This Champions League semifinal was billed as a clash of differing footballing philosophies in the most simplest (but still intriguing) matchup of contrasting styles – high-scoring offense vs. stingy defense. And in Wednesday’s first leg, host Monaco – armed with some of Europe’s best young attacking talent – went full-bore against the defensive mastery of a veteran Juventus side.
Not surprisingly, the experienced and immovable object prevailed. Juve frustrated the Ligue 1 leaders to record a sixth straight Champions League shutout and take total control of the final-four tie with a 2-0 victory at Stade Louis II.
Goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon made crucial saves early, both on Monaco teenage phenom Kylian Mbappe, and Gonzalo Higuain converted two chances placed on a platter by Dani Alves to give Juventus two vital away goals for next Tuesday’s second leg in Turin. Barring a major and unlikely collapse, the Bianconeri are just 90 minutes away from earning their place in the June 3 final in Cardiff.
Spoiling those plans would require Monaco to somehow hit the back of the net, something Juve has not allowed to happen in Champions League play since its penultimate group-stage game against Sevilla in late November. The Italian powerhouse’s shutout streak now stands at a staggering 621 minutes, the last 270 coming against Barcelona and Monaco, the highest-scoring teams in Europe’s top five leagues currently with a combined 199 league goals.
Early on, Monaco looked like it would puncture the defensive shell of Buffon and defenders Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli. The 18-year-old Mbappe, aka The Next Thierry Henry, produced two chances, the most serious coming in the 16th minute when the French starlet had his point-blank shot stopped by Buffon. Three minutes later, Mbappe’s strike partner, the revitalized Radamel Falcao, had a header punched out by the legendary Italian keeper.
Juventus’s lethal counterattacking would make Monaco pay for being so wasteful. Paulo Dybala’s leaping, no-look backheel at the touchline to Dani Alves kept possession for Juve, and the former Barcelona right back took off an all-out sprint after working a 1-2 with Higuain. Alves returned the favor with a pretty slick backheel of his own into space to set up Higuain, whose strike beat Danjiel Subasic inside the far post for the 1-0 lead.
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) May 3, 2017
Dybala also helped manufacture Juve’s second goal. In the center of the park, he picked Thomas Lemar clean and fed Alves on the right. Alves’s looping cross to the back post found Higuain, who outran defender Kamil Glik to guide the ball into the net with a sliding left-footed finish for the 2-0 cushion.
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) May 3, 2017
The fact Higuain was scoring goals in a big game came as a surprise for his critics, who like to bring up his history of costly misses for Argentina in cup finals. Also, Alves’ performance prompted questions of why Barca parted ways with the Brazilian, as his first-half numbers alone were impressive.
Dani Alves' first half by numbers vs. Monaco:
91% pass accuracy
2 chances created
2 tackles won
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) May 3, 2017
Buffon made one more big stop, on Falcao in a one-on-one situation right after the break. After that, Juventus faced little resistance in seeing its way through to yet another clean sheet.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise. Juve had won two of the teams’ four previous meetings, most recently in the first leg of their 2015 Champions League quarterfinal in a 1-0 victory in Turin. Monaco also failed to score at home in that tie, crashing out of the tournament in a 0-0 second-leg draw.
No #UCL team has advanced after losing by two goals at home in the first leg of a knockout series.
— Paul Carr (@PCarrESPN) May 3, 2017
So history isn’t on the side of Monaco, which has become one of the more fascinating stories of this Champions League campaign with its prodigious goal-scoring ways. Unfortunately, the club figures to be raided in the summer transfer window for that young talent, namely Mbappe, Bernardo Silva and Benjamin Mendy (who was rested after recovering from a muscle injury).
Their final Champions League game for Monaco could very well be next Tuesday when Juventus, which methodically smothered Barca’s attack in the previous round, looks to complete another defensive masterclass. Max Allegri’s side should finish the job, setting up another matchup of soccer-ing opposites in the final at the National Stadium of Wales against the irresistible force of Real Madrid.
Joe Lago is the editor of FC Yahoo. Follow him on Twitter @joelago.