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.

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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.

 

 

Quantity over Quality – Juventus heading for more trophies but at what cost?

A familiar story is building for Juve but are they sacrificing entertainment along the way?

Last Wednesday’s win away to Tottenham Hotspur saw Juventus progress to another Champions League Quarter Final, their third in four seasons. Their form in Serie A since November has been imperious and they’re matching Napoli stride for stride in the Scudetto race. They have also made their fourth Coppa Italia Final in a row where they’ll face Milan. Given they’re still fighting for trophies on three fronts the actual performances have been less than convincing and some wins have been downright fortunate at times. Any regular viewer of Juve’s games will be very aware of their inability to control games, move out of second gear and kill teams off at the earliest opportunity. Welcome to Juventus 2018, ladies and gentlemen.

Less than inspiring performances and dull 1-0 wins have been the rule rather than the exception since the start of the season, the opening Champions League game group game was away to Barcelona, a team they comprehensively knocked out in last year’s Quarter Final. After a regulation start to the season Juve suffered a 3-0 defeat in Spain. The defeat can be attributed to a lack of confidence when the first goal was conceded, but it was plain to see they didn’t play anywhere near their potential. Defeat to Barca meant the other games then turned into must not lose scenarios and not losing five games in a difficult group certainly wasn’t an easy task as Juve continued to grind out undeserved wins with average performances. The return fixture against Barcelona came a game after a nightmare inducing defeat, away to Sampdoria, in which Juve were outplayed. The Barca game followed the same pattern as the first where the team seemed almost too scared to attack. Max Allegri had set up his team not to lose, given the defeat earlier in the season this was understandable, however this was the penultimate group game and a win would have secured qualification. This made the lack of ambition by not pressing for the winning goal unbelievably frustrating and the outcry from fans was justified as the team had the perfect chance to progress. Qualification was secured with a win away against Olympiakos in the final game and it felt as if this was Allegri’s plan from the start; to use the maximum number of games to spread out the effort in the group stage. Juve were through but far from convincing.

The aggregate victory over Spurs is still fresh in the memory and for long periods of the tie Juve were outplayed, no one can argue with that. Whether this was by design or not Allegri must take the blame for lining up with a two man midfield for the home leg, especially when one of those midfielders was the woefully poor, Sami Khedira. He must also take some blame for the defensive style which was incorporated after Juve raced into a 2-0 lead, it can be said the players may have played this tactic too well and Spurs’ domination snowballed from there. Indeed such was the shock on both sides when Juve went two up that had they gone for more goals (and they were unlucky not to add to their total in fairness) the tie would’ve been over before the second leg in London. As it was, Spurs came away feeling as though they had the advantage after their dominance turned into goals and Juve had been made to look very ordinary in front of a worldwide audience.

The second leg had a very similar feel to it although Juve were able to deploy Blaise Matuidi and Paulo Dybala after they didn’t feature in the first leg due to injury. Spurs though were the better team again and had they won the tie not many would’ve complained as Juve allowed themselves to be dominated for the majority of the game. This poses its own questions; was the first leg in the players’ minds? were they just desperate not to concede? or were they suffering from an inferiority complex? Whatever the reasons, the first hour of the second leg saw Juve look a shadow of the side who had reached two of the last three Champions League Finals. Allegri though must be credited for his substitutions and Juve didn’t look back after the side appeared more balanced in the second half. Given the general atmosphere surrounding the win it can be argued Allegri has dodged a bullet with this result, he will ultimately be judged on the team’s Champions League performances and they’ll will need to play much better in the Quarter Final or they could be on the end of an embarrassing exit.

The Spurs tie has really highlighted the fact Juve have been playing beneath their ability for a long while. Looking back, one can barely remember the last time they dominated a team and played to the best of their ability. Even those Juve fans with memories akin to an elephant would only be able to remember two or three games this season, the exceptions being Milan, away, and home games against Torino and Sassuolo. Those games apart it is be nearly a whole season since Juve dismantled both Barca and Monaco in successive rounds of the Champions League, On those occasions Juve showed what they’re capable of when the confidence is sky high. Unfortunately it hasn’t happened often enough for a team of their calibre.

More recently in Serie A Juve have won 13 of 14 games and have yet to concede a goal in 2018. While these fantastic statistics show the spirit and determination of the current squad the majority of the performances have been similar to those in the Champions League. To go into each game in detail would induce sleep in most people, suffice to say the away win against Lazio a fortnight ago captured Juve’s season perfectly; borderline dreadful performance where one or two players are hardly worthy of being paid for turning up and ultimately rescued by a moment of brilliance from one of their stars to secure victory. This has become normal viewing for Juventini this season, as these creativity deficiencies are more apparent when they’re continuously grinding out poor performances.

Allegri’s preferred choice to partner Miralem Pjanic is Sami Khedira, again I am in no position to question his decisions but his insistence of choosing a player well past his best over Claudio Marchisio cannot be conducive to good team performances. It is plain to see Marchisio isn’t, and probably never will be, at his pre-injury form, however it is fairly obvious he is still a more competent player than Khedira. His introduction to the starting line up against Udinese highlighted his abilities as Juve’s general shape and midfield coherence was much improved from that of the last month or two. Other than the Marchisio/Khedira question the squad is quite balanced and deep though it is unfortunate that injuries have decimated the attacking players recently. Juan Cuadrado and Federico Bernardeschi are both out indefinitely, Mario Mandzukic has also missed significant time too. This has meant a narrow formation has been deployed recently and again Allegri’s options have been limited in terms of formation and style.

We can dispute player selection and tactics all day but one valid question remains, one which isn’t mentioned too often while Juve are winning; given the repeated dour performances and narrow wins we have to ask is this the limit with Allegri? Should we expect his Juve teams to perform like this season after season? He is well known to be a fan of squad rotation and building his team for a big trophy push after Christmas. Given recent viewing it can be said this still hasn’t happened as we haven’t seen Juve start to dominate teams in a way which is expected of them. But on the other hand, it most definitely has started as they’re still fighting for three trophies in mid-March. Let’s remember Juve won the domestic double and made a Champions League Final last season by playing this way; In second gear most of the season and producing the odd emphatic win to appease supporters for a few weeks?

If this is the hallmark of Allegri’s playing style and season management then Juve fans should accept it and support his methods. He will always use two legs of a cup tie to win rather than one. He will use the whole 90 minutes to win a game rather than 60. He will look ahead and rotate his squad to give the team a better chance of success. His methods may be disagreeable to some but remember he has delivered the title every year, two Coppa Italia wins and two Champions League Finals since his arrival in 2014.

Those fans hoping Allegri will be sacked should be careful what they wish for. Juve have a very competent, trusted manager and those wanting his resignation should ask themselves who would replace him? If he changed his style overnight and risked more by turning Juve into a gung-ho, attacking unit it might result in a few more comprehensive victories but would surely compromise their rock solid defence and would also reduce the opportunity to rotate the squad and prevent fatigue and injury. Juve would do well to stick with Allegri rather than venture into the land of console gaming in search of entertainment and goals.

The uproar over a lack of entertainment could all be ridiculed as hyperbole, a simple trophy-spoiled fan reaction to below-par performances. However as Juve are looking to rub shoulders with Real Madrid and company on regular basis their lack of consistent, high quality performances is a cause for concern and right now it appears the team hasn’t built on last year’s success of reaching the Champions League Final. Obviously success in its definite form would mean only returning from Kiev with the trophy would be considered to be success. In more realistic terms success can be defined as improved performances and gliding past teams with minimum effort, this at least would’ve been an improvement on last year. So have Juve been a success this year? That is the big question. Are they sacrificing quality over quantity? The recent Netflix series has shown, if any proof were needed, that Juve is obsessed with winning the Champions League. However given current performances it’s going to be a while before the trophy is in the Bianconeri cabinet again. Although it just may be the moribund style is part of Allegri’s plan to make Juve into a squad of grizzled, seasoned veterans who will eventually be capable of making the trophy their own.