On one of U2’s best songs from the nineties “The Fly”, Bono mentions that “ambition bites the nails of success”, a fitting description of what has been happening at Juventus in recent weeks. After a resounding loss in the Coppa Italia to Atalanta, the Bianconeri now find themselves on the brink of elimination in the Champions League.
While Juventus has always made domestic success their priority, last summer’s acquisition of Cristiano Ronaldo, on top of redeeming the rights to Douglas Costa from Bayern Munich, bringing back Leonardo Bonucci after a season at Milan and acquiring Joao Cancelo made it quite obvious that the club was going all in for the Champions League.
This was a natural evolution for Juventus. When Max Allegri replaced Antonio Conte, one of the first things he said was that his immediate goal was to consistently get his team to the quarterfinals of Europe’s most prestigious competition. The thinking was that one year, things could break their way and they could finally lift the cup, something that had eluded Juventus since the 1990s.
Juventus did come close, ironically more so the first year Allegri arrived in Turin when a controversial non call on Dani Alves tackling Pogba in penalty box could have swung things the Bianconeri’s way. A few years later, Juventus went to Cardiff with much more confidence, only to be outclassed by Real Madrid.
But the Cristiano Ronaldo acquisition was not only a marketing bonanza, it was also a statement of intent. While the club’s brass had always been very cautious saying the Scudetto was the main objective and that the Champions League was a crapshoot, things changed across the board- from the president to the players- with statements that winning the trophy with the Mickey Mouse ears was the priority.
While Juventus did win their group, the first leg of round of sixteen against Atletico Madrid was a disastrous as the Pop tour was for U2. The bainconeri’s best player was keeper Szczesny, the duo of Chiellini and Bonucci struggled, Dybala played scared and Allegri’s decision to start De Sciglio over Cancelo was widely criticized.
To make matters worse, Juventus gave up a goal to Diego Godin who is set to join their arch rivals Inter and Diego Simeone’s celebration went viral and will be added to the list of moments that illustrate the Bianconeri’s underachievement in Europe.
But despite all this, is it fair to describe Juventus as being a team in crisis? Or has the team’s consistent success in Italy given them an almost impossible bar to surpass to define success?
It’s certainly fair to say that Atletico Madrid was arguably the most challenging opponent they could have faced in this round. The last second injury to Sami Khedira, who despite being hit like a piñata by Juventini on Twitter, is a proven commodity in the Champions League and the midfielder who scores the most goals in Allegri’s scheme forced the Bianconeri to have to make a last second adjustment.
While Rodrigo Bentancur has been one of the most pleasant surprises in the first half of the season, he doesn’t bring much offensively. If that weren’t enough, Pjanic came down with a fever the night before the game making him even less valuable than usual (it’s fair to say that Ronaldo taking so many free kicks had already made him less decisive this season).
But it’s also true that Atletico Madrid was without some key players in the match and they played with much more determination. Ronaldo was brought in for exactly these types of games and his only highlight was his mocking of the fans with the number of Champions League he won.
This wasn’t exactly an aberration for the former Real Madrid striker during this Champions League campaign. So far he has only scored one goal in Europe, and while it’s great that he’s leading Serie A in goals scored, Juventus really didn’t need him for that.
So where do Juventus go from here? In the short term, they need to try to come back for the first time from a 2-0 loss in the first leg and channel the same energy they showed at the Santiago Bernabeu last year when Simeone’s crew travels to Turin in 20 days.
Should Juventus fail to overcome this deficit, which won’t be easy against a disciplined and staunch team like Atletico, they’ll have to think long and hard on what they need to do next season. While it’s fair to expect that Aaron Ramsey will make more of an impact than Emre Can has so far, it remains to be seen if he’s enough to upgrade a midfield that is a fair cry from the one Allegri fielded when he faced Barcelona in Berlin.
Considering the seven previous Serie A titles- and closing in on number eight- it’s going to be very hard for Juventini to talk themselves into how meaningful another Scudetto is. The rightful ambition the Bianconeri made by acquiring Ronaldo truly bites the nails of success- it is now Champions League or bust for Juventus and this is a good thing.