The Good, The Bad, And The Pirlo Of Juventus’ Season
by Conor McStay
With the Serie A title all but wrapped up for the second year in a row, and with Juve being eliminated from the Coppa Italia and Champions League, it seemed like an apt time to look back at a season with new challenges as well as the same underlying problems for the Old Lady.
I’ll be completely honest, I didn’t expect Pogba to feature much, if at all, this year. The manner in which he left Manchester United cast a shadow over his (or perhaps his agent’s) conduct and I thought that he was a risky signing, who would be left on the peripherals of the squad for a year or two. Thankfully, I was proven wrong. A player in the Patrick Vieira mould, Pogba has been a more than able deputy whenever one of Pirlo; Marchisio or Vidal have been missing. Not only have his performances resulted in a call up to the French national team, Pogba has also been accommodated into the Juventus midfield on a permanent basis off the back of his impact this year, in a 3-6-1 formation. Whether this continues to be the case it will be hard to tell, but it’s clear that he has the potential to play for Juventus as long as he wishes to. His fondness for a long range golazo (seen against Udinese, Napoli and Siena) has won over a lot of the fans.
Champions League performance
Last year’s Serie A triumph brought Juventus back to the Champions League, the first time that they had been in the competition since the 2009/2010 season. This gap left Juve in one of the lower pots for the draw, resulting in the match up with Chelsea, Shakhtar Donetsk and Nordsjaelland. Now Antonio Conte’s passing and counter-attacking style would be tested in Europe for the first time, against quality opposition. Admittedly, I imagined that Juve would struggle to get out of the group so the progression with 12 points from 6 games (in top spot) was a huge relief. In a room filled with Chelsea fans, watching the comeback from 2-0 down to earn a draw was a gleeful feeling. It also served to highlight the quality that made ITV’s analysis of the Juventus team as being one which ‘lacked quality players’ even more ridiculous. As for the 3-0 result in Turin, it caused heads around Europe to turn and acknowledge this new-look Juventus team as a dark horse for the competition. Granted, two of the goals that night were deflections, Juventus were deserving of the victory.
As I’m writing this review in my Juventus shirt with Lichsteiner on the back ( entirely coincidental), and spent a very awkward night in February watching Twitter, Facebook and ITV simultaneously erupt into a Juventus/Lichsteiner witch-hunt it’s only fair to say something of the round of 32 games with Celtic. First of all, the allegations of a Platini/UEFA conspiracy are absurd. True, Platini speaking as a fan before the game was an ill-advised move and I knew beforehand that it would come back to haunt him. Even more ridiculous were the suggestions that the match was being used for ‘spot betting’ by a Chinese gambling syndicate or that the referee’s display was linked to the rumour that his son played for one of the Juventus youth teams.
What I took from the game was how clinical Juventus could be in front of goal, and another reminder of how defensively solid they could be. In a game with few chances for the Old Lady, two classy goals from Claudio Marchisio put the first leg and the tie to bed at the same time. The return leg was much of the same and served as a firm reminder of the importance of taking chances. The 5-0 aggregate result was by no means a reflection of the performance of Juventus, but as I tweeted on the night, you don’t go a league season unbeaten without being able to grind out a result or two (in amongst a number of anti-Andy Townsend rants).
Another League title
Two league titles in two years under Conte, and I can see it being 3 in 3 quite easily next year. However, while a Serie A title is now expected to be the minimum for Juventus, it’s hard to take them for granted. Whether it’s to say that, even post-Calciopoli, the 3rd star can be added to the badge or to have a ‘one-up’ over the Inter and AC Milan fans, the Scudetto is always a welcome trophy. Losing the unbeaten league game streak to Inter was tough, but by the time of the second Derby D’Italia, the difference between the two teams had gone from one point to twenty-one. The traditional January blip was ridden out without too much damage in order to preserve the consistency which had been the hallmark of Conte’s Juventus. The relative lack of a ‘European hangover’ from a prolonged Champions league campaign was also a positive to take from this year. I’m sure that the inconsistency of Napoli, the squad changes to AC Milan and the rollercoaster of Zeman’s Roma helped make the inevitable league title a lot easier
A lack of a World Class striker
Imagine it’s 2:30AM in your local nightclub. All the beautiful girls (or guys, whatever takes your fancy) are ignoring you despite you trying your hardest to catch their focus and the lights are starting to come on. All of a sudden, a friend informs you of a girl (or guy) who’s around. They aren’t the nicest looking by any stretch of the imagination, but you’re desperate for company so you say to yourself “why not?” After getting them in to the last taxi you realise that your new companion is more out of shape than first feared, wherein they then precede to throw up; cry, and leave you wondering why you even bother getting your hopes up.
This happened to Juventus fans around the world this year. A summer spent seeing rumours of moves for Robin Van Persie; Gonzalo Higuain and Stevan Jovetic come to nothing. 2;30AM was replaced with the late evening on the 31st of August. The player who came in was the reigning “ Nicklas Bendtner’s player of the year” winner, Nicklas Bendtner. His arrival was greeted by these words from the Club Director at Juventus:
“Clearly he isn’t the top player we wanted, but we needed reinforcements.”
Imagine getting that on a card! His statistics for this season have been equally impressive. Less than 10 appearances, (over half of which coming from the bench) and a return of 0 goals. Quite possibly even more impressive was the number of replica shirts with ‘Bendtner 17’ on the back sold so far. Zero. If there is a more damning indictment of his time at Juventus than this (or any player’s time at a club for that matter), please let me know. The problem isn’t just Bendtner’s fault. The top scorer this year is Arturo Vidal with 14 goals in all competitions, which is fantastic for a midfielder but a worrying statistic in terms of the strikers available. Vucinic tends to go missing in big games and is also largely absent in games that he even score in; Matri and Quagliarella have regressed into squad members (one or both are expected to leave in the summer), Anelka has barely played and Giovinco has been inconsistent. With Llorente coming in on a free transfer in the summer and Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Luis Suarez being the latest players to be linked with a move to Turin, there are signs of change. In saying that, I won’t rule out a summer of rumours ending in massive disappointment.
Lack of defensive depth
When Kwadwo Asamoah returned from the African Cup of Nations he was a different player, and not in a good way. He looked understandably tired, and his performances were a shadow of his first few months at the club. Despite this, he had to keep playing given the lack of any backup in the left wing back position. It’s even possible to argue that Asamoah, a central midfielder at Udinese, was playing out of position the whole time. On the other wing, there was never a sense of confidence when anyone other than Stephan Lichsteiner lined out.
Just as worryingly, cover for the central defence is few and far between. When Lucio arrived on a free transfer last summer, it only took a few games for him to be found out in a three man defence. As for the loan signing of Federico Peluso, every time he played it made me a tad uneasy. Chiellini still suffers from the occasional injury so a new centre back or two would also be appreciated this summer.
Difference in European quality
The Champion’s League group stage draw with Nordsjaelland was one of the most frustrating nights as a Juventus fan. 33 shots in total, 9 on target yet only 1 goal. While it’s important to note that the opposing keeper was voted man of the match, it served as a stark reminder of the difference between Serie A defenses and those in Europe. The fact that Nordsjaelland were by far and away the weakest team in the group made that draw even more gut wrenching.
As for the Quarter Final defeat at the hands of Bayern Munich, the spectacle was so terrifying to the point that I watched part of the match with my eyes nearly covered by a cushion. It’s true that Bayern Munich are quite possibly the best team in the world at the minute, and a 4 nil defeat over two legs was equal to what Barcelona got in just 90 minutes. It does, however, indicate the considerable distance between Juventus and the crème de la crème in Europe at the minute. Given time, and the chance to spend the revenue from Stadium and Champions League television rights, this will undoubtedly change.