Enthralling. Heartbreaking. Emotional. Absorbing. And, nearly, oh so very nearly. Juventus were 30 seconds away from pulling off one of the greatest comebacks in the history of not just the Champions League, for it surely would’ve been the best, but in the history of the game. To comeback from a three-goal deficit to the reigning champions, to this Real Madrid side, in the thunderous Santiago Bernabeu, was deemed nearly impossible. Yet it almost happened. Almost.
And somehow, it epitomises The Old Lady in Europe, that feeling of almost, that feeling of so near, yet so far. Seven final losses, the most by any side in history, tells the story of a club time and again failing to make it over that last hurdle.
Last night’s result however, wasn’t a case of Juve coming up short in a crunch tie. They dominated the 12-time Champions throughout the 90 minutes, producing one of their greatest ever displays on the European stage. They unsettled Real from the opening minute and never relented for the next 80, but it spoke to the sheer absurdity of the scale of the challenge that awaited them that they had to chase a three-goal lead.
The penalty was just, in my view. Medhi Benatia did go through the back of Lucas Vazquez, and Cristiano Ronaldo’s penalty was just, well, you’ll find it hard to come across a better penalty – given the circumstances and how long he waited to take it. But for all of their greatness, the vital damage was done in the first leg.
Whilst Juve couldn’t quite pull off Mission Impossible, 24 hours earlier Roma did. In a truly dumbfounding game, I Giallorossi exorcised all their European humiliations by dishing one out this time. Roma’s display was so dominating, so unRoma-like, that they reduced Barcelona to speculative shots from distance. Lionel Messi never looked so ordinary.
But Roma made it through and Juve didn’t. How had it come to this, that both sides needed miraculous comebacks to advance? Why do Italian teams seemingly only burst into life when their backs are against the wall and have nothing to lose? Where were these gung-ho performances when the ties were more evenly balanced?
The issue goes right to the very core of Italian football and its relationship to the game. The legendary journalist Gianni Brera once remarked that Italians defend first and foremost because as a race they are physically weak and therefore can’t impose their will on the opposition. We know this is a fallacy, as the great Milan side of the late 80s and early 90s showed that high pressing could be achieved with Italians (and three brilliant Dutchmen) and lead to success.
That reactive conditioning is so ingrained in the Italian game, that it ultimately leads to debacles such as last week, where Roma and Juve both lost by three-goal margins. In Roma’s case, they were extremely unfortunate, as the 4-1 result didn’t reflect their performance.
Juve, at home, conceded an early strike and then proceeded to cautiously huff and puff against opposition that was extremely composed and had the experience and wherewithal to keep them at arms length, like the very best boxers. Had they demonstrated the urgency and vibrancy of last night, the first leg might’ve have taken a very different course.
The Azzurri also has form in this siege-like mentality. In their last two World Cup wins, 1982 and 2006, scandals had been brewing at home that as a by-product formed close knit teams that would go on to win tournaments many didn’t consider them viable options for.
In 1982, Enzo Bearzot came under much criticism for including Paolo Rossi, banned for two years for his role in the Totonero match-fixing scandal, and therefore declared a war with the Italian media, refusing to talk to the Press throughout the tournament. The Calciopoli scandal in 2006 was on-going as Italy, against the odds, triumphed.
In 1994, there was serious friction between star player Roberto Baggio and Arrigo Sacchi, but they reached the final. When there isn’t controversy, Italy finish bottom of groups containing New Zealand, Slovakia and Paraguay.
The performances of Roma and Juventus this week has proved that Italian sides need to reject their natural urges and go for the jugular from the off, not to be reactive and wait until they have nothing to lose with three strikes down before imposing themselves. They’ve showed that they can take the initiative, press and suffocate the opposition just as brilliantly as most of the elite sides in Europe. Brera might vehemently disagree, but Italian sides can be proactive.
The fear of losing that so dominates the thinking in Italy needs to be consigned to history. You only come back from a three-goal margin once in a lifetime.