WILL 2018-19 BE the season when Juventus finally end 23 years of hurt? On last night’s evidence, it seems unlikely.
For such an illustrious club, their record of silverware in European football’s biggest club competition is disappointing.
Juve have won the European Cup just twice — in 1985, when they beat Liverpool 1-0 in a match overshadowed by the Heysel Stadium disaster, and in 1996, when they overcame the great Louis van Gaal-managed Ajax side on penalties.
The element of luck that saw them win via spot kicks that night has undoubtedly eluded them since. In total, they have been runners-up in the competition seven times, five of which came after the ’96 triumph, including two back-to-back final losses and the 4-1 defeat by Real Madrid in 2017.
And yet this season, there has been a sense of optimism at the club that its players will finally emulate the achievements of Antonio Conte, Fabrizio Ravanelli, Alessandro Del Piero, Gianluca Vialli, Didier Deschamps and other heroes from that famous night in Rome more than two decades ago.
The summer recruitment of Cristiano Ronaldo, for a reported fee of £105 million, was seen as the final piece in the jigsaw puzzle. If there’s anyone who can inspire them to glory, it’s the 33-year-old, who has lifted the trophy five times — only two individual clubs, Milan and Real Madrid, have tasted success in the competition more than the Portuguese star.
And despite supposedly being past his peak as a footballer, Ronaldo demonstrated last night that he is still capable of world-class moments that can turn a game on its head. His stunning volley from an inch-perfect Leonardo Bonucci long ball was the kind of goal very few, if any other teams, would be capable of scoring.
For a while, it appeared that moment would be enough to seal Juventus’ comfortable passage into the next stage.
Yet Man United improbably fought back. The introduction of Marouane Fellaini, Juan Mata and even Marcus Rashford to an extent had an impact.
All three players were influential in unsettling Juventus’ previously solid backline.
By contrast, Massimiliano Allegri’s changes were less than inspired. Bringing on 37-year-old World Cup winner Andrea Barzagli and reverting to a three at the back did not have the desired effect.
Within three minutes of the veteran defender’s introduction, the Red Devils were level and within six minutes, they were in dreamland.
And while the switches did not help matters, individual errors were the biggest reason for Juve ultimately throwing the game away from a winning position.
Wojciech Szczęsny, in particular, did not cover himself in glory. For Mata’s free kick, the stopper unwisely tried to anticipate where the ball was going to go and ended up stepping away from its trajectory.
The winner was also avoidable. While Ashley Young’s free kick was awkward to deal with, the 28-year-old Polish international should have been far more commanding, but instead tamely parried the ball against his defender before it rebounded in United’s favour.
The arrival of Ronaldo in the summer inevitably was the big talking point, while the seriousness of losing legendary Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon to PSG was overlooked to a degree.
Szczęsny is not a bad goalkeeper, but past evidence suggests that he is not quite capable of excelling at the elite level. Prior to a stint in Italy, he spent eight years at Arsenal and made over 100 appearances, yet few critics got the sense that he was the long-term solution at the Emirates, with Łukasz Fabiański and David Ospina sometimes preferred in goal, before Petr Cech’s arrival at the club paved the way for his exit.
After two years on loan at Roma, he joined the Turin outfit in a permanent deal for €12.2 million in the summer of 2017.
Having initially served as a back-up to Buffon, this season, he has been entrusted with the number one jersey.
Yet the scepticism remains and will only deepen after his error-ridden showing last night.
Largely due to Ronaldo’s arrival in the team, many people have suggested Juventus are favourites to win the Champions League this season.
They certainly boast some world-class players, have plenty of experience in the competition and are consequently rightly talked of as legitimate contenders.
Yet last night’s match highlighted that they are far from bullet-proof. United almost repeated what the Italians themselves did to Tottenham last season — get outplayed for the majority of the contest before ruthlessly capitalising in the brief minutes when their opponents’ concentration elapsed.
You can get away with these flaws against the majority of inferior domestic teams, but at the elite level, even a top side’s weakness tends to be exposed when the pressure is amplified.
The perils of having a below-par goalkeeper and nervy backline are ultimately what cost Liverpool on the biggest stage last season, and while Juventus’ defeat to United may not be too significant in isolation, it could be a foreboding sign of what is to come for the reigning Serie A champions.
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