March was a truly paradoxical month.
Look at things on paper and you’ll see that Juventus only lost one out of five games played, scoring 12 goals (three goals per game in four consecutive games) and conceding five in the process. And yet, it felt like this was the month when our hopes for the 2020-21 season truly and definitively fell apart.
These are disheartening time for Juventini.
Juventus started the month with a home game against Serie A newcomers Spezia. The defending champions struggled desperately to kick into gear as the first half ended goalless. Thankfully, super-sub Álvaro Morata opened the scoring in the 62nd minute after a great run and assist by fellow substitute Federico Bernardeschi (and a seemingly endless wait for VAR to confirm the goal).
The other Federico Federico Chiesa then doubled the lead after acrobatically pouncing on the rebound from his own shot. Cristiano Ronaldo added gloss to the result by scoring a third in the 89th minute to give Pirlo’s side a slightly flattering 3-0 victory over Spezia.
Then came the blockbuster match against Lazio at home. In seemingly typical Juventus fashion, it was a needless error that led to the opponents’ first goal. A poor backpass by the out-of-form Dejan Kulusevski gifted the ball to Joaquin Correa who turned Merih Demiral inside out before firing past Wojciech Szczesny in goal. To their credit, the Bianconeri equalized quickly thanks to a ferocious Adrien Rabiot shot from a tight angle.
Two goals in three second-half minutes then turned the game on its head: Morata finished a lightning counterattack (spearheaded by the incredible Chiesa) in the 57th minute and then scored a penalty in the 60th minute to give Juventus an unassailable lead. Final score: 3-1!
Then came the game we had all been waiting for: the second leg of the Round of 16 Champions League tie against FC Porto. It was a highly entertaining match for the neutral, which almost always means that it was absolute torture for Juventini. Yet again, the Bianconeri fell behind early, this time due to Demiral’s poor challenge — for crying out loud, just stand your ground, man! You don’t always have to dive in! — that led to a penalty in the 19th minute. The hosts finally sprung to life as the red-hot Chiesa once again inspired the team by scoring the two-goals that took the tie to extra time. There was no lack of (additional) drama though as Mehdi Taremi received his second yellow card just a few minutes after Chiesa’s first goal.
Unfortunately, Szczesny (and, to an extent, Ronaldo) decided that this was the time to make one of the only errors he has made all season when he completely fumbled Sérgio Oliveira’s free-kick, leading to Porto’s crucial second away goal in the 25th minute of extra time. Remarkably, that wasn’t the final twist in this absurd story as Rabiot scored a goal just two minutes later, meaning that Juve needed one more goal to progress to the next round. It was far too little, too late though: the game ended 3-2 and 4-4 on aggregate. Porto progressed by virtue of the away-goal rule.
Juventus returned to league action in an away game against relegation-threatened Cagliari. Pirlo’s men went full-throttle against Cagliari as Ronaldo blasted in a (perfect) 22-minute hattrick in the first half. Although Cagliari played admirably well and probably deserved more, they were only able to score a solitary consolation goal in the 61st minute through Giovanni Simeone: 3-1.
Last, and most certainly the least of them all, was the home game against struggling Benevento. Frankly, the less said about this game the better. It was a game barely worthy of Serie C status and, after Arthur’s calamitous error in the 69th minute (what is it with our midfielders and these wayward backpasses?) led to Adolfo Gaich’s goal, the result reflected the pitiful nature of the Bianconeri’s performance: 1-0 home defeat.
Thankfully, we have the Juventus women’s team to cheer us up. In fact, it was another month in which the team set a stunning record for consecutive Serie A victories. Their 2-1 victory over Fiorentina on March 20 meant that they had won a staggering 18 consecutive games in the league dating back to last season!
Before this monumental achievement though, Rita Guarino’s team first comprehensively dismantled Milan 4-0 thanks to goals from Barbara Bonansea, Lina Hurtig, Andrea Staskova, and Arianna Caruso. Juventus then faced AS Roma in the first leg of the Coppa Italia semi-final.
Roma came out with all guns blazing and took the lead in the second minute through Annamaria Serturini. Hurtig equalized early in the second half after a tidy assist from substitute Bonansea, but just as Juventus thought that it had done enough to secure an impressive 1-1 away draw, Lindsey Thomas scored on the rebound to give Roma a slender 2-1 lead after an end-to-end first-leg.
The Bianconere returned to winning ways thanks to the aforementioned 2-1 victory over Fiorentina. Staskova put the team in the lead early in the first-half before Lana Clelland equalized for Fiorentina in the 33rd minute. Staskova scored her and Juve’s second goal a minute before half-time to seal an 18th consecutive victory for Juventus!
Guarino’s side saved their best performance of the month for last when they faced Pink Sport Bari at home in the league. In an utterly devastating display of clinical football, Juventus thrashed Bari 9-1 thanks to goals by Hurtig, Linda Sembrant, Staskova, Cecilia Salvai, an own goal by Marthe Enlid, and four goals by Cristiana Girelli. Emelie Helmvall scored Bari’s consolation goal in the 61st minute.
Remarkably, eight of the game’s 10 goals came during a dizzying 34-minute period in the second half (which is equal to a goal every 4 minutes and 15 seconds). With this extraordinary victory, Juventus matched a club record for wins to begin a season (17), which equals the total from their first-ever season.
As I mentioned in Episode 41 of the podcast, my greatest fear for Juventus at the moment is that it’ll fall into the much-maligned phase of perpetual “transition years.” This year was supposed to be a transition year, a year in which we figured out what the future direction of the team is, which players we can build around, slowly phase out the old guard, and have a clear idea of what the future holds. Well, the way things are going now, it seems that next year will be another transition year.
The fullback situation is a mess, Matthijs de Ligt and Leonardo Bonucci are the only quality defenders that can stay fit for a long period of time, Demiral continues to disappoint (me, at least), there are still problems in midfield (can we just sell Aaron Ramsey already?), Arthur is the only creative central midfielder on the team, and two players that we had such high hopes for have either stagnated (Rodrigo Bentancur) or failed to impress (Dejan Kulusevski).
Ideally, these are the types of problems that you resolve during a transition year, not after it, which is why I think that there’s a real threat that the Bianconeri will fall into the same trap that the two Milan teams did during the last decade: a perpetual cycle of transition years.
The ultimate magic trick?
It seems almost certain that starting in the 2024-25 season, we’re going to see substantial changes to the UEFA Champions League. Although it’s not officially official yet, here’s a list of proposed changes that I found during my research:
- Expanding the competition from 32 to 36 teams;
- Increasing the number of group stage games from six to ten and either have a) six groups of six teams (under the usual home and away model) or b) a single league table in which each club plays 10 different teams across 10 fixtures (a so-called “Swiss model”). The second option has the greatest support at the moment;
- Qualification for the last 16 would be changed such that, under the Swiss model, “the top eight teams in the 36-team league would automatically reach the knockout phase, while the next 16 teams in the table would play off for the final eight places”;
- Regarding qualification for the Champions League, “three clubs will qualify based on their UEFA co-efficient which looks at past performance, meaning European heavyweights such as Manchester United and Real Madrid could still qualify even if they missed out on qualification via the conventional route.”
- The total number of games in the competition would increase from 125 to 225;
- Smaller leagues are passionately fighting any suggestions to move matches from their typical midweek slots to the weekend;
- Oh, and don’t forget about the brand new Europa Conference League that starts next season!
I must admit, the powers-that-be have pulled off the ultimate magic trick. They have taken something we dearly love — the Champions League — made it disappear, and, most impressively, fooled us into thinking it will still be the same old thing after the suggested changes are implemented.
But is it really the ultimate magic trick? Because in a real magic trick, the object of disappearance is supposed to return during the third and final stage: the Prestige.
“But you wouldn’t clap yet, because making something disappear isn’t enough. You have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part. The part we call The Prestige.”
Perhaps this trick is different because in this case, there is no third stage. The object of disappearance — the Champions League — is exactly that: