Last week I asked Juventini to have faith in our squad and never forget who we are and always believe as we went into the matchup against Lazio with the second leg vs Porto looming around the corner.
Faith was restored but only temporarily.
In a big matchup, Pirlo ended up throwing everyone for a loop including Simone Inzaghi and Lazio. Utilizing Danilo in the midfield and using a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 hybrid depending on how you saw it. The switch paid dividends as outside of an error made by Kulusevski that led to the opening goal by Correa for Lazio, Juventus outplayed its opponent and looked incredibly convincing in doing so. Playing arguably their best football of the season and doing it without Cristiano Ronaldo as he entered the match late as a substitute. Juve always in control and after the early setback imposing their will on Lazio and with a goal from Rabiot and a Morata brace they were able to cruise to a 3-1 victory. Now, with the focus shifting to the Champions Leg second leg against Porto there were even more questions as to how Pirlo would lineup and would we see the same approach that dominated a good Lazio side? We were also able to get a few bodies back and get them minutes in this one. Arthur, Cuadrado, and Bonucci all saw the pitch in this matchup which added even more questions in the buildup to our Champions League midweek match. With the match getting close the big question was would we see the forwards play in a trident similar to Lazio and who would be at Centre Back position? The pairing of Chiellini and Bonucci was rumored to be favored and this had fans voicing their frustration that Pirlo would always go to the old guys ( his friends) and we wouldn't learn from what worked well against Lazio. As the match approached the final training session saw Bonucci and Demiral tested as the Centre Back pairing and it would be who Pirlo would go with and he would round out the back with Cuadrado and Alex Sandro on the outsides with Ramsey, Rabiot, Arthur, and Chiesa across the middle with Morata and Ronaldo at the top. All this focus on the center-backs and in my mind I wasn't concerned with who would be at the back, my concern was would we have the right approach and attitude and will we be able to create enough to score the goals we need. Now we have become so accustomed to the Broadcasts and reports never nailing the lineup or formation so this one showing a 4-4-2 was questioned by many Juventini, especially after seeing how well we did against Lazio right before this match. Surely, we couldn't see the same 4-4-2 and we would go with a more attack-based 4-3-3 right?! Wrong.
Juventus would take to the field in their standard shape that would mold into a 3-4-1-2 in the attack, leaving some fans frustrated to not see what was so effective against Lazio. The other question looming was, would Porto park the bus? Pirlo stating in his presser that should they choose to Juve would make them move it. The talk was there but was they ready to walk the walk? It didn't take long for Juventus to get a great opportunity unfortunately Morata was absolutely robbed by Marchesin on a point-blank header in the second minute. The first goal would've really set the tone for Juventus to make the push they needed and move on. Things don't always go to plan however and Juve would come to know this quite well especially in the 19th minute when Demiral is called for a challenge in the area and Porto midfielder Oliveira capitalizes on the PK. Juventus now behind 1-0 in the match and 3-1 on aggregates. The second half would restore faith in us Juventini with a quick goal from the main antagonist Chiesa in the 48th minute. Then Taremi ends up taking two yellow cards in a matter of 3 minutes and gets himself sent off and left the door open for Juve to push and take control of this tie. They would find another goal through Chiesa again. All things were square across the two legs and with man-up confidence was high amongst the Juve faithful that we could get the job done but what we ended up receiving was our worst nightmare... Juve came to rue many missed opportunities and moments in which they didn't capitalize. Late in the match a free-kick from almost thirty yards out would make its way under the wall and Szczesny could only get a piece of it and that would level the match at 2 and give Porto the 4-3 Aggregate lead and 2 crucial away goals. The wind was visibly out of our sails. Rabiot would find one for Juve less than a minute after Oliveira's second goal of the match but with a minute left in the extra time it was too little too late and the final whistle would blow ending another Champions League campaign for Juventus in the Round of 16 for the third consecutive season. The team was immediately put under fire, the leaders being questioned by pundits for not speaking to the media and facing the music, and letting two youngsters ( De Ligt & Chiesa ) deal with the interviews. It didn't stop there as everyone from the bottom to the top being criticized as this club should not be accepting these results in Europe repeatedly. In the following days we were receiving reports Chiellini is calling it quits after this season and that Cristiano Ronaldo would meet with Juventus to decide what's best for both and then followed up with rumors that Juventus has set a price tag of 35 million euros on the Portuguese star's head. A list then circulates of players who Juventus sees as a core to build this new project around and Pirlo is said to have the full approval of the board to continue on regardless of results. Is it the truth or is it the kiss of death? In modern-day football, you just can't rule out anything.
In my previous column, I spoke about the many challenges this side and Pirlo have faced and while I do believe there is work to do with all phases of this club, from upper management being more clear and direct with their approach and strategies in team building, from our manager and his in-game management and our players who need to find a way to keep the standard and level of play at it's highest, I still believe things aren't as bad as they seem. This loss in the round of 16 was highlighted by our own errors and lack of finishing. If you recap the second leg and see how many chances Juventus did create and weren't able to capitalize and how cheaply we allowed goals you simply cannot expect to move on in this tournament. Regardless of what we think of upper management and our coach, the players on the pitch simply need to get the job done especially when finding themselves one man up for almost 40 minutes. There are no excuses for that. If we had capitalized and advanced though the discussions would be much different and that's why it's important to maintain perspective. Still, I feel there are some big decisions ahead for Juventus in terms of strengthening the roster and committing to a manager whether it is Pirlo or not, and start to give the man in charge what he's asking for on the pitch. I believe the patchwork we have come to know in mercatos needs to end. Asking players to play out of position because we weren't able to find someone for the position naturally or sold a player who occupies the position, all needs to end. There comes a time when you start to wonder if maybe there should be some changes from further above. You know what the old saying is when you point your finger at someone to blame there are three fingers pointing back at you. We have seen Allegri leave and then Sarri, the latter even stating this group of players was untrainable. Now we have some calling for Pirlo's head but we may be just getting rid of a fall guy and not getting to the root. I ask you all reading this a simple question that I have been asking many Juventini as of late. Does this roster reflect that of a club that has taken almost 1 billion euros out of the Champions League in the past decade? If the answer is no, then is a manager or coach really to blame? Now while we are all trying to bounce back from the sting of this latest Champions League exit we can only again rly on our faith in the club. It's always how the club will bounce back that shows us what we are made of and we have come back from much worse and again we are not at a point of a complete rebuild, so let's maintain that perspective as we do have a solid new core of players to build upon. Our faith now is not in performances but for the club as a whole to clean up any and all shortcomings. I was asked today how I feel the club will fare and as many of the answers I give regarding this club as of late create conflict between my heart and mind, this was no different. My heart says the club will fight hard and be in that race for the scudetto until the bitter end and who knows what could happen, and I believe they will win the Coppa Italia. My mind has serious doubts we will find the consistency required to get the job done to win the scudetto or be in a place to overtake the leaders at some point and I fear there are underlying chemistry issues amongst the squad especially pertaining to several players futures remaining unknown. If there are unknowns, however, the way to counteract that would be to get the guys who are part of the project playing together frequently to finish the season and build that chemistry and forge that bond in hopes of solidifying a spine to move forward with. It begins this weekend against Cagliari.
Sitting 10 points back of leaders Inter with a game in hand, Juve will take to the pitch at the Sardegna to face Cagliari who has 2 wins 1 draw, and 2 losses in their last five matches. The last time the two clubs met Juve cruised to a 2-0 victory through a Ronaldo brace. The interesting one about this match is it's the first since the crushing defeat to Porto. It could literally go either way. Will Juve be fragile and broken or will they come out with a vengeance and set fire to the pitch and use that loss to ignite a fire inside them and take it the rest of the way to finish the season? Time will tell and all we can do is have faith. Remember as fans no matter what, if we don't have faith, we have nothing. Let's believe that upper management, our coach and our players will get things right and if things don't go our way this season, well, that could be the kick in the ass we need to come back stronger in the future and make the adjustments necessary to progress in the next one. For now, though, there are still two trophies up for grabs. You know what that means...Forza Juve Fino Alla Fine