The side wearing black and white stripes in Munich last Tuesday really did not look like Juventus. They were wearing Juve jerseys and had the right names on their backs, in some cases even the right beards, but they all seemed like cheap copies of the originals. That can’t have been the real Juve... Yet the performance against bottom of the table Pescara provided more of the same. I fear playing in two competitions has taken its toll on Antonio Conte’s men and taken away their distinctive characteristics too.
We have been saying since last year that the Bianconeri excelled in Serie A by working harder than any other team. They do not have a ‘top player’ in attack, so have to swarm the opposition with runs from midfield and smart passes to create their scoring opportunities. Their defects became their strengths, but that was a very unusual campaign. New Coach Conte had all week to prepare his players for the games, drilling his style of football into their minds at the same time as they trained six days a week to remain fresh as daisies. Winning the Scudetto brought other responsibilities with it, namely playing in the Champions League.
It was inevitable that Juventus could not dominate Serie A the same way while sharing their focus with European commitments. So far they have managed to keep on top of both competitions, but the last two performances against Bayern and Pescara suggest that fatigue is finally filtering through. Slow down the tempo and the work rate, you end up with a very different Juventus altogether.
The most telling thing about the 2-0 first leg quarter-final defeat in Munich was the way Juve continually gave the ball away under pressure. Andrea Pirlo was the worst culprit, reminding me of the reasons Milan opted to release the midfield maestro on a free transfer. When given time and space on the ball, Pirlo is simply in a class of his own. When harassed, he loses his habitual cool and opens up a motorway towards Gigi Buffon’s goal. Arturo Vidal and Claudio Marchisio are meant to act as his bodyguards, but without full fitness levels they are not enough to protect him.
Italian commentators said during the game that “Bayern can’t possibly keep this tempo and intensity up.” They could and they did. Italians must stop assuming everyone needs to take a breather during a game the way their teams do, like a soccer siesta. This weekend Bayern Munich mathematically clinched the Bundesliga title with a ludicrous 20-point gap at the top of the table and for several weeks have been able to succeed even with second-string sides. Juventus change a few men and scrape a 2-1 victory over 10-man Pescara, who are propping up the table with one foot in Serie B. It’s no wonder the Germans looked so fresh and energetic compared to the Bianconeri.
On Saturday Juve dominated Pescara, but did so in a slow, sluggish and frustrating fashion. Ivan Pelizzoli played a blinder in goal, but even then the finishing was poor and the intensity sorely lacking. This team really was built in Conte’s image, based on grit, determination, hard work and intensity. Without them, Conte was a decent, but far from world class, midfielder.