“If Juventus go out, it won’t be a failure.”
With all due respect to Massimiliano Allegri, he was wrong when he spoke those words. And he knows it. Everyone knows it.
Juventus has been on an incredible domestic run, on the road to what is an all but mathematically certain eighth consecutive Scudetto. A run that included a streak of four domestic doubles from 2014 to 2018.
But despite that incredible success in Italy, a Champions League trophy has evaded the club. And the fans are desperate for it. The problem for Juventus is that their domestic success coincided with the emergence of a Real Madrid behemoth that won four of the last five editions of the Champions League. Juventus fell once to that Real Madrid side in the Final and then again in the quarter-finals.
Now Juventus are on the brink of being eliminated in the Round of 16 by Real’s city rivals, Atletico Madrid. After going down 2-0 in the first leg, the current odds suggest Juve will struggle to overturn the deficit against a team that, like them, rarely concedes goals. (Juventus and Atletico Madrid have the stingiest defences in their respective leagues, both leaking a mere 17 goals in 27 games played.)
The reason that not getting past this round will be viewed as a failure can be summed up in one word: Ronaldo. There was no secret that when Juventus splashed €100m to sign Cristiano Ronaldo it was to help them get over that last hurdle to win European glory.
The fact is, the Bianconeri did not need to buy Ronaldo to win Serie A this year. Napoli are in a rebuilding year with a new Coach and the departure of their longtime captain. The Milanese clubs’ new projects are just starting to find their footing. Roma are in disarray and lack identity. Ronaldo was signed for a single purpose as far as supporters are concerned: to win the Champions League.
The problem is, Ronaldo is not getting any younger. By the end of his contract with Juve, he’ll be 38. A player of his historic quality surely has another year or two at the top of the game, but I’m not convinced we’ll be seeing Ronaldo banging in scorchers when he nears 40. Fabio Quagliarella may be showing that even a player closer to 40 than 30 can top the Serie A goalscoring charts, but whether Ronaldo, whose game relies so much on physical superiority, can do the same is an open question. If CR7 was brought in to win the Champions League, then surely the time is this year or maybe, at the latest, next year.
Furthermore, it’s not just Ronaldo. The vaunted BBC back line that was the bedrock of the Old Lady’s dominance are themselves, well, old. Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli are all the wrong side of 30. So too are Blaise Matuidi and Mario Mandzukic, whose contract was just renewed. Talk of bringing in Marcelo, who will soon be 31 and was dropped to the bench for Madrid’s loss to Ajax, only further betrays Juve’s desperation to win — and win now — despite whatever Allegri may say.
Perhaps most revealing though, was to swap Mattia Caldara to reclaim Bonucci from Milan. Nothing else so succinctly sums up the club’s current strategy of acquiring players who can win now, rather than plan for the future.
All these players of course have immense quality and still have much to contribute. But Juventus are clearly reaching the end of an era. Gigi Buffon’s departure was just the herald of that fact. Soon it will be Barzagli and Chiellini. Then Matuidi and Mandzukic. Of course, the Agnelli family has the funds to replenish the squad with new talent. The black and white shirt will always be alluring to top players. But by the time we are talking about a squad refresh, it will mean that this current gambit centered on Ronaldo did not pan out.
In absolute terms, there is no shame in losing to Atletico Madrid, one of the best teams in Europe. After all, two of those four Champions League victories Real Madrid achieved were over Atleti in the Final. But moreover, Atletico is a team that, in these post-Alex Ferguson and post-Arsene Wenger days, is as synonymous with a Coach and his philosophy as any club can be.
But of course, football isn’t a rational affair. And the most vocal fans will not be persuaded by such calm, cold thinking.
If the Bianconeri do indeed get knocked out, what they will rue most is the sense that this year was their chance, the opening they had waited so long for. Real Madrid’s era is finally at an end. Supposed favorites like PSG have been knocked out. Manchester City and Liverpool are over-extended in a competitive domestic title race. Bayern Munich look a shell of their past superstar-laden teams. In other words: The Champions League title is up for grabs.
This could be the perfect year for Juventus. The year that their era just barely outlasts Real’s to steal their crown. Will the Old Lady deliver the comeback? Will the fans get the trophy they’ve coveted for more than two decades? And can Ronaldo accomplish what he was brought to Turin to do?