Knocked out of the Champions League this early for the first time since 2013, Juventus didn’t look much like a superclub against Benfica.
Twice champions of Europe, 37 times domestic champions and 26 times winners of their national cup, they are one of the big three that have dominated their national game since the 1930s. And now, with a game to spare, Benfica are through to the knockout stages of the Champions League. It’s the schadenfreude heard around the world.
They’ve won the Portuguese league one time more than Juventus have won Serie A, and the Taca de Portugal 14 times more than the Old Lady have won the Coppa Italia. And while Juventus have won three UEFA Cups and a Cup Winners’ Cup, the last of those was 30 years ago.
Would Benfica have made the cut for Version 1.0 of the European Super League? Probably not, but let’s not go kidding ourselves that any of that plot is about anything as antiquated as merit.
There can be little question that Benfica have justified their progress from the group stages. This season’s Champions League has been nothing short of a disaster for Juve, with just one win from their first four games before they arrived at the Estadio da Luz. After having lost away to PSG and at home to Benfica, they did finally grab a 3-1 win at home against Maccabi Haifa, but then followed that up by losing the return leg in Israel.
And what followed was foreshadowed by a sloppy opening 15 minutes of misplaced passing, players getting unnecessarily caught offside and not hearing each other’s calls.
When Antonio Silva gave Benfica the lead in the 18th minute, it came with a header under so little pressure that the entire Juventus defence might as well have been replaced by scarecrows without anybody noticing.
Benfica could only hold onto their lead for four minutes, Dusan Vlahovic and Moise Kean combining to bundle the ball over the line at the second attempt (the goal was eventually given to Kean). The decision was delayed by a lengthy VAR review which ended with confirmation that Vlahovic had been played onside by a stray big toe. But the half, the tie and consequently Juventus’ future in this year’s Champions League came to pivot on an extremely controversial decision indeed.
For three or four minutes it had looked as though they’d got a little bit of their swagger back, as though the act of actually scoring a goal had nudged a few muscles awake that had been laying dormant for a while. But then came a penalty award that felt harsh, for handball against Juan Cuadrado when it looked as though he likely knew very little about the ball striking his arm.
Joao Mario, who was fully entitled to not give a damn about this, converted the kick with ease.
The foundations were starting to crumble, and 10 minutes later Rafa Silva flicked in the sort of backheel that felt almost like the ‘from open play’ version of a Panenka. Considering the crucial importance of this match to Juventus, it seemed absolutely inexplicable that their defence should have been so passive for long passages of play. Two of the three first-half Benfica goals came with the Juventus defence weirdly static, as though they were playing against a training exercise rather than a top-class, effervescent young attack with a lot to prove.
Juve came out after half-time with the look of a team that had been delivered a rocket up the collective backside, and for five minutes their shape was better and they pressed as a team from the front. But after 50 minutes and five seconds, Benfica cut through the centre of the their defence and Silva lifted the ball over the onrushing Wojciech Szczęsny to make it 4-1.
For 20 minutes, Benfica toyed with them. The match felt as if it was effectively over as a contest. But then the Old Lady suddenly rose again. Two substitutes combined to pull the deficit back to two again, Samuel Iling-Junior crossing for Arkadiusz Milik, and a minute later Iling-Junior was again the provider, this time for Weston McKennie to score and make it 4-3.
Twelve minutes plus stoppage-time and Juventus could see the whites of Benfica’s eyes, while the home side’s defence seemed to be coming down with a collective case of the yips.
On this occasion, Juventus left themselves just a little too much to do. Even though the Benfica defence had suddenly taken on a mildly panicked air which opened up gaps, Juve could only manage a couple of half-chances and there were even opportunities at the other end as they committed players forward in the increasingly vain hope of somehow keeping their Champions League hopes alive. Silva, the best player on the night, broke and hit the post.
Throughout all of this, Massimiliano Allegri stood on the touchline with the rictus grin of a man who knew that he may be about to be offered a cigarette, a swig or two of brandy and a blindfold. Although his team’s start to the season has been pretty terrible, they had tentatively started to look as though they may have been turning a corner. They won a Turin derby away from home. They put four goals past Empoli without reply.
This hadn’t altered their league position from a relatively lowly 8th in Serie A, but they were at least their first consecutive league wins of the season. Now, alongside a chase to qualify for next year’s Champions League, all they have to look forward to is a place in the Europa League – and they’re not even quite guaranteed that yet. If they do scrape third place, it may only be on goal difference from Maccabi Haifa, and complete elimination remains possible.
It has felt as though the conversation over whether the return of Allegri – who won five consecutive league titles from 2015 to 2020 – was a good idea has been going on for at least a couple of months, and this will intensify still further in the light of their early elimination. It’s the first time they’ve failed to reach the knockout stage of the Champions League since 2014 and, as we all know, they are currently front and centre in an existential battle for control of European club football, with a large part of their argument resting on their own belief that they are part of an ‘elite’.
On the basis of this performance – indeed, the majority of their performances in all competitions this season – Juventus are nowhere near the elite of European football. Benfica were the better team in every respect, for all the nervousness that seemed to come across their back line throughout the closing stages. But for the team with the European Super League pretensions (a similar fate has already befallen Barcelona), it will be the Europa League at best for the rest of this season. Time will tell whether Allegri is still in place for the next part of that particular adventure. After an abject display in this critically important game, it doesn’t seem very likely.