You’d think Juventus would be used to heartbreaks like the one they suffered on Wednesday night inside the Santiago Bernabéu.
The pain of Berlin in 2015, where the magical trio of Luis Suarez, Lionel Messi and Neymar ensured the Champions League ended up in their hands instead of Juve’s. The so close, yet so far cruelty of Munich a year later, as Bayern pounced on a failed Patrice Evra clearance to knock Max Allegri’s side out in the knockout stages. And, of course, the disappointing humbling at the hands of Cristiano Ronaldo in Cardiff last year.
A team that has endured countless moments of pain in a tournament destined to elude them, found a new way of torture on a breezy April evening in Madrid.
The decision to award Real an injury-time penalty has been debated by just about every member of ‘Football Twitter.’ Some say English referee Michael Oliver was correct in penalizing Medhi Benatia for impeding Lucas Vasquez, while others believe that the Juventus center back made contact with the ball first, and thus shouldn’t have been punished. Emotions took over the Bianconeri, and understandably so, with iconic captain Gigi Buffon seeing red for his part in the melee. That was a dismissal that should have been avoided, considering the magnitude of the contest and the disbelief from the Juve players that their comeback effort had suddenly been made irrelevant. Yet, it was only discounted in terms of the scoreline. Ronaldo stepped up, as cool and calm as possible, to slot his spot kick past Wojciech Szczesny.
Real Madrid, after somehow throwing a three-goal cushion in their own home, had squeezed through to the Champions League semifinals. Juve, despite their best efforts in the face of a seemingly insurmountable task, were out.
The hurt of the undeserved elimination will sting for a while, as the sluggish first-leg performance will creep into the Juventini minds even more so after their heroics in the return contest. But, there is still plenty of positives to take from this cruel experience. Although Roma had shown the night before that it isn’t over until the fat lady starts gearing up on the stage for her high note, there weren’t too many, if anyone at all, who gave Juve a chance of even making this a competitive match. The perennial Serie A champions were expected to show up, get beat down, and leave the competition with a whimper. You don’t enjoy the success that this side has without having the courage to step up to any adversity which comes your way, and this never-give-up Juventus team proved that on Wednesday night. Just look at who the hero was during that frantic first-half.
Mario Mandzukic, for all the frustration he would have felt at being left out of the starting lineup for the matchup in Turin, placed those disappointments to the side in an effort to help lead his team back from the dead. Juve looked to have been buried six feet into the ground; how fortunate their Croatian savior stands at 6-foot-2 then. His headed goal in the opening minutes, which he followed up with a near-replica finish towards the end of the first-half, offered the Old Lady a lifeline. It would have been easier, perhaps understandable, for Mandzukic to mope and whine at his exclusion from the previous match. Instead, he was determined to prove why he should have been starting. It’s fair to say he proved his point.
The spirit of Mandzukic comes as a result of the spirit his team-mates have helped build. Despite the continuous changes the club undergo each summer in terms of player turnover, the winning mentality always remains within the Juve headquarters. Arturo Vidal, Andrea Pirlo, Paul Pogba, Carlos Tevez, Evra and Leonardo Bonucci are but a few names that have departed at a time when it seemed like the club were closing in on their long-term aim of becoming Champions of Europe. Yet, against all logic, their leaving has failed to affect the club’s triumphant culture. It is a testament to the coaching staff, the hierarchy and the players themselves, old or new, that they have been able to preserve such an identity.
There’s still a long way to go before the campaign draws to a close for Juventus. Coppa Italia finals and critical league matches await Allegri’s side as they aim for yet another domestic double. The elimination from Europe’s premier competition hurts, and would even make some supporters wish for the year to be over as soon as possible, but it shows that in football it is vital to savour the winning moments when they occur. Napoli still seem shook by the 4-2 thrashing suffered at the hands of AS Roma early last month, as their title challenge continues to rely on late winners. With the Naples outfit preparing for the all-important clash in Turin next week, it wouldn’t be a surprise if they slipped up before then, as a daunting trip to in-form AC Milan awaits them this weekend. That would surely end their championship hopes.
Juve, of course, don’t need to rely on others to hand them a favour as they go in search of a seventh consecutive league title. Their champion mentality, the one which was on full display in Madrid, has seen them pressure their title challengers all season long. How frustrating it must have been for Napoli to enjoy one of their better seasons in recent history, only to realise that their rivals were matching them all the way? Inter, who started the campaign well, couldn’t cope and fell off halfway through the year. Now Maurizio Sarri’s team, for all the plaudits they garner due to their attractive playing style, are slowly losing faith in their own ability to overthrow the current kings of Italian football.
Juventus may have bowed out of Europe this week, but they did so with their head held high instead of their tails between their legs. It would have been easier to take the latter option, conserve energy and move onto the next one. That isn’t how this club work. Whether or not the footballing world believed they had a chance, Juve themselves knew what they were capable of with their backs against the wall. It was a cruel ending to a thrilling contest, but much like they have done in the last few years, Juve will just keep marching on with their chin up and chest out, as they go in search of even more success.