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Manu’s Grab Bag: Fell for it — again

We talk more European disgrace, the comedy of errors that is Juve at the moment and the takes that were not.

Juventus v Villarreal CF: Round Of Sixteen Leg Two - UEFA Champions League Photo by Jonathan Moscrop/Getty Images


Juventus got bounced from the Champions League Round of 16 — the third straight, so it’s a threepeat? — by losing to Villarreal at home by a score of 3-0!

How do you make sense of it? What do you say after that? Just when you think Juventus couldn’t possibly come up with a worse way to lose in European competition ... they pull this one right out of their hat.

It’s unbelievable, it’s insanity, it all happened so fast. I’m upset, I’m laughing, I’m angry at takes on Twitter, this is terrible for our club but it’s tremendous content. Villarreal still sits in seventh in La Liga and they had three shots on goal.

With the collective mental state of Juventus Land somewhat in the same realm as Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker in the final third of that movie, how can you not laugh about that at least a little?

Let’s cook.

LVP: Daniele Rugani

Oh, man, what a story it would have been.

The maligned, forgotten, roasted-time-and-time-again center back that ended up back at the club where he once showed so much promise almost by accident suiting up in a win-or-go-home match and playing a great game.

That was so close to being a reality for our pal Daniele Rugani.

But, that's football, that’s life in a way. You can do everything right and try your hardest and make the most out of every chance but if you screw up once in a big moment that’s all people will remember you by.

Rugani got the nod after starting the 2022 calendar year playing the best football he has played in years, picking up the slack from injured veterans Giorgio Chiellini and Leo Bonucci and forming a surprisingly solid tandem with Matthijs de Ligt. He continued his good form for pretty much 99% of his time on the pitch against Villarreal, snuffing out every attempt from the visitors and looking like one of the most surprising feel good stories of recent years to come out of Turin.

Only for it all go to to hell with one single ill-advised tackle on Francis Coquelin to give away the PK that opened the scoring for Villarreal. Immediately after the goal, Rugani was sacrificed for Paulo Dybala and his night was over.

(There will be some debate about whether it was the right call or not. Coquelin sold the hell out of the contact, don’t get me wrong, but it was the correct call. Rugani hit him, and any striker in that scenario will dramatize the fall, but with VAR and slow-mo replays they make that call nine times out of 10. The one time they didn’t was last weekend in the Inter-Torino game, by the way.)

If you take into account his whole body of work, Rugani does not deserve the LVP, but his mistake led to the wheels going completely off in the game. Them’s the breaks.

Grab Bag MVP Season Leader: Paulo Dybala (15 Points)

The Allianz Curse

I’ve always found corporate branding on stadium names to be a bit gauche.

But, hey, football is business and when there is a demand for more and more expensive players and wages and millions of euros being thrown around left and right, if you can squeeze in some extra dough from giving away a big sign in the stadium, who cares, right?

So, six seasons after its inauguration, I barely blinked when in the summer of 2017 Juve’s home pitch was renamed to the Allianz Stadium. If anything my one critique was that they should have gone with a different sponsor just to differentiate them from the also Allianz named Bayern Munich home pitch.

Whatever, I thought, it probably won’t matter.

Well, here’s a quick recap of every knockout round game Juventus has played at home in European competition since the rebrand:

  • 2-2 vs. Tottenham, Round of 16, 2017-2018 season
  • 0-3 vs. Real Madrid, Quarterfinals, 2017-2018 season
  • 3-0 vs. Atletico Madrid, Round of 16, 2018-2019 season
  • 1-2 vs. Ajax, Quarterfinals, 2018-2019 season
  • 2-1 vs. Lyon, Round of 16, 2019-2020 season
  • 3-2 vs. Porto, Round of 16, 2020-2021 season
  • 0-3 vs. Villarreal, Round of 16, 2021-2022 season

That’s three wins, three losses and one draw. Of the three wins, only one that actually put them through to the next round, so they sort of feel like losses to be quite honest. Of the losses, that’s two blowouts and shocking upset.

(Really, the only good memory Juventus fans have of the knockout rounds of the Champions League since the name change was the Cristiano Ronaldo-fueled comeback against Atletico Madrid. And it was a super-impressive display and in the moment I was super pumped, but given it ended up being the high point of the Ronaldo era, I can’t say I look back on that too fondly.)

(It was also the high point of the Federico Bernardeschi era, for what that’s worth.)

Pretty much from the moment the stadium changed names, Juventus has face planted catastrophically in European competition each and every time they have competed in it. You want to find the real culprit of this catastrophe? Don’t look at Max Allegri, don’t look at Daniele Rugani. Look at SportFive Italia who negotiated and sold the rights that forever cursed our home pitch.

The good news is that the deal that was signed in that fateful Summer of 2017 only runs through ... 2030. Eight more seasons to go, Juventini!

Breaks of the game

As with every time Juventus crashes out miserably from European competition, there will be a quick, merciless and almost assuredly wrong search for someone to scapegoat.

Against Ajax, it was Max Allegri and the away goals rule. Against Lyon, it was our crappy midfield, Maurizio Sarri and the away goals rule. Against Porto, it was Rodrigo Bentancur, Cristiano Ronaldo, Andrea Pirlo and the away goals rule.

(You just knew that after getting screwed over by the away goals rule for three years running, the year that it goes away, is the year that Juventus would have potentially benefited from it the most. If Villarreal knows they have to chase the result because of Juve’s goal in Spain does that not change the game? They at the very least do not feel as comfortable seating back for the majority of the game, no?)

So, for this year’s horrible loss, who will it be?

We already talked about Rugani, but the other easy choice is Allegri of course. I’m sure Arthur — who had a good first half but faded in the second — will be brought up. Adrien Rabiot is never a wrong choice. If Alvaro Morata or Dusan Vlahovic just bury one of the gazillion chances they had in the first half its a different game. Paulo Dybala and his crappy health sure will be another easy mark. And if Wojciech Szczęsny just stretches a bit more and stops yet another PK maybe we are talking about something else in this here article.

But, can I be real for a minute? What if it’s nobody’s fault? Can we talk about the actual game for a moment?

Can we admit that Juventus played arguably their best first half in months? That they hit the post and had numerous shots stopped by a remarkably good performance from Gerónimo Rulli? That they arguably dominated for most of the game and held the ball and generated chances and actually looked like the team that most people want them to be only for them to get called a soft PK against the run of play and getting countered to death once they burned all the ships?

We knew that at some point or another the injury crisis was going to bite this team in the ass and that going into a win or go home match with five possible subs was a significant disadvantage. When you want to change the game and your options off the bench are a gimpy Dybala, the supremely underwhelming Moise Kean and the feast or famine Federico Bernardeschi, I can’t really say that your cupboard is overflowing in terms of game changing gambits.

This team is without — deep breath — Leo Bonucci, Federico Chiesa, Weston McKennie Giorgio Chiellini and Dennis Zakaria. At worst, that’s four starters, arguably two of your best three midfielders, your best wide player — maybe best player, period — and one of your captains and starting center backs.

Yes, Villarreal is not a flashy name. But they are well-coached team with good players that played a pretty impressive game defensively. They are also a team that has won a European trophy significantly more recently that Juventus. They were an underdog only on paper.

(It is not lost on me that Unai Emery just smacked the Bianconeri by playing a defensively savvy, conservative approach, that took advantage of the other team’s mistakes. AKA, the Max Allegri playbook, a style that many people on Twitter have assured me is untenable in the year of our lord 2022.)

Because the more I look back and see the reactionary moves Juventus has made after disappointing year after year, I can’t help but wonder. Are we better off now than we were in 2018?

Maybe, just maybe we had a tremendously lucky and successful decade — one of the most successful ones in football history — and at some point you can’t win forever, the breaks stop going your way and its our turn to eat some humble pie, get back on the horse, build a real project and stop trying to find one stop, magical solutions.

Or, screw it, fire Allegri, sign whichever sexy name on the coach’s market is available — Vincenzo Italiano, anyone? — and start all over again. That has worked wonders so far.

(A few years ago the sexy name for Juve was Vincenzo Montella when Juve was struggling in the middle of a Scudetto run under Allegri. He’s now managing in the Turkish league and currently seventh in the league table. Reminder to not be prisoners of the moment, my friends.)

Parting Shot of the Week

Now that the most prestigious club competition in the world is out of the way, who’s ready for some early in the morning, Serie A action!

There’s always a lull when Juve is bounced from a big competition and with the title race in Italy looking like a pretty long shot, we are in for a bit of a snooze fest for the remainder of the season. We still have a Coppa Italia to win and a fourth place to lock up.

Can’t say I’m super pumped about it, but hey, not every season can be a treble season.

See you Sunday.