Make-or-break for Juventus and Vlahovic as Champions League hopes hang by a thread

Allegri's side face early elimination as they travel to Benfica on Tuesday

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It took Dusan Vlahovic just 31 seconds to register his first goal as a Champions League player, a stunning statistic he will carry with him forever.

It was an emphatic endorsement of the claims by the Juventus executives who made the Serbian striker the major signing of the last winter transfer window that they had, in Vlahovic, a generational talent to compare to Erling Haaland and Kylian Mbappe, his contemporaries.

Eight months on, Vlahovic is learning how hard it is to keep up with the true elite.

He will lead the line for Juventus in Lisbon on Tuesday confronted with some brutal mathematics. If Juve do not return home with a victory, they will be out of the Champions League. The form guide is not reassuring.

Vlahovic, 23, will be confronted with a defence that has kept four clean sheets in its last five league outings, a Benfica unbeaten in all 19 matches across competitions this season. “We are in a good situation,” said the Benfica goalkeeper Odysseas Vlachodimos, “and we’re confident.”

Vlahovic will recall that in the first Group H collision, when the Portuguese Primeira Liga leaders won 2-1 in Turin, he failed to test Vlachodimos even once, largely for being so expertly marshalled by the Benfica prodigy Antonio Silva – a central defender who, still shy of his 19th birthday, has been one of the revelations of 2022-23.

Vlahovic may want to advise him how the Champions League can turn very quickly from a platform for stardom to a theatre of uncomfortable spotlight. Since he made his astonishing debut in it, scoring almost immediately after the kick-off at Villarreal in a last-16 tie in February, Juventus have won only one match of the six European games he has played in. Vlahovic’s only other goal was at home to Maccabi Haifa.

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Juventus then lost 2-0 in Haifa, a headline result described by the club’s president, Andrea Agnelli, as “shameful”. It has hastened Juventus, Champions League finalists in 2015 and 2017, towards a first group-phase exit in nine years.

They trail Benfica and Paris Saint-Germain, second and first in the group, by five points. Even successive victories over those two would not guarantee Juve, whose president is a lead promoter of a breakaway Super League that would entrench the elite position of clubs like his, not being relegated to the Europa League.

Safe to report this was not quite what Vlahovic anticipated when he joined from Fiorentina for over €80m in January. Juventus, champions of Italy nine times on the trot until 2021, went on to finish fourth in Serie A.

The strikers with whom he had been bracketed, meanwhile surveyed their own bright new frontiers, Haaland joining Manchester City and setting about his record-breaking spree as a finisher, Mbappe signing with PSG the most lucrative contract in the sport's history.

Juventus operate at a level below those clubs. Vlahovic will glance behind him on Tuesday and see none of the midfielders brought into the club in the summer tasked with serving the 22-year-old with passes and chances.

There will be no searching through-balls from Angel Di Maria, who is still recuperating from a muscle problem. Nor will Leandro Paredes, who arrived with Di Maria from PSG, be winning any duels. He is also out with injury. Paul Pogba, the stellar close-season recruit, has yet to play this season, and although he is back in training following treatment to a knee problem, he is not deemed ready for the make-or-break in Lisbon.

But a depleted Juventus is still Juventus, insisted Roger Schmidt, the Benfica head coach.

”It’s not wise for us to think about their problems,” Schmidt said, ahead of targeting the single point that would almost certainly assure Benfica’s progress to the knockouts.

“When you look at all their tradition, the experience of their coach, Max Allegri, and their players, we have to expect the best Juve. They will have a very good team on the pitch. In the match we played in Turin, they did not have Manuel Locatelli or Adrian Rabiot in midfield and they still made it tough for us. Locatelli and Rabiot will be there this time.”

Rabiot’s form – four goals from midfield in his last five matches – is a point of optimism for the beleaguered Allegri, who declared at the weekend, following the 4-0 victory over Empoli, that he was starting to see “a proper Juventus” emerge from their scratchy, disrupted start to the campaign.

It gave Juve back-to-back wins for the first time this season. “Our fitness levels are improving,” said Allegri, “and we’re looking more like a team again.”

Updated: October 25, 2022, 3:38 AM