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Friday, March 24, 2023

Derby d’Italia is crossroads moment for Andrea Pirlo as Juventus boss

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Andrea Pirlo may soon have to rely on players other than Ronaldo. Alessandro di Marco/EPA.

Andrea Pirlo wasn’t qualified to be Juventus boss when he was handed the biggest job in Italian last summer. Quite literally. The former midfielder didn’t hold the necessary coaching badges to take over at the Allianz Stadium. Juve had to rush Pirlo through a series of assessments in order to get him the qualifications he needed to sit in the dugout for the opening game of the season.

This was reflective of the gamble the Old Lady took in hiring such an inexperienced rookie. Pirlo is a legend of the Turin club, but hadn’t even coached at youth level before replacing Maurizio Sarri as the Juventus head coach. Nobody, not even the decision makers at the Allianz Stadium, knew what to expect.

What has unfolded since then is a difficult induction to elite level management for Pirlo. 16 games into their 2020/21 campaign, Juventus are slumped in fourth place in the Serie A table. The Bianconeri have a game in-hand over most of their rivals, but they would openly lift themselves up to third, four points off top spot, with a win in that game.

With this context in mind, Sunday’s Derby d’Italia against Inter arrives as a pivotal moment for Juventus’ season and for Pirlo’s management career. An Inter victory would see Antonio Conte’s men go seven points clear of the Old Lady and would deal another blow to the defending champions’ chances of retaining their crown. A Juve win, however, could see them round a corner.

Juventus will arrive at the San Siro this weekend in good form. They have won their last four games (in all competitions) in succession and have found their scoring touch of late with 13 goals scored over the course of that run. Nonetheless, there is a vulnerability and volatility to Pirlo’s team illustrated by the 3-0 blowout defeat to Fiorentina just before Christmas.

There is a persistent sense that this Juventus side are only ever one or two games away from a crisis. Indeed, consistency has been an issue for Pirlo. Until this current run, Juventus had failed to string together more than two wins in Serie A, making their present streak of three straight victories their longest winning run of the campaign so far.

Cristiano Ronaldo has dragged Juve along behind him for much of the winter period. The Portuguese has scored nine goals in his last nine league outings and has entered the sort of groove he frequently played in during his time at Real Madrid. In this sort of form, and in this sort of mindset, Ronaldo just doesn’t lose. Pirlo can be thankful for that.

At 35 years old, though, Ronaldo is fading as a physical force. His will power might be as strong as ever, but the Portuguese forward needs a support system around him and that’s where Juventus might not be doing enough. There are still a lot of unanswered questions over what sort of team Pirlo wants Juve to be under his stewardship.

Juventus have dominated Italian soccer for the past decade, winning nine Scudetto in a row up until this season. Now, though, it appears their grip is loosening. AC Milan might have suffered a defeat to the Bianconeri just two weeks ago, but their back-to-back wins over Torino since then suggest Stefano Piolo’s side won’t fade away any time soon.

Inter have been building under Conte for a couple seasons. They too are vulnerable at the back, but Inter boast a fighting spirit that cannot be matched by anything currently within the home dressing room at the Allianz Stadium. That spirit might be enough to carry the Nerazzurri over the line in a title race.

Pirlo cannot be solely blamed for the issues Juve have suffered this season. Many of those same issues were apparent under Sarri last season. Once renowned for their ability to find value in the transfer market, Juventus have lost their way when it comes to recruitment in recent years. The signing of Ronaldo is one success story in amongst a number of failures and even he has had his troubles at times.

While some clubs like Barcelona and Manchester United are historically renowned for playing a certain way, Juventus’ overarching identity has always been in their status as Italian’s soccer’s predominant club. Other teams play attractive possession-based or counter-attacking soccer. Juve win things. But what happens when they stop winning things? Pirlo is hoping he won’t find out.

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