What can change in six months? In football: pretty much everything. Seismic shifts can occur in players and clubs within a short period of time, let alone half a year.
It has indeed been half a year since Juventus, due to Cristiano Ronaldo’s sheer force of will power, overturned Atletico Madrid’s two-goal, first leg advantage to qualify for the quarter final of the Champions League. And it’s fair to say both clubs have changed substantially since then.
The second leg of that tie was Max Allegri’s last great game in charge of The Old Lady, the swansong of a highly successful five-year period that saw the club rise amongst the heavyweights of the European game after years of underachievement.
If reports are to be believed, it was what came before the second leg, the way in which Juve so easily capitulated at the Wanda Metropolitano, the negative approach Allegri utlised that ultimately made the club decide to move him on come June. For Andrea Agnelli, Pavel Nedved and Fabio Paratici, the Allegri era was reaching the final straight.
Juve went against type and hired Maurizio Sarri, the anti-Allegri, if you will. Coaches in the mould of Sarri have never historically done well at Juventus, with the last, Gigi Maifredi, only lasting a season almost 30 years ago. Yet there is a definitive plan to further drive the brand of club Juventus by playing attractive football. Winning isn’t simply enough in the modern climate.
Performances have so far been tetchy: they slogged over a 1-0 win away to Parma, played brilliantly for an hour against Napoli only to throw the game away before an own goal from Kalidou Koulibaly saved their blushes. This was then followed up with a horrendous display away to Fiorentina, a performance reminiscent of the dwindling days of the Allegri era.
Sarri’s methods will undoubtedly take time; his teams are, by his own admission, slow starters to a season, as players come to grips with his demands. It’s still too early in the season to predict how the Sarri experiment will go.
Atleti have also undergone some seismic changes of their own. The departure of stalwarts Diego Godin, Juanfran and Filipe Luis marked the end of Diego Simeone’s Cholismo era. Star player Antoine Griezmann eventually swapped the Wanda for Camp Nou after what seemed like an eternity of waiting for the formal announcement.
Like their opponents, they’re also looking to evolve their style of play. Atleti spent the Griezmann money on the much-vaunted Joao Felix from Benfica, smashing their transfer record by paying €126m for the 19-year old.
Lucas Hernandez departed for Bayern, and midfielder Rodri signed for Manchester City, both deals collected €150m that was reinvested in the squad, bringing in England right-back Kieran Trippier, Marcos Llorente from city neighbours’ Real and Hector Herrera from Porto.
Life post-Griezmann started remarkably well, with nine points from their opening three league games. But they registered their first defeat of the season away to Real Sociedad and just like Sarri’s Juve, they’re trying to find their feet in a new era. Can Simeone stray away from his own model?
With thisbeing one of the trickier groups in this season’s Champions League, both sides can’t afford to start the campaign with a defeat. And you get the sense that even after tonight’s game, we still won’t know where both teams will be.
Yet with the Champions League not really kicking into gear until February, a lot can happen in six months.