Juventus vs Manchester United: In a galaxy of stars, it’s Juve’s unknown man who really shines

As Manchester United prepared to host Juventus last month, the build up to the game was dominated by the prospect of Cristiano Ronaldo returning to Old Trafford. The idea of the megastar once again stepping out at the “Theatre of Dreams” so soon after leaving Real Madrid was almost too poetic; the Portuguese boy who had become a man in the north of England visiting his old home after becoming the biggest icon in the sport during his time in Spain.

The overwhelmed United defence seemed determined to not allow Ronaldo to write the following morning’s headlines, while the opposition backline snuffed out their own attack with ease. Indeed, so imperious was the vaunted Juve duo of Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini that Jose Mourinho used his post-match press conference to suggest that the pair “could go to Harvard University to give classes about how to be a central defender.”

Perhaps the only area of the field where the home side could hope to steal an advantage was in midfield, where they boasted a player who they had prised away from the Old Lady of Turin only two years earlier. Just as Ronaldo had matured in United red, so too had Paul Pogba’s vast potential been unlocked during a four-year stint in the famous black and white stripes of the Italian giants.


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1/29 The Champions League 18/19 contenders

2/29 Viktoria Plzen

3/29 Lokomotic Moscow

4/29 CSKA Moscow

5/29 Hoffenheim

6/29 PSV

7/29 Benfica

8/29 Galatasaray

9/29 Porto

10/29 Schalke 04

11/29 Shakhtar Donetsk

12/29 Ajax

13/29 Monaco

14/29 Lyon

15/29 Valencia

16/29 Borussia Dortmund

17/29 Roma

18/29 Inter Milan

19/29 Napoli

20/29 Tottenham Hotspur

21/29 Manchester United

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Here he lined up next to Nemanja Matić, but Juve responded with a French World Cup winner and a talented Eastern European of their own, Max Allegri opting to put Blaise Matuidi and Miralem Pjanić in his own starting lineup once again. Joining them in this star-studded battle was Rodrigo Bentancur, a largely unproven 21-year-old who should have been completely overshadowed by the fearsome reputations of those around him.

Yet as the half-time whistle blew, there was a strong case to be made that the young Uruguayan had been the best player on the pitch. Even Pogba and Ronaldo’s contributions paled in comparison as the slick passing, well-timed movement and masterful exploitation of space of Bentancur helped put Juventus firmly in control of the game.

They had dominated the opening 45 minutes completely, Paulo Dybala putting them ahead with little over quarter of an hour played and enjoying a staggering 72% of the possession despite being the away side. That figure only dropped to 60.5% by full time, with Bentancur registering some impressive statistics of his own as he made more passes (86) than any player on either side while making one tackle, two interceptions and winning one aerial duel.

It was not the kind of performance which attracts the kind of attention Dybala, Pogba and Ronaldo take for granted, but it was essential to Juve’s 1-0 win and continued the good form Bentancur has been in since the World Cup.

Thrust into the Uruguay XI in Russia by Oscar Tabarez, he had made just one competitive start for the South American side prior to tournament. Yet, fielded alongside the equally inexperienced Lucas Torreira, Bentancur helped the team progress to the quarterfinals and has returned to Juve a vastly improved player as a result.

He has already played 10 times this season (seven starts and three substitute appearances) and scored his first goal for the Bianconeri against Udinese last month. His display that day prompted Allegri to praise his contribution “both from a tactical and technical perspective,” with Bentancur admitting he is benefitting greatly from the guidance of the former AC Milan boss.

“The injuries to Sami and Emre afforded me space in the team, now the coach is letting me play and I’m trying to take advantage of that opportunity,” the player told reporters at a recent sponsorship event. “I like playing wider in midfield because it gives me more chances to get involved and score goals. Last year was my apprenticeship and it served me very well. Now I want to repay the faith the coach is giving me.”

Already doing just that, his learning curve has been steep and there have been mistakes along the way. Last week he gave the ball away cheaply against Empoli which resulted in a shock lead for the Tuscan minnows, but Bentancur played his part in helping Juve fight back for a 2-1 victory and he looked much sharper in Saturday’s win over Cagliari.

Assisting Dybala’s opening goal, no player bettered his total number of tackles (three) or interceptions (five), while Allegri – without other midfield options – felt comfortable enough to withdraw Matuidi and Pjanic to leave Bentancur holding the fort alone in the middle of the park. He was not disappointed, Juve running out 3-1 winners with the Uruguay international’s importance once again singled out by his coach.

“Rodrigo has made a great match for both quantity and quality,” Allegri said shortly after the final whistle. “We knew he had quality, it just took time for him to grow and now he’s an important player.”

It was once again a vital but understated display with no step overs, clever flicks or gif-friendly tricks, just an uncomplicated showcase of everything that a modern midfielder is required to do. Confident, calm and ready to fill that role once more when United enter Juventus Stadium on Wednesday evening, don’t be surprised if Bentancur overshadows the star names again.

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