A strange season is about to become much stranger.
In a campaign defined, to this point, by injury and disappointment, by controversy and frustration, a handful of Juventus players are set to play in a World Cup in late November in Qatar. No Italian, of course, will be seeing his name among those playing in the sport’s biggest international tournament, as the Azzurri followed up their win at the Euros with a failure to qualify for the next big dance. Extra treats from Nonna!
The location and timing of the impending tournament is one thing, but so is another: the fact that there is a very high chance that Juventus’ season will be, in some regards at least, set in stone as a success or failure before the break arrives. With the team’s Champions League survival hanging in the balance, its manager under duress, and its position in the league table faltering, the stakes could not be higher for the club’s 10 remaining games before the New Year.
Such, though, is the fractured nature of the season, that as I survey the various factors that will weigh into that equation — whether this season will be a success or failure — I see a dismaying, disparate collection of numbers.
Here’s what they’re telling me.
Thirty-seven — the number of days until Juventus host Lazio in the final game before the World Cup break
Juventus play 10 games between Saturday’s trip to the San Siro and the World Cup break, which means they’ll be playing a game every 3.7 days from here on out.
Let that sink in.
Every 3.7 days, Max Allegri will have to pick a starting lineup. Every 3.7 days, someone is going to get played out of position because of the injury situation, the manager, or both. Every 3.7 days, this team is going to have a chance to fail, to stall, to regress back into the habits we’ve seen them display for the greater part of the campaign.
Every 3.7 days, there’s going to be another chance for someone to get injured.
Another chance to concede in the final minutes.
Another chance to soak in the whistles and vociferous ire of self-proclaimed supporters.
Twenty — the number of shots Maccabi Haifa tallied against the Old Lady
The 3-1 Champions League victory over Maccabi Haifa is a Rorschach test if I ever saw one.
From one perspective, there has hardly been a game in the last season and a half in which Juventus created so many goal-scoring chances. Angel Di Maria was more like Angel Di Assista; he was doing things I can’t even figure out how to do on FIFA. If the Argentine can perform more regularly like he did in the second half of that game, Juventus are going to be a completely different beast from here on out.
From another perspective, though, you look at possession and shots on goal and start to worry. It felt like the visitors hit the post 12 times in the final 10 minutes of the game. And, of course, you could shrug that off by saying, “Well, Juventus had finally put the game to bed,” but that’s exactly my point: there are plenty of tactical issues on this team, there are plenty of injuries, there has to be some palpable malaise amongst the players, but in addition to all that this team, for whatever reason or reasons, continues to have critical, prolonged mental lapses.
One 3-0 pounding of Bologna made us forget that fact for a night, but the following fixture brought that truth home once again.
One — the number of center backs in whom I am confident
There are so many elephants in the Juventus room one has the feeling of being in a zoo that is world-renowned for its elephant habitat, but one of those elephants, in my opinion, is the defense.
With the departure of Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci is the stand-in leader, captain, and man of experience. He has to this point not succeeded. Although Juventus rank relatively high domestically in terms of goals conceded (five total), it is the timing of so many of those goals that has crippled the team’s ability to win close games against teams who shouldn’t be playing Juventus closely at all.
Gleison Bremer has been a wonderful replacement for Matthijs de Ligt, and Danilo has performed admirably with the impossible task handed to him from Allegri (i.e., please play four positions on an ad-hoc basis), but the back line is as thin as the ice on a Minnesota lake in late March.
We’re not even talking about the fullbacks!
Three — the number of Champions League games Juventus need to win to move on
Allegri’s men may have beaten Maccabi Haifa, but PSG could not beat Benfica in Lisbon. The result essentially means that, to qualify, Juventus must either a) win its three remaining games, or b) hope for some Maccabi Haifa miracle. I don’t know about you, but I won’t be counting on the latter, and the former only seems slightly more probable.
Four — the number of points between Juventus and a top-four spot in Serie A
Despite everything, the Old Lady remains a mere four points off a Champions League spot in Serie A, and a mere seven points off the top of the table, where Napoli currently reside in scintillating form.
This is truly Allegri’s last stand — not this season, but these 10 games before the World Cup break.
I fail to see a world in which the Bianconeri salvage a miracle to move on in the Champions League, so for me the question is whether, in a world where Juventus are bopping around the Europa League in the spring, the season could still be called a “success” by any standard. I believe that answer is yes, but only if Juventus reclaim the Scudetto.
As impossible as that sounds right now, if Allegri can win enough games in league play to start scratching at that leaderboard, he’ll arrive in early January with a rejuvenated, rested squad — the World Cup final is Dec. 18, so even if one of our guys makes it that far there will be a fairly solid break after before the season resumes — and counting on the full-fledged return of Federico Chiesa and Paul Pogba. If Juventus can remain within a couple games of the top, who’s to say it’s completely out of the realm of possibility for the team to threaten to retake Serie A?
Alas, possibility does not probability make. And this team is in grave danger of not just falling out of the Champions League, falling out of Serie A contention, but of falling into prolonged mediocrity.