The way Juventus faltered in the Champions League was symbolic of their incredibly deep problems. Alongside PSG, perhaps purely on the basis of their standing in European football, the Old Lady were expected to qualify for the knockout stages, but only managed to secure a place in the Europa League.
Losing to Benfica in Lisbon a couple of weeks ago was extremely indicative. It wasn’t just the loss, which was to be expected in truth, but the manner of it. The scoreline flattered them; at face value, their 4-3 defeat suggests they came out on the wrong side of a classic encounter where both teams gave as good as they got. The reality is they were treading water for much of the match, floundering under pressure from the hosts as a raucous crowd bayed for blood and they couldn’t handle it. Only the introduction of England youth international Samuel Illing-Junior with 20 minutes remaining changed the course of the game, but not the result. Two goals in three minutes saved face.
That is where the symbolism comes in. Illing-Junior represents what Juve should be focusing on, and what they haven’t done enough of. They are stuck in the past, attempting to relive past glories instead of looking to the future with cohesion and sound planning. Popularity for coach Max Allegri, who led them for five years of domestic dominance between 2014 and 2019 during his first spell, is incredibly low, and yet still they don’t change, they don’t accept a new approach and continue to drown in their own denial.
So much has gone wrong for Juventus over recent years, and almost all of it due to a lack of forethought in their planning. In 2017, they were beaten in the Champions League final by Real Madrid, two years after a similar result at the same stage against Barcelona. That was their time to conquer Europe, and failure to do so meant it became an obsession. Until that point, the club had built a solid foundation with the best defence around and potency in attack, with an effective mix of youth and experience. They were building something but when they needed to re-energise, they lost their way.
Cristiano Ronaldo scored twice against them that day in Cardiff, and when he was looking to leave Madrid a year later, Juve pounced. He had the mentality and track-record to take the club to where they wanted to get to, especially as the Champions League’s all time top goalscorer. But they became victim of the situation Ronaldo brings; he scored goals in Italy like he does everywhere, but because everything was geared towards him, the team lost its collective spark and identity.
It took a toll, resulting in a loss of their domestic standing and two failed managerial appointments, Maurizio Sarri and Andrea Pirlo, before Allegri returned. Even after Ronaldo left, issues have remained, and there is a sense of stasis about the club, with its ongoing desire for the European Super League not helping matters, either.
There are green shoots of positivity, not least Illing-Junior. Dusan Vlahovic hasn’t got going for the Bianconeri but remains one of the best young strikers in Europe and a much better poster boy for the club than Ronaldo. The squad needs repairing, players need replacing and it won’t be long until the pressure on Allegri begins to tell, too. But it is the attitude and culture at the club that needs to change. Even after the calciopoli match-fixing scandal of 2006 which saw then stripped of two titles and relegated to Serie B with a points deduction., they were able to regain their place at the top, but now they face an even greater challenge.
The two Milan clubs have won the title in the last two seasons. Now Napoli are looking rather unassailable, playing a fast-paced brand of football which shows their development, and just how much Juventus are being left behind. They are currently fourth, 10 points off the pace at the top, and an extended Champions League exile is a real possibility.
While the issues run deep, they stem from two key factors: a refusal to adjust their approach to being usurped and an unwillingness to play the long-game with their recovery. Until they amend both of them, things will only get worse for one of the biggest institutions in European football.