Juventus are in a strange position: the giants from Turin are an underdog.
In both the Champions League and the race for the Scudetto, despite the lack of a true favorite in either campaign, the Old Lady is facing difficult or uncertain odds. In years past, though, this role of the underdog has not been unkind to Juventus, especially in Europe’s most elite competition, where in 2015 and 2017 the club made runs to the final as a dark horse to some degree.
Yet even with a new manager, with a spate of injuries, with holes and concerns in the roster, all three remaining trophies are, in fact, in play. Domestically, although the clubs from Milan top the table and the leading pack is quite dense — Roma, Napoli, Lazio, and Atalanta are riveting company — nobody in their right mind is thinking Andrea Pirlo’s squad isn’t right there in the conversation. As unlikely as a Champions League crown seems, the tournament truly seems as wide-open as ever. Even the teams one might consider favorites — Bayern Munich, perhaps, or maybe Manchester City — are prone to mind-boggling defeats, or have legitimate roster concerns, or both.
Pandemic, injury, and erraticism have shaped this year.
But for Juventus to actually make a push in the Champions League or lift a 10th straight Scudetto, there remains plenty of work to be done in key areas of the pitch. These three players, or someone in these three units, must drastically elevate their game for the Old Lady to even begin to dream of a treble.
1. Anybody on the left flank
As pleasant of a surprise as Gianluca Frabotta has been for Juventus, I don’t think the 21-year-old is the man to hold down the left side of the pitch when facing top competition. Achraf Hakimi is a special player — we saw in the Coppa Italia win against Inter on Tuesday how much Antonio Conte’s side missed the right wingback — and he’s not the quality on the right side Juventus will face match in and match out, but all the same he shredded Frabotta and left plenty of concerns.
Especially prone to the counter, Juventus conceded again in such circumstances against Inter when Alexis Sanchez of all people held up play well, then sprayed a ball out to Nicolo Barella, who zoomed past Alex Sandro and everybody else to set up Lautaro Martinez for the first goal of the match.
Sandro, to be sure, has only recently recovered from COVID-19, and there’s no way of knowing how much or little the virus might have affected him, but even pre-virus and pre-injury there have been some legitimately raised eyebrows over the last 18 months about consistency on both ends of the pitch.
Federico Chiesa has started to play better on the left lately than he showed at the beginning of the season. That is certainly encouraging. What he offers, of course, is a hell of an offensive weapon with plenty of grinta and energy tracking back, even if he’s not the world’s best defender. Maybe the young Italian seizes the position solely for himself.
Danilo is the other possibility, something we haven’t really seen since Pirlo has used him as one of the three center backs for the most part. But he’s a fullback at heart, and in a pinch needing more defensive cover I do wonder if Pirlo would play Juan Cuadrado on the right, three true center backs, and Danilo on the left.
I don’t know and I don’t particular care who seizes this role, but someone needs to because right now it’s a vulnerability.
2. Either Rodrigo Bentancur or Adrien Rabiot
After months and months in Turin, Arthur has finally showed some of the characteristics that Juventus fans hoped he would. The tiny Brazilian who makes tiny circles possesses the ball wonderfully and is beginning to look exponentially more fluid in his movements, more confident in his passing.
Both Arthur and Weston McKennie, at this point of the season, have showed that they wield skill sets that the other midfielders do not. The Brazilian and the American offer different capabilities and compliment each other well, but as a tandem they need the glue midfielder with the blended skill set.
Enter Rodrigo Bentancur and Adrien Rabiot.
Both the Uruguayan and the Frenchman cover lots of ground. Both are solid to good with the ball at their feet. Both can, at times, show wonderful vision. Both can run forward or cover ground defensively. But although both have had flashes of brilliance, neither has been consistently great, or even good, this year.
No matter what happens, this summer seems like the time that Juventus are finally, finally going to address the midfield in a substantial way on the transfer market. Whether that’s Paul Pogba or Manuel Locatelli or Houssem Aouar or someone else, I don’t know. But between now and then, one of Bentancur or Rabiot needs to be good enough for Juve not to be completely overrun in the center of the pitch — and perhaps thereby retain a consistent role next year.
3. Cristiano Ronaldo
Cristiano Ronaldo single-handedly won the first leg of the Coppa Italia.
The iconic man from Portugal still does this occasionally, and if I were a betting man I’d say he’ll need to do it again once or twice (or three times) for his club to lift the trophy it so desperately desires. Although CR7 has put up showy numbers to this point with 22 goals across all competitions, there have been a few bumpy stretches along the way where he’s been conspicuously absent and forgettable. Those occasions might not be entirely or even mostly his fault, but when the stakes are raised and the Old Lady has her back to the wall, Ronaldo needs to smash through circumstantial barriers and make things happen the way that only he can.
The left side of the pitch is a real worry, the midfield is a constant worry, but if by some dark magic Pirlo and his players can find the right recipe for those two units to at least be good enough not to be totally decimated, then Ronaldo will have a team good enough to make a run in the Champions League, in the Scudetto race, in the Coppa Italia, and perhaps even the treble.
The odds, though, are not in our favor.