Italian football on trial as Juventus aim to prove there’s life in the Old Lady yet

Italian football on trial as Juventus aim to prove there’s life in the Old Lady yet
Juventus need to pick themselves up after the 3-0 defeat to Real Madrid and restore some pride in the second leg. (Getty)
Updated 10 April 2018

Italian football on trial as Juventus aim to prove there’s life in the Old Lady yet

Italian football on trial as Juventus aim to prove there’s life in the Old Lady yet
  • Juve face a mountain to climb after the first leg
  • So solid in Serie A, Juve's defence looks shaky in Europe

The tie, realistically, has gone. Were Juventus to overhaul a 3-0 deficit from their home leg away to Real Madrid, it would be the most unexpected comeback in the history of football.
No side has ever accomplished such a task in European competition. All that remains for Juve is to try to salvage some pride, not just for the club but for Italian football as a whole.
The first leg was extremely troubling for Serie A. In the 25 matches before it, the Old Lady had kept 21 clean sheets. The only four games in which they had conceded had been in 3-1 wins over Verona and AC Milan and in both legs of the previous round of the Champions League as they drew 2-2 against Tottenham before beating them 2-1 at Wembley. That suggested they were some sort of impregnable force. But in their Champions League knockout games so far they have looked anything but.
At Wembley, it is true, there was a half-hour spell after they had scored their two goals in quick succession in which bodies were hurled in front of shots, blocks were made, and Giorgio Chiellini and Gianluigi Buffon screamed at each other. That was enough to bring forth from sections of the media all the stereotypes about streetwise Italian sides and the great catenaccio tradition.
But it was largely nonsense. The truth is that Juve had been overrun for long periods but had the canniness to disrupt Tottenham early in the second half and the ruthlessness to take the two opportunities that suddenly, unexpectedly, fell their way. A spirit of emotional defiance was reached in the latter stages, but even then there were three good Tottenham chances.
Good defending is about stifling opposing moves at source; once keepers are making saves and defenders are hurling themselves in the way of shots, there is an element of lottery about it. Those last-dich interventions can be vital, of course, but they are the sign of a side rescuing themselves; the very best do not get into trouble in the first place.
Within three minutes last week, Juve’s defensive structure had collapsed. It was not just that Cristiano Ronaldo was allowed to make an unchallenged run across the near post, startling as that was, it was the build-up as Douglas Costa lingered upfield, leaving Mattea De Sciglio trying to deal with two men wide on the left. Marcelo had a simple task to prod the ball to Isco in space and he then had time to measure an excellent cross. How could a defense that could permit that to happen have kept 21 clean sheets in its previous 25 games?
Even Ronaldo’s overhead kick for the second, magnificent as it was, was the result of a passage of play begun when Juve lost possession following some confusion between Buffon and Chiellini.
Juve looked shaky against Tottenham and were shambolic against Madrid. That that defense, so obviously vulnerable in the Champions League, has leaked just 18 goals in 31 games domestically feels barely credible, and raises serious concerns about the general quality of Italian football.

KEY CLASH

Cristiano Ronaldo’s record against just about everybody is remarkable, but against Juventus it is particularly so: He has scored nine goals in six games against them. His scoring form generally at the moment is preposterous: 24 goals in his last 13 games for Real Madrid, and 14 in the Champions League this season, six more than anybody else in the competition.
Ronaldo’s transition from flighty winger to bustling, deadly no. 9, adapting as well as anyone ever has as his body has aged and its possibilities changed, should have made him more the sort of player Juve’s aging but physical central defense is comfortable in combating, but there was little sign of that last week. His movement was too good, his finishing too precise for them to deal with. Chiellini may have radiated defiance in the final minutes against Tottenham at Wembley, but in the first leg Ronaldo made him look every second of his 33 years.