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Revisiting 2016-17: Juventus won Serie A, but missed out on the Champions League

Juve has, unfortunately, been the bridesmaid more than the bride in the final of Europe’s premier club competition.


Off the top, a disclaimer.

This is not a team that never won anything, in fact quite the opposite. The 2016-17 Juventus squad was absolutely loaded and was arguably the culmination of the footballing project that Max Allegri embarked on when he took over the team after Antonio Conte’s surprising resignation in the summer of 2014.

From the beginning, it was clear to see this year was different as the summer transfer window brought in a whirlwind of big name movement’s the likes Turin hadn’t seen in quite a while. After midfielder Paul Pogba was sold to Manchester United, the board immediately turned around and broke the bank for Gonzalo Higuain, stealing the record-setting striker from rival Napoli. This move, added to previous high-level signings of midfielder Miralem Pjanic from Roma and the free transfer of FC Barcelona star Dani Alves, made this a season of high expectations for the club.

And the Bianconeri delivered.

They climbed to first in the table in mid-September and never left that place, winning their sixth straight Scudetto. To add insult to injury to the rest of Italy, they also raised their third straight Coppa Italia and 12th overall after beating Lazio 2-0 in the final. This marked the first time ever a club from the big five European leagues won a domestic double three years in a row.

But everyone knew that wasn’t the real objective for this particular Juventus team. Continued and undisputed domestic dominance was nice, but the real goal was the one trophy that had eluded the team for 20 years: the UEFA Champions League.

(I will give this space for fans of other Italian teams to do a vigorous motion at the smugness of the above paragraph and to preemptively dismiss the woe is me complain about how a team that won a domestic double can be considered a failure.)

Juventus have a long, storied and mostly tortured history in the most important club competition in the world. At the time the Italian giants had reached the final eight times; however, they have been on the wrong side six of those times — the most of any team. Their record was so appalling that, despite being third overall for finals appearances, they were tied for ninth in wins — the same amount as Benfica, Porto and Notthingham Forrest.

It was an obsession for Bianconeri faithful and a quick trump card in any football discussion for a Juve detractor. You can boast however many domestic titles you want, but as the years piled on after their last successful European campaign it became harder and harder to disprove the argument that Juventus was a local powerhouse but an international also ran.

When it came to the play on the field, Juventus started strongly. Despite some relative struggles in a tricky group stage against Sevilla, Lyon and Dynamo Zagreb, the Italians came out first in the group with four wins and two draws.

After a drama-free dispatching of Porto in the Champions League Round of 16 with a 3-0 aggregate scoreline, the real challenge seemed to be thrown as the draw led to a clash against Barcelona in the quarterfinals.

While Juventus had reached the Champions League final against this very same Barcelona team just two years prior, the Bianconeri were still perceived as a tier below the true blue bloods of Europe. This was exactly the type of matchup that had previously gone against Juventus the entire decade — a team that was building a reputation of being very good but just not quite good enough. If Juve was ever going to lose that pretender tag, a victory over Barcelona was exactly what they needed.

In arguably the most impressive performance of the Allegri era, Juventus dismantled Barcelona 3-0 at home and then pitched a shutout at Camp Nou, keeping the trident of Luis Suarez, Neymar and Lionel Messi scoreless over 180 minutes. It was the watershed moment of the season and a statement of intent for Juventus in the main European stage. While the Italians had notched impressive knockout round performances against top tier competition before — most notably knocking out Real Madrid in the 2015 semifinals — they had done so by the skin of their teeth.

This was different. This was an impressive, undisputed throttling of one of the elite teams in the world. Allegri struggled to maximize the talent of this team for large stretches of the season, but after deploying a “Five Star System” in which Paulo Dybala, Gonzalo Higuain, Juan Cuadrado and Mario Mandzukic all lined up at the same time — and with the Croat taking on the role of a makeshift left winger — the team thrived, and the Barcelona tie was just the culmination of those efforts.

The team seemed to peak at the right time. Dani Alves, a player that despite his big name hadn’t really performed up to expectations, started to deliver in the second half of the season. Alves and Alex Sandro were arguably one of the top pairings in football at their respective positions. Every player in the squad seemed to find their groove under the new formation — Cuadrado developed a knack for defending that we hadn’t seen before from him, Dybala emerged as a true star, iguain continued his torrid scoring pace, Miralem Pjanic rounded into form with Sami Khedira in midfield and Giorgio Chiellini, aided by Leonardo Bonucci, headlined an impenetrable defense. Juve fans started to believe this could be the year that captain Gianluigi Buffon would finally lift the elusive Big Eared trophy.

A 4 -1 aggregate victory over Monaco in the semifinals did little to lower the hopes of the fans who were allowing themselves to believe this was the year. Unlike the road to the Berlin final in 2015 in which Juventus scratched and clawed their way to a final in which they were heavy underdogs, many believed this team could not only compete head to head against finalist Real Madrid, but were actually better. The Italian champs were slim even money underdogs in betting houses and experts were split on which team would come out ahead as the June 3 date at the Millenium Stadium in Cardiff inched closer.

“Bring It Home” read the headlines like the one above, and as the ball rolled in Wales, Juventus looked ready to do just that. The Italians dominated possession for the first part of the game and generated several chances on the goal defended by Keylor Navas. Despite the strong early play, a Cristiano Ronaldo shot deflected by Bonucci opened the score and gave Real Madrid the lead.

Despite the early setback, Juventus pushed on and, in the space of seven minutes, tied it up with one of the best goals the world had ever seen in a Champions League final:

It was only fair, poetic even, that the player who sacrificed the most by moving to the left wing and at times criticized for lacking the pace, dribbling and speed of a natural winger was the scorer of such a stunning goal. After witnessing something like that, how could this not be the year?

With hopes running high, the first half elapsed and teams went to the dressing rooms to get ready for what should have been a second half filled with excitement; a great game between two fantastic teams.

What happened at halftime in Cardiff is hard to put into words. In fact, it’s so baffling that there have been endless rumors, stories and legends of what might have happened during those 15 minutes in the changing room. Internal struggle, threats, maybe even punches being thrown ... we will probably never know what exactly went down, but once the teams went back into the pitch Juventus fans experienced 45 minutes of all their European nightmares come to life.

To say Real Madrid ran over Juventus would be an understatement.

A lifeless squad was outclassed as they leaked goal after goal. Everything that could have possibly gone wrong did. A long strike from Casemiro was once again deflected — this time by Khedira — to give Madrid the lead. As Juventus tried to recover from another bad luck goal, Ronaldo doubled his tally. Cuadrado was brought on in place of Andrea Barzagli in an effort to get some offense going, however he quickly got carded and within 20 minutes the Colombian was ejected from the game after a “foul” over noted red card specialist Sergio Ramos. The game was over there. Asensio got a fourth goal for Real Madrid, with no other purpose than to put an exclamation point on the second-half humiliation for the Italians.

While Allegri managed the team for two more years and continued Juve’s unrivaled domestic dominance, the team never quite bounced back from that night in Cardiff. Back-to-back heartbreakers at the hands of Real Madrid and a disappointing exit against Ajax — both in the quarterfinal stage — marked the end of the Allegri era in European competition.

The quest for the Champions League continues for Juventus as the club closes in on 25 years since the last time they lifted the trophy. With the current season suspended due to the coronavirus, we don’t really know when they might take another crack at it.

For now, all Juventus fans can do is sit and hope that they will eventually get another chance at European glory, keep on rewatching that Mandzukic goal and wonder what might have been three years ago in Cardiff.