Timely Higuain, tactical tweak have Juventus on brink of Champions League final

Wednesday May 3rd, 2017

The Champions League looks set for a repeat of the 1998 final after Juventus took charge of its semifinal against Monaco with a 2-0 victory in the principality a day after Cristiano Ronaldo-led Real Madrid seized a 3-0 lead after the home leg of its semifinal against Atletico Madrid.

Monaco never hit its stride at home, failing to score in a league or Champions League game for only the third time this season (running Juventus's shutout streak in the competition to 621 minutes), and it was undone by two goals from Gonzalo Higuain, both of them set up by Dani Alves.

Here are three thoughts on Juventus's win, which puts the club on course for a June 3 date in Cardiff.

Allegri's tactical tweak works wonders

Max Allegri sprang a major surprise by reverting to the back three that Juve used with such success under Antonio Conte rather than the 4-2-3-1 that has been the usual formation this season. That meant Andrea Barzagli returning at the expense of Juan Cuadrado, with Dani Alves and Alex Sandro pushing up as wingbacks. That perhaps was an attempt to engage Monaco’s attacking fullbacks higher up the pitch–although they were less threatening than usual.

One of the first-choice pair, Benjamin Mendy, was out with an injury suffered against Toulouse over the weekend and the other, Djibril Sidibe was playing on the opposite side than usual to allow Nabil Dirar to come in on the right. Monaco’s midfield four plays very narrow, meaning the fullbacks are critical to Leonardo Jardim’s side having width. Whether it was because of the change of personnel or Juve’s tactics, that threat never materialized.

Having the old BBC central defense–Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini–back in harness also ensured there was an extra man to help deal with the twin attacking threat of Radamel Falcao and Kylian Mbappe, both of whom threatened only sporadically.

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Higuain comes through at last

Higuain has developed a reputation as a player who cannot do it when the pressure is really on. He missed clear chances in both the 2014 World Cup and 2015 Copa America finals, and lost in three Champions League semifinals with Real Madrid.

In 24 previous Champions League knockout ties, he’d scored only two goals, neither of them away from home. He looked a little out of sorts to start on Wednesday, wasting three promising opportunities, but, after 29 minutes, he rounded off a brilliant move to give Juventus the lead. 

It was a sequence that began with the ball at the feet of goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon. He rolled it right to Barzagli, who went forward and inside to Claudio Marchisio, in for the suspended Sami Khedira. Marchisio clipped a pass forward and right for Paulo Dybala and the young Argentine flicked it inside for Dani Alves, who surged forward and gave the ball to Higuain in the center circle. He played a return, leading Dani Alves to scamper on into the right edge of the box. Kamil Glik seemed to have held him up, but the Brazilian back-heeled the ball into the path of Higuain, chugging up in support, and he stroked a first-time finish into the bottom corner, a goal of uplifting smoothness and geometry.

Having ended a four-year wait for a Champions League knockout goal, Higuain soon scored a second. Earlier this season, the Argentine quoted advice once given to him by Ruud van Nistelrooy about overcoming goal droughts, likening them to ketchup bottles: "You try but they won't come out. Then...they all come out at once." And it proved, as Higuain put Juve up two just before the hour mark. The source was the same, Dybala and Dani Alves combining on the right before the latter shaped in a perfect fading cross for Higuain, arriving at the back post, to score with a low volley.

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Monaco's attack blunted

Surprising as the Juventus shape was, the plan worked. This is a Monaco side that has scored 146 goals this seasons, but this is a Juventus side that has conceded only two so far in the Champions League. There is a toughness about Juve as well as the capacity to read the game, exemplified by the elbow Chiellini planted on Falcao midway through the second half. The referee showed only a yellow card, suggesting he felt the act was careless rather than malicious–certainly Chiellini didn’t look at Falcao–but at the very least he knew where to leave his elbow to protect himself. In an era of high-tempo, high-pressing football, there’s something almost old-fashioned about such cynical arts.

There were some concerns early on for Juve as the brilliant 18-year-old Mbappe twice went close. First he planted a free header straight at Buffon and then he made a sharp run between Chiellini and Bonucci to meet a Dirar cross. Again Buffon saved. Falcao had a couple of chances at the beginning of each half and was denied by Buffon on both occasions, and Valere Germain had a late leader tipped over by the keeper.

But those threats were patchy, for all that Monaco dominated possession. Dirar bent in a few dangerous crosses, but after that first quarter-hour or so there was little in the way of sustained threat, while Juve always offers menace on the break. Marchisio, in fact, should have scored just after halftime as Monaco lost possession in the face of a rare Juve press.

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