If Juventus lose the Champions League, is their season a failure?
If Juventus lose CL, is their season a failure?
Winning trophies is the hallmark of success for any football club around the world, and the dream for any budding or ageing professional player. Even to fans, it’s the foundation of “my club is better than yours,” conversations. Now, the question at hand is not about just winning silverware, the club understudy has so many of them, winning almost every other season. In fact, Juve are currently 18 points clear of the Italian Serie A league standings, on-course to win their 8th consecutive title since the 2011/12 season. But there is something about getting the same result/outcome, over and over again. It begs for the need to distinguish stability from stagnation, a fine line between success and comfort with mediocrity. Especially when all other factors remain constant. Let’s explore what this means for the Italian Serie A champions and hopefully get enough perspective to form an informed opinion about the club.
Champions League, where art thou?
The Old Lady of Turin last won Europe’s most coveted club trophy back in 1996. In other terms, Real Madrid’s Marco Asensio came into this world, grew up and won two UEFA Champions League titles in the same period. They have since appeared a total of 17 times, reached the final 4 times but with no success. Who haven’t they had as part of the troopers and coaching staff to help bring the coveted trophy home? The mighty Gianluigi Buffon exchanged the black and white for the Parisians’ colors in the summer of 2018 with the hope of finally securing this elusive trophy that has seemed to resist the wind and pursuits of the Old Lady. Just like a high school crush who does not only dislike the pursuing guy but hate his guts. All of Carlos Tevez, Arturo Vidal and even the legendary Andreas Pirlo wore the Juve colors and left them without getting their hands on the UCL trophy. Carlo Ancelotti, Fabio Capello, the 2018 world cup winner in Didier Deschamps, Giancarlo Corradini, Claudio Ranieri, Ciro Ferrara, Alberto Zaccheroni, Luigi Delneri and Antonio Conte are all of the managers who tried and failed to break the champions league duck since 1996.
The discussion to consider Juventus’ position with regards to champions league triumph becomes even more important in light of their potential or assumed status in global footballing affairs. Even a historic invincible 2011/12 season, where they won the Scudetto without losing a single game, the second club after Arsenal to achieve such a feat in the 21st century, is not enough to excuse them for their “apathy” of European silver.
To be considered as a now great club, not just a museum like artefact with flowery history, you need some success at the continental stage, not just on national level. Even the highly funded Paris St Germain with the two most expensive footballers in their squad in Neymar and Mbappe are less revered, simply because they haven’t won the champions league since their inception. It is one of the foremost reasons why the French Ligue 1 is called the “farmers league” by banter fans. Of course you can understand such mockery given that PSG have won the domestic title five times in the past seven seasons, but consistently failed to reach even the semi-finals of the continental cup. At this rate of domestic dominance and failure on the continental level by the Old Lady, the Italian Serie A might as well be a present day farmers league. Should you travel around the world, the Juve black and white is one of the least worn shirts amongst those considered to be top clubs. Manchester United, Real Madrid and Barcelona all have larger fan bases than the Italian club, because memories of success at the highest level, the UEFA Champions League are still fresh in people’s memories. Even after receiving a boost of more than 6 million new Instagram followers upon the arrival or Ronaldo, Juve are still shy of the followership of the above mentioned clubs irrespective of their impressive trophy records.
The reason why this season could be the mark of failure
As established earlier on, the Turin club haven’t won the champions league for almost 23 years now; why is it even more important that they win it now? The answer is one name, Cristiano Ronaldo. The 34-year-old Portuguese is undeniably one of the greatest players of all time. Him and Barcelona’s Lionel Messi are the kind of players you may get once in a century.
With Juve 2-0 down after the first leg of the 2018/19 UEFA Champions League round of 16 clash against Atletico Madrid, courtesy of the Los Rojiblancos’ “cojones” according to their gaffer, Diego Simeone and in part as a result of some less successful tactics by Massimiliano Allegri – he came alive. They needed to score three goals without conceding against a club that concedes once in a dozen years. Of course it’s an exaggerated analogy. He believed he could do it, everyone counted on him to do it and he did it. The Portuguese captain jumped highest to initially convert Bernadeschi’s lofted cross into the box, pulled the same trick again to head past Jan Oblak to put the home team level on aggregate. Upon receiving the responsibility of taking a late penalty, we all knew it was over for Atleti as he stood over it. As certain as the rising sun on the equator. In the end, and like many other times, Mr. Champions League had pulled off the stuff of a legend to orchestrate a famous comeback and saved Allegri and the whole of Juventus of some blushes. Delivering on the job he was signed off in the summer, even as he is aware:
Now, this is all good and fairy-tale sounding but puts more pressure on Juve. If they do not win the champions league silverware with the highest scoring player in the history of the competition on 124 goals in 108 matches and who has won it four times in the past five seasons, it will be difficult to put your money on them for anything else. Ronaldo might still be available at Turin in the next campaign, but he is not getting any younger or quicker, the five time Balon d’Or winner will be 35 next year. In securing the services of the forward for a fee reported to be 117 million euros, Juventus had to rely on transfer business conducted with four other Serie A clubs that generated almost 50% of the fee. To be specific, after considering all the deals, one report alluded that Benevento paid 2.5%, 2% by Perugia, 17% by Sampdoria and finally 26% from Genoa. In other words, numerous negotiations, planning and time was needed to get the signature for the kind of fee, that not only boosted Juve but drastically improves the followership and revenue of the whole league. For a club that has become famous for signing players on a free transfer, it’s going to take some time before they can afford a footballer that expensive. They have an important player on their hands and one should use him to make hay while the sun still shines. A kind of player that may come as a one-time gift in a hundred years.
Champions League in light of history
Looking at other teams that have similarly gone for a long drought without winning the champions league, it’s not the kind of company that the Old Lady would like to keep. Borussia Dortmund who last won the trophy, a year after Juve in the 1996/97 season are also in search of one and their status as top top club is slowly fading, especially given the dominance of their country rivals, who have won the trophy 5 times in their history. Contextually, Juventus have won the champions league twice since its rebranding, in the 1984/85 season and of course the aforementioned 1995/96. They have been runners up on four occasions since then, the latest being in the 2016/17 when they lost 4-1 to Ronaldo’s Real Madrid in the Cardiff final and the 2014/15 final where they fell 3-1 to another Spanish La Liga giant, Barcelona. Could it be a curse? Perhaps not, droughts happen to even the very best. Liverpool for example, last won their major trophy in 2006, that was 13 years ago when they beat West Ham on penalties to claim the English FA Cup. The Reds have gone through a long barren period as a club but their 5 champions league trophies still give them the stamp of a massive global football club. In the same vein, Juve are still revered but do need to end the drought as soon as yesterday. As far as history of the champions league is concerned, their fellow Italian counterparts in AC Milan and Inter Milan still have the bragging rights, with both of the Milan clubs having won the UCL trophy, seven and three times respectively in comparison to Juventus’ two. Manchester United, Real Madrid, Liverpool, Barcelona, AC Milan, Inter Milan, Chelsea and Bayern Munich have all won the trophy in the past 20 years whereas four time champions in Ajax Amsterdam, are the only side in the top 10 winners of the competition to hold a longer drought than the Killer Lady, having last won in the 1994/95 season. These two will go at each other in this year’s quarter-final and at least one of them is going to have to wait a while longer. The rest of similarly two time winners as Juventus include SL Benfica, FC Porto and Nottingham Forest FC, with all due respect, the company that an ambitious club like Juve wouldn’t want to keep.
The fate of Massimiliano Allegri
In all fairness, the 51-year-old gaffer has been a relative success at the Bianconeri. The former AC Milan coach joined Juventus in 2014 and has since won four Serie A and Coppa Italia titles as well as two other Supercoppa Italiana cups. He is responsible for leading the club to their two UEFA Champions League finals in the 2014/15 and 2016/17 seasons. The Italian was praised by football legend, Andreas Pirlo for bringing a sense of “calm” to the team which gave players an extra sense of confidence especially after the high pressure and seemingly defensive tactics of former mentor, Antonio Conte. The latter recently vacated the Chelsea job for allegedly the same reasons. Allegri quickly gained reputation as a discipline mastermind who takes a more fluid approach to tactics by employing an array of formations such as the 3-5-2; 4-3-3; 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1 in match or between matches. More famously, Allegri gained immense praise from the media in his second season at the club after successfully rebuilding a squad that had voids left by key players such as Carlos Tevez, Arturo Vidal and Andreas Pirlo. After occupying 12th position after ten games, Allegri’s Juve went on a 25-match unbeaten run and successfully defended the Scudetto in the 2015/16 campaign. Unfortunately, all of Massimiliano’s successes pale in comparison to the Juve faithful’s need for a champions league trophy. It’s fair to consider that a Serie A win may no longer be as exciting and could be a mark of stagnation rather than stability or success. Another trophyless UCL campaign might not be good news for Allegri whom fans were even quick to criticise after it looked like they would kiss another UCL trophy goodbye when they lost 2-0 to Atletico in this year’s round of 16 first leg. Failure to return the UCL trophy to Turin could make him another scapegoat of Juve’s drought.
The cracks of the matter once more
Juventus are essentially champions in waiting as far as the Italian Serie A is concerned, 18 points ahead of second placed Napoli with 8 games left in the season. This will be their eighth consecutive Scudetto but have been deluded from a Champions League silverware since the 1995/96 campaign. That is close to 23 years in waiting. Another domestic cup win is almost a sign of stability but continuously failing to hit the mark on the continental stage looks more like stagnation in comparison to other European guns. They however recruited a special arsenal in the summer, Cristiano Ronaldo, a 34-year-old who’s still go it but pretty much racing against time when it comes to age. The current campaign is by far their best chance of finally clinching the UCL given the inclusion of the Portuguese but will they? Falling short once more could it be a real sign of failure?
Allegri’s Juventus will face this year’s surprise package, Ajax in the quarter-finals and if they progress, they would meet either Manchester City or Tottenham (who are all chasing their first UCL trophy) in the semi-final before battling one of Porto, Liverpool, Manchester United or Barcelona in the Madrid 2019 final.