Juventus, Porto and Napoli all had their titanic domestic tussles brought forward to Friday night to give them time to prepare for the Champions League, and Andy Brassell thinks the extra repose will serve them well...
"Napoli need to show real resolve at Feyenoord - albeit against far weaker opposition - although they need Manchester City to do them a favour too, and are at [2.36] to qualify."
Saturday night's alright for fighting, and European football's calendar arrangements don't often leave much cause to argue with Elton John. This week, however, saw two titanic tussles on the continent moved to Friday evening as, in a welcome outbreak of common sense, Porto's meeting with Benfica and the Napoli/Juventus face-off were brought forward to give the protagonists some breathing space ahead of crucial Champions League fixtures.
If ever there was a duo of matches that underlined an oft-overlooked universal truth of football - that numbers need context - then this was it. An aggregate of one goal across two games would suggest cagey, watchful games in high-stakes situations. Yet neither was anything of the sort, despite the importance riding on them.
Juve find old resolve
All four goalkeepers had evenings to be proud of. That's right, even Porto's José Sá, who despite being left standing about in the cold for long periods due to his side's dominance kept alert enough to make a smart late stop from Filip Krovinović, preventing a Benfica smash-and-grab.
That underlines another unusual aspect of both games, which will (as always promised) surely have a say in defining the title race. Juve's win was undoubtedly their most important victory of the season, and confirmed that more of their typical poise from recent seasons remains intact than the campaign so far might have suggested.
Max Allegri's side were under pressure for much of the game, certainly. Juve's approach made clear just how much respect they have for Napoli, aiming to smother and counter-attack, and they did that to perfection. Gonzalo Higuaín's winner was beautifully efficient, superbly designed by Paulo Dybala, but it wasn't as if Napoli weren't warned. Douglas Costa had been the architect of a similar break moments before, with Pepe Reina foiling Higuaín that time.
Napoli need to find big match bottle
Gigi Buffon served his side well, as he always does, but this was the best Juve have looked defensively for some time. They were well-drilled, compact, and the inclusion of Blaise Matuidi gave the side good balance. This bodes well for the trip to Olympiacos, improving domestically despite European elimination and always a challenge at home in Piraeus. Juve just need to match Sporting's result to go through, with the Portuguese high-fliers going to Barcelona, and are therefore virtually unbackable at [1.01] to qualify.
Napoli, on the other hand, continued a worrying trend of falling short on the big stage. Over the last 12 months they've had periods of dominance against Juve, Real Madrid and Manchester City, but without managing to convert this promise into tangible results. Freshness is perhaps a problem, and they looked sapped in the latter stages, especially once Lorenzo Insigne left the field. They need to show real resolve at Feyenoord - albeit against far weaker opposition - although they need Manchester City to do them a favour too, and are at [2.36] to qualify.
Porto aim to recover killer instinct
Porto's job looks more straightforward, needing only to beat Monaco at Dragão - and who knows what sort of side Leonardo Jardim will put out on his return to his homeland with his side out of European competition? Twice in succession they have drawn Liga games they should have won, so need to recover their killer instinct under Sérgio Conceição. Leipzig, facing Besiktas and waiting for a slip-up, are [2.6] to go through at Porto's expense.
Certainly, the intensity of both Friday night matches suggests Porto, Juve and Napoli will all benefit considerably from the extra day or so of recovery time going into their meetings with Champions League fate. Now, it's holding one's nerve that matters.