Sarri 2-2 Simeone

Sarri 2-2 Simeone

Wednesday night’s Champions League opener at the Wanda Metropolitano started slowly but then exploded into action. While it could have gone either way at the end, 2-2 was a fair result, and both Atletico Madrid and Juventus showed useful positives but also things to work on as their 2019/20 campaign’s continue.

A clever tactical switch midway during the first half from Juve coach Maurizio Sarri helped swing the game his team’s way, before Diego Simeone went back to basics and a late Atletico fightback brought two headed goals at set pieces.

A point a piece left everyone happy enough at the end, except maybe Cristiano Ronaldo, and both teams will still expect to go through from Group D without too many problems. Overall the game suggested that Juve have the greater tactical nous but are lacking leaders at the back, while a new look Atletico are still a work in progress but retain their old fire and commitment.

As per usual so far this season, Simeone started just three of his [many] summer signings, wonderkid Joao Felix and the two full-backs Kieran Trippier and Renan Lodi. It was broadly a 4-4-2 but with wide midfielders Koke [especially] and Thomas Lemar drifting inside so the full-backs could cover the entire flank on either side.

This was especially obvious down Atletico’s right, where Trippier was in acres during Atletico’s first attack and received a raking crossfield pass right up in Juventus’ area. The nominal left-winger in Juve’s 4-3-3 was Ronaldo, who had clearly no intention of tracking his direct opponent’s regular bursts forward, and the England international was soon free again to put in a cross which just did not reach Diego Costa.

It was a similar story down the left, where Renan Lodi was also regularly finding lots of space, with Juve right-winger Juan Cuadrado left up the pitch, and right-back Danilo struggling badly. Atletico were well on top, looking much the more dangerous team, even if their best moment came from a counter-attack where Joao Felix ran 50 yards without any defender able to get close enough to challenge effectively.

Sarri made what was the game’s biggest tactical switch near the half hour mark, moving from his initial 4-3-3 to standard 4-4-2, with Blaize Matuidi and Juan Cuadrado in the wide positions, filling the space which Lodi and Trippier had been exploiting. Ronaldo went up front with Gonzalo Higuain and Juve were now more or less matching Atletico’s shape.

And it worked pretty well immediately. Juve quickly got more of a foothold in the game and dominated possession for a spell without creating any real clear opportunities. Ronaldo had one half-chance with a back post header from Cuadrado’s excellent cross, but the angle was too tight and Jan Oblak saved easily. 

At half-time the two Atletico players with most touches were Lodi [45] and Trippier [42]. The pair continued to push forward after the break, with the Englishman linking again with Koke but Diego Costa unable to do anything with his low cross.

Moments later Juve were 1-0 up, Leo Bonucci pinged a long ball into the space behind Trippier, Higuain emerged from hibernation to hold the ball up excellently and find Cuadrado on the other wing. Lodi did not get close enough to block, and the Colombian cut inside and curled a super shot into the far top corner.

Trippier himself was more to blame when it was 0-2 soon afterwards. This time Juve left-back Alex Sandro got to the byline and the former Tottenham man was unable to stop the cross, which was bulleted headered to the net from close range by Matuidi. 

The two Juve players who Sarri had moved into wide midfield positions had both scored, taking advantage of lax positional play and basic defending issues from both Atletico’s full-backs. Simeone’s side were two goals down at home in a Champions League game for the first time since 2009, having conceded just once at the Wanda in seven games in the competition last year. 

Although Atletico showed spirit to immediately get one back, with Stefan Savic heading in at a set-piece, Simeone’s double switch with 15 minutes remaining looked an admission he had been losing the tactical battle. Lodi was among the players replaced, with Saul Niguez again going to left back in the reshuffle.

The home team were back to their characteristic blood and thunder approach through the closing stages, with the noise at the Wanda deafening when debutant Hector Herrera was left unmarked to head in a Trippier corner and make it 2-2 in the 90th minute.

Simeone did his regular fist pumping to the stands celebration, but there was still time for a scare in added time as Ronaldo tricked his way past three defenders, including Trippier, and fired a shot past Oblak but also past the far post.

A winner for either team would have been a bit unfair, and the sensation at the end was that both teams and coaches should be happy enough with their efforts. 

Juve do not yet look like a recognisable Sarri team, but the ex-Napoli and Chelsea manager had shown he could reorganise his team and change a game on the fly. Simeone is likely to continue to work with Trippier and Lodi to get them to fit better into his defensive unit - he has few other options in his squad anyway.

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