Like a roller coaster ride, this season continues, and right when we think, that's it we are heading up the final stretch with no looking back, it whips us right back down where we came from and fast. Now, we ask can we get back to our winning ways and make a big enough push to get something out of the season? The week prior many fans were happy and starting to see the progress and their excitement was growing in the project. This week they're ready to sell all players and throw Pirlo to the wolves. Such is life when the expectations are as high as they are with a club like Juventus. The players know it and so does our manager Pirlo. The issue is, why can't we take that next step? Why can't we shift into the next gear...actually, why can't we even find the throttle at times? I have a theory that's developed this past week but first, let's recap what exactly happened.
Juventus was set to face Napoli after having eliminated Inter from the Coppa Italia and securing a spot in the final on May 19th in Milan. The team was playing very solid dropping only one match for the entire month of January and winning five matches and drawing one since that defeat while only allowing one goal. So confidence was high and having comfortably beaten Napoli in the Supercopa there was no reason we shouldn't be able to do it again. However, there was something waiting for Juventus on the other side and that was the match against Porto away from home in the Champions League. Here is another trend that has crept up over the past few seasons, matches before and after a Champions League tie have usually been flat performances. The same can be said for return matches after International breaks. Now, we have gotten results in some of them as well but they have been nowhere near the standard that should be set for our performances. Making this Napoli match, which should be a tough match anyways, a bit tougher and easier to see turn into a potential banana peel for Juventus. So, could Juve avoid this potential slip-up? Would they be able to keep their great form running and keep piling points in the tight race for the scudetto this season?
Well... unfortunately for Juventini worldwide the team was not able to get the job done. A mistake by our captain surrendering a PK for Napoli which was converted by Insigne gave them the lead. Juventus was extremely flat for the first half, showing nowhere near the amount of energy required to even train let alone compete in a match against a rival. The second half saw a shift in urgency and effort and Juve were able to create a lot of chances a few even quality opportunities but were not able to capitalize and suffered defeat. To add to the sting of this defeat Milan fell to Spezia and Inter won their match against Lazio which saw Juventus missing out on closing the gap at the top.
The saving grace is that not all is lost as we still have a match in hand and our schedule will lighten up as we just ended a very difficult run. While some fans were saying the scudetto race is over, I couldn't help but disagree. Especially over a match that saw us control it for almost, its entirety finishing with 62% possession and seeing Napoli's only attempt on target the PK gifted to them by a mistake of ours. This felt like just one of those matches that weren't meant to be. I of course would've liked to see the proper approach from the get-go but regardless, Juve did create a lot and was all over Napoli in the second and extremely unfortunate to not come out with a win. Napoli deserved nothing in this and this sentiment was expressed by Pirlo as well after the match saying he was confident in the performance and it was a shame to leave with no points and this match wouldn't affect them as they deserved more. With the sour taste of defeat still in their mouths, Juve had to look ahead now to their first leg match against Porto in the Champions League with eyes on players like Ramsey and Dybala and if they would be fit to play.
As the match drew near, the curiosity grew surrounding which defensive pairing would Pirlo go with, and would Dybala finally be able to be bake with the team and get some minutes in this one? Bonucci ended up being called out of the lineup sheet with a knock which made the decision left out of De Ligt, Demiral, and Chiellini. Pirlo ended up going with De Ligt and our Capitano Giorgio Chiellini. This would be a move that nullified itself during the match as Chiellini ended up suffering yet again another calf injury and had to leave around the 35th minute of the match. Dybala was not fit to play but was in the lineup to be with the team. The biggest surprise maybe was Kulusevski being played up top with Ronaldo in the final training session before the match. It was later revealed Morata was not well ( having fainted after the match) which probably led to Pirlo making the decision to start Kulusevski. We all know Juventini has many reservations about this tournament as it is and finds it very nerve-racking and hard to be too optimistic about based on so many heartbreaking defeats and struggles with it. This particular match had all of our fears come to light as if scripted by the cruelest of football gods. We concede a goal within two minutes after kick-off, an error by Bentancur which was another concern with Arthur not being available. Chiellini injured early on. Another quick goal at the start of the second half for Porto saw us 2-0 down and staring down the barrel of a gun so to speak in this tournament yet again with Juventus looking very incompetent in terms of creation. With 10 minutes remaining in the match, Juventus sprung into life and was able to find a crucial away goal through Chiesa that gives us faith in making it through with a return leg in Turin on deck for March 9th. I spoke previously about our luck and fans finding it hard to be too optimistic about this tournament and this defeat brought out all those feelings. The players are not good enough, we need a new midfield, Pirlo must go he is failing us. What's the point of going through?...just to get smashed in the next round? This is what it was like for not all but many fans as they voice their frustration. The truth is that nobody is completely wrong and things lie somewhere in the middle.
I spoke earlier about something I noticed that's developed and that is Pirlo's system is not working completely. Not because of him, however, but because we simply don't have the personnel to perform the roles as they are intended in this setup. Pirlo could be criticized for the setup if it is in fact the best for the personnel we have but if I were to think about alternative systems I would be left with the same question. Are our guys good enough? I personally can't help but feel like we continue to try and make players something they are not. You simply can't put a square peg into a round hole and we have been doing this for a while now with this club. So, for some who say Pirlo must go, if you first don't establish a system that you can commit to, how do we know we have the right personnel? It has to start somewhere and I don't believe changing him is the answer. He has the respect of the players and he has made us play quite well when it clicks better than we've seen for almost two seasons worth of football.
The change I see that I mentioned earlier is how crucial certain players are. One being Juan Cuadrado. The reason I believe he is so crucial now ( I admit I didn't think he was before) is because Sandro cannot keep the balance on the left side and that is evident each time I watch him play. Cuadrado allows the midfielder who will attack to be offered great support and can contribute heavily to the creative side of things. Sandro is just unable to do so effectively. That leaves us with Danilo and Cuadrado to be the outsides. With Cuadrado out, we suffer because Sandro had to enter. This again affects our midfield as well and attack a big trickle-down effect. In the middle of the park Weston McKennie I can't help but think he is not fully recovered from a hip injury as he has been off since that injury or knock was mentioned. He also looks a lot less effective when on the left side no matter who is behind him but especially if it's Sandro. The last is Arthur missing. For a team that wants to be a possession-based club and control matches, he will be crucial to beat the press and Bentancur has let us down and has never taken that next leap and seems to always come back down when you think he is about to breakthrough. This latest match really showed him fade away after the mistake which cost us a goal in the opening two minutes. I would have had a lot of praise if he could've picked it up after that and went out to right his wrong but it was the opposite, it felt like he just didn't want to get too involved to make another error. There's no doubt in my mind if Arthur has the ball there we don't lose it and we move on. However, to continue on this thought process we get to the forwards and Kulusevski has faded in and out of good showings and bad showings as well. So if we go at Pirlo we must also hold these players accountable as well and I feel they haven't held up their end of the bargain for the most part.
Dybala coming back hopefully is the injection we need but he has had an awful bout of luck and wasn't playing anywhere near what's expected of him and what we need. I hope for our sake he can come back and make a positive impact. As for Pirlo he has changed and adjusted quite a bit since the beginning of the season and again when it's good it's great but I believe that's lineup dependant and for many reasons he can't roll with those guys repeatedly so the others need to fill their roles, my fear is they can't and we suffer or barely get by.
Having said all this and getting a lot off my chest I still feel Juventus is right in the thick of things as far as the scudetto race is concerned and we are in the final of the Coppa Italia and we aren't out of Champions League just yet. The expectations I had for Pirlo I think he's actually surpassed if I'm being honest, which is why I may be more willing to stick this out and see what he could create for us. I do know he made some solid adjustments righting the wrongs against Inter and I am going to have faith he can do the same against Porto. Let's have faith Juventini with Crotone up next and Dybala slated to play some minutes, maybe that's the spark that takes us the rest of the way.
Fino Alla Fine Forza Juventus