Gonzalo Higuain's goals put Juventus in commanding position vs. Monaco
MONACO -- Three thoughts on an enthralling first leg at the Stade Louis II as Juventus picked up a commanding 2-0 win:
1. Juventus have one foot in the final
Wednesday's result made it clear: Juventus have one foot in the Champions League final. It would take an astonishing second-leg turnaround, even allowing for the gifts of this Monaco side, to deny them after a 2-0 victory earned through a superb goal in each half from Gonzalo Higuain. The first half will be replayed for weeks; the second might well have decided the tie and, in the end, Juventus deserved nothing less.
The key for Massimiliano Allegri's side was depriving Monaco of the kind of momentum that has blown other opponents away. They took the sting out of the opening 10 minutes and had the first half-chance when Dani Alves, connecting at the back post, volleyed just over the head of an unmarked Mario Mandzukic.
Yet the joy of Monaco this season has been that chances tend to come along so easily. Two excellent openings fell to Kylian Mbappe as they settled into the game: the 18-year-old headed straight at Gianluigi Buffon when he should have done far better. Then, in the 16th minute, he got in front of his marker sharply to direct a fizzing Nabil Dirar cross toward goal. This time, Buffon's save down at his near post was superb.
All of a sudden, Buffon was busy. Radamel Falcao was next to threaten, looping a header that the keeper had to claw away. Juventus were under real pressure now, but as sides of their experience do, they responded emphatically and Higuain's goal was sublime. The striker sent Alves scampering away down the inside-right channel before, in a stunning piece of synchronicity, arriving at the perfect time to side-foot the Brazilian's astute back-heel past Danijel Subasic.
Now the wind had gone from Monaco's sails and it took until after the interval for them to regain a head of steam. Then, it took just two minutes for Falcao to sidefoot at Buffon after being played in by Bernardo Silva. Monaco had upped the tempo but it was another big miss and Claudio Marchisio, shooting at the legs of Subasic, almost made them pay again.
The reprieve was only temporary. Juve's second goal arrived just before the hour when the outstanding Alves robbed a dithering Tiemoue Bakayoko, received a pass from Paulo Dybala and crossed perfectly for the onrushing Higuain at the far post. The finish was again clinical. Juventus' celebrations allowed no doubt about the goal's importance, and Monaco, for all their endeavour, had no answer in the remaining 31 minutes.
It will have to be some response on Tuesday if they are to trouble the Italians further.
2. Dani Alves rolls back the years in vintage performance
At times, Allegri's side were stretched more than at any point in this Champions League campaign, but they got the job done with some conviction, and the sense grows that there is no better team in Europe at the moment.
While Higuain and Buffon will take the headlines, this was also a triumph for a manager who continues to impress. With Sami Khedira suspended and Monaco holding a physical advantage in central midfield, he opted for a three-man central defence with wing-backs to either side.
While the idea was to shore things up, the move made a decisive difference in attacking areas. That is largely because Alves, who turns 34 on Saturday, put in a performance reminiscent of his most dynamic days at Barcelona and Sevilla.
His two assists, a sparkling run and back-heel for the first goal and a perfectly weighted cross for the second after he'd pressed high up the pitch to win the ball back, were of the highest quality, and he gave Djibril Sidibe (primarily a right-back but repositioned to the left) an uncomfortable night throughout. Alex Sandro had slightly more trouble against Nabil Dirar on the other side, but it was Alves, whose energy levels never dropped, who made the difference.
Juventus' defence gave up chances but, when they were extended, the peerless Buffon was in immaculate form. His final save of the night was a last-minute tip-over from Valere Germain's header. Had that gone in, there would have been a morsel of encouragement from Monaco, but the visitors were, overall, convincing winners. They play with a level of control and flexibility across all areas of the pitch that few can match, and it came to the fore yet again here.
Juventus are utterly ruthless at both ends of the pitch; can anyone stop them now?
3. Mbappe and Monaco fall just short
It's no surprise that 18-year-old strikers will miss chances, but it said something for the regard in which Mbappe is held that his 13th-minute miss, a harmless nod at Buffon when he had both space and time, was so surprising. Mbappe is such a razor-sharp customer, and his lavish talent was evident in abundance here; he will regret not opening the scoring, though, and it was symptomatic of a night on which Monaco did not quite fire.
They have an uphill task now, but if Allegri retains the same formation in Turin, Juventus' gnarled back three will know to expect a vigorous examination in the second leg. Among Mbappe's many impressive facets is that he shirks nothing: he was back for more within moments of that fluffed header, forcing Buffon into a much more difficult save, and there was a spell before Higuain's tie-altering goal when he had his battle-worn opponents firmly on the back foot.
Mbappe's work rate and cleverly timed spins out to the left caused problems throughout; perhaps the best example of his all-round package came a few seconds after the break when a wonderful, cushioned touch past Leonardo Bonucci and jet-heeled dash into the area led to a cutback that none of his teammates could put away. Like his pursuers, perhaps they simply could not keep up.
Monaco will rue their missed opportunities (and Mbappe was not the only culprit) but eventually their inexperience told. They were not helped by a hamstring injury to their flying left-back, Benjamin Mendy, that ruled him out of the match and meant the equally exhilarating Sidibe had to be redeployed in his position. The balance and directness that have characterised so much of their play were not quite there and barring one cute pass for Falcao, the creative wiles of Bernardo Silva were relatively subdued too.
The error by Bakayoko that led to Higuain's second goal spoke volumes: in the end Juventus were just slicker and sharper. This tie was never going to make or break the careers of Mbappe and his thrilling young cohort but you wonder whether they will be seen at this level in Monaco's colours again.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.