As Paul Pogba headed for the exit door this past summer, Juventus were left with a hefty wallet yet gaping hole in midfield. Pogba’s world-record move to Manchester United, reported to be around €105 million, dominated any and every platform of news. Social media was awash with dabbing tutorials and new haircuts, while the hashtag #POGBACK took over Twitter. Having left Old Trafford four years prior in 2012, the 24-year-old had finally returned to England.
What concerned Juventus and their faithful supporters, however, was how they planned to recover from another integral team member leaving. Arturo Vidal and Carlos Tevez had already departed after a Champions League final run in 2015, while Alvaro Morata was re-signed by Real Madrid in the same summer Pogba left. A once-talented and dominant Juve side were being ripped apart by European clubs around them. When the Italian side would find themselves so close to European glory again was unknown. Losing the strong mental characters of Vidal, Tevez and Andrea Pirlo following the 3-1 defeat to Barcelona was a huge blow to a team that was built on a winning mentality. Without these, Juve had a long road back to the prestigious European contest.
That seemed to be the monotone feeling surrounding the last two years. The current squad’s obituary was written even before the board had time to re-invent the panel, starting with a successful 2015 transfer window considering the losses they had to deal with. Paulo Dybala was signed from Palermo, Sami Khedira and Mario Mandzukic arrived from the Spanish capital of Madrid, while Alex Sandro, Juan Cuadrado and Mario Lemina were also added to the squad. There was a mix of experience and youth to cope with the disappointing departures. But the campaign ahead in Europe would still have a bitter ending.
In the second round of last year’s Champions League, Juve faced Bayern Munich, who were considered heavy favourites to take home the trophy. An exciting 2-2 draw in the first leg in Turin was followed up by a heart breaking 4-2 loss. The defeat still haunts the club. Had Juve managed to hold on to their lead, instead of seeing it dwindle away thanks to a Thomas Muller header deep into injury time, there’s no telling what sort of success they could have achieved. But instead a double from Thiago ensured it was just another year of heartbreak in Europe’s premier competition.
Despite pushing one of the better teams in the tournament close to elimination, the same doubt started seeping in. Was this Juve squad capable of challenging for the biggest prize in club football?
Though the performances over both legs against Bayern were good, the reality was a second round exit. And going out at such an early stage following their run to the final in 2015 wasn’t seen as acceptable. A lot had changed from the side and whether or not the current crop of players had the capability of helping the club reach the final again was questioned. The departure of Pogba and Morata a few months later didn’t help matters. It looked as if Juve weren’t destined to become Europe’s best, and their chance had come and gone that night in Berlin. Instead of accepting such a fate, however, the board simply done what they always do. Rebuild and become stronger.
Miralem Pjanic, Gonzalo Higuain and Dani Alves were signed up last summer as Juve got stronger and their rivals got weaker. Marko Pjaca, Medhi Benatia and a second loan term for Juan Cuadrado also helped add more depth to the squad. The signings of Pjanic and Higuain were symbolic. Juve could have sat on the money they received over the last couple of years, attempt to find some cut-price deals and still challenge for the Serie A title, but that wasn’t good enough for a defiant board. So they went out and paid an astonishing €90m for Higuain while spending over €20m each on Pjanic and Pjaca. It was a signal of intent. Players will come and go but the club’s ambition will remain the same. Much like the summer prior to it, Juve had refuelled and rebuilt in hope of better success for the campaign ahead.
After negotiating through a tough group and taking care of an average FC Porto side in the last round, Juve now find themselves ever closer to returning to the “big dance”. Standing in their way is the same team which prevented them from taking home the trophy in 2015; A Barcelona side, coming off the back of the greatest comeback in Champions League history as they defeated PSG 6-5 on aggregate after a 4-0 loss in the first leg. It was special, even to a neutral. But Barca have had their struggles as well this year, and can certainly be beaten. Just ask Malaga who ran out 2-0 winners against Lionel Messi & co at the weekend. They may boast some of the best footballers in the world but that evidently doesn’t make them invincible.
It’s somewhat fitting that this current squad get to face Barcelona. Most of them weren’t around for the two sides’ previous meeting. That Juve team was one of the more talented to have played in Europe this decade, but the next week offers the likes of Dybala, Sandro, Higuain and others to prove they can help their club return to the summit of Europe’s elite. It was after that loss in the final that the rebuilding of the squad occurred, and most doubted that the new signings could compete with the continent’s best. This quarter final tie offers them the chance to prove those doubters wrong.