Paulo Dybala's absence was a blessing for Juventus against Real Madrid
That was a stunning performance by Juventus. A day after Roma did the seemingly impossible, Juventus almost did same, almost. It was as though the whole world came to a standstill when the referee awarded the penalty to Real.
It seemed like the whole world was raging alongside Buffon. Up until the dying minutes of the game, Juventus held their nerves and nearly staged the best ever comeback in the history of the Champions League, that too at the Bernabeu.
If it was not for the penalty, they might aswell have done it. It was not a fitting result for the game, that wasn't poetic justice. They had to bow out of the Champions League in the most unfortunate way.
One man watched the match from the stands, the one who has been the most important player for them this season, their talisman, their playmaker, Juve's #10; Paulo Dybala. Many might disagree with what I am going to say next. But face it, it is a truth you will never want to believe. Not having Dybala was the best thing that happened to Juventus against Real.
If you watched Roma versus Barcelona carefully, you would have understood one thing, the simplicity of the game-plan for Barca. They are a team built around Messi. It was evident that passing the ball to Messi and waiting for him to do the rest has been very much their strategy over the years.
If you cage Messi, you would have the entire Barca team on it's knees before you. Roma did exactly that. They had two or three players on Messi all the time. Somehow, they effectively managed to control Messi and the Barca side panicked and eventually lost the tie.
This season, Juventus has been like Barca. With Dybala in scintillating form and brimming with confidence Juve thrived. Even when trailing against Spurs at White Hart Lane, they kept their nerves and went on to win the tie and Dybala scored the winner, a goal that sent them to the quarters.
But this tactic comes at a price. Barca has been paying that price for years in the Champions League. Against stronger opposition, against high quality players, against a tactically solid side, this strategy backfires.
Even though marking Messi or Dybala itself is a herculean task, many teams have managed to do it when it matters most. Roma did it against Barca. Real did against Juve in the first leg.
In Turin a week ago, Juventus played like a team without purpose. They were too dependent on Dybala, they looked up to him in moments of distress, they passed the ball to him, they waited for him to create chances, they craved he scored a goal.
All other players seemed like puppets waiting for their master to do the important thing. But that weight was unbearable for Dybala, he cracked, so did Juve. He lost his confidence, so did Juve.
Each time he touched the ball, his insecurities were betrayed. Real responded by scoring 3 goals in Turin.
But yesterday, everything about Juve felt different. Allegri orchestrated a tactical masterpiece which will be referred to by many in the coming years. Without a leader to look up to, every Juventus player seamlessly filled that role.
Each one of them were creators, all of them were leaders. Every one of them seemed to be the next source of goal for Juve, now it was Real's turn to panic. They didn't know who to mark.
Madrid was on home turf, it was their crowd and they were having a comfortable 3 goal lead. But still, they were in a frenzy. That was the intensity and enthusiasm with which Juve played.
They defended with calm, they attacked with vigour. They exploited every weakness of the Madrid team. Costa made a marauding run through the right, he chipped in an inviting cross, Mandzukic rose high and scored.
Lichtsteiner rushed forward through the right flank. He floated in a high ball. Mandzukic sprang high, Mandzukic scored. Another high ball, Navas let the ball loose after holding it. Matuidi crouching, pounced onto the ball and scored.
Even Higuain was spotted on the Juve box defending at times, Benatia was out in the opposition area attacking, Buffon wiped off the memories of his mediocre performances throughout the tournament by bringing on one of the best goalkeeping performances, Chiellini was relentless, Pjanic and Matuidi diligent. The entire Juve side was a joy to behold. It was hard watching them go out of the UCL like this.
Mario Mandzukic was instrumental in Juventus performance with 2 goals. If it was not for Dybala's unavailability, he would not have made it into the first eleven. Allegri changed his game-plan considering the fact that Ramos was out for the second leg.
Along with his absence goes the aerial prowess of Real Madrid, Allegri knew that fact. He formed his strategy around that and Mandzukic's height and ability to score headed goals came to the fore.
Of the 3 goals scored by Juve, 2 were headed in by Mandzukic. The third one also was the result of a high cross. The young Vallejo who came in for Ramos was helpless at times, Varane confused aswell, and Mandzukic punished them for that.
Dybala's unavailability paved the way for Mandzukic and the game-plan suited him more than anyone. He made the difference, where Dybala couldn't.
The entire Juve team responded to not having Dybala in a positive way. Yes, t was Dybala's absence that almost triggered an impossible comeback by Juventus at the Bernabeu.