2005 was the last time an Italian side beat Manchester United at Old Trafford when a Hernan Crespo strike helped AC Milan knock out Sir Alex Ferguson’s men en-route to a memorable Champions League final against Liverpool which they eventually lost on penalties in Istanbul.
This time Juventus were in town. Champions of Italy for the last seven successive seasons they have twice appeared in Champions League finals in recent years and are renowned as one of the best sides in Europe having recently signed former United star Cristiano Ronaldo to bolster their already affluent attack.
United are a legend of a name with big big players that are used to winning trophies and have one of the world’s most famous coaches in Jose Mourinho but performances have not been impressive this season as they languish in tenth spot in the Premier League. Having dropped two points from an improved outing against Chelsea at the weekend there was much hope around the Red Devils camp that in facing Juventus, they could get back to winning ways. But United are a club in turmoil. Confidence and leadership is lacking, responsibility is often shirked, and player for player they simply don’t have as good a team as Juventus which meant it was always going to be a hard night for Mourinho, his players and the 70,000+ inside Old Trafford watching their side play.
Juventus on the other hand have had their best ever start in Serie A with eight wins and a draw in their nine games so far. They started brightly, pressing without the ball, keeping possession with the ball and dictating which way the game would go.
For me I saw huge differences in the two sides, one team full of confidence wanting to play for each other, as a team doing things quickly with a purpose, whilst the other, organised but rigid, lacking ideas in the final third they were reactive rather than pro active. Juventus simply a class apart with a clear game plan to win the match.
In Alex Sandro their left full back they had a player up for the challenge of taking on the highly rated Marcus Rashford. Sandro is quick and was happy to say to Rashford “let’s see what you’ve got” more often than not standing his ground Sandro played like a player who had already decided “today, you will not beat me”.
In Joao Cancelo the right back recently signed from Valencia they have an attacking dimension that fits the Allegri style. More often then not Cancelo would appear in the inside right position as his willingness to get forward was encouraged by the safety net of his centre halves Bonnucci and Chielini who dealt with Lukaku in typical fashion.
In Miralem Pjanic they have a cultured footballer, an orchestrator almost quarterback like who is willing to sit in the gap and make a three in defence when the full backs go forward or if even Bonucci or Chiellini decide upon a marauding run, vitally impressive in delivery he takes all the non-shooting set plays right up to Ronaldo range.
The impressive midfield engine that Juventus have is cogged by the workrate and quality of Blaise Matuidi and Rodrigo Bentancur. Only 20 years old Bentancur who impressed in the World Cup with Uruguay is a star in the making. He could be the best midfielder of the next generation similar to a young Steven Gerrard with drive and energy seemingly always there picking up good positions and making use of the ball with progressive quality. Matuidi, one of the unsung heroes of the French World Cup winning team can run all day, he put Pogba to bed outworking him, out thinking him, doing the work that goes un-noticed, most effective for his team-mates.
In attack Juventus have pace, power, and the mercurial talent of Pablo Dybala. Everything is one and two touch, everything is done quickly with the slide rule ball getting in behind full backs and centre halves, the team have a well thought out well processed dynamic which is down to season after season of training ground expertise. In Juan Cuadrado they have pace on the break, in Cristiano Ronaldo they have a player willing to adjust his game to play the Juventus way. This was one of the most impressive performances I’ve seen by a European side at Old Trafford in recent years. But is that perhaps also down to United’s lack of belief?
From the first few minutes it was apparent who was the seven time successive league winner and who was the team in tenth place in their league. United in attack with Lukaku isolated, Rashford out wide, willing, but alone, Martial on the opposite wing looked to be trying too hard to make things work, often doing his best stuff in places which would not hurt the opposition. Whereas Juventus know what to do in and around the box, it seems United don’t.
In midfield Paul Pogba, playing against his old club looked out of sought often conceding possession cheaply and when under no real pressure. Pogba sometimes does this, when he’s on his A game there is no better, but when he’s not, which has been often in a United shirt, he can be very cheap and erratic. This wasn’t his night, and it should have been his night.
Juan Mata and Nemanja Matic made up the attacking six, Mata is a player that can make things happen but I very rarely find him on the same wavelength of his current teammates. Matic a colossus for Chelsea in winning the league two years ago, looks now to be clumsy, lost on his own in midfield scrapping around and giving cheap fouls away. Does he need more protection?
Behind them, in defence where United have been scrutinised in recent weeks I thought they did ok. De Gea made one world class save, Smalling was steady, Young was as persistent and as hard working as ever, Shaw although not getting forward enough did ok when up against his man. Victor Lindelof probably had his best game for the club. The Swedish defender threw himself in front of everything in a way that United fans win lose or draw are bound to respect.
For Jose Mourinho I see major work on the training ground needed, I see much love needed, to himself and to his players, I see signs of things getting worse before they improve. United cannot just throw a blank chequebook at it… Things are deeper than that.
For Juventus and Massimo Allegri, they came to do a job and they did the perfect production. In defence they are arguably the best in the world, in midfield they have legs and energy and are sometimes stunning in possession, in attack they have guile, style, can score any type of goal from any of their players. One player not mentioned for Juventus last night, Wojiech Szczesny who might be their only achilles heel, but the way Juve play, he could probably go weeks without having a save to make?
The Old Lady certainly tamed the Red Devil with a game plan and performance which shown that Juventus have experience in knowing how to win games… Whether the Devil’s fire is burning out is another question… United rarely puffed smoke let alone fire… It might be a long long unrewarding campaign for them?
However will this be the season that Juventus finally end 22 years of European trophy hurt? It seems to me that there’s never been a better chance since the days of Del Piero, Deschamps, Lippi and co and that class of 96.