibrant pace, but before we could settle, disaster struck. From a corner whipped into the danger area, Garay was allowed a free header by Bonucci, with the Argentine directing a powerful header past Buffon and into the net for a 1-0 lead with barely three minutes played. It was well taken, but the Juve centre-back must take full responsibility for a terrible lack of concentration on the flight of the ball. He was nowhere near his Benfica counterpart when the ball arrived. Despicable marking by any measure.
With the vital lead established, our opponents sat back and were able to play their hard pressing counter-attack game without needing to commit players forward, other than in lightning-fast dashes forward. It was pleasing to see the heads stay high and possession falling predominantly at the feet of our players. However, as the half wore on, we created very little in the final third, with Garay, Luisao and Pereira proving immensely solid.
The pressure was heavy at times, and for a counter-attacking outfit, Benfica must be applauded for the constant running and hustling, rarely giving any of our players any time on the ball (even Buffon). Pirlo was finding no joy, with his passing from open play nor from set-pieces. Marchisio was busy defending, Mirko as useless as expected, Tevez involved when possible but finding space hard to come by. As with our last fixture, the one player who stood out with any real quality was Pogba. His over zealous tackling can leave a little to be desired, but his constant involvement, wonderful natural talent on the ball and powerful physique in full motion was a joy to behold. The one positive from an otherwise ineffective first half.
As was hoped, we merged from the dressing room more aggressive, and finally more penetrative. We were taking the game to the hosts. Pinning them back in their own half, with their rapid forward movements into our territory fewer and further between. 10 minutes after the restart, a great run by Marchiso led to his cross into the box finding Pogba, whose header was well saved by Artur. The wind was in our sails. Finally we could smell a goal. Unfortunately our concerted pressure led to few clear cut chances and it was no surprise to see Vucinic replaced by Giovinco in the 66th minute.
Moments before the arrival of Seba, Jorge Jesus had made his second substitution of the night, replacing the pitiful Oscar Cardozo with Lima. The brazilian had scored both goals in the 2-0 victory at the weekend which secured the league title taking his season tally to 19.
Another player on 19 for the season was Carlos Tevez. His industrious display blossomed in the 73rd minute when finding the ball at his feet in the 18 yard box, selling a dummy to two defenders, before smartly dispatching the ball through the keeper’s legs for 1-1. This was his first european goal since 2009 and the celebrations which followed were tremendous. Conte so ecstatic that he lost his footing and fell to the floor.
The goal forced Benfica to go on the offensive. And with this in mind, Jesus made his final roll of the dice. Bringing on young striker Cavaliero for midfielder Gomez, altering the shape of his side from a 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3. The move proved a master-stroke with the extra man up front counting in the worst way possible for Juve. With 83 minutes on the clock, Cavaliero ran onto a pass in the right attacking channel, but instead of collecting the ball, the 20 year old showed great awareness of the team-mates behind him, helping the ball onto Lima, who smashed a beautiful drive into the top right corner from 16 yards out.
The goal was of the highest order, in its creation as well as execution. Buffon had no chance to get anything on the missile launched by Lima.
With the lead regained, it was time for Juve to press on yet again, and hope to force another equalizer.
In the 89th minute, Marchisio was found in the box, with the goal to aim at, but his shot was hit straight at the keeper. And before the final whistle blew, the midfielder found Chiellini storming into the 18 yard area but his first time shot was appalling and wide. It finished 2-1.
I would agree with Conte’s statement made after the match that the result was ‘not too bad’. Although I contest his suggestion that the result was unjust. Despite our possession in their half, Pirlo was out of form, which cut off one of our most regular supply lines. And on chances created, a draw may well have been unsurprising, yet it must be said that Benfica were good value for their victory. They fought hard, were extremely well marshaled in defence – with Pereria standing out as a supreme force at the back – and they attacked with magnificent pace.
Marchisio and Chiellini should have done better with the chances they found, other than which, we created only the chance for Pogba and a couple of useful balls played across the 6 yard box. Our opponents also had a couple of chances which they could have put away and really finished the tie before heading to Turin. Had the penalty been given against Caceres, we could have had few complaints. To stop a player by sticking your rear end in their path is a foul. We were fortunate to get away with that one.
The first point I wish to make is the managerial duel, which Jesus won, hands-down. Substitutions are not (yet) Conte’s forte. It is one of the skills which often separate the very good managers from the elite. The ability to read the flow of a game, have plan B and C and D already in place in your mind, to execute if required, depending on how the game unravels.
Jesus saved Lima for the second half, when it was natural to assume we would be tired. His form has been consistently superior to Cardozo, and after scoring the two goals which secured the domestic title last weekend, the brazilian would have been buzzing, elated, confident, eager to continue where he left off. Which is precisely what he did, with style, power and precision.
What brought about the opportunity for the second goal was again down to the tactical acumen of Jesus. Whereas Conte generally makes like for like substitutions or removes an offensive player for a more defensively minded option to consolidate a lead, his opponent did the opposite. Gave away control of midfield to gain dominance in the final third by adding an attacker for a midfielder. Cavaliero had not played for a few months, is young and inexperienced, yet his running created problems for our defence and midfield. Suddenly there was an extra man who needed to be marked.
Both of these substitutions combined to earn the victory. It was a well calculated risk that paid off. When was the last time Conte did the same??
Selection of which strike-force to deploy is another area I have found Conte lacking before and last night. What could have persuaded him to start Vucinic instead of Llorente??? The Spaniard has been in average to good form, he is match sharp and has forged the best partnership with Tevez of any of our strikers. His ability to dominate – if not at least challenge – in the air would surely have been useful against such a strong backline. Yet when Mirko was finally removed after a poor performance, we saw Giovinco appear, leaving two midgets to fight against three giants in comparison.
Bonucci’s mistake may have cost us dearly, but the blame for the defeat cannot fall solely on his shoulders. For the goal, yes. Yet not for the lack of tactical superiority or balance. That is down to Conte.
Perhaps I am been a little harsh on our manager, who has moved us forward in delightful ways after a period of horror and failure. Is the squad depth to blame more than the man who pulls the strings??
Pirlo had one of his worst games of the season. Marchisio worked hard and could have stolen the headlines, but failed when given the opportunity to be the hero. It was Pogba who appeared, yet again, our best player on the pitch. Once he irons out the creases in his game, he will become a top ten player on the world stage. Of this, there can be no doubt. He imposes himself on every game in which he appears. Fights hard for every ball, has incredibly tidy feet for a big lad and has a better passing range than anyone bar Pirlo in our squad.
2-1 is not the end of the world. It could have been better. It could have been worse. Benfica’s away form in Europe this year hasn’t been tremendous. Losing heavily to PSG in Paris, and also finding defeat in Greece against Olympiakios. However, those results were much earlier in the season. They now have momentum.
Our home form is imperious, having not lost at the Juventus stadium all season. We were not outplayed and our first XI should be considerably stronger next week. Above all else, it is imperative to get Vidal fit and ready. His ability to defend and attack at a world class level was sorely missed and he is now needed more than ever, if we are to progress to the final. Who he replaces is worthy of discussion. For if Pirlo is out of sorts, there is the option of placing Marchisio in his role. Still, what are the chances of Andrea performing so listlessly twice on the trot??? The law of averages suggests his set-piece work and general distribution will be vastly improved next time out.
Other than which, let us also pray that Barzagli finds his focus. Whilst Caceres is eager, full of running and has shown fine form over the last month or so, he lacks the concentration, positional awareness and all important leadership ability of the italian.
Quickfire Ratings- (out of 10)
Buffon – Could have possibly done better on the first goal, had no chance for the second, other than which, was generally safe. 6
Lichsteiner – As with Isla against Bologna, having Pogba in close attendance afforded him space and time. Attacked well enough but was absent defensively on several occasions. 5.5
Caceres– Battled hard, but was extremely lucky to avoid giving away a penalty. 5.5
Bonucci – What a terrible moment to make his first major blunder for many moons. His mistake for the opener affected his game, thereafter appearing withdrawn and less than eager to bring the ball out of defence. One to forget for the libero. 4.5
Chiellini – Was kept busy at the back, tried to get forward, misplaced a few passes wretchedly, and spooned the late chance without even testing the keeper from a great position. Enjoyed the ruggedness allowed by the referee, yet shamefully went to ground as if he had been hit with a sledge-hammer after receiving an elbow in the opposing box. Such antics can lead to trouble when the game continues regardless of his theatrics. 5.5
Asamoah – He misses Pogba in the LCM position. Was rarely a threat going forward. Did little wrong, yet nothing of note. 6
Pirlo – An off game in our biggest test left of the season. Chipped passes to nowhere, wasted set-pieces, few valuable interceptions. Must regain his composure for the return leg. 5
Marchisio – Worked tirelessly, created a couple of good chances for others and had the opportunity late on to score, but fluffed his lines. Solid, yet unspectacular. 6
Pogba – Impressive throughout. 7.5
Tevez – Industrious and found the vital goal with some fine work in the box drawing two defenders in the wrong direction. The more I watch him, the more I find his movement world class. 7
Vucinic – Woeful. No pace. No end product. Useless in the tackle. Should be shot or sold. 4
Conte – Needs to work on his substitutions and forward selection. Outfoxed for this one by a vastly more experienced opponent. 5
All is not lost. Benfica can be beaten. We have beaten better teams this season and will have the home support as the twelfth man.