Mixed week in the Champions League for Juventus and AS Roma
Another Champions League matchday brought yet more mixed fortunes for Serie A's representatives. Juventus win, but their progress to the round of 16 is in doubt, while Roma lost and yet seem closer to the last 16. James Horncastle recaps the action.
Uncertain win for Juve
It was a night when Giampiero Boniperti's motto applied more than usual. Winning isn't important at Juventus; it's the only thing that counts. After losing in Madrid and in Athens, their Champions League campaign and objective of re-establishing themselves in Europe's top eight was in jeopardy. "In 95 minutes we're almost definitely playing for our qualification from the group stage," coach Massimiliano Allegri admitted. "True, in football anything can happen but for us winning is obligatory."
Claudio Marchisio considered Olympiakos' visit to Turin on Tuesday to be "the first fundamental game of the year," more so than last month's against Roma -- and his assessment was correct. Had Juventus suffered defeat in that top-of-the-table clash in Serie A they'd still have 32 matches to make amends. Here, the margins were much finer with only nine points left to play for. "You have to win," read Tuttosport's front page on Tuesday. "It's not like they're Real Madrid."
But Olympiakos didn't need to be.
A fortnight ago at the Karaiskakis they added Juve's scalp to the many other illustrious ones they've claimed over the last four years: Arsenal (twice), Manchester United, Benfica and the last two Champions League runners-up, Borussia Dortmund and Atletico Madrid.
Sure, they're an altogether different proposition away from Greece -- in fact, even in domestic competition Michel's side travelled to Italy having won only once on the road this season. But they could point to and draw encouragement from Galatasaray's display under the Mole Antonelliana a year ago when they capitalised on uncharacteristic mistakes to twice come back from behind and claim a 2-2 draw.
Despite being so dependable in Serie A, that result and others served to crystallize the notion that you can't trust the Old Lady in Europe. A complex seems to have developed, adding ulterior pressure and limiting her ability to express herself best. To shake her out of it on Tuesday night, Allegri did the unexpected. Even though Angelo Ogbonna was fit again and he had the option to persist in playing three at the back, he strayed from the 3-5-2 inherited from his predecessor Antonio Conte to the 4-3-1-2 we came to associate him with at Milan.
Transitioning to a new formation when many believe the old one holds the team back in the Champions League was a welcome manoeuvre. But moving away from what these players know and have had unprecedented success with over the past three years (at least in Italy) on the eve of a game billed as decisive for their future in Europe represented a huge gamble. And it just about paid off.
"Half an hour from the end, we were eliminated," Allegri put it frankly. After taking the lead through an Andrea Pirlo free kick, his second in as many games, Juventus conceded from a couple of set pieces. Gigi Buffon gave away a needless corner from which Alberto Botia scored. Then, Delvin Ndinga put Olympiakos ahead in the 61st minute completely against the run of play. Juventus could have crumbled and grown desperate. Instead they reacted well, showing great character.
A Fernando Llorente header came back off the post, struck Roberto's leg and went in to get them back on level terms. Paul Pogba then attempted to make a pass on the edge of the area. When it was blocked, he lashed out at the rebound and found the net. In the space of six minutes Juventus had turned it around.
Before the game, Allegri had expressed a preference to win it by two clear goals. Arturo Vidal had the chance to grant that wish from the penalty spot in the 94th minute. The out-of-sorts Chile international, whom one columnist quipped last week seems to be gradually transforming into Felipe Melo, revved up the crowd before, embarrassingly, his penalty was saved by Roberto.
Allegri missed it. The Juventus coach had already gone back to the dressing room. But oh, how the Old Lady could come to rue it. Level on points with Olympiakos, UEFA tie-break rules state that if two teams can't be separated on head-to-head or on goal difference, then it comes down to who scored the most against the other away from home. Juventus drew a blank in Athens. Olympiakos finished with two in Turin. Vidal's gaffe didn't spoil the night, but left a regret. Still, the overwhelming emotion was one of relief at surviving a post-Halloween scare and obtaining maximum points. "Phew" tweeted Allegri.
Reassurances came from the spirit and heart that Juventus showed. The back four was barely tested and can't really be judged. Pirlo seems to be recapturing his form. Criticised this season, Llorente came on and changed the game. Alvaro Morata, who started ahead of him, may play better as an individual but his compatriot would appear to make the collective play better. Of concern is the extension of Carlos Tevez's drought to six games and the reminder that it's on nights like these that they need him to make the difference.
Roma victorious despite defeat
The Giallorossi flew to Munich chastened and with a sense of foreboding. Bullish before their first encounter and accused of being too presumptuous in thinking they could play their own game against Bayern, the 7-1 defeat they suffered a fortnight ago had understandably brought a reality check, even if Pep Guardiola didn't get the criticism Rudi Garcia had received at the time.
"What's bad about being presumptuous? I don't understand it," Guardiola said. "I admire people who want to win, those who say: I'm going to give it a go. A minute after going 1-0 down, Roma had a chance to equalise with Gervinho. At the beginning of the second half they had four chances in a row. Being courageous against both small teams and big is a positive. By staying back and defending Roma perhaps wouldn't have lost like they did but they definitely wouldn't have won."
Garcia, however, wasn't about to make the same mistake twice. "We're not going to change our play, our philosophy, our identity," he said, "but this doesn't mean being stupid." Still there was a curious air to proceedings; if it wasn't resignation to their fate, perhaps it was acceptance that their opponents are on another level. One comment Garcia made in particular stood out. "We've got little chance of getting a result against Bayern," he said. "Let's say one out of 10." Even if you feel that way, though, the question is: should you say it?
Psychologically, it was vital Roma didn't go through the same traumatic experience as they had at the Olimpico. Since then it's been said that they have suffered from "Stendhal syndrome." (To explain, upon travelling to Italy, French writer Stendhal was so awestruck by the beauty of Florence and Naples and their works of art that he became disoriented, had palpitations and lost his balance.) Upon being exposed to the beauty of Bayern's play, some feel Roma have shown the same symptoms, appearing less sure of their footing and themselves.
"Bayern are a team that take away your dignity," Arrigo Sacchi mused on Mediaset on Wednesday night. As such, Roma's aim in Munich was to emerge with theirs intact, and they did.
Similar to Brendan Rodgers' approach when Liverpool visited Real Madrid, Garcia left Miralem Pjanic, Francesco Totti and Gervinho out of the starting lineup.
"I wanted to save some players; at least I'll have them fresh for Torino [on Sunday]." Serie A has to be the priority. Winning that is more likely than lifting the Champions League. Thomas Skorupski was preferred to Morgan de Sanctis in goal, who has been at fault of late, and Roma played a new system: a 4-1-4-1 with lots of running to cover ground and a doubling-up, particularly in wide areas.
Roma did put on an improved performance, though one almost exclusively conceived in containment. It would be hard for things to go as badly as they did a fortnight ago. Five-nil up after 36 minutes on that occasion, this time around Bayern didn't get off the mark until the 38th minute through Franck Ribery. It was progress -- of sorts.
Mario Gotze then wrapped things up after 64 minutes with a deft replica of his World Cup final winner. Looking back on this series of games, a couple of things are worth highlighting. Though one-sided in terms of balance of play and scoreline, when called upon Manuel Neuer has been outstanding in both. David Alaba, too.
But enough marvelling at Bayern. The pleasant surprise and silver lining for Roma is that despite these back-to-back defeats, Manchester City have somehow contrived not to overtake them but be overtaken themselves in Group F. "If you had told me that we would still be second after two games with Bayern I would have signed for that," Garcia said. "Our destiny is in our feet."
Roma can qualify if they beat CSKA Moscow in Russia and City fail to win against Bayern in Munich where they will be without the suspended Yaya Toure and Fernandinho.
Out of the dark, a bright side emerges. That realisation must lift morale. It's been a difficult month for Roma, one in which their confidence has been knocked and their squad depth severely tested. They've lost four and drawn two of their last eight games. They've missed Douglas Maicon, Leandro Castan and Davide Astori, robbing them of any consistency in defence, and last night lost Jose Holebas, Alessandro Florenzi and Seydou Keita to injury.
Win on Sunday, though, and they can use the international break to regroup and recover the wounded. Kevin Strootman is also set to return. All is not lost. Far from it. The last 16 of the Champions League is within grasp and as Radja Nainggolan noted, Juventus are only three points ahead of them in Serie A.
Perspective is everything.
James covers the Italian Serie A and European football for ESPN FC Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.