Juventus travelled to Lisbon to face Benfica on Thursday, entering their first European semi-final in over a decade, with a place in next month’s showpiece finale on the line. With the climax of the Europa League taking place in their own stadium, the Bianconeri are aiming at an incredible place in history, the possibility of matching old records mounting by the week.
As La Madama chases her third consecutive Serie A title, the Portuguese opposition approached the tie with the Liga Sagres title already secured. Jorge Jesus’ men clinched their first domestic crown in four years, ending a barren spell similar to the one Antonio Conte dragged Juventus from after arriving in 2011.
Yet there was also one other unwanted drought on the line, as Carlos Tevez had continued to misfire in continental competition for over five years. Indeed, the Argentinean’s last strike in Europe came on April 7, 2009, when the striker was still a Manchester United player.
Twenty matches and two clubs later, the 30-year-old himself was unconcerned by his inability to find the back of the net, telling UEFA.com last month that "I'm calm because sooner or later the goals will come, but it's not an obsession for me."
But it quickly became the only criticism of what has been a remarkable first campaign with Juventus, one which had seen him notch no fewer than 18 league goals—with another in the Italian Super Cup—going into last night’s game.
His coach had also professed to be more interested in the attitude of his newest star, quickly defending him from criticism back in December. Speaking at a press conference shortly after Juve’s Champions League exit, Conte was asked if Tevez’s failure to score was responsible for their elimination, and he snapped back (h/t The Guardian):
I do not judge an attacker on the basis of the goals that he scores, I have been here for three years and I think you know by now how I judge my forwards. When an attacker scores but does not do the work they were supposed to do, then I am not happy with them. I judge on behalf of the team, you lot judge on individual performances.
It then became a side-issue as the club dropped into the Europa League, with the striker not always featuring as Conte gave Mirko Vucinic and Daniel Osvaldo some much-needed playing time. The Bianconeri were comfortable in wins over Trabzonspor and Lyon, but then came the difficult semi-final draw against Benfica.
Again the coach rotated his strikers, once more resting the in-form Fernando Llorente, with the Spaniard having started just once before in this competition. But even Tevez could do nothing as the Portuguese side opened the scoring, powerless as Leonardo Bonucci’s poor marking allowed Ezequiel Garay a simple header.
For a period, the Serie A champions elect looked overwhelmed as their opponents countered at incredible speed, carving open the Juventus defence on a series of occasions. At the other end there was little opportunity, with perhaps the best chance coming from a Paul Pogba header after some smart work from Claudio Marchisio.
They say “cometh the hour, cometh the man,” but Tevez would be almost a quarter-of-an-hour late, as Kwadwo Asamoah ran on to a Marchisio pass before pulling the ball back from the left. Some smart footwork enabled him to ride a tackle from Luisao, before firing a well-timed shot past the goalkeeper.
Just like that, the drought was over and La Madama had her life-line. Next week’s second leg is in Turin but will be a difficult proposition, Benfica’s eventual 2-1 lead an “unjust result,” in the eyes of Conte (per FootballItalia).
Speaking shortly after the match with Sky Italia, the Coach went on to add that “optimism and confidence are given to me by the performance tonight,” while the goalscorer also believed Juve could complete the task in seven days' time. "My goal isn't the important thing, as it only matters only that we are still in the running for qualification." Tevez told Sport Mediaset (via FourFourTwo).
He might downplay the significance, but with his first European strike since 2009, Carlos Tevez may have just scored his most vital goal yet in a Juventus shirt.