As Juventus prepares to reconvene after an international break hiatus, I’ve been on something of a hectic hiatus myself: I started a clothing brand, Stray Bear Sweaters. We’re officially launched, and that’s very exciting. Time to sell some sweaters; I’ve been busy, but I’m glad to be back.
Apparently the Old Lady has been busy, too. Never a dull day in Turin. Between the latest chapter in the very sad return tale of Paul Pogba and Leonardo Bonucci’s quest to make sure he’s the least beloved Juventus legend of all time, what ought to have been a period of news cycle respite has been the opposite.
All of this means we’re back to beating a dead horse: the players and coach in the locker room must now deal with a string of off-field distractions as they enter a critical series of games. Sounds all too familiar. But although we’re early in the season, the end of September and the beginning of October might reveal a whole lot about this club, and position it well or not-so-well on the table.
When will we find out the truth about this team?
Juve face their first stiff domestic competition of the season on Saturday. Despite Lazio’s rather confounding start — losses to Lecce and Genoa (!) followed by a win over Napoli — this is still a talented team, one that should compete for a top-four or -five spot, and it’s still coached by Maurizio Sarri, who would love nothing more than to beat Juventus in Turin. It’s worth mentioning that the Old Lady’s opponent will be staring down a Champions League date with Atletico Madrid just three days after the clash at Allianz, so there’s a chance Max Allegri’s side could catch them a bit distracted.
No European play for the Biaconeri means a full week off after Lazio, but then three games in an eight-day stretch vs. Sassuolo, upstart Lecce (currently tied with Juve on points), and pesky old Atalanta. Sure, there’s no Inter, no Milan, and no Napoli here, but after facing through mid-table (or worse) sides to open the campaign, this is palpably tougher stuff on the schedule.
The first three games happened so quickly that it’s easy — especially with the news cycle this week — to miss how truly astonishing those three 90-minute contests were. In that short span, we saw one of the best halves of Juventus football in recent memory, interminably long sections of familiar drab football, and a few pockets of absolutely unwatchable garbage. It may very well require more than these next three games to start teasing out who the true Juventus is, but we should be getting a better idea of what the rest of the season will look like.
The rubber is about to meet the road, I think.
The broken record section
I wrote about the midfield before the international break, but like an ex-girlfriend when you’re in high school I just can’t get the situation off my mind. There’s still plenty of determinations to be made in the Pogba doping scandal, but it’s virtually impossible for me to think in optimistic terms regarding the Frenchman at this point, which leaves a stark reality: there’s a fairly high probability that we’ll never see Pogba play another minute for Juventus (in fact, his career might well be over).
If — and it’s certainly still an if — that does play out into a long-term ban from FIFA, then the midfield will suddenly be down another player, and its most talented one at that despite Pogba’s infrequent appearances. If nothing else, this scenario would drive the nail into the coffin of the “Pogba as midfield savior” possibility. If it occurred and if it gave grounds to Juventus to terminate the contract without paying the whole thing out, then there might be a possible opening to move for a free agent or January midfield signing.
That’s a lot of ifs. Still, it’s difficult not to let your mind go to these very dark places when thinking about the midfield. Years after we knew the unit was a very big problem, the latest “solution” (Pogba) has been nothing short of a disaster; it’s difficult to imagine the situation having played out worse. Whether or not the true reset comes that that the midfield so desperately needs is to be determined.
With all this in the mind, Juventus must find some modicum of focus to face Lazio and then three tricky games in an eight-day stretch. We might find out a lot about this team; we might not. Either way, I think it’ll be nice to get back to the pitch and away from the press.