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.

 

 

Enough is Enough – Lille OSC fans vent their frustration.

The 2011 French double winners are staring into the abyss amongst a mess of ultras violence

The images from the pitch invasion and threatening chants at the end of the Lille OSC and Montpellier game last weekend have shocked many but not come as a great surprise to most. In an increasingly pressurised sport, where results and instant success are demanded by everyone, it is common to see fans become frustrated and feel isolated. Although fan protests are one thing players being attacked are another. A Lille spokesperson likened the incident to the Heysel stadium disaster of 1985 where 39 Juventus fans were killed, those links are a little insensitive and wildly exaggerated but the French FA needs to take action to ensure player safety is maintained.

In the wake of the incident former Lille legend, Eden Hazard, urged the fans to get behind the team again, he wrote on Twitter “This evening, I’m hurting for my Lille…remember, stay united and together in the good times just as in the most difficult moments. Go LOSC!”

To help bring some perspective, Lille are in the midst of a relegation battle after winning the league and cup double little more than seven years ago. Their fall has been consistent with many smaller clubs who have risen from mid-table also rans to league champions (we can use Leicester City as an English comparison). Lille won the French Ligue 1 title, their only league title to date, in 2011, under the management of Rudi Garcia. This was in his second spell with Lille and under his guidance they made a push from possible Europa League contenders to champions of France.

Under Garcia, Lille played some very attractive, attacking football. This was highlighted by 2009’s league effort where they finished fourth and scored a division-high 72 goals. Their title win and subsequent exposure in the Champions League gave Lille their moment in the spotlight and it’s little wonder their better players and indeed the manager attracted the attention of bigger clubs. Garcia left to join Roma in 2013, this was the same season in which they sold Eden Hazard to Chelsea, but that didn’t derail them as they narrowly missed out on European qualification by one point. Since then they have finished third, eighth, fifth and 11th as their slide down the league started. Like a lot of clubs who have been punching above their weight, Lille have managed to stay afloat in Ligue 1 by maintaining their selling club mentality and their transfer outlay over the last three seasons significantly less than they have received. This sounds like good business, however there has been a lack of genuine quality replacing those who have left the club.

One man who was determined to stop the rot at the northern French club is entrepreneur, Gerard Lopez. He bought the club last year, has recently overseen the construction of new training facilities and has been part of the overhaul at the club’s already impressive youth academy. Lopez also appointed experienced, tactical maverick, Marcelo Bielsa, in May 2017.

Five managers in four years would certainly suggest Lille’s fall down the division started well before Bielsa’s appointment and isn’t totally down to his inability to steady the ship, however the board must take some of the blame as Bielsa probably isn’t the first name you would choose if you wanted a loyal and steady manager. He has always been something of a cross between a football oracle and a court jester, a tactical genius mixed with the unpredictability of a broken catherine wheel. He was appointed as Lazio manager in 2016 and lasted two days before resigning over alleged broken promises surrounding transfers, he was subsequently sued by the club for breach of contract. Prior to that he reigned for little more than a season as Marseille manager and resigned after just one game of the 2014/15 season following a defeat to Caen. He cited differences with the club’s management as the reason behind his resignation, however one must question the timing of his decision.

No doubt he is a talented manager and he has national experience with Chile and Argentina, but his appointment now seems a little desperate on Lopez’s part. The bizarre way he left Lazio and to a lesser extent, Marseille, struck again in Lille as he was suspended in December 2017 for apparently travelling to Chile to visit former colleague, Luis Bonini, without the club’s permission. Bonini was recovering from stomach cancer and although Bielsa remained suspended, the allegations of the unauthorised trip were later found to be false. However, Bielsa was eventually relieved of his position shortly after. After his £58m spending spree in the summer of 2017 it can be argued the club suffered from ‘too much too soon’ as he signed twelve players and completely revamped the first team. Bielsa reportedly took under an hour to decide, from his first team squad, who was staying and who would be sold on. It certainly is apparent the club just never adapted to the huge change brought about by his whirlwind changes and it doesn’t take a genius to work out the club’s owners will have expected something in return for their investment. Although spending vast sums of money can be seen as a little careless, especially for a club with, as I will explain below, such a precarious financial outlook. Bielsa’s record of just three wins in the first 14 games of the season will have also been on the mind of his employers, but Bielsa and the owners must all shoulder some of the blame for Lille’s current predicament.

New manager and former Lille player, Christophe Galtier, started well at the turn of 2018 but results aren’t improving enough to keep Lille in Ligue 1. Their recent form has seen them win just two league games in 2018, despite this Lille’s survival isn’t a lost cause just yet and the events of last Saturday evening seem all the more surreal considering Lille, prior to the game versus Monaco, had nine games left and were only one point from safety.

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To further kick the club while they’re down their reported financial troubles have been at the forefront of the sports news recently. In December 2017 France’s football watchdog, DNCG, enforced a transfer ban on the club, no reasons were given, although it’s believed this was due to financial concerns. The club were not allowed to make any transfers during the January transfer window and this could have a huge knock on effect as the final stages of the season draw closer. That added to the fact the club could now face punishment by the French FA for the pitch invasion against Montpellier and be forced to play a home game behind closed doors. The lack of a rousing atmosphere isn’t going to help their relegation fight and without any gate receipts they will also be further hit financially.

Saturday’s events in Lille, as well as those involving West Ham United fans during their game against Burnley at the London Stadium highlight just how emotionally involved fans are and just how much their club’s future means to them. As anyone who is familiar with their club falling down the table season after season the momentum can build very quickly as player sales without significant reinvestment in the team can create a weakened squad, this produces worse results, and so on. As the team declines it is often the fans who suffer.

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Gerard Lopez met with the Lille’s ultra groups in the week before the Montpellier game in an attempt to build a better relationship with them, they apparently assured him the fans would back the team until the end of the season. It is reported the DVE, one of Lille’s most prominent ultra groups, was responsible for the pitch invasion and subsequent protest so it appears their promise was shattered by their actions at the final whistle. Ultras across the world have a sometimes uneasy alliance with their club’s directors and players, they are given special access to the team, clubs also contribute to ticket and travel costs; things which most fans would give anything to have. In return for this access and preferential treatment they give their unwavering support both in numbers in the stands and vocally during the game. However as we have seen on occasions when a team is doing badly the ultras can and often do turn on the team and board of directors. Unfortunately the Lille incident isn’t a one off. In September 2017 ultras of Legia Warsaw attacked their players in a car park after a 3-0 defeat against Lech Poznan. In Spain in May 2017, Tercera Division side, Alcala, lost to San Fernando, 1-0. The Alcala ultras invaded the pitch and attacked the opposition players. Many would agree the presence of ultras can be of great benefit to the team in the form noise, passion and colour. However when things go wrong their actions often lead to intimidation and violence. For many ultras their team is literally their life, but their actions can be seen to be particularly excessive to fans, like those in England, where the ultra culture isn’t as prominent.

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The incidents at the Lille and West Ham games are certainly an ugly stain on the respective fan bases. However most football fans will agree it is that emotional attachment, the joy, elation, despair, frustration and anger, which not only brings them back each week but also has a huge impact on their day to day lives; relegation, for some, can be akin to the death of a relative. Lille, like West Ham, are fighting for their lives in the top division and history shows us some clubs never return from relegation; indeed both country’s second divisions are littered with relegated clubs who cannot make the leap back into the big time, whether due to bad management, investment or luck. If relegation becomes reality for either it may be difficult to rebuild and win promotion. The players and owners come and go, and while the actions of Lille fans on Saturday cannot be justified, the fans remain a constant, through good and bad and they ultimately deserve better than this.