It takes a whole lot of irony to analyse the situation Juventus find themselves in right now.
With three matches left to play in Serie A, one of them against champions Inter Milan on Saturday, Juve are fifth in the league and on the verge of missing out on reaching the competition that remains the pinnacle of European football, the one that allowed them to become what they are now and without which they would have been unable to sign Cristiano Ronaldo, who earns 31m euros per year.
The Champions League has been their dream for years and it has brought them 790m euros in prize money and ticket revenues since 2012-13. But the club’s relationship with European football is fast turning into a nightmare.
What a season it has been for president Andrea Agnelli. A pandemic to face with all of its economic consequences, the farce of an attempt to sign Luis Suarez and the assumed Italian language skills that would have enabled him to qualify for citizenship, and then the massive flop that was the Super League, with this week’s latest instalment being a threat by Serie A to expel Juve unless they officially withdraw from the ESL.
It all started very differently though, at least from a sporting perspective. The Bianconeri had set their eyes on an unprecedented 10th Scudetto in a row and demonstrated firm determination to go all the way in Europe too.
Who should lead them there? Agnelli himself nominated Andrea Pirlo, a sort of Pep Guardiola in black and white stripes. Pirlo, the theory went, would finally give Juventus that international style of play which had always been missing in Turin. He would also be a more diplomatic figure than predecessor Maurizio Sarri, who had arrived with the same goal, only to fall out with Ronaldo and some senior figures even before the season started.
Sarri was sacked for losing in the Champions League last 16, as well as for his difficult relationship with players, press and directors. He did win the league though.
Pirlo has failed to do that and also oversaw a last-16 exit in Europe, this time at the hands of unfancied Porto.
When he was appointed, Pirlo’s backers talked of liquid football, possession and offensive play. He had no experience in the dugout, but surely such a massive player would understand how to drive the club forward on the pitch.
Juventus, inevitably, started the season as favourites, but Pirlo’s lack of experience became more and more evident as the weeks went by, remaining partially hidden by Ronaldo’s goals and a Supercup final win against Napoli. Pirlo has never really settled on a tactical strategy.
Where does Dejan Kulusevski perform better, in a 4-3-3 or a 4-4-2? Is Federico Chiesa more dangerous on the left or on the right wing? Why has he been swapping sides so often? Who should play in the middle? Is this what was meant by liquid football?
Kulusevski is one of a group of new players who have underperformed. Arthur was meant to replace Barcelona-bound Miralem Pjanic but couldn’t. He was also injured, but he’s simply not as good. Former Schalke midfielder Weston McKennie is a decent player, but not one who can lift a team.
Juve have a clear lack of quality in midfield. Gone are the days of Pirlo himself, of Arturo Vidal, of Paul Pogba. Juve’s defensive pillars Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci are not in their prime anymore, while the arrival of Matthijs de Ligt has been a good but expensive investment.
And so we witnessed a continuous change of ambitions. The desire to win the Champions League evaporated; the hope of a 10th consecutive Serie A title faded away as Inter won the first 11 games of the second half of the season, and now the very minimum goal of clinching Champions League qualification is looking in serious doubt.
With Inter already sure of a spot, Juve are three points behind AC Milan and Atalanta, four behind Napoli, and with worse head-to-head results against all of them. Their destiny is not in their own hands.
The Bianconeri travel to Sassuolo on Wednesday and then face Antonio Conte’s Inter on Saturday. They know they can’t expect anything from the champions, because of the rivalry between the clubs and the difficult relationship between their former manager and Agnelli himself.
A sort of miracle is needed, considering how bad Juventus have been playing. After their lucky win at Udinese at the start of the month, there was no sign of a reaction against AC Milan at all. On the contrary, the Rossoneri dominated a key game and were rewarded with a 3-0 win in Turin. Ronaldo has been looking frustrated and like an external body to the team for weeks now.
Missing out on the Champions League would mean a loss of around 90m euros for Juventus. What would that mean on top of the effects of a pandemic? Can a luxury like Ronaldo be retained? Is it realistic to imagine Ronaldo not playing in the Champions League and not trying to improve his personal records? Which club would be willing to pay him such wages though?
If Juventus’ season ends in disgrace, several shoulders will have to carry the blame for it. Not even beating Atalanta in the Coppa Italia final next week could compensate for such a worst-case scenario.
Pirlo took the opportunity when it was offered to him but there is a limit to the blame that can be attached to him – he was not in charge of the transfer market and he’s not to blame for the ageing of the squad. Sporting director Fabio Paratici and Agnelli face the brunt of the criticism on those fronts.
“I will do my job as long as I will be given the opportunity to do so,” Pirlo said on Sunday.
He will finish off the season but his future is written. There is only one realistic candidate for Juventus, and after two years of experimenting, Max Allegri – in charge for five of their Serie A triumphs – is ready to resume the job he left in 2019, at a club which finds its status severely diminished.