It was Mario Mandzukic’s goal of elegance that tied the game for Juventus against the titans of the soccer world, Real Madrid. The goal gave Juventus a lightning strike of momentum heading into halftime in Wales. Juventus had 45 minutes to make history in the Champions League final for the first time since 1996.
The Bianconeri were dressed in their classic black and white stripes, matching Real Madrid’s intensity and execution in the first half. Though, despite the effort, something wasn’t right with Juve. A noticeable disconnect filled the humid air that the Italians were gasping for. Sure, they were playing hard, but not necessarily together.
Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane saw the game tied at 1-1, and decided to stay the course and believe in his players. He gave the team an inspirational talk that refocused the Spaniards, telling them he believed in their talent to overcome the stakes of the game. Superstar forward Cristiano Ronaldo, responded by scoring his second goal in the half — which proved to be the dagger to Juve’s hope — leading Real Madrid to a shockingly brutal second-half beatdown, one that Juventus had not seen since the disappointing 3-1 loss to Barcelona in the Champions League final two years ago.
They have now lost two Champions League finals in three years (seven in total).
Real Madrid midfielder Isco, who kept star Gareth Bale out of the starting lineup, described it as Real's best performance of the season.
“The first half was really tough, against a brilliant team in every aspect, but in the second half we saw the best performance from Real Madrid all season,” he told Independent’s Martyn Herman.
This loss to Real Madrid stung deeper than the one to Barcelona. For Juventus and fans, the second half was as enjoyable as pouring rubbing alcohol in an open wound. Juventus is widely known as a calm, collected and domesticated club who rarely gets rattled. Win, lose or draw, Juve plays together; 11 men united as one team. No player ever comes before Juventus.
But that's not what we saw during this game. We didn’t see men take responsibility for their mistakes, we saw fingers pointed. We didn’t see encouragement, we saw heads sulked. It was a befuddling disappearing act on both sides of the ball for the Italians, but despite what the box score says, the downfall wasn’t in the second half, it was well before.
La Stampa reported that frustrations boiled over in the dressing room at the interval, both involving Leonardo Bonucci. The defender reportedly felt Paulo Dybala was playing within himself after an early booking, and told him in no uncertain terms to wake up. Dybala fired back at his accusations, and manager Massimiliano Allegri had to step in to defuse the situation.
Bonucci also reportedly pointed out that Real Madrid’s Marcelo was causing problems down the left, with Juve’s Andrea Barzagli playing at right-back. Barzagli didn’t take kindly to that suggestion, and pointed out that if Bonucci had planted his foot to block Cristiano Ronaldo’s opener, then they wouldn’t have been down 1-0. Bonucci denied the accusations.
"Nothing that has been written or narrated has truth. There was no dispute, no physical acts involving me or anyone else,” said Bonucci to PA Sport.
Dani Alves was reportedly a part of the fireworks that took place in Wales, and even went further to suggest Dybala leave Juventus.
The Independent relayed his comments, which he made to Brazilian TV station Esporte Interativo: "We have talked, and I told him that one day he will have to leave to improve. He is a jewel that will blossom. We talked so many times about it, and I said one day, I don't know when, that he will have to leave Juventus if he is to improve even more."
Alves left for Paris Saint-Germain after his controversial remarks toward Juventus, leaving behind a sour taste in the mouths of Juve fans. But, Alves’ departure wasn’t a shock. The team would still keep its core members together, right?
Soon after the digestion of the collapse in the Champions League final, and the disgust over Alves’ sour departure, another blow was dealt. Bonucci, one of Juve’s core members, dashed for AC Milan without any chance for pleading from the front office or the fans. Reports later came out that it was simply time for both sides to move on from what was now considered an adversarial relationship. For everything positive that can be said about Bonucci, his petulant antics became too much for Allegri and Juve’s front office to handle. Ultimately, €42 million for the 30-year-old star to be the captain of a new-look Milan was too good to turn down.
Despite the many disappointing revelations the offseason had, Allegri and company have welcomed new faces to the roster.
Keeper Wojciech Szczesny signed from Arsenal and is likely to be the team's Coppa Italia starter, biding his time in the league and Europe until Gianluigi Buffon retires after the 2018 World Cup. Former Milan defender Mattia De Sciglio fills the space left behind from Dani Alves, and adds a much-needed youth to Juventus.
The recent signing of Blaise Matuidi adds lightning speed on defense, and aggression on offense, strengthening Juve’s midfield. Matuidi won 16 domestic trophies at PSG and was named the French Player of the Year in 2015, as well as twice being voted into the Ligue 1 Team of the Year.
The defense isn’t the only side of the field that has been changed. Juventus has vastly improved their offense.
Douglas Costa gives Allegri options and adds depth to Juve by combining speed and craft on either flank. Federico Bernardeschi was signed for €40 million from Fiorentina, and at a mere 23 years old, is one of Italian football's biggest talents.
With the new additions, players return hungry for more than a Champions League final embarrassment. It’s incumbent on all Bianconeri to play for a spot in Champions League history — especially with the beloved, iconic Buffon nearing retirement.
“I still have one more year on my contract, so that means I have one more chance of winning the Champions League,” Buffon told Sky Sport Italia.
With fresh blood, determination and a new crest, the Old Lady must take the next step toward history. They enter Serie A as a stronger offensive team than last year, and must play with a ruthless aggression on offense if they are to compete with Real Madrid and other attacking powerhouses. A strong defensive foundation will win games, but it can only hold for so long if the offense shows ineptitude at the highest stakes. A defense can’t be expected to single-handedly win a Champions League title, and Real Madrid proved that enough pressure and aggression can break even the strongest defensive foundations.
It’s a different Old Lady from the past, but sometimes change is good. Perhaps this change will allow Juventus to exorcise the Champions League demons, instead of history repeating itself for a third time in four years. Second place is only admirable for so long. A long season in Serie A awaits Juve, and a seventh consecutive Scudetto would be a cause for celebration. However, another Champions League implosion would scar the club’s psyche beyond repair.