Already the team to beat, Adam Digby explains how Juventus made key reinforcements to a squad that must once again overcome the loss of big names
Last season ultimately saw another procession for the Serie A title for Juventus who – despite some late drama when they lost to closest challengers Roma – walked away with a record-breaking sixth consecutive Scudetto. For good measure, they also became the first team to ever lift the Coppa Italia three times in a row, but the Old Lady ended 2016-17 disappointed, as she fell short in yet another Champions League Final.
Make no mistake, the Bianconeri love their position as the overlords of the Italian football landscape, but it is inescapable that this version of their side desperately needs European glory to validate it as one of the best ever. Giovanni Trapattoni managed that in the 1980s and Marcello Lippi repeated the feat a decade later, meaning Max Allegri and his team are compared to those giants of the game rather than the Roma and Napoli sides of today.
Their hopes of going one step further in the forthcoming campaign were dealt a huge blow when Leonardo Bonucci decided he needed to move on, the tension between him and the Coach proving just too much for the Italy international. Recognising it would be impossible to replace arguably the best central defender in the world, Juve didn’t even try.
Instead they seem content that the switch to 4-2-3-1 will be permanent and have entrusted Medhi Benatia and Daniele Rugani to step up and prove they belong in the Juve backline. Director General Beppe Marotta’s work this summer appears to hint at a complete shift in philosophy.
On the surface, expecting Mattia De Sciglio to replace Dani Alves seems like a huge reach, but acquisitions elsewhere indicate that the former Milan full-back will not need to rampage forward like the Brazilian did last term. Instead, he will be able to focus on his defensive duties before turning the ball over to a revamped and much more dangerous attacking unit.
Having pressed Alves and Mario Mandzukic into service as wingers last season, Allegri has seen the club spend in excess of €80m to bring in two players far better suited to that role. Douglas Costa brings genuine pedigree and Champions League experience, while Federico Bernardeschi is arguably the greatest Italian talent of his generation.
The prospect of that duo joining Paulo Dybala in the trident behind Gonzalo Higuain is a mouth-watering one, and it has the media in Italy convinced that La Vecchia Signora will once again elope with the title. “It’s already Juve!” boasted the Corriere dello Sport after the Bianconeri defeated Roma in a pre-season friendly (on penalties), while Maurizio Sarri, Eusebio Di Francesco, Luciano Spalletti and Vincenzo Montella all admitted in interviews that it remains Juve’s title to lose.
All of which brings us back to “Old Big Ears.” With just two Champions League/European Cup triumphs in their history, Juventus lag behind the continent’s biggest clubs and their recent showings indicate that remains the case. In the past three years they have been eliminated from the competition by Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid, falling short when it truly matters despite enjoying victories over two of those three sides along the way.
That will remain their yardstick in 2017-18, and the hope is that the influx of attacking talent will help them overcome that last hurdle. Perhaps losing their two recent finals by a scoreline of 7-2 hammered home the point that putting defence first has ultimately led to finishing second, but oddly it is Juve’s midfield that remains the biggest issue.
Yet to reinforce the middle of the park, it is difficult – if not almost impossible – to see that European hoodoo coming to an end with a midfield of Sami Khedira, Miralem Pjanic and Claudio Marchisio. The latter’s return to fitness is a major bonus, but the team appears to lack an Arturo Vidal or Radja Nainggolan style battler, someone to make their presence felt in the biggest matches and drive the team forward.
The task will be made harder by improved domestic challenges from Milan and Inter, while Gigi Buffon, preparing for what is set to be his final season, insists the Champions League “is not an obsession.” But no matter what the iconic club captain may say publicly, it is. And it should be. It is there where this team will ultimately be judged, and it is there they can truly become a legendary side.
Expected to win a seventh-consecutive title that will further cement Juve’s position as Serie A’s dominant force, and even the loss of Bonucci is unlikely to prevent that. A fourth Coppa Italia triumph would also not be a surprise, but they crave that Champions League triumph, and without a stronger midfield, victory seems impossible. Expect them to reach the Quarter-Finals or even the final depending on the draw.
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