Having conquered Old Trafford in midweek, a trip to Empoli must have been in stark contrast for Juventus. While Manchester United’s “Theatre of Dreams” is a thoroughly modern arena, the Stadio Carlo Castellani is quite the opposite, its two main stands looking very much the way they did when the venue was first opened back in 1965. At each end, four “temporary” stands were erected in the 1980s and have remained there ever since, yet their presence still only manages to increase the capacity to 16,284.
Almost every seat was full as the Bianconeri came out to warm up, and it was then that Giorgio Chiellini felt a twinge in his leg and would sit out as a precaution, the defender joining Emre Can, Sami Khedira and Mario Mandzukic on the injury list. Even without their Captain, it seemed the visitors would have too much quality for their hosts, able to name a starting XI that included Paulo Dybala, Federico Bernardeschi and of course Cristiano Ronaldo.
Many expected the Old Lady – who is still unbeaten in all competitions this season – to demolish Empoli, but it was the home side who took the lead with a superbly taken goal following a swift counter-attack after 28 minutes. The Azzurri would dominate the remainder of the first half, much to the disbelief of the large number of Juve fans in attendance, one end entirely full of supporters in black and white, while the tribuna for the locals also contained many in CR7 shirts.
Yet the club’s Ultras had skipped the game in protest at the high ticket price, meaning those fans were largely silent. At kick-off, they had given a hearty rendition of “fino alla fine e forza Juventus,” but appeared to not know another song – or be inclined to repeat that one – during the next 45 minutes.
A dilapidated stadium, their growing injury list, disinterested (or at least dispassionate) supporters and already being behind, Juve could’ve been forgiven for simply going through the motions in the second half. Even when they were awarded a 54th minute penalty for a foul on Dybala, many sides would’ve been happy to take a share of the points and chalk the game up to an unavoidable confluence of circumstances.
Ronaldo had other ideas. After being as anonymous as his team-mates before the break, converting the spot kick seemed to spark him into life and, rather than being happy to have one goal, he craved more. Constantly seeking out the ball, the Portuguese star was suddenly omnipresent, popping up on the left to send Alex Sandro down the wing one minute, then dropping deep to exchange passes with Leonardo Bonucci the next.
With 20 minutes to go, Blaise Matuidi drove forward at the Empoli defence then rolled a pass out to Ronaldo. Now operating on the right, he took one touch to control the ball and another to get it out of his feet as he realised he would have enough time and space to take a shot. Unleashing an absolute rocket, goalkeeper Ivan Provedel’s dive never came close to stopping it and the stunning effort smashed into the top corner.
The crowd erupted, even the home fans acknowledging the audacity of the strike as they realised the first moment of real magic from Ronaldo in Juve colours had arrived at the Castellani. After the final whistle, Allegri insisted that children “will be trying to replicate the goal in the schoolyard” next week and there is no question he is right.
The global attention on CR7 means that the strike has already been replayed infinite times on television, losing none of its magic no matter how many times it is seen. It will inevitably be described in suitably loquacious terms in Sunday’s papers and in countless online columns over the next few days, but instead it should be labelled truthfully: it was a jaw-droppingly emphatic get-out-of-jail-free card played by the Old Lady.
Aside from Bonucci – who singlehandedly prevented at least two potential Empoli goals with well-timed interventions – and Ronaldo, it is hard to pick out another player who didn’t underperform. It was a woeful display from the Bianconeri, yet unlike Roma against SPAL, Napoli at Sampdoria or Inter against Parma, they still claimed all three points. It wasn’t a demonstration of Juve’s fino alla fine (“until the end”) mantra or the “grinta” that supporters like to champion, it was simply the absolute quality of the man in the number seven shirt.
There are issues to be addressed, improvements to be made and players who are – much like the Stadio Carlo Castellani – nowhere near the required standard. It didn’t matter against Empoli, but it will against better opponents and in bigger games where Ronaldo alone cannot be relied upon to save their blushes.
It was a great goal, but a terrible Juventus and that is simply not good enough.