If there was one player who could put us to the sword and still leave me smiling, or rather, avoiding the eagerness to roar and smash the screen, it was Llorente. I have always liked the Spaniard, not just for his selfless build-up play, ability to bring others into an attacking move and his outstanding aerial ability but mainly for his temperament and professionalism. He truly is a gentleman of the game, a rare thing in the current climate of overpaid superstars with the demeanour of spoilt, capricious teenage girls.
We played well. Surely well enough to earn a point and had we taken any of our numerous chances created we would now be facing the draw for the knock-out stage with less trepidation. As it stands, we may well find ourselves facing Barca or Bayern, assuredly the only two teams I cannot see us or anyone else beating, on present form. The chances are 3 in 4 that we will avoid them. Its that 1 in 4 which causes concern. Yet the fact of the matter is that it makes no sense to be facing a tournament hoping always to avoid the best sides, for we will face them at one stage or another if we are to progress. It is of course more exciting for the elite clubs to lock horns in the latter stages, yet we should not be afraid of any team. Especially over two legs. And its worth bearing in mind that the last 16 matches begin in mid February. Which gives us plenty of time to recover players from injury, continue developing as a team and add momentum to the fine form of late which has seen us move back into contention for domestic honours.
Despite the result our performance was sound. We created plenty of decent chances. Sturaro and Morata were both guilty of wretched misses. Pogba was solid and also managed to test the ultra impressive Rico from range.
Two major positives from the game were the upturn in form of Marchisio, who guided the team well in both the defensive and attacking phases. And then there is Dybala…who hit the bar, forced the keeper into numerous saves and looked by far the most naturally gifted attacking force on the field from the start to the finish. The Argentine is growing in confidence and comfort on the ball and I have no doubt his debut season at the club will be a memorable one, for player and fans alike.
I felt sympathy for Morata, who really should have won us the game. Yet what can we expect of a player who has been in and out of the side all season and has recently been not exactly criticised but certainly spoken about in at very best, an encouraging manner, by the coach. Of course Allegri was led into such comments by the media, but still, words have been spoken, plenty written and this clearly wasn’t the best time to ease the striker back into a starting role. Yet the manager had little choice. Other than Cuadrado and Neto, we had no experience to call upon on the bench due to injuries. Three primavera players are far from ideal for an away fixture at one of the most fiercely partisan crowds out of Turkey! And if there is one strength of our Mister I trust, it is his ability to change a game during a game with tactical tweaks. This was simply not possible on this occasion.
Allegri chose the best players available. Which precluded the possibility of much of a game plan other than Plan A. There could be no Plan B, other than bring on Cuadrado. I suspect the outcome would have been very different had we been able to rely upon Mandzukic, Asamoah, Khedira, Evra and Zaza.
There is no need for alarm. Our decent form has continued. We were very unfortunate not to take all 3 points, let alone the solitary point required to retain top spot in the group. And better teams than us have fared worse in the same fixture this season…
I suspect that more teams will be worried about facing us in the next round than praying to meet us.
We have acquitted ourselves well whilst journeying through a tough group, the team development is continuing on an upwards trajectory and with the host of players still to return to the ranks, our fortunes will improve yet further.
So let us sweep aside the concerns and regrets and focus on the huge game against Fiorentina, the perfect opportunity to put right what went wrong last night.
(NB The draw for the knock-out phase is set for Midday CET, Monday 14th December)