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Saturday, February 4, 2023

Juventus in the Europa League would be a result of their arrogance and complacency

Juventus Champions League qualification
Pirlo has struggled in his first managerial stint. Elisabeta Barrachi/EPA.

This summer will mark three years since Cristiano Ronaldo joined Juventus. Signed for a club record €100 million, the five-time Ballon d’Or winner’s arrival in Turin signified the Old Lady’s ambition to win the Champions League for the first time since 1996. Having reached the final in 2015 and 2017, Ronaldo would help Juve take the final step.

At least, that was the idea. Three years into ‘Project Ronaldo’ and Juventus aren’t even assured of their place in the Champions League for next season. Indeed, with 33 matches played the Bianconeri find themselves in Serie A’s top four only on goal difference. If their recent poor form continues, they will likely finish fifth.

Given the raw ambition demonstrated in recent years by Juventus and the Agnelli family that owns the club, it’s almost unimaginable that they will be lining up in the Europa League next season. Ronaldo made the switch to Turin to add to his Champions League title tally, not to have his Thursday nights filled up.

Juventus in the Europa League would be a symbol of the club’s hubris and complacency in recent years. Yes, big money was spent to lure Ronaldo to Turin three years ago, but what else was done to ensure Juventus would be able to compete at the top level of the European game? Where was the rest of the plan?

Instead, Juve allowed Max Allegri to leave the club at the end of the 2018/19 season. He was subsequently replaced by Maurizio Sarri, a man whose principles and values as a coach never aligned with that of his employers. At least Sarri had a track record of coaching at the top level of the sport, though, unlike the man who replaced him last summer.

The appointment of Pirlo, who hadn’t coached at any level and didn’t even have the required coaching qualifications to take the job at the time of his hiring, was the starkest manifestation of Juventus’ complacency. Clearly they believed their position at the top of the Italian game was so strong it didn’t matter who was stood in the dugout.

Under Pirlo, Juventus have lacked structure. At no point has it been clear what the former midfielder’s vision is for his Turin. Ronaldo, who has still managed to score 25 times in 29 Serie A appearances, is the only thing keeping the Bianconeri in top four contention. Without him, Juventus would be even further adrift of the pace being set by Inter.

Of course, the appointment of Pirlo was motivated by more than just soccer factors. Aggravated by the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, Juventus have some financial issues to solve. While the likes of Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino were linked with the job following Sarri’s dismissal last summer, Pirlo was the cheap option.

Nonetheless, what has unfolded this season is a manifestation of corporate and sporting negligence at the top of the club. Juventus’ current squad is lopsided and unbalanced. Not so long ago, the Bianconeri were one of the best at finding value in the transfer market. Of late, though, their signings have only added to their list of problems – see Aaron Ramsey, Matthijs de Ligt and Alvaro Morata.

Such hubris was evident in the way Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli led the ill-fated proposals for the European Super League, refusing to admit fault and failure even when the entire sport rallied to oppose them. The Juve hierarchy believe they have a divine right to compete at the top of the Italian and European game to such an extent that only the very best deserve to be on the same field.

Juventus have been a long, long way from the very best this season. There must be an acceptance of this at the Allianz Stadium before any sort of recovery can happen. No excuses can be made. Missing out on Champions League qualification might actually give Juve the jolt they need to finally overhaul their decision making process.

There’s still five games left of the Serie A season for Juventus to nail down a place in the top four, therefore keeping their seat at European soccer’s top table. Even if they manage this, though, there must be a thorough examination of everything at Juve, from the personnel in the dressing room to the culture around the whole club. The sound of the Europa League anthem playing at the Allianz Stadium would hit home just how much work there is to be done.

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