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Manu’s Grab Bag: Death Knell

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We talk Juventus almost non-existent title hopes, Federico Chiesa’s growth, fun with numbers and Rafael effin’ Marquez.

Hellas Verona FC v Juventus - Serie A Photo by Jonathan Moscrop/Getty Images

Not with a bang, but with a Cristiano Ronaldo free kick into the wall, it finally seems like Juventus’ title hopes are over.

Even if Genoa was able to manage to pull off a miracle against Inter earlier in the day — which, they didn’t — at some point math will just not favor the reigning champs. It’s not only math, even if the Milan clubs were to drop points and give Juve a lifeline, do we really think they have what it takes to run the table and claim their 10th straight Scudetto?

Saturday’s 1-1 draw against Hellas Verona was a microcosm of what has — and continues to — ail this club: bad finishing, shaky possession from the back and one bad mistake on defense. That has been pretty much the formula for almost every adverse result for Juve this season.

The truth is that this is a good, not great, team with glaring flaws that is currently mired in a streak of bad injury luck. Teams with that description can sometimes win titles, but it’s rare and things have to break perfectly for them to achieve it.

Things are not breaking perfectly for Juventus right now.

Let’s cook.

Winner: Federico Chiesa

Let’s start with the positive, and that is that Juventus’ big splashy move this offseason is paying off because Chiesa is straight-up good. Losing Juan Cuadrado is no small thing, but Chiesa is doing everything in his power to make his absence as painless as possible.

His assist for the lone Juventus goal on Saturday night was proof of his growth this season. The way he breaks from the right flank into the left to get Aaron Ramsey’s through ball shows his improved vision and footballing IQ. Early season Chiesa might have decided to shoot it between the entire Verona backline after receiving the pass, but in this occasion he stops, looks around, notices that his run has left the right flank completely open and just makes an easy pass to Cristiano Ronaldo, who slots it home.

The skeleton of a really good team is definitely there for Juventus and Chiesa sure looks like one of the pieces to that team going forward.

The Bentegodi Curse

It’s now been four years since the last time Juventus have won a game in the city of Verona against Hellas. That’s tough to imagine considering that Hellas has not exactly been a powerhouse the last few years, but it’s true!

For whatever reason, Juventus just hasn’t been able to win there. Listen that happens sometimes; remember how for a few years they couldn’t win away at Genoa? But that was the whole problem with Juventus for the second half — they couldn’t have any mistakes, they couldn’t have any weird games where they dropped points.

There was no room for a weird Bentegodi Curse, unfortunately the curse struck and it might have killed their title hopes once and for all.

Loser: Cristiano Ronaldo Shooting Free Kicks

Early in the 2019-20 season, a stat was being circulated mentioning that Ronaldo was statistically the worst free kick taker in Serie A, shooting 18 times while scoring none. Overall, he had shot 24 free kicks in all competition up until that point with zero scores.

Since then things have improved little. He did score once later in that same season against Torino in the Derby della Mole, but outside of that one shining moment Ronaldo has kept on taking the vast majority of free kick opportunities and proceeded to do squat with them.

Here is the disclaimer saying that yes, Ronaldo is a very, very good player and he does score a lot of goals and this team is plain better with Ronaldo on it than without him. But if I have to see him do his usual three step back, deep breath, puffed chest silly ass routine only for him to miserably fail yet another free kick, I will lose my mind. The dude hasn’t been good taking free kicks in a decade, no seriously even at his peak when he played with Real Madrid he scored a whopping 20 times out of 313 (!!!) attempts.

(Worth mentioning, a signature pre-free kick ritual is only cool if you actually make them. Otherwise you just look like a dick.)

Twenty scores out of 313 attempts translates to 0.06% success rate. You don’t have to be a mathematician to infer that that’s not good.

Here are a few things more likely than Cristiano Ronaldo scoring a free kick at his peak:

  • Winning an Olympic medal at the Winter Olympics (Provided you’re already participating, of course) – 12.6%
  • Getting into Harvard – 5%
  • Getting into Harvard if you applied late – 2%
  • Playing in the NBA after playing college basketball – 9.5%

I don’t care if he’s the star, I don’t care if he’ll be upset, I really don’t care how many shirts he sells and IG followers the dude has. At some point, you have to make the completely logical and numbers-based decision to let literally anyone else take those shots.

He can keep getting the penalty kicks! He’s really good at those, I have no problem with that. But from every perspective you want to look at it any free kick that Ronaldo takes is objectively reducing your chances to win said game.

Depth, where art thou?

That’s essentially your two backup keepers, Weston McKennie and a good chunk of the U-23 side as your bench for a must win game.

Nothing against all the young guns but there is not one name in that list that would give me confidence to throw into the game for the last 15 minutes and think that they can bring a spark to the game.

Once the dust settles and we can post mortem the season a not insignificant part of why Juventus will most likely not repeat as Italian champs will have to do with the absolute rotten injury luck they had to deal with.

It’s insane to me anyone can pin this result on Andrea Pirlo, legitimately don’t know what else you could have done differently. He didn’t get to decide on a lineup, he filled it out with the only names that weren’t on the injury list

Midfield Ranking

  1. Arthur – This stretch is literally the best thing that could have happened for his Juventus career. Whenever he comes back he will be the most popular player on the team.
  2. Weston McKennie – He’s in the midst of a streak of below average performances, but the state of the rest of the midfield and his role in this screengrab that made me chuckle is more than enough to solidify him in number two.
  3. Adrien Rabiot – He was fine, just, whatever man.
  4. Aaron Ramsey – Provided the hockey assist for the goal, but he continued to be a bafflingly bad finisher.
  5. Rodrigo Bentancur – Late in the first half he had a moment that is a microcosm of his season. Lost the ball in his own half with a ghastly pass straight to a Verona player but immediately lunged forward and executed a perfect sliding tackle to get the ball back. Let him do that more and never let him play from the back again and he could once again be a useful player.
  6. Nicolo Fagioli – With the season pretty much done, I wouldn’t be opposed to giving him a longer run in league games.

One for me

This has nothing to do with the game and is an entirely self-serving segment. If you skip ahead, I’d have no problem with it.

After the 2014 World Cup and the Mexican national team’s surprisingly good performance, Mexico captain Rafael Marquez was signed by Hellas Verona. It was an odd move at the time, but Marquez was the elder statesman of the team, a guy that by all intents and purposes was in the post peak part of his career.

After 242 matches and seven years as a Barcelona regular, Marquez had signed on to play in MLS for the New York City Red Bulls in 2010, a telltale sign of a player who is now in the downslide. He had a couple lackluster years in MLS and transferred back to the Mexican League to play for Leon where he started to put forth quality performances that earned him a spot in the World Cup roster. At the time Mexican media pundits rued the fact that Mexico was still dependent on the play of Marquez for the Brazilian World Cup. Yet, he scored a goal on Mexico’s trouncing of Croatia, played like he was 10 years younger and made the jump back to a top tier league years after his best seasons in Europe had passed.

(Funnily enough, he went on to make the 2018 World Cup roster for a record fifth time and played pretty good for one half against Brazil in the round of 16. The dude was damn near 40, so of course he had to be subbed off at the half and the Mexican national team quickly fell apart without him. Relying on a 40 year old in a knockout round game, proof of Marquez quality or indictment on Mexico’s player development? You be the judge!)

His stint in Verona wasn’t anything to write home about, he played 39 matches in parts of two seasons and was released in early 2016. Afterwards he signed for his boyhood club Atlas and retired in 2018 after the World Cup.

There is a criticism of Mexican players as being too coddled, too comfortable and sometimes too overhyped as young prospects in the Mexican League. Clubs will a lot of times ask for astronomical fees to let players go and even if those fees are met, sometimes players will prefer to stay or demand wages that are simply unrealistic.

(Mexico’s won two U-17 World Cups in the last 20 years, ask me how many of those guys panned out.)

Then there’s this guy who was a legend in Barcelona, won two Champions Leagues during his time there and still wanted to compete against the best even if it was with an also ran team in Serie A despite having nothing more to prove.

They just don’t make them like Rafa Marquez anymore.

(Also, I’ve looked like crazy for a Marquez Hellas Verona kit and can’t find it to save my life. If anyone knows where I can procure that super obscure kit I’d be most thankful.)

(Also, also, later years Marquez started playing a hybrid holding midfielder position instead of his usual center back spot. That version of Marquez would walk into this team’s current midfield and be heads and shoulders above anyone on the squad.)

Parting Shot of the Week

In this space we have killed, revived and killed again Juventus Scudetto hopes.

If Inter Milan were to win on Sunday Juve would be back 10 points with a game in hand. The roadmap for them to mount any sort of comeback would have to look something like this:

  • Win the game in hand in the rubber match against Napoli.
  • Beat Inter in their return game.
  • If those two things happen, they’d be back “only” four points, so you have to hope Inter drops points two more times.
  • Also, like, win out? Roll out 14 straight wins in league play?

Being completely real for a second? I think they are better served by focusing on making it as far as possible in the Champions League, playing like hell to win the Coppa Italia and call it a semi successful year all things considered.

In order to accomplish the first objective in the revised expectations list is to beat Porto at home on the second leg of their Round of 16 matchup, a week and two more league games from now.

Here goes nothing.

See you Tuesday.