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February’s Monthly Juventus Thoughts: Can’t teach an old dog new tricks

The shortest month of the year was characterized by one word: injuries.

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Manuel Locatelli, Dusan Vlahovic, Leonardo Bonucci and Luca... Photo by Andrea Staccioli/Insidefoto/LightRocket via Getty Images

As the old cliché goes, we’re in the business end of the season.

The first three months of the new calendar year tend to be the period when the season is more or less decided. The fixture list is slowly getting shorter and players aren’t quite as fresh as they were at the start of the season.

In other words, a lot of stuff happens during this phase of the season.

What happened for Juve in February? Overall, it was a mixed bag. Six games played, three victories, three draws (all 1-1), 10 goals scored, six goals conceded, and only one clean sheet. There were some good games, some bad, and some that were painfully difficult to watch.

Reactive tactics

Juventus faced Hellas Verona looking to avenge last October’s 2-1 loss against the same team, which was one of Juve’s worst performances of the season. Thankfully, the team showed a markedly better performance this time, as debutants Dusan Vlahovic and Denis Zakaria scored a goal each to give Juventus a solid 2-0 home victory.

Next, Juventus had another home game, this time in the Coppa Italia against Sassuolo. The Bianconeri rushed to the lead in just the third minute as Paulo Dybala blasted a volley past goalkeeper Gianluca Pegolo to put his team in the lead.

But Sassuolo equalized 20 minutes later after a beautifully curled effort from Hamad Traorè flew past Mattia Perin and into the top corner. Just when it looked like we were heading for extra time though, Juventus’ record-signing Vlahovic popped up with a moment of individual magic to secure the victory.

With seemingly nowhere to go and all on his own up front, the Serbian striker shrugged off Sassuolo defender Mert Muldur as if he wasn’t there, ran towards goal, and took a shot from a tight angle. While his shot was heading well wide, it took a wicked deflection off Ruan Tressoldi and spun into the back of the net. Final score: 2-1.

And if you thought the dramatic ending of the game wasn’t enough, as a reward for his efforts, the hero of the night, Vlahovic, gets to face his former team Fiorentina (and probably receive a torrent of horrific abuse in the process). I’m sure that won’t be a controversial game at all!

Juventus v US Sassuolo - Coppa Italia Photo by Jonathan Moscrop/Getty Images

The race for the top four is just as tight as the title race is this year, which means that the clash between Atalanta and Juventus was more important than ever. It was a tense encounter in which neither side truly showed its supremacy. Atalanta were marginally the better side, but due to the injury crisis that Gian Piero Gasperini’s team was dealing with, even they weren’t their usual vibrant selves. As is usually the case in games where neither side is all that good, it took a moment of individual brilliance to break the deadlock.

Ruslan Malinovskyi scored an absolute scorcher of a goal in the 76th minute to give his side the lead. But just when it looked like Atalanta was going to secure its second 1-0 victory over Juventus this season, Danilo sprung to the rescue with a tidy header from a Dybala corner in the 92nd minute. Final score: 1-1. What a moment to score your first goal of the season!

Up next was the Derby Della Mole at home against Torino who, after narrowly avoiding relegation last season, find themselves comfortably in mid-table this season thanks to coach Ivan Juric. Juventus defender Matthijs de Ligt headed the Bianconeri into the lead after connecting with Juan Cuadrado’s corner in the 13th minute, but Andrea Belotti equalized in the 62nd minute after taking advantage of some poor defending by makeshift center back Alex Sandro. That was all she wrote as Juventus labored to its second 1-1 draw in less than a week.

Juventus v Torino FC - Serie A Photo by Emmanuele Ciancaglini/Ciancaphoto Studio/Getty Images

Lest ye forget, Juventus is still competing in the Champions League! Allegri’s side traveled to the Estadio de la Cerámica (El Madrigal) to face Unai Emery’s Villarreal side in the first leg of the Round of 16. Playing in his first-ever Champions League game, Vlahovic kicked off his career on the big stage in extraordinary fashion as it took him a mere 32 seconds to find the back of the net. He chested down a long ball from Danilo, let the ball drop, and hit a pinpoint strike on the half volley off the turn that went in off the post at the far corner.

But you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Allegri did what he always does, which is defend a lead with his life and barely show any desire to get a second goal. While this approach worked relatively well for the remainder of the first half, it was clearly ineffective after the break and as the game progressed.

Villarreal got a deserved equalizer just after the hour mark thanks to Dani Parejo, who took advantage of a miscommunication between (and terrible defending by) Adrien Rabiot and Matthijs de Ligt. Of course, Rabiot was lucky to remain on the pitch after he somehow only received a yellow card for his knee-high challenge on Samuel Chukwueze. Nevertheless, Juventus huffed and puffed its way to a third straight 1-1 draw in all competitions. As expected, this fixture is perfectly balanced as both teams look equally likely to win it as they are to lose it.

Villarreal v Juventus - UCL Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Last but certainly not least, was the nail-biter of a game away at Empoli. Moise Kean opened the scoring after the much-maligned Adrien Rabiot sent an inch-perfect cross for the striker to head home. But Empoli hit back just seven minutes later after a bit of pinball in the box led to Szymon Zurkowski toe-poking the ball into goal. The red-hot Vlahovic put the visitors back into the lead a few seconds before half-time thanks to another wonderful display of skill. He collected Cuadrado’s miscued? pass (shot?), saw his shot feint take out two defenders and goalkeeper Guglielmo Vicario, and coolly stroked the ball into the back of the net.

While the Serbian’s first goal was good, his second was absolutely marvelous. Álvaro Morata led the team on a counter attack and fed the ball to Vlahovic. With the ball slightly behind him, he somehow took an immaculate first touch with his heel to set the ball up perfectly in front of him and then chipped it over the onrushing Vicario. So simple, yet so extraordinary.

While Empoli did pull another goal back in the 76th minute through Andrea La Mantia, it wasn’t enough to deny Juventus its first victory in four games after a pulsating 3-2 win!

Juventus Women

Juventus played only three games in February, with the second leg of the Coppa Italia quarterfinals sandwiched between two league games. First up was a tough 1-0 victory away against Hellas Verona, with an Irene Lotti own goal in the 53rd minute all to separate the two sides. Even though Annahita Zamanian was sent off in the 65th minute, Juve managed to hold on for the victory.

Next, we had the second leg of the Coppa Italia quarterfinals at home against Inter Milan. After a 1-1 draw in the first leg, it was impossible to predict who would take control of the fixture. The second leg was just as tight as the first one, but Juventus came out victorious thanks to a goal in the 14th minute by Barbara Bonansea. Onwards to the semifinals against the other Milanese team, AC Milan!

FC Juventus v Inter - FC Internazionale - Women Italian Cup Photo by Claudio Benedetto/LiveMedia/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Unfortunately, we ended the month on a downer as Juve’s record-breaking, unbelievable 54-game unbeaten streak in the league finally came to an end in a 2-1 loss to Empoli. Playing at home, Empoli rushed to a stunning 2-0 lead after just 15 minutes of play as goals by Valeria Monterubbiano and Cecilia Prugna caught Joe Montemurro’s side completely by surprise.

Empoli frustrated the visitors and defended stoutly until Lisa Boattin’s goal in the 77th minute seemed to ignite a late Juve comeback. Alas, it wasn’t to be as Empoli held on to the lead and condemned Juve to something we haven’t seen in 54 league games: a loss.

Does Max know his best XI?

It sure seems like he doesn’t.

While the crazy flurry of injuries in the last few weeks has significantly limited Allegri’s ability to play his strongest team — at the time of writing, I count Kaio Jorge, Dybala, Zakaria, Alex Sandro, Chiellini, McKennie, and Chiesa on the injury list — based on how often he changed his formation/lineup even before this injury crisis began, I’m not convinced that he would know his strongest team even if everyone were available. This month alone, for example, we’ve seen a 3-5-2, 4-3-3, 4-4-2, and 4-2-3-1 formation.

It seems to me that he’s most undecided about his midfield setup and that how he sets up his midfield will determine who his attackers will be (although Vlahovic is, of course, a given). The key questions, I believe, are the following:

  • Is our best XI one in which we have a 2- or 3-man center midfield?
  • Are Locatelli and Arthur substitutes for one another or able to play together at the same time?
  • Who will be the anchor in front of the midfield: a passer (Arthur/Locatelli) or a destroyer (Zakaria)?
  • Will I ever stop asking questions?

Football and politics: an unofficial marriage?

As we all know, the horrific war in Ukraine is on everybody’s mind right now. This is obviously not the place to discuss politics of everything going on there (though this is a friendly reminder to please not get too political in the comments section), but I do want to discuss the sporting angle of it.

Given that essentially every international/European sporting authority has banned Russia (and, in some cases, Belarus) from participating in sporting events, it again raises the age-old question that has dominated discussions in football and other sports for a long time: should politics be a part of sport and, if so, how much?

Let’s be a little more specific, though. That is, we can generally sort this discussion into two categories: a normative and descriptive one. From the normative perspective, the question is whether politics should be a part of sports while from the descriptive point of view, we have to ask to what extent politics already is a part of sport.

“To be a footballer means being a privileged interpreter of the feelings and dreams of thousands of people.” — César Luis Menotti

Descriptively speaking, I think that politics has always been (and probably always will be) a part of football, even though the likes of UEFA and FIFA have always avoided explicitly acknowledge this. In fact, I believe it’s painfully naive to believe that politics isn’t a part of football.

I wrote about the many historical examples of the (unofficial) relationship between politics and football in my book, such as England’s Nazi salute during the infamous Germany v England game a year before Hitler’s invasion of Poland, how Mussolini used football to “develop a sense of Italian identity and internationally as a diplomatic tool to improve Italy’s standing in the global arena”, and how General Francisco Franco’s used football during his dictatorship.

Should politics be a part of football though? I truly don’t know. Footballers are, at the end of the day, human beings and, as the great Aristotle once said, “man is a political animal.” More than anything though, I think that in today’s hyper-connected world, people expect celebrities, athletes, people in positions of power, and even companies to speak out on and always have an opinion about everything.

And given that football is the most popular sport in the world and, therefore, an inherently powerful vehicle for political messages, football frequently and inevitably becomes politics.

There’s one more issue, specific to FIFA and UEFA’s decisions to ban Russia from footballing competitions, that the pundits at the BBC 5-Live World Football Phone-In very astutely brought up. Namely, that these decisions may have set an interesting precedent for future political conflicts and wars.

Juventus v Spezia Calcio - Serie A Photo by Daniele Badolato - Juventus FC/Juventus FC via Getty Images

What do they do when a country invades another country in the future again? Will people look back at this and say to FIFA and UEFA that “well, you banned Russia in 2022 so now you have to ban [insert country] as well now because they invaded [insert other country] in similar fashion.”

As Tim Vickery said in a recent episode of the Phone-In, you can see why UEFA and FIFA dragged their feet for so long to make a definitive decision on banning Russia (and were fortunate that the IOC made the decision for them) because of the huge implications of the decision.

I’ll close by bringing it back to Juventus and referencing the definitive words of the former Juventus great and French defender Lilian Thuram. From the brilliant documentary Les Bleus Une Autre Histoire De France:

“Le sport c’est la politique.”

Sport, my friends, is politics.