When Maurizio Sarri arrived at Juventus last summer, it marked the end of an unconventional climb to the top of the coaching pyramid. By hiring the former banker, Italy’s most powerful club hoped that they could finally reach the summit of the Champions League, a tournament that had tormented them for decades. When the Champions League resumes in August, Sarri will have the chance to lead The Old Lady to an elusive third title. However, Juve’s recent performances suggest that the vision of Giorgio Chiellini lifting Ol’ Big Ears at Lisbon’s Estádio da Luz later this summer is little more than a pipe dream.
In the last few weeks, Juventus have looked a shell of the self-assured side that has dominated the domestic scene for nearly a decade. They needed two penalties against Atalanta, the second of which was a naïve handball by forward Luis Muriel, to scrape a draw at home. Even two-goal leads, usually a guarantee of three points for a side of Juve’s pedigree, were surrendered against Milan and Sassuolo.
The defensive fragility will be a major worry for Sarri as he prepares for the decisive second leg against Lyon. However, he should be more concerned by the state of Juve’s attack. With most of the season gone, ‘Sarriball’ has only made fleeting appearances. Atalanta and Sassuolo controlled possession and territory against their more illustrious opponent, stringing together dizzying short-passing interchanges that were supposed to be the hallmark of Sarri’s Juventus. Meanwhile, set pieces or long balls towards Cristiano Ronaldo and Paulo Dybala were The Old Lady’s most promising attacking outlets in both matches.
On paper, Sarri seemed an odd choice to bring The Old Lady long-awaited European glory. Last season’s Europa League triumph with Chelsea was the only major title on his CV. Nevertheless, the enthralling football that he engineered at Empoli and Napoli was a clear departure from the more pragmatic style favoured by previous incumbent Massimiliano Allegri. As a result, it was possible that Sarri’s Juventus would concede more often than Allegri’s version. Yet, more progress on the implementation of a fluid, exciting attacking strategy would have surely been expected by this point.
Fortunately for Sarri and Juventus, the margins in this season’s Champions League knockout stages are much finer than in other years. A single-match elimination format means that only four games separate The Old Lady from long-awaited European glory. With Ronaldo and Dybala in the team, Juventus can play poorly and still defeat any opponent on the continent. However, Sarri has failed to make Juve more than the sum of their parts.
The Old Lady’s superior individual quality is enough to perpetuate their domestic hegemony. Even after taking only two points from their last three league matches, a ninth consecutive Scudetto is nearly assured thanks to the inconsistent form of main chasers Inter and Lazio. Yet, talent alone does not guarantee European success. If Sarri cannot find the right formula come August, his reign at Juventus is likely to end after just one season.
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