Manchester United came from behind to beat Juventus 2-1 in Turin on Wednesday, significantly enhancing their chances of qualifying for the Champions League knockout stages. Cristiano Ronaldo’s opening goal was cancelled out by a late Juan Mata free-kick, before Alex Sandro’s own goal handed the visitors all three points. It wasn’t a pretty win, but could well be their most important of the season so far.
José Mourinho’s declaration that this was “not an important match” was surely an exercise in the art of understatement, though one that initially appeared to have paid dividends: United knocked the ball around early with a swagger. But despite some uncharacteristically sloppy play from the hosts, the Reds lacked the precision to slice through one of Europe’s top defences, and slowly Juventus began to take control.
The prospect of Chris Smalling going toe-to-toe with Cristiano Ronaldo wasn’t particularly enticing, though sheer weight of defensive numbers stopped the situation arising too often. Not until after the half-hour did David de Gea have to make a difficult stop, and even then it was forced only by a vicious Nemanja Matić deflection. Sami Khedira should’ve done better on a low Ronaldo cross moments later, though he screwed his shot wide from inside the area. It proved the best chance of the opening period.
United’s halftime strategizing was almost immediately undone by a flicker of genius from Paulo Dybala, whose looping long-range effort crashed onto the top of de Gea’s crossbar. It was an ominous reminder of the fact that while United were straining every sinew to stay level, Juve brim with the kind of effortless brilliance that turns a game in the blink of an eye. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how good you are; they’re just better.
When the game’s only goal finally came, five minutes past the hour, there was almost nothing that United could’ve done. Leonardo Bonucci, one of the finest ball-playing defenders the game has ever seen, launched a glorious pass over the top of United’s defence for Cristiano Ronaldo, a man able to stake a pretty good claim to be one of the very best full stop. He barely broke stride in catching a volley that left de Gea with absolutely no chance.
Juventus should’ve quickly added goals two, three, and four: Miralem Pjanić squandered two gilt-edged chances before Juan Cuadrado did the same. United’s resolve appeared to have been broken. But cometh the hour, cometh the Mata, and a free-kick won right on the edge of the hosts’ penalty area was well within the Spanish substitute’s range. He didn’t disappoint, repeating his heroics from the recent Premier League win over Newcastle by curling home with an icy precision.
If United’s first was pure technique, the second was pure accident. A venomous Ashley Young inswinger resulted in a game of penalty-box pinball, culminating in an own-goal from Juventus defender Alex Sandro. Against all odds, United had the lead, and held it through stoppage time for the win. It wasn’t pretty, but was a reward for dogged determination. And if Mourinho’s celebrations at the final whistle are anything to go by, it’s one that really matters.