Il Guerriero – The Mario Mandžukić Story

From Zagreb to Turin…

As Tale of Two Halves’ resident Juventus writer and one half of footballfootball.football’s Croatia writing team, I couldn’t go a whole FIFA World Cup without writing about the career of a player known in Turin as ‘Il Guerriero’. The Warrior. Mr Mario Mandžukić.

Kicking off his career in lower league Germany and Croatia he transferred to Dinamo Zagreb for £1.5m in 2007. He had already been noted for his height and fitness and strength, but he also had a difficult time with referees after picking up a flurry of cautions during his formative years. This didn’t prevent Mandžukić finishing as Dinamo’s top goal scorer in successive seasons; in 2007/08 he scored 12 and the following season, 16. The 21 year-old’s reputation was growing swiftly and piqued the interest of Chelsea among others.

In what proved to be Mandžukić’s final season in Zagreb in 2009/10 he had another fine season in front of goal; netting 14, but in an often controversial season he was sent off once, and on another occasion, fined for an apparent lack of effort during a UEFA Europa League defeat to Anderlecht. Mandžukic was made an example of after the team’s poor display in a ground-breaking move by the club. This was a shocking act of foolishness by Dinamo, often his size and languid style can be confused with a lack of effort, but one thing Mandžukić should never be accused of is not giving 100%.

Mandžukić should’ve been playing in that summer’s World Cup in South Africa, but surprisingly Croatia did not qualify after finishing third in a group which England won. Ukraine pipped Croatia to second by just one point. Mandžukić’s first goal for his country came at the moribund end of a 4-1 defeat at home to England, a game in which Theo Walcott scored a hatrick.

Predictably, as with most top Croatian talents, his services were wanted elsewhere and after scoring 63 goals in 128 games for Dinamo he transferred to German side, VfL Wolfsburg during the summer of 2010.

Life at Wolfsburg didn’t start well as Mandžukić faced stiff competition from Edin Džeko for the lone striker role. As a result, Mandžukić was mainly used a substitute by ex-England Manager, Steve McClaren. However, in 2011 events off the pitch turned the tables in Mandžukić’s favour. Džeko’s departure to Manchester City and McClaren’s sacking with the side hovering above the relegation places meant Mandžukić was afforded more playing time. Making the most of the opportunity, Mandžukić scored eight goals in the club’s last seven games of the season and the club survived as he scored two goals in a last day win, 3-1 away to 1899 Hoffenheim.

Mandžukić made his tournament debut for Croatia at UEFA Euro 2012. In a group with Italy, Spain and Republic of Ireland they finished a disappointing, but not unexpected, third place. Despite Croatia’s elimination Mandžukić had a first-rate tournament as he scored two in the 3-1 win over Ireland; both headers and both involving an element of bad luck or bad goalkeeping on the part of Irish goalkeeper, Shay Given. He was also on the score sheet in their second game versus Italy, again his goal came from a cross, only it wasn’t a header this time, as he neatly controlled the ball as it dropped over the defender’s head and fired in the finish off the near post. The control and finish wasn’t as surprising as one may think; Mandžukić has over time become noted for his fine close control, something not usually associated with someone of his style and physical stature.

With a fine tournament debut behind him it was plain to see Mandžukić was destined for bigger things and his transfer to Bayern Munich was announced in July 2012. Bayern were simply unstoppable during Mandžukić’s two season in Bavaria, collecting seven trophies.

Mandžukić’s debut saw him score after just five minutes of the DFL Super Cup game versus rivals, Borussia Dortmund. Bayern went on to win 2-1. He very quickly established himself in the Bayern starting line-up by scoring seven in his first eight games. He also had a big impact in Bayern’s Champions League run that season; he scored away to Arsenal in the Knockout Round and away to future team, Juventus, in the Quarter Final. The all-German Final at Wembley saw Mandžukić open the scoring with a poacher’s tap-in on the hour mark and Bayern crowned a hugely successful treble-winning season with a 2-1 win over Dortmund. Mandžukić finished the season as Bayern’s top league goal scorer with 15, an enormous achievement considering just how commanding they had been over the course of the season.

The following season they were defeated by Real Madrid in the Champions League Semi Final, but they cantered to a domestic double; drawing three and losing two league games and finishing 19 points ahead of second place, Dortmund. Mandžukić had initially struggled with new boss, Pep Guardiola’s, new formation but he regained his scoring instinct and ended the season as Bayern’s top goal scorer with a very impressive tally of 26. These initial teething problems along with a reported disagreement with Guardiola, lead to Mandžukić being dropped from the starting XI for Bayern’s extra time DFB-Pokal Cup Final win over Dortmund. Eventually Mandžukić submitted a transfer request in the summer of 2014 citing a continued problem with Guardiola’s tactics.

Mandžukić apparent problems at club level certainly didn’t affect his international form as he scored twice in a 4-0 win in Croatia’s 2014 World Cup game against Cameroon. The team however didn’t make it past the Group Stage as they were defeated by hosts, Brazil, and Mexico, both by three goals to one. Mandžukić only featured in two of the three group games as he was suspended for the opener due to a red card he received in the final qualification game for a horrific tackle on Iceland’s Jóhann Berg Guðmundsson

He joined Atletico Madrid in July 2014 and played just one season in Spain, he helped Los Rojiblancos to third in the league. Mandžukić finished as the club’s second leading goal scorer with 20, just five behind French sensation Antoine Griezmann. Again, Mandžukić had his problems with the officials as he picked up 14 yellow cards, the second-most on the team. Leaving Bayern to join Atletico could’ve been considered a step down in quality for Mandzukic, but his playing style and Diego Simeone’s aggressive, energetic pressing tactics really suited each other and it is a shame for both parties he didn’t play more than one season in Madrid.

In the summer of 2015 Juventus were looking for a replacement for Real Madrid-bound, Alvaro Morata. After a protracted transfer negotiation, Mandžukić became a Juve player just weeks after Juve’s Champions League Final defeat to Barcelona (bizarrely, this was his third successive move to a club who had just lost the Champions League Final). After a very indifferent start the club lay in 12th place after ten games and Mandžukić had only scored once before the end of October nadir. Juve would go on to remain undefeated for all but one game for the rest of the season, picking up a domestic double. They were knocked out in the Knockout Round by Mandžukić’s ex-club, Bayern, in the Champions League.

That summer Mandžukić started all Croatia’s games at Euro 2016 as they topped their group, despite letting a two-goal lead slide against the Czech Republic. They qualified for the Knockout Round with a last-game victory over defending champions, Spain. Unfortunately, they were knocked out in extra time by eventual tournament winners, Portugal. Mandžukić and company failed to register a shot on target against the Portuguese as they limped out.

Mandžukić scored a comparatively low 13 goals in his first season at Juve, 11 in his second and just 10 last season. However, it over this period when he has started to show his true worth to the team. No longer an out and out striker he has become a more modern centre forward and his all round game improved season upon season. He successfully played as a left winger in a number of games in the 2016/17 season and was massively praised for his versatility.

He has become a true figurehead for both club and country; a role model of determination, energy and passion. Mandžukić has won the double in each of his three seasons in Turin and has also scored some memorable goals, the obvious being the better-than-Bale’s overhead kick to equalise in the 2017 Champions League Final, he also scored two in this season’s Quarter Final Second Leg fightback in Madrid; two predatory headers from right-wing crosses which have become a Mandžukić signature move over the years.

That tackle on Guðmundsson in 2014 qualifying, his vexation, the mountain of yellow cards, the borderline arrogance and aggressiveness are what make up Mandžukić. He isn’t the most technically gifted player you’ll find but he has that quality all fans love to see in their players, someone who will give everything, and more, for the cause. In Italy it is referred to as ‘grinta’, and it is that which Juve fans will remember him by if his rumoured transfer this summer comes to fruition.

Mandžukić was a key figure in Croatia’s 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign; he finished with five goals and was their top goal scorer as they made the tournament in Russia via the Play Offs. His attacking qualities are certainly not in doubt, especially his aerial abilities. The cross to their target man, Mandžukić, is something of a ‘go to’ play for Croatia and we can expect to see more of this at this year’s World Cup. Mandžukić is also a tireless runner who excels in a high-pressing tactic and has received appreciative comments from many of his coaches for his stamina and work rate, because of this we can also expect him to drop deeper and hold up the play for Ivan Rakitić and Luka Modrić to work their midfield magic.

This summer Mandžukić will represent his country at his second, and probably last, World Cup. For Croatia he is very much a talisman and one of their best players. He above most will need to be at his best if they are to fulfil their potential in Russia and put behind them the disappointments of 2014 and 2016.

 

Flair, Composure, Petulance, Cigarettes and Alcohol…

The life and times of Robert Prosinečki 

Robert Prosinečki a dynamic, intelligent and technically gifted midfielder. A footballing journeyman who made over 400 league appearances across five countries. He won a European Cup, World Youth Championship, played 49 times for Croatia, 15 times for Yugoslavia and played at two FIFA World Cups. Partial to a drink and a cigarette during his playing days, he played for both Real Madrid and Barcelona and had a one season stint at Portsmouth later in his career.

Prosinečki is probably best remembered for his performances at the UEFA Euro 1996 and the World Cup 1998 in France, and in particular the goal versus Jamaica in their opening game. The goal is one of genius; an intelligent, audacious chip over the goalkeeper from an impossible angle. He helped lead his side to the Semi Finals on their World Cup debut and the team won many fans across the world. He also played and scored for Yugoslavia at Italia 90, thus making him the only player to have scored for two nations at a World Cup Finals.

German-born Prosinečki started his career at Dinamo Zagreb but only made a handful of appearances as a teenager. His father pressured for a professional contract with Dinamo but their well-respected and fearsome manager, Miroslav Blažević, famously shunned the request and was reported to have said he would “eat his coaching diploma” if Prosinečki ever became a real footballer.

Something had to give and eventually his father orchestrated a move away from Zagreb. He approached then European powerhouse, Red Star Belgrade, met with Director of Football, Dragan Džajić, and arranged a trial for 18-year-old, Prosinečki. They were extremely impressed with what they saw and started contract negotiations immediately. This obviously ruffled some feathers back home in Zagreb and the way in which Prosinečki left was a grudge Blažević would hold against him (he left Prosinečki on the bench for Croatia’s World Cup Semi Final against France in 1998). Blažević later blamed Prosinečki’s father for his unceremonious exit from Dinamo, stating he refused a four-year contract on Robert’s behalf and already had contact with Red Star before the negotiations with Dinamo began.

Nevertheless, Prosinečki immediately became a first team player at Red Star and won the Yugoslav First League in his debut season, no doubt to the annoyance of Miroslav Blažević. His skill, vision and shooting ability would help drive Red Star to the pinnacle of European football a few years later. Domestically, he won three league titles with Red Star and made over 100 appearances in four years.

Prosinečki was part of the victorious Yugoslavia side at the FIFA World Youth Championships 1987 in Chile. They won five of six games and defeated West Germany on penalties in the Final. Prosinečki’s composure and energy won him the tournament’s Golden Ball. It is little surprise Yugoslavia won the tournament as one only has to look at their squad to see why; Davor Šuker, Igor Štimac, Robert Jarni, Zvonimir Boban and Predrag Mijatović, were just a few of the players who would become household names across Europe over the next decade.

He was very much in the right place at the right time as the late 1980s and early 1990s were a golden period for Yugoslav football, much like Romanian football around the same time, they too produced an unlikely European Cup winner. Their European expedition began with a 5-2 aggregate win over Grasshoppers of Switzerland, Prosinečki scored two penalties in a 4-1 Second Leg victory.

Prosinečki was on the score sheet again as Red Star defeated Rangers 4-1 on aggregate in the Second Round. He scored his fourth of the competition in a 6-0 aggregate win over Dynamo Dresden in the Quarter Final. It’s worth noting Red Star were leading 3-0 from the First Leg and 2-1 in the Second Leg in Germany, when the game was abandoned due to rioting by Dresden fans; Red Star were awarded a 3-0 win.

The Semi Final was a tense affair with Red Star shading a 4-3 aggregate win over Bayern Munich, a last minute own goal from Bayern’s Klaus Augenthaler gave Red Star their place in the Final.

Red Star defeated Marseille in the Final in Bari, Italy. A penalty shootout was required to separate the teams as they played out 120 goalless minutes. Red Star inscribed their name into European folklore and with that win they remain the last eastern European side to win the European Cup/UEFA Champions League. The squad from the 1990/91 season was a who’s who of young Yugoslavian players who went on to become international stars; alongside Prosinečki were Vladimir Jugović  who played for Sampdoria, Inter Milan, Lazio and Atletico Madrid, Siniša Mihajlović (Inter, Lazio, Roma and Sampdoria), Darko Pančev (Inter, VfB Leipzig and Fortuna Dusseldorf) and also Dejan Savićević (Milan).

Predictably, Prosinečki’s own move abroad wasn’t too far away and he joined Real Madrid in 1991, a step up in quality and one which should have suited his playing style, however he didn’t settle as he would’ve hoped and endured an injury-plagued three seasons at the Bernabeu, making just 55 league appearances.

Prosinečki was loaned out to Real Oviedo in 1994 and he had arguably his best spell outside of his homeland. His improved fitness, dynamism and flair really came to the fore and in just 30 league appearances his performances caught the eye of both Barcelona and Atletico Madrid. Prosinečki became a free agent at the end of the season and chose to join Barca, signing a three-year contract in July 1995. However once again injuries damned his time at a new club and he was sold by Bobby Robson to Sevilla in 1996. He unfortunately endured a miserable time in southern Spain and the club were relegated from La Liga at the end of the 1996/97 season. It was time to head home.

Having made 124 starts in six years in Spain he returned to Dinamo Zagreb, now renamed Croatia Zagreb, in 1997. Prosinečki slotted right into the team and guided them to two league titles and thus two Champions League appearances. His influential role as captain in Zagreb’s midfield was the catalyst for their success and he helped to guide and advise some of Croatia’s future stars; just as he was involved in the last great golden generation ten years previously. The Croatia Zagreb team of that era sent six players to the 1998 World Cup in France, an impressive number considering the quality of their team at the tournament.

Prosinečki’s injury-hit career drew to a close with stints in Belgium, England and Slovenia, before returning home again in 2005. He is much relished from his time at Portsmouth as his performances helped save the club from relegation during his season there and this lead to him being elected into their all-time best XI in 2008.

Prosinečki’s lifestyle vices certainly didn’t affect his performances, although he later acknowledged their effects on his body during his retirement from playing. His energy, determination and work rate remained second to none throughout his career. It is a shame however that his career with European giants Real Madrid and Barcelona were so badly affected by injury, it is obvious a player of his immense talent deserved to be able show what he was capable of for many years at one of Europe’s colossal clubs. Revered for his performances on the international stage for Yugoslavia and later Croatia, Prosinečki remains one of the country’s most successful players. Croatia teams since his retirement have had an abundance of midfield talent and there has been more than a little ‘Prosinečki’ about them; masses of desire and technical ability all mixed together with a little egotism.

The Beautiful Game Versus The Black Dog

A very personal subject and a huge issue for modern sport.

The life of a footballer, or indeed any professional athlete, is one fans envy; the glory, the money, the fact they’re being paid to do a job an ordinary fan would probably do for free. It makes them seem superhuman to us mortals. But what about the person behind the fame and Luis Vuitton washbag? What about when the dream turns into a nightmare and we see the real human behind the veneer?

As males we’re told from an early age to “man up”, were told that “boys shouldn’t cry” and all the usual “stiff upper lip” macho nonsense. Depression is an unseen illness, there are no outward physical symptoms, and even in 2018 people who claim to be living with the symptoms of depression are sometimes thought of as weak minded or are merely making it up. The real shame in all of this is that some young boys and adolescents actually believe this and by the time they move into adulthood they’re a lot less likely to discuss their feelings (something which is seen as a feminine trait) especially with their peers. Now imagine you’re a footballer, from the time you’re barely into your teens you’re taught to be strong, both mentally and physically, to be better than everyone else. This elitist attitude is certainly a good trait when we’re moulding our next generation of footballers, however it magnifies those fears of weakness and isolation when mental health problems arise.

There have been many well publicised cases of players receiving help for mental health conditions; Chris Kirkland, George Green, Stan Collymore, Darren Eadie, Aaron Lennon, Paul Gascoigne, Tony Adams, Adrian Mutu, Fernando Ricksen, Andrew Cole and Paul Merson, to name a handful. Some of those players are a big presence on the pitch, a captain, the face of their club. Even Juventus legend, Gianluigi Buffon, sought treatment for depression in 2003. During an interview later on he recalled the “dark periods” he had experienced. It is safe to assume if a hugely successful and iconic player such as Buffon can experience depression then absolutely anyone can. One may ask the question “what does he have to be depressed about?” But when you’re in that zone nothing else matters; the money, the big house, the adulation of the fans. Nothing. One would easily give it all up in a heartbeat just to feel better again.

If there is anything good to come from their struggles it is that their public recognition of the illness has given the courage to a number of fans and players to admit they need help. Former Arsenal captain, Tony Adams, who was jailed in December 1990 for drink driving as a result of years of alcoholism, set up the Sporting Chance foundation in 2000. It provides a quiet, safe environment for male and female athletes to receive counselling and treatment for all types of mental health problems. They have also branched out into training and education and regularly attend organisations across the UK to spread the word of addiction and mental health treatment.

In Germany, Teresa Enke, widow of Robert Enke, formed a foundation in his name after he committed suicide on 2009. The aim of the foundation is to help educate people about depression and heart conditions in children (those familiar with Enke’s story will know his daughter died from a heart condition, aged just 2 years old). In October 2016 they developed the EnkeApp, which not only provides information on mental health treatment but also acts as an emergency help button for people contemplating suicide. By using the app an alert is sent to the emergency services and users can be located via GPS.

There are, unfortunately, more players like Robert Enke, who have attempted to take it a step further than most and tried to end their lives. Justin Fashanu committed suicide in May 1998 after experiencing problems after publicly admitting he was gay in 1990. Former Leeds United and Newcastle United player, Gary Speed, also committed suicide in 2011. Although no history of mental illness had been reported by Speed or his family, it is believed the pressures of managing his professional and personal life contributed to his decision to end his life. Speed’s death evoked action by the FA as they sent out a booklet on mental health to all their members and over 50,000 former players. It may only be a booklet but at the very least the problem is being recognised by the FA and the best case scenario is with a greater awareness of the matter tragedies like this will be prevented.

If society is to rid itself of years of ridicule and ignorance around mental health, then it needs to get away from sensationalism of the issue. It is an illness, not an affair with a porn star. By the same token when a celebrity tells the public they’re gay, why does everyone go into a frenzied meltdown? The issues of mental health and sexuality, while important to people’s lives, are no more sensational than boiling an egg. Admittedly the more exposure these issues have, the less likely they are to appear shocking. However, it is a very fine line which the media treads, in the case of The Sun, they’re about 40 miles past the line. In 2003, boxer, Frank Bruno was sectioned under the Mental Health Act. The Sun ran a front page headline stating “Bonkers Bruno Locked Up”. This was hardly a surprise from such a less than reputable newspaper and it certainly didn’t help people accept the seriousness of the situation, instead it made a joke out of it when it was anything but.

In the 15 years since then there have been huge strides made to raise awareness of the issue, charities like Mind and CALM have helped people to better identify the symptoms and get the help they need. As a result, society is more educated and a little more compassionate towards those in the same situation, but the stigma of weakness still exists. That stigma is made up of two parts, the first being a general ignorance around mental health itself, the second is the perception towards players of the wider public. These are going to be the hardest issues to tackle and changing people’s attitudes in an increasingly opinionated world is going to be hugely difficult.

Footballers suffer from the problem that their profession is right in the middle of the media spotlight, we all know this goes with the territory and most people believe the players themselves court this hype. However, when things go wrong the feelings of guilt when they’re being expected to perform without question and be a role model, week after week, are significantly increased. Last year 160 Professional Footballer’s Association members sought advice and help for mental health problems through the association; 62 of which were current players and managers. The question is how many more out there need their help but feel too ashamed because of the stigma, to speak up?

It is churlish to place footballers above everyday people simply because of their profession. Nearly 20% of the population in the UK are affected by anxiety and depression, however in most cases because the average fan cannot relate to the life of a modern footballer they often take their admittance less seriously than people of their own peer group, as a result footballers are seen to be attention seeking or exaggerating to gain the public’s sympathy. The footballer’s feelings of how they will be perceived is part two of the stigma and places most of them in an impossible situation.

The negative perception isn’t just restricted to opposition fans and the media. In February 2018, Cowdenbeath player, David Cox, described how he was not only the target of fans but also opposition players for merely speaking publicly about his own mental health problems. No doubt it took Cox great courage and determination to not only face the fact he needed help but to also speak up and acknowledge it for everyone to hear and judge. The positive work by charities, the NHS and the football authorities has increased awareness but the David Cox case highlights the point that most footballers aren’t afforded the luxury that you or I have; namely keeping these issues within a close network of family and friends. It is little wonder footballers suffer in silence or speak up when the situation is much worse than it needs to be.

The focus for awareness amongst footballers tends to be on those who are in their 20s and 30s and are at the peak of their careers, however there also needs to be significant attention afforded to what players do with their lives after retirement. Their career is very short when compared to the majority of professions and they can be out of the game by their mid-30s, some retire earlier, whether through injury or just a simple lack of ability. Long gone are the days where a footballer retired to run a country pub or a post office, and even with vast sums of cash in reserve, not properly occupying your time can lead to all sorts of problems in later life. Without sensible investment, education and preparation for retirement during their careers a former player can easily spiral out of control and struggle with loneliness, boredom and debt and turn to drugs, alcohol and gambling, amongst others, as coping mechanisms. Many players have ended up penniless within years of retirement; Geoff Hurst had to claim unemployment benefit in the early 1980s after leaving football for a short while (it is a scandal the FA didn’t offer him a job for life, but I digress). Former Aston Villa player, Lee Hendrie, was almost another tragic case; he tried to commit suicide twice before being declared bankrupt in 2012. Former England goalkeeper, David James, is another example. Despite playing at the highest level for a number of years (and thus being expected to have accumulated a significant retirement fund) was declared bankrupt in 2014.

It is a fair argument that these players, who have had everything done for them from their youth days in the academies, aren’t used to fending for themselves, especially where financial matters are concerned. The responsibility is not only with the individual and their club but also with their agent. A good agent will obviously guide and advise the player, however in a world of ‘super agents’ who very often appear to be acting in their own interests, it wouldn’t be a surprise to learn this doesn’t happen very often. It will certainly be interesting to see how the players of today manage when they retire over the next decade.

There is also a need, one which is probably more important than focusing on adult professionals, and that is to ensure tomorrow’s adults are well cared for. The necessity for clubs to be an extension of social services is more vital than ever with hundreds of young men and women being released by English academies every year. They have been fed a dream of money, fame and glory from an early age and to have it taken away and be pushed out into the big, wide world can often be too much for some. In March 2013 a young man who was released from a Premier League academy at 16 committed suicide after suffering with mental health problems following his release. Currently English academies provide education and training for players between the ages of 16 and 18, as well as teaching life skills and emotional wellbeing courses. Significantly both the Football League and Premier League manage their players’ expectations throughout their time in the academies and keep in touch with the boys and girls they release for up to four years after. It is hoped by demonstrating a dedication to the duty of care beyond the football pitch they can help prevent the tragic suicide of 2013.

Depression and other mental health conditions are extremely complex and while patients can be medicated and treated one can simply not explain the power of the mind, the power that it holds over us, every day. Depression is an abhorrent illness and one which makes the sufferer disengage from society. This is its most debilitating symptom; it makes you do exactly the opposite of what you should do in order to receive help; it prevents you from speaking up.

This article has been troubling to research and write, not least because of my own personal experiences with depression, but I am glad I did. I usually sum up my articles with a question or give the reader something to think about, this time I’ll change it slightly and bring myself into it. I too have met with my fair share of negativity on the subject of my own mental health, but I believe the world is much more educated and sympathetic than it used to be. While writing this has brought back a lot of old memories it is nothing compared to that of the tragedies face by the Enke, Speed and Fashanu families. I survived, I received help. Over the years I have managed to more or less deal with this horrific illness and I urge anyone reading this who is struggling to cope to seek help, see your doctor or speak to one of the many mental health charities out there. Former Wigan Athletic and Liverpool goalkeeper, Chris Kirkland, said in an interview, “I just want people to know that you’ve got to talk. I never saw a way out until I started talking” I agree with him; it worked for me.

www.mind.org.uk

www.thecalmzone.net

The Rise of the Foot Soldier…

Giving some love to the under appreciated at Juve.

The Serie A season ends next week and a seventh successive title is heading to Turin, courtesy of a consistent and determined title defence. Huge credit must go to Max Allegri, his coaching staff and the squad for keeping Juve on the right path over the nine-month slugfest. Many can argue the lack of competition in Serie A has meant Juve simply have to turn up and they’ll be champions, however this has been the closest title race since 2002 and those arguments about a lack of competition are often knee jerk, uneducated and myopic. Napoli deserve credit for their determination and keeping the race close, despite not being close to Juve in terms of squad depth or finance. We can criticise Maurizio Sarri, his rotational policy and lack of transfer activity when it was needed most, but that aside, they have made the final couple of months of the season compelling viewing. Outside of the top two, the increase in quality at Milan, Inter, Lazio and Roma (despite the Milanese inconsistent seasons) means there are a handful of genuine challengers for the crown next year. Whether the challengers go all out for a Napoli-style Serie A title assault at the expense of the other competitions they’re in, remains to be seen.

For Juve, European success next season is a must along with keeping hold of their better players during the summer. Their star players have in the main performed to a high standard, injuries, suspensions and a dip in the quality of their performances notwithstanding, and a lot of the glory will rightly be showered upon them. But what about the fringe players? The ones usually on the edges of the photo as the team celebrate with a trophy. The unsung heroes? The players asked to play out of position in an emergency? Without them Juve could never have competed with Napoli and the rest for the whole season. It is that squad depth which sets Juve apart from the chasing pack.

Allegri has shown he is adept at squad management and rotation by being able to adjust the formation and personnel to suit the situation; a tactical chameleon, if you will. Looking at those fringe players in more detail one has to decide at which point they become fully fledged members on the first team. If we use a 20 game start limit to separate them we’re left with a very interesting pool of reserves who can admirably fill in for their colleagues. Players with 20 or less starts are;

Gigi Buffon

Wojciech Szczesny

Kwadwo Asamoah

Mattia De Sciglio

Andrea Barzagli

Daniele Rugani

Benedikt Howedes

Mehdi Benatia

Rodrigo Bentancur

Claudio Marchisio

Stefano Sturaro

Douglas Costa

Juan Cuadrado

Federico Bernardeschi

 

Of those players Buffon, Benatia, Rugani and Costa stand out as regular first team players and they are on the cusp of that 20 start limit. Many of the players have been hampered by injury; Howedes is the name which immediately springs to mind, having made just three starts in his season-long loan from Schalke, however De Sciglio, Cuadrado, Bernardeschi and Marchisio have missed significant time this season. The other point which is easily noticeable is the sheer quality of those players, it’s a difficult case to argue this side wouldn’t challenge for the title on its own and the majority would easily command a place in starting line ups across Serie A. Again, massive credit should be given to Allegri and his staff, not to mention CEO, Giuseppe Marotta, and the board, for moulding such a talented squad which is a healthy blend of youth and experience.

The challenge for the club going into next season and the season after is keeping that level of quality in depth as high as it is now. Looking at the list it is fair to say Buffon, Barzagli and Howedes will not be playing in Turin, or in the case of the first two, at all, within the next couple of years.

desciglio-juve-concentrato-2017-2018-750x450

Szczesny has been a very impressive, almost under the radar signing. Either side of the winter break he deputised well for the injured Buffon and should be confident of making the sacred number one jersey his own next season.

Mattia Caldara’s return from a loan with Atalanta will mean Rugani is still likely to be the squad player in central defence, however Rugani may well feel he needs a move away to fulfil his potential and Allegri’s puzzling lack of faith in him may well make up his mind. Even if Rugani does stay in Turin Barzagli’s age may open up the possibility of another central defender joining in the summer. Given the factors that are seemingly pointing towards an exit fairly soon, Rugani has still had a decent season, but it has only been a decent season, nothing special, and given he should have stepped up in Bonucci’s absence his season could be viewed as a disappointment. Many fans are prepared to die on the ‘young Italian player’ hill and this blinds some people’s opinion of him.

Medhi Benatia, as we will see with Costa, has been in imperious form since the winter break, quite the opposite of the clumsy and timid player he had become over the previous few months. His man of the match performance in last week’s Coppa Italia Final drubbing of Milan capped off a superb six months for him.

Stephan Lichtsteiner is also another player on who is a borderline first team regular and is gracefully bowing out of action in Turin after seven years of service to the Bianconeri, he has given the best years of his career to Juve and his efforts are gratefully appreciated. Along with Kwadwo Asamoah, he’s steadily performed when asked to. He was part of the game changing tactical move by Allegri in the away win at Tottenham Hotspur and he also provided two assists for Mandzukic to spark Juve’s revival in Madrid.

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De Sciglio has divided opinion between Juve fans and seems to still be under the ‘solid but unspectacular’ cloud he has been under since his Milan days. He isn’t a Dani Alves in terms of attacking threat but he is certainly very reliable and can comfortably claim to have had a good first season in Turin, despite a raft of injuries. It will be interesting to see how often Allegri uses Cuadrado at right back next season given it’s not his natural position.

Lichtsteiner’s departure and Asamoah’s impending move to Inter could mean be a case of re-building in both full back areas. There are already plans to do just that as Leonardo Spinazzola returns from loan and there is a high possibility of adding Manchester United full back, Matteo Darmian, in the mercato.

Of the trio of central midfielders (Marchisio, Sturaro and Bentancur) only Bentancur can claim to have had a good season and he of those is the only one who can realistically expect to be still in Turin for more than a couple of seasons. All three have made fleeting appearances, the reasons behind their average squad status are debatable, although Bentancur’s age and experience, Sturaro’s ability and Marchisio’s fitness and being favoured over Sami Khedira and Blaise Matuidi, would all be valid reasons.

Bentancur has shown some ability and maturity this season, particularly against Real Madrid in the absence of Miralem Pjanic. Sturaro and to a lesser extent, Marchisio, are no longer of the ability and standard required to play for Juve. I’m not as down on Sturaro as most of my fellow Juventini, but he is limited at the highest level. Marchisio suffers from the same problem as Rugani whereby Juve fans are besotted with a player, no matter his ability, who has been at the club since his teens. While I’m not completely heartless it is obvious he is nowhere near the form of a few years ago. Sturaro would be on most people’s list to leave in the summer and although Marchisio can still perform in the Juve midfield, a move away for either wouldn’t be a complete surprise, especially as the arrival of Emre Can from Liverpool could be imminent.

At the beginning of the season it was expected that either Bernardeschi or Costa would oust Cuadrado from the right wing. Both haven’t started as much as they would’ve liked and while it is frustrating for Juve fans both have been carefully integrated into the starting line-up. The fruits of Allegri’s labour have produced some match winning displays from Costa, he’s arguably been Juve’s best player over the second half of the season and it’s fair to say Juve’s eventual canter to the title would not have happened had Costa not been on form.

Injury has stifled Bernardeschi’s progress somewhat but he is young enough to be able to break into the first 11 on a regular basis next season. His brief first team involvement has shown him to be a very capable player and like Lichtsteiner has made a big impact in the games he’s started. He scored a crucial goal against Olympiakos to secure Juve’s passage into the Champions League Knockout Round and also scored on his first return to his former home in Florence.

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Cuadrado’s early season performances were typical of the player; frustrating and inconsistent, and he still continues to provide both joy and despair in equal measures. Like Costa, he has provided some vital goals for Juve; the goal in the 3-1 home victory over Milan and the deflected goal against Inter spring to mind. Although he can be extremely inconsistent his presence in the Juve squad should never be underestimated.

Juve will be raising the Serie A trophy aloft on 20 May after the home game with Hellas Verona and while the team will take the plaudits, they wouldn’t have won seven consecutive Scudetti without the help of the squad. So when you see Asamoah’s face in amongst the players with the trophy or De Sciglio taking selfies with his family, remember they’re the foot soldiers, players just out of the limelight. They are often underappreciated and rarely thanked, but they are as much a part of the title win as Higuain’s and Chiellini’s and fully deserve to wear their winners medal with pride at the season’s end.

 

The Heroes of Seville Now a Team With No Name

The rise and fall of Steaua Bucharest

Jerzey Dudek, Bruce Grobbelaar and Edwin van der Sar have all saved penalties in a European Final. However the efforts of another will surely top those of the aforementioned custodians; Helmut Duckadam. Not a household name west of Bucharest, but Duckadam, the Steaua Bucharest goalkeeper of the mid-1980s, was branded the Hero of Seville after his magnificent performance in the 1986 European Cup Final penalty shoot out where he saved all four of Barcelona’s penalties and by doing so he chiselled Steaua’s name in to European football history. European competition in late 1970s and early 1980s was largely dominated by English clubs, that was until the indefinite ban after the 1985 Heysel stadium disaster and the ban opened the door for the rest of Europe take their mantle. Since its beginning in 1955 only one other eastern European team has won the European Cup; Red Star Belgrade in 1991, and this makes Steaua’s 1986 victory all the more unique.

A side formed by the Romanian military in 1947, they recruited the country’s best young players with the promise of being able to avoid being called up for national service. Their rise to European success began under the guidance of coach, Emerich Jenei, in the second of six spells as manager, he helped Steaua secure their place atop of Romanian football’s elite with three successive title wins and two cup wins between 1984 and 1987, they narrowly missed three successive doubles by losing the 1986 Cup Final to city-rivals Dinamo. It mattered little, with their domestic dominance almost assured they started their assault on Europe.

Steaua’s victorious European Cup run in 1985/86 was at the start of an astonishing 104 match unbeaten domestic streak which stretched between 1984 and 1989. Captain, Stefan Iovan, a Steaua veteran of 11 years and Victor Piturca, who would go on to score 137 goals in just six years in Bucharest, lead their domestic rule and it no doubt gave them confidence to breeze past Vejle of Denmark and Honved of Hungary in the European Cup. They faced Finnish side, Kuusysi, in the Quarter Final and won 1-0 on aggregate thanks to a Piturca goal just three minutes from time. The Semi Final saw them fend off a talented Anderlecht side, 3-1, to secure their place against Terry Venables’ Barca in Seville. Steaua, despite being in the Final on merit, were given very little chance, especially as they were playing in their opponent’s home country. The game itself was a war of attrition and neither team can be particularly surprised it ended in a penalty shoot out. However Duckadam’s heroics are the stuff of legend and the whole club can be rightly proud of their victory.

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Their European adventures continued over the following three seasons. Under Jenei they won the European Super Cup in December 1986, defeating Dynamo Kyiv, 1-0, with Gheorghe Hagi scoring the only goal. By virtue of winning the European Cup they faced South American champions, River Plate, in the Intercontinental Cup in Tokyo, however they lost 1-0 to a somewhat fortuitous goal where the ball rebounded off the post, goalkeeper, and straight into the path of Antonio Alzamendi who headed home.

Jenei was replaced by Anghel Iordenescu; a former Steaua player from 1968 to 1982 during which time he became their all time top goal scorer with 155. He joined the coaching team at Steaua in 1984 and was a 36 year old substitute in the 1986 European Cup Final. He became manager of Steaua on a full time basis in 1987 and he carried on where his predecessor left off with two league and cup doubles, including 21 consecutive league wins in 1988. His Steaua side also beat Rangers on the way to a Semi Final appearance in the 1987/88 European Cup. The following season they made their second Final in three years the season after knocking out Sparta Prague, Spartak Moscow, IFK Gothenburg and Galatasaray. In the Final they were comfortably beaten 4-0 by an AC Milan side lead by Arrigo Sacchi and inspired by Dutch trio, Marco van Basten, Frank Rijkaard and Ruud Gullit. Sacchi’s Milan side hammered Real Madrid, 6-1, in the Semi Final and would go on to achieve iconic status in Italy and Europe with back to back European triumphs. Their second Sacchi-led win was over Benfica in 1990.

Both of Steaua’s legendary 1980s managers went on to manage the national team. Jenei was in charge of Romania between 1986 and 1990, the World Cup in Italy saw Steaua players Balint and Lacatus both play and score as the team made the Second Round before being eliminated on penalties by Ireland in Genoa. Iordenescu followed Jenei into national management between 1993 and 1998 as he took Romainia to consecutive World Cups. The 1994 team, starring Hagi, Ilie Dumitrescu and Florin Raducioiu, lost 4-1 to Switzerland but topped the group before being knocked out by Sweden on penalties in the Quarter Final. In 1998 they beat England on the way to leading the group, but despite avoiding England’s eventual conquerors, Argentina, they were knocked out by Davor Suker’s Croatia in the Second Round. Iordenescu received criticism for the team’s performances in France and he resigned after the defeat to Croatia.

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Gheorghe Hagi was undoubtedly the star of the era as he finished as the league’s top goal scorer on two occasions while playing for FC Sportul, he moved to Steaua in 1987 and went on to score 76 goals in 97 games. A player of immense flair and technical ability, he would go to be hugely successful across Europe over the course of his career. Steaua’s teams of the mid to late 1980s also saw Dan Petrescu, Marius Lacatus and Gabi Balint playing starring roles in their success. Those seminal Steaua teams were mostly compromised of home grown players, this was partly down to the restrictions put in place by the Communist government which contributed to the prevention of players moving abroad and thus influenced Romanian club’s successes in European competition, as a number of other teams were also commanding in Europe during this period. Dinamo Bucharest reached the European Cup Semi Final in 1984 before losing to eventual winners, Liverpool, they also reached the Semi Final of the European Cup Winners Cup in 1990, while CSU Craiova made the UEFA Cup Semi Final in 1983. The fall of Communism in Romania in December 1989 somewhat liberated the transfer market and young players in search of a better standard of living, including higher wages, and a different more liberal culture were tempted away from Romania. Western Europe was suddenly accessible to Romania’s top players as Hagi moved to Real Madrid in 1990 and both Lacatus and Petrescu transferred to Fiorentina and Foggia, respectively.

After the 1988/89 domestic double, Steaua failed to win the league for three seasons and It can be argued they suffered something of a hangover after the drubbing by Milan in 1989 and losing their better players after the Romanian revolution the same year. Their domestic difficulties continued as there was a 1984/Doctor Strangelove-style undercurrent throughout the late 1980s. Military-owned, Steaua, were constantly in dispute with city rivals, Dinamo, who were owned by the Romanian Interior Ministry. It was reported the Ministry bugged the offices of Steaua and interfered with their transfer dealings.

Worse was to follow for Steaua, as although they had been separated from the military since 1998, in 2011 they were sued by their military founders for using of the Steaua name, stating the team had been using it illegally since 2004. The government ruled in the military’s favour in December 2014 and Steaua were banned from using their colours, name and logo; more importantly their history and previous honours would also remain under the military’s ownership. Fortunately for the integrity of the team now called FCSB and football in general, UEFA still recognises the trophies won by FCSB under the Steaua name to be theirs, so the history hasn’t merely been wiped out by the court rulings.

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The 1990s saw more allegations of corruption against a number of top flight teams including FC Brasov and Ceahlual Piatra Neamt; known as the Coopertiva, they allegedly exchanged wins to ensure the other teams involved weren’t relegated. These allegations, in a belated attempt at honesty and to try and rid the game of corruption, were admitted by several of the involved clubs of their own volition and not in a court of law.

While the Romanian national teams of the 1990s may have had more media attention it can be argued the Steaua side of the mid-1980s marked a real golden generation for Romanian football. Nowadays the Romanian league is one of the lowest ranked in Europe (20th in 2018, below Cyprus and Israel) and while FCSB will never scale the heights of their golden era they hold a unique place in the rich history of Europe’s premier club competition. The courts and the military may want to take that away from them but the heroes of Seville will always remain in the hearts of their fans and players.

Juve’s 2018 Crossroads – Part two

Looking ahead to an important summer in Turin

We’ve looked at the past and present, now to focus on the future, starting with the Mister himself. It’s widely assumed Allegri’s job is safe after all his trophy record speaks for itself, especially when you look at the calibre of players who have left the club over the last few years. It is widely considered that Juve’s Champions League success is almost more important than our Serie A record in order to increase our stature among our European rivals. Even a simple look at Juve’s Champions League record this season shows they have only marginally progressed; making the Quarter Final after beating Spurs, away, and then taking the holders to injury time in the second leg should be regarded as such. Looking at it more closely, apart from the 30-minute spell against Spurs and the nothing-to-lose game in the Bernabeau Juve haven’t demonstrated any ability to control games, to make teams fear them, and this could ultimately lead to Allegri’s downfall.

Allegri would argue that Juve, given those departures of key players, have been punching above their weight in Europe over the last couple of seasons and while that may be true it is clear the attention and momentum this generated hasn’t been used to their advantage. His persistence in using impractical tactics and personnel in Europe is hampering Juve’s progress. Given they have made the Final in two of the past three seasons it can be said this is progress enough and turning a squad capable of winning the trophy doesn’t happen overnight unless your team is bankrolled by the Middle East or Russia, but there haven’t been any significant signs of progress this year. In fact, the word regression springs to mind and the end of game antics in Madrid shouldn’t be allowed to cloud this view.

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Despite the tone of this article I am pro-Allegri but if Juve are to look elsewhere for a new manager, they have to weigh up whether Allegri can deliver them the Champions League trophy sooner rather than later. If they don’t think he’s up to it, they may only have to look as far as the opposing dugout at the Bernabeu. As a former player Zinedine Zidane could be a perfect fit for the BIanconceri, most importantly he has a proven record of delivering European trophies at a major club. During a recent post-game interview upon being asked whether he would be Juve manager one day he replied “never say never”, he also said “Juve is close to my heart”; certainly not a straight up refusal by any means. If he doesn’t retain the Champions League this year and given Real’s relatively poor domestic season he could well be looking elsewhere for employment. Italian coaches, Eusebio Di Francesco, Simone Inzaghi and Maurizio Sarri have all had impressive seasons, however the first two are still somewhat untested with a major club and Sarri is too inflexible to take a team to the highest level.

The summer will be very important as Allegri will surely be given opportunity to strengthen a team which desperately needs it. Juve have a ready-made replacement for Gigi Buffon in Wojciech Szczesny and now is the time for him to step up and be Buffon’s long term successor. As much as it pains Juventini to admit it, it is time for Buffon to keep his word and retire while he can still perform at the highest level, he may not have (potentially) ended his Champions League career the way he would’ve wanted to but his legacy as one of the best goalkeepers ever to play the game is one which remains untarnished. Juve have done well to bring Szczesny in for what should be his warm up season to help fully integrate himself and now is his time to take over the number one shirt.

The return from loan of Mattia Caldara will help bolster the defence after an impressive two season stint at Atalanta and it wouldn’t be surprising to see one or both of Andrea Barzagli and Daniele Rugani make way. Rugani is still yet to consistently play under Allegri, other than a run of games at the start of the season, and while he has the ability to play at a high level, he doesn’t seem to have the trust of his manager after being overlooked for the Real Madrid home leg. Another loan spell for Rugani would be wise from Juve’s point of view, however the player himself may prefer to cut his losses and start elsewhere after being out of favour for so long. As far as Barzagli is concerned his form has still been above average but the first team starts are becoming less frequent, there aren’t many Juve fans who have a negative opinion of him, it is just a case of being the right time to pass the defensive responsibilities to someone else and given Caldara’s return this seems quite likely.  There aren’t many players Juve could conceivably bring in, especially with the return of Caldara, however Benedikt Howedes, has shown some promise in his (very) limited first team action and there was obviously something about his play to make Allegri and co want to bring him to Juve in the first place; he may well be tempted to make a second stab at his Juve career.

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As for the full backs it appears Stephan Lichtsteiner and (or) Kwadwo Asamoah will leave at the end of the season, Mattia De Sciglio seems to be settled in the right back role and it has been suggested another Atalanta loanee, Leonardo Spinazzola, will deputise where necessary next season. Like Barzagli, Lichtsteiner’s time is almost over in Turin and despite his long-term commitment to Juve a move would probably benefit both parties. In preparation for the departures at full back Juve have been heavily linked with Matteo Darmian, his signing would be welcomed as he has appeared to become a more stable and well-rounded defender since moving to England; definitely an upgrade on who is available at the moment. Alex Sandro, improved from his uncharacteristic form at the beginning of the season, could again be a prime target for the Premier League. However, Juve should fight to keep him as top class attacking full backs are at a premium and it’s a doubt whether Spinazzola or, if he stays, Asamoah could fill his boots.

If Sandro does move on the profit of his transfer could be used in midfield. There has been constant speculation surrounding the futures of Sami Khedira and Claudio Marchisio, both for different reasons have been linked with moves away from the Allianz Stadium. For Khedira he has more often than not been too inconsistent and absent during games to justify wearing the black and white beyond the end of next season, despite this he is Allegri’s preferred choice for supporting Pjanic and no matter what Juventini think of his inclusion they need to get beyond the constant scolding of the German and realise his experience is vital, for the time being at least. Marchisio has suffered as a result of Khedira’s continued inclusion and must be wondering, as his career reaches its twilight, whether a gut-wrenching move away from his boyhood club would be best for him. It’s obvious he hasn’t reached the heights of his pre-knee injury form and he is no more than a squad player now so it wouldn’t be surprising to see him move. Although seeing both Buffon and Marchisio leave in the same mercato could be too much for some fans.

The signing of Blaise Matuidi was supposed to be the missing piece in Juve’s midfield and although he has performed well this season it is apparent his signing isn’t enough to help Juve progress to the next level. He brings a lot of energy and determination but as highlighted in the first leg defeat to Real Madrid, cover for Miralem Pjanic is desperately needed. Pjanic himself has been better than his debut season in 2016/17, but he, like Khedira, goes missing too often or is being asked to play the bruiser role, which really doesn’t suit him.

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There have been plenty of potential midfield signings mentioned and when you’re a club the size of Juve it appears not a day goes by where there isn’t some kind of speculation. Emre Can was apparently a certainty to sign for Juve at the end of his contact with Liverpool however nothing has been finalised yet. He is a very similar player to Khedira, Marchisio and Matuidi and although his talent isn’t in question it is apparent he isn’t the type of player required at the moment. The dream signing for many Juventini would be Sergej Milinkovic-Savic; his mouth-watering, dynamic performances in Lazio’s midfield have attracted the attention of Europe’s elite, however it’s unlikely he’ll join Juve whether it’s because of the hefty price tag or whether it’s down to the working relationship between Juve and Lazio is a matter of opinion. Atalanta’s Bryan Cristiante and Sampdoria’s Dennis Praet are also possibilities, as is Nebil Fekir from Lyon; all have the attacking talent and flair to support Pjanic in the link between midfield and attack.

Anthony Martial has also been mentioned as a Juve target after reported meetings between his agent and Juve representatives after the game against Spurs at Wembley. Martial is a big name and he would be a very important signing in terms of Juve’s stature among their peers and the increased ability to attract big names will turn heads across Europe. However Martial is perhaps not what Juve need either especially when they have Juan Cuadrado, Federico Bernardeschi and Costa already in the squad and Marko Pjaca still to return. If it were to happen one would expect Mario Mandzukic to make way, he has made a name for himself since his 2015 move from Bayern Munich and was successfully transitioned to a left wing role last season, however it is not his natural position and if he isn’t going to play centre forward he is surely being wasted at Juve. He has looked well short of his best at times this season, despite two clinical headed goals against Real Madrid.

If Juve are indeed looking for a replacement striker, then the links with Alvaro Morata would be music to the ears of Juventini. After somewhat reluctantly leaving in 2016 he would be welcomed back like a long lost relative. He proved to be a very capable player in his two years at Juve and hasn’t exactly caught the imagination during his time at Chelsea, given their probable management change in the summer it is possible Morata could be available. He would certainly take some of the goal scoring burden from Gonzalo Higuain and might just propel Juve to the next tier of European teams.

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Of course we have a whole summer to debate the mercato and there are endless possible signings and squad permeations to be debated, but now is the time for Juve to lay the foundations of their reaction to the European disappointment. Changes are required; a change in personnel and a change in attitude. Both are easily attainable and as Max Allegri and Giuseppe Marotta are stood at the crossroads Juventini are praying they take the right path.

 

Which Way Now? – Juve at a crossroads after Madrid KO – Part one

Plenty of questions to be answered as the Bianconeri find themselves in familiar territory

Juventus’ deflated win against relegation fodder, Benevento, was a classic case of art imitating life. Twice they held the lead only to be pegged back by the bottom side, they won, eventually, and a magnificent Douglas Costa goal will have glossed over the performance; a win is a win at this stage of the season. The lethargy and down trodden mood was palpable after Juve’s defeat to Real Madrid in the Champions League Quarter Final first leg and it hadn’t shifted by the time they took to the field four days later in Campania. Juve and Napoli have set an incredible pace in Serie A (either club could conceivably not win the league having secured over 90 points) and the game in Turin at the end of this month could well be the title decider. Despite the exciting climax to the domestic season their European adventures haven’t been as encouraging, to be fair they’ve made a dramatic rise in status over recent years with two final appearances, those finals have provided average performances but ultimately two defeats. The defeats have been greeted with a certain amount of optimism for the following season and confidence has been building for a while that Juve are finally within touching distance of their final opponents, Barcelona and Real Madrid, however, this confidence has been built on words and misty-eyed optimism rather than substantial actions and despite the shocking manner in which Juve were knocked out by Real Madrid last week it leaves Juve at a huge crossroads.

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The horror with which Juventini greeted the announcement of the starting line-up for the first leg of the Real Madrid tie must have been almost audible across Europe as they lined up with a two-man midfield, just like the Champions League Final of 2017, Allegri’s focus was on the wings where Alex Sandro was deployed on the left a Costa on the right. Miralem Pjanic and Medhi Benatia were suspended so Rodrigo Bentancur, ahead of Juve stalwart, Claudio Marchisio, and Andrea Barzagli stepped in. One has to question Allegri’s reasoning for playing Barzagli, a man who time and again was beaten by the threatening pace of Son Heung-min in the second leg game of the previous round against Tottenham Hotspur. Against Real he lined up, albeit in a different position, against Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema. The only reason apparent reason behind Barzagli’s inclusion is his experience, but that will only get you so far when you’re up against arguably the best attack in Europe.

On the flip side, Bentancur’s fleeting appearances in the first team have given reason for optimism and his first half performance against Real was as composed and mature as one could’ve hoped for; he was willing to track back, make tackles and start Juve’s sporadic attacks. His performance can’t be faulted. Similarly, Sami Khedira’s first half display was at odds with his less than consistent 2017/18 season, in Pjanic’s absence he played a great game just when it was required. Personally it was amusing to see him being the subject of lavish praise at half time only to be lambasted by fickle elements of Juve’s support in the second half, some things never change. His second half display wasn’t up to the standard of the first but he certainly wasn’t Juve’s biggest culprit; he was more a victim of circumstance, of Real’s second goal, that was the killer.

That goal; the product of some more childish defending between Chiellini and Buffon, combined with Juve’s innate ability to be their own worst enemy, was simply one of the finest you’ll ever see and whether you agree with applauding the opposition or not, the ovation from the Juventini inside the stadium was more than justified. As a football fan sometimes you just have to applaud the opposition, it doesn’t happen often and had his effort ended up in row z everyone would’ve laughed, it didn’t and the team’s confidence drained away. Their perceived lack of confidence in big European games has been mentioned by many pundits and it’s hard to argue against that when it is clear the players’ heads drop when they concede in these big games. In the end the match statistics were fairly even; Real had 14 shots to Juve’s 12, 5 shots on target to Juve’s 2 and 56% to 44% possession. However, the overall impression was that Real were in second gear for much of the game, whereas Juve, in order to get anything from the game, had to play at their top level. Juve do not have the luxury of Cristiano Ronaldo, not many teams do, but Juve simply do not have a player of his calibre, a match winner, and it is apparent without Pjanic that Juve lack a dynamic creative presence on the pitch.

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The second leg was supposed to be a foregone conclusion and given their performances against both Barcelona and Real this year it was perhaps even more unbelievable Juve scored three and kept a clean sheet (almost). The team and Allegri deserve a huge amount of credit for not simply preserving energy ahead of the final Serie A games. Allegri finally ditched the two-man midfield and it was obvious to everyone watching that Juve are a much better team when they have support for Pjanic in the shape of Matuidi and Khedira. The focus on the wings and getting crosses into the area paid off and it was a huge reason behind Juve’s success on the night. Special mention must go to Khedira who quietly had one of his best games of the season, if he could sort out the consistency issues he can still play a part for Juve. Mandzukic too, who looked well off the pace versus Benevento, must be praised for his two goals and impressive centre forward play. As for Juve’s sickening exit, the debate around the injury time penalty will continue long after I’m dead and buried and it’s a subject for another time.

Allegri has to take the blame for the exit after playing the two-man midfield when it has been proven time and again to be ineffective against quality opposition and they had to go all out in Madrid after the poor showing in the first leg. The inclusion of Bentancur in the first leg, despite his encouraging performance, over Matuidi or even Marchisio, is puzzling, especially when he was facing Kroos, Modric and Isco. Playing Alex Sandro on the left may work domestically and it has to be acknowledged that injuries and suspensions have forced Allegri’s hand somewhat, however it clearly didn’t work and Asamoah was left exposed to Real’s counter more often than not. Last season’s Champions League Final saw Juve play Dani Alves on the right, Mario Mandzukic on the left and the ill-fated two-man midfield. Same tactic, same outcome. It is both bizarre and frustrating to expect a different outcome by using the same tactic against the same team.

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So the European campaign ends in disappointment and Juve’s response will be crucial. It is easy to point the finger at a lack of domestic competition given they’ve won six titles in succession, this is partly true as the Serie A title isn’t wrapped up yet and although it is within reach Napoli have pushed them all the way. The Coppa Italia final versus Milan next month would seal Juve’s fourth successive domestic double. Domestic dominance is becoming almost given for Juve and glancing at the table after the Real defeat would show a team who has dropped only 12 points all season. They are the cream of Italian football and Real Madrid, as in the Final last June, simply swept them aside in the first leg. It can be argued of the two knockout ties this year Juve have only played well for one game and a 20-minute period versus Spurs, it isn’t an exaggeration to say they were outplayed for the rest of those ties.

It is mildly embarrassing for a team to be revered and feared in their homeland only to be made to look inferior against quality continental opposition. Remember Italy is one of Europe’s flagship leagues and although competition from Napoli, Roma, Lazio and Inter have increased the pressure and improved the league as a whole, it can be said barring a few other teams (Milan, Fiorentina and Atalanta) the rest are very poor, with the bottom six or seven extremely so. Although this example is probably comparable with England or Germany, their top teams are still producing quality performances in Europe and there isn’t a real question over the lack of competition in those leagues.

If Juve aren’t careful they could fall in to a similar trap to Celtic in Scotland, they are by far and away the best team in the Scottish Premier League but are out of their depth in top European competition. A slight exaggeration when compared to Juve but it’s a little too close to the truth for some. Juve were mostly unconvincing in the group stage, they almost certainly stole the aggregate win over Spurs in the Knockout Round and were not so much outplayed by Real but always somewhat inferior, a step behind, and gave themselves too much to do despite their heroic efforts in Madrid. Unfortunately, it isn’t it isn’t the first time Juve have simply looked miles behind Europe’s elite teams.

The time for reflection, finger pointing and dissection is over, with the post mortem out of the way the second part will focus on the way forward.