As Juventus took to the turf at Cardiff’s Principality Stadium in 2017, there was not only an air of hope swirling around the ground, but one of expectation, too. This is our time.
Unfortunately, the next two hours provided some harrowing viewing for I Bianconeri, as just about everything that could do wrong in a major final, did. Massimiliano Allegri’s men showed huge character in fighting back from a goal down in the first half, but after the hour mark, it all went downhill.
That dollop of fortune which is needed in any major final fell for Real Madrid, and when a speculative long-range Casemiro effort deflected wickedly and found the corner of the net, the writing was on the wall for the Old Lady.
For Juve supporters, that was possibly their best opportunity to end their European trophy drought. I BIanconeri had swashbuckled their way through the group stages, drawing only twice and remaining undefeated, before sweeping aside every opponent in the knockout rounds.
So to bow out in the final with a 4-1 defeat, crumbling once again under the pressure of the occasion and against such experienced serial winners as Madrid, was a very bitter pill to swallow. And looking back, that loss stings even more, given that the Old Lady has not graced a final since that heartbreaking evening in Cardiff.
But why exactly is that?
Two years prior to the 4-1 thrashing by Madrid, I Bianconeri had found themselves in another Champions League final, only this time they were facing Spain’s other super club, Barcelona. Juve gave as good as they’d got, but against the unstoppable MSN forward line (Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar), the Italian giants were simply outgunned.
That Juve team possessed its own charm however, boasting one of the most feared midfields in Europe, with an imperious quartet of Arturo Vidal, Andrea Pirlo, Claudio Marchisio, and of course, the young and precocious Paul Pogba.
The Old Lady wasn’t always beautiful on the pitch, but my word, was she effective. With that Juventus lineup, you knew exactly what you were going to get: Allegri’s midfield would stifle and suffocate their opponents, and eventually, they’d break your spirit and find a way through. It wasn’t quite the tiki-taka of Pep Guardiola, but it was a winning formula, that worked for this club.
But the hierarchy decided it was time for a change, and their revered midfield was ripped apart, along with the rest of the team. In fact, eight of the players who started in the 2015 final were no longer part of the starting lineup in Cardiff only two years later.
And as that team of 2015 disbanded, the identity of the club began to fade, even if it still enjoyed some incredible highs in 2017.
Despite all of their domestic success, Juve haven’t been able to replicate the glory and aura of previous seasons. And those failures stem largely from that lacklustre midfield transformation. The Old Lady have relied religiously on Miralem Pjanic to dictate the pace of play for the past five years, while Sami Khedira has done the dirty work and performed a more box-to-box role.
Khedira’s form has declined in recent years however, and his ability to impact on games has deteriorated significantly. So in 2017, the athletic but somewhat technically-limited Blaise Matuidi arrived in Turin, in an attempt to make up for the lack of mobility and power in the centre of the pitch.
Although it proved effective in Serie A, this trio was not Champions League final standard. And so it came to pass.
These central frailties shone through in 2018, as the two finalists from the year before went head to head in the Champions League quarter-final. The first leg was played in Turin, and from start to finish, it was nothing short of a disaster.
Juve fell to a 3-0 defeat to Madrid, who were able to overrun and open up the hosts at will. Of course, that game is remembered for Cristiano Ronaldo’s brilliant overhead kick, but with Allegri’s constant tinkering and attempts to plug gaps, one thing became clear.
The once pragmatic, ruthless and efficient Juventus had lost its way.
The Old Lady was now a mismatch of attacking mavericks like Douglas Costa and Paulo Dybala, whilst possessing zero pace or penetration in the centre of the pitch. All in all, it didn’t work outside of Italy.
The Italian giants did recover to almost pull off the most memorable of comebacks, and whether they feel harshly done by with the injury-time penalty decision or not, they cannot deny that the irreparable damage was done in the first leg.
Plenty of lessons to take away, then.
Domestically, that 2017/18 season is fondly remembered in Italy for a pulsating title race, and one which had a huge impact on the history of Italian football. Napoli, coached by Maurizio Sarri, produced some of the most entertaining and scintillating football that Serie A viewers have ever seen, and despite being pipped to the trophy by Juve, the Partenopei coach drew all the plaudits.
From that moment on, it was no longer enough for Juventus to be champions – they had to do it in style. Over the course of the 2018/19 season, Allegri began to receive a surprising level of criticism over his side’s tactics and overly-pragmatic style, and he did not react well to these observations in post-match press conferences.
The pressure was clearly beginning to tell on the Italian coach, and he and Juve were lucky that they faced little in the way of a title challenge that year. The club had gone all out in the transfer window, signing Ronaldo for a record fee, but even the talented Portuguese star could not prevent another Champions League collapse in 2019.
After two defeats in the group stage, Juve had got off to a shaky start, and they seemed destined to miss out in the Round of 16, falling to a 2-0 defeat to Atletico Madrid. But Ronaldo did what Ronaldo does, and he turned the two-goal deficit on its head to earn the Old Lady a dramatic passage to the quarter-finals.
It was at this hurdle that Juve fell once more, and it signalled the end of the road for Allegri. The Italian champions were absolutely played off the park by a young and daring Ajax side, who took the game by the scruff of its neck and never let go.
Their relentless assault of the Juve goal could have seen the hosts concede three or four, but ultimately, a 2-1 defeat in the second leg brought another premature end to their European dreams. A humbling 90 minutes.
Allegri was replaced at the end of the season by Sarri, who is now coming up against the same issues that faced his predecessor.
Juve’s attempts to venture into a more expansive style of play have only made their midfield deficiencies even more apparent, but rather than spending top money on the perfect central options, they chose to take the financially preferable decision to sign Aaron Ramsey and Adrien Rabiot on free transfers.
Both good players, but not really what the club needed at that time.
This Bianconeri team has flattered to deceive this year, but it has capability to overturn their one-goal deficit in this year’s Champions League Round of 16 with Lyon. Whether they have the cohesion and ability to reach the final is another question entirely.
It’s clear that this Juve side has now reached an impasse, and little progress will be made until they address their midfield issues and invest in the right men to take control of Europe once again.