Federico Bernardeschi’s big moment finally came.
In and out of the lineup during his first two seasons at Juventus, the 25-year-old made his breakthrough in the most important match of the year. Manager Massimiliano Allegri sat the club’s No. 10, Paulo Dybala, so Bernardeschi could start, and the decision paid off.
Bernardeschi never looked freer than he did Tuesday night against Atletico Madrid, popping up on the left and right to find a way through their All-Star defense.
Knowing that Juventus needed at least two goals to undo a 2-0 deficit, Allegri allowed his playmaker to make plays and focus less on defending. It was a refreshing approach from a manager who’s often asked his team to play with the brakes on, and it benefitted Bernardeschi most. He ran at defenders and released passes when Atletico didn’t expect it, doing the unpredictable to unlock one of Europe’s tightest backlines. He even attempted an audacious bicycle kick that Cristiano Ronaldo should’ve applauded.
Ronaldo rightfully earned the headlines, but without Bernardeschi, the comeback effort would’ve fallen short. Two of Ronaldo’s goals came as a direct result of Bernardeschi’s impeccable footwork, the first arriving from an early cross that Atletico couldn’t clear. That goal was arguably the most important one, coming just as Atletico center-backs Diego Godin and Jose Maria Gimenez began to clear ball after ball as if in rhythm.
Many of Juventus’ crosses up until that point were easy to head away – Godin and Gimenez were always in a perfect position – but Bernardeschi offered something different. Collecting the ball off of a broken play, the former Fiorentina man kept it to himself and delivered the critical blow. More timid players would’ve spotted the available outlet out wide, but instead of perpetuating the endless cycle of predictable crosses, Bernardeschi created something special.
He continued to make those kinds of inventive passes through the heart of the defense. They weren’t always successful, but when they came off, Atletico struggled to react. Bernardeschi made sure Juventus didn’t play sterile football, which was a real possibility for a team that tends to play safe, horizontal passes.
Credit has to go to Allegri for doing what was unpopular. Dybala has many supporters inside and outside Juventus – he’s worn the captain’s armband on several occasions – but the manager recognized that Bernardeschi possesses game-breaking ability. Allegri berated Bernardeschi in the past for playing too loose, but it was exactly that kind of carefree football that fueled Juventus’ fightback.
Bernardeschi always put himself in difficult positions, winning more fouls (five) than any other player. The last one – a shove from behind by the outpaced Angel Correa – resulted in the penalty that sent Juventus through. Bernardeschi’s breathless run into the area was just one of several that he attempted throughout the match.
This is what Juventus were promised when they signed Bernardeschi from Fiorentina for €40 million in 2017. He’s one of the most expensive Italian players of all time, but he’s not always had the opportunity to play like one. Sometimes he’s let himself down, but Tuesday’s performance is further evidence that maybe, just maybe, Juventus don’t have to bore their way to titles.
They boast the talent to go for the jugular, and Bernardeschi is arguably one of their sharpest instruments.