I can’t remember the last time in Serie A that a single month of the calendar year seemed so pivotal for Juventus.
The Old Lady began the 2020-21 campaign under managerial rookie Andrea Pirlo in auspicious form with a high-flying 3-0 win against Sampdoria and then ended the first half of the season just 90 days later with another 3-0 result — a thumping at the hands of lowly Fiorentina. There are moments from the last three months where we’ve seen ephemeral glimpses of what Pirlo is trying to do, moments when it looks like connections are happening, when the players are excited and motivated, and there are moments that leave you scratching your head and wanting (another) glass of whatever’s in your cup.
January is pivotal for the Scudetto this year. That much is obvious. But for a national and international juggernaut like the Bianconeri, the first month of 2021 might be pivotal for the entire direction of the club, not just a single trophy.
First things first: the Scudetto
Milan haven’t lost, and they’ve accomplished this feat during a pretty sustained stretch of injury for Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The brash Swede, when healthy, is banking goals like he always has, but he’s much, much more than just a statistic: he’s the fire in the belly of the dragon, and it appears he can breathe that fire whether or not he’s actually on the bench.
The first two games, starting this weekend, are tricky as hell. Out of the brief holiday is Udinese, who aren’t world-beaters but who rarely get blown out of the game and who have earned some respectable results. (Just ask Lazio.) If the game weren’t perilous enough in its own right, you can be sure that even if Pirlo and his players insist they’re completely focused on this first matchup, they’ll probably have an eye or two on the midweek clash with Milan. That is frightening. Then, of course, Milan, who currently hold a one-point margin over their crosstown rival and are fresh off a magical last-minute win vs Lazio.
The entire month includes eight games from Jan. 3 to Jan. 30. There are league games against the first-, second-, and fourth-place teams in the current table; there’s a Coppa Italia tie with Genoa; and there’s an actual game (!) against Napoli, the Supercoppa on the 20th.
No matter how you spin that lineup of games, this is an absolutely loaded slate. For Juventus to jump back in the title race — and make no mistake: they need to jump to make that happen — the Bianconeri need to do something under Pirlo they haven’t done to this point: achieve consistency. The Old Lady has been start-and-stop against every type of opponent this year, against the Barcelonas of the world and against the tiny fish of the bottom of Serie A. Dropping points against Crotone, Hellas Verona, Benevento, and Fiorentina is not a recipe to lifting the trophy at the end of the season. Pirlo’s side has performed moderately well against higher-level competition.
Now, in January, if they want to win a 10th Scudetto, they’ll need to do both.
After my last column, someone remarked that they disagreed and believed Juventus are the most talented squad in Serie A. It’s funny: being the most talented roster in Serie A does not make a champion. I very much believe that the Bianconeri are the deepest and most talented team in this league; how could they not be? With Cristiano Ronaldo, Matthijs de Ligt, Paulo Dybala, and a dozen other household names, of course they are. But right now, this is talent fond of dropping points.
Juventus have ruled Italy for nearly a decade. Losing will not only be the concrete breaking of that dominance, but it could also be a symbolic, tectonic shift in the club’s direction and composition.
Cristiano Ronaldo turns 36 years old in February and has 18 months left on his contract. Dybala is currently in protracted negotiations with the club — if the papers and pundits are to be believed — and, outside of the contract issue, he’s been out of sorts all season long. Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini are either old and frail or old and inconsistent. (And that’s being generous, Leo!) Even Juan Cuadrado, one of the club’s best players this year, is 32 years old.
There’s a lot of young talent on this team, but there’s more than a little concern about all of it integrating — especially in the midfield. The Rodrigo Bentancur situation is troubling, because a lot of us thought that he might be the guy to level up and take control of the midfield; that hasn’t happened. Adrien Rabiot has shown flashes, Arthur too, but consistency is hard to come by from anyone on this team outside of de Ligt, Woj, and, God help me, Danilo.
Throw in the precarious financial context of the club and globe, and the fact that Juve have a new manager, and you’ve got a cauldron of chaos ready to bubble over if things continue to go haywire.
Look: I hope all the players wake up on the first morning of 2021 and discover new superpowers, or at least discover the ability to be as good as they are individually. I hope Pirlo matures as fast as the team needs him to. I hope Milan and Inter stumble. I hope CR7 shows the league and world he’s still CR7. I hope Chiellini comes back a vengeful capitano, that Bentancur puts on his Iron Man suit, that the club trades Sami Khedira or Federico Bernardeschi for an upgrade, that Dybala regains his swagger, and that nobody gets downed by an injury or the virus. I hope.
We are now at the place beyond hope, the time when things will happen, when either things will fall apart or the 10th Scudetto will hold.