The Champions League is always crunch-time for Juventus, but never more than now.
Italy’s serial champions hold most of the league records worth having, and an eighth consecutive title this season would give them the all-time record for Europe’s major leagues. Yet, they also hold the painful record of losing more Champions League and European Cup finals than any other club, seven in all, starting in 1973 against Ajax and most recently against Real Madrid, the season before last. writes
When Juventus signed Cristiano Ronaldo in the summer for a staggering €112m, there was not even an attempt to disguise their aim of securing their first European crown since beating Ajax in a penalty shoot out in 1996.
Select a “best-paid XI” in Italian football and eight are at Juve: Ronaldo, Paulo Dybala, Douglas Costa, Miralem Pjanic, Emre Can, Joao Cancelo, Leonardo Bonucci, and Giorgio Chiellini. Two of the others were sold by the club in the summer.
Ronaldo’s status as king-pin is such that his salary — reported at €31m, after tax — is higher than the entire wage bill of 10 clubs in Serie A.
It sounds like a gamble, but Juve’s owners Fiat made a business calculation as well as football one. Juventus shares rose 65% over the summer, largely thanks to the Ronaldo deal. In the words of Alberto Francese, at Italy’s leading investment bank: “Investors are now expecting numbers and multipliers which will allow Juventus to close the commercial gap with the strongest clubs in the world.”
So, the two games with Manchester United have more to them than is usual in the group stage. Juventus are determined to qualify as group winners, even if that does not guarantee an easier draw at the knockout stage. A result at Old Trafford will put them in the driving seat, especially as their final group-stage game is at home against Young Boys while United finish with a tricky match in Valencia.
Up to the weekend, Juve were riding high after their best-ever start to a season, eight consecutive league wins, plus two in the Champions League. After letting in a couple of goals in their first match, they conceded only three in their following nine.
At home to Genoa, though, they lost their focus. Maybe they were lulled into complacency by Ronaldo’s goal. It was only his fifth for his new club, but it took him to a record 400 in Europe’s big leagues (84 for United, followed by 311 for Real Madrid). The alternative explanation offered by Max Allegri is that his players’ minds wandered forward to tonight’s match.
Whatever the reasons, a failure to kill off games when a goal up is a recurring Juve issue and, after missing chances (two to Ronaldo, one to Mario Mandzukic) they allowed a plucky Genoa side to equalise midway through the second half. On came the attacking substitutes, Dybala and Federico Bernardeschi, and the changed formation appeared to threaten, but failed to make much impact.
From Allegri’s point of view, this may have been a valuable lesson for a side that is odds on to retain their title. Genoa scored when the Juve defence were caught napping, assuming a harmless ball was going out for a corner. Chiellini was rested for the game and his absence was partly to blame: For all Bonucci’s qualities, the captain is a better leader at the back.
Sami Khedira was also missing — he has had a series of injuries — and with Can also now injured, Juve will be concerned about their back line being exposed by pace. For that back line is less rock-like than it used to be, despite Juve’s impressive number of clean sheets this season. Wojciech Szczesny is an imposing figure in goal, but he is no Buffon. Alex Sandro was weak against Genoa.
The absence of Mandzukic due to an ankle injury is probably Allegri’s biggest headache, because of his strength in the air, in defence as well as up front. So, Juventus could play with Ronaldo and Dybala as twin strikers, with Bernardeschi in behind them.
Jose Mourinho will also be concerned about set pieces. Ronaldo is the obvious threat, but Pjanic is the most dangerous dead-ball striker in Serie A, with a unique ability to dip and swerve a shot beyond the defensive wall. Dybala gives his side a third option.
Juventus feel this is a game United must win, and they were well aware of Martial’s threat — even before his two goals on Saturday — marking him down as a potential transfer target.
Tonight’s match has the potential to be explosive and it could go to the wire.