Cristiano Ronaldo disappeared from Turin as suddenly as he had arrived. On Wednesday, he took part in a public training session with Juventus, around 100 fans getting the chance to see their club’s record signing up close for the final time. By Friday lunchtime he was boarding a private jet to Manchester, leaving those same supporters to ponder whether it had all been worthwhile.
The story they were sold in 2018 was that Ronaldo had come to help their team conquer Europe. Instead, Juventus slipped from a run of two Champions League finals in four seasons, to a single quarter-final appearance in three attempts with him. Even the club’s run of nine consecutive Serie A titles was ended by Inter this spring.
Ronaldo sustained the same unrelenting excellence we have always known from him. He scored 101 goals in a Juventus shirt, crowned with two league titles, one Coppa Italia and two SuperCoppe. As Luigi Garlando wrote in La Gazzetta dello Sport: “In three years, CR7 amassed the numbers of a normal human’s entire career.”
Yet there was little outcry from supporters at his departure, none of the despair you might expect when one of the greatest footballers of all time takes his leave. Some fans even welcomed his exit, believing that their team needed this opportunity to make a fresh beginning without any obligation to accommodate a 36-year-old in the final year of his contract.
Juventus are starting over with a different manager for the third time in as many years. They sent Massimiliano Allegri away in 2019, appointing Maurizio Sarri with the hope that he might lend them some attacking verve. A year later, he was replaced by Andrea Pirlo, a rookie manager whose recent playing experience was supposed to help him to bring though a new generation of young talent.
Now Allegri is back: a steady pair of hands to right a listing ship. Juventus sank all the way to fourth last season. Allegri finished top of Serie A in each of his four previous seasons with the club and knows his reputation had only been strengthened by the declining results in his absence. He flexed his authority by sending Ronaldo to the bench for the season opener against Udinese.
In press conferences, Allegri described Ronaldo as an “added value” to his team, a phrasing that made the player expendable, a cherry on top rather than the cake itself. Perhaps he had understood already that Ronaldo would find a way out. Perhaps, quietly, he was hoping that might be the case. Now Allegri has the freedom to remake this team to his vision, instead of fitting it around one player. An appealing idea, on paper. But on the pitch, on Saturday, it was a catastrophe.
Juventus lined up to face Empoli in a 4-3-1-2 formation with a pair of players in less familiar roles: Danilo was deployed as a holding midfielder and Weston McKennie as a makeshift No10. Both looked immediately uncomfortable, uncertain of their positioning and unable to establish any rhythm against opponents who pressed aggressively.
Their struggles were briefly masked by the brilliance of Federico Chiesa, denied twice inside the opening quarter-hour by Empoli’s goalkeeper, Guglielmo Vicario. But his blistering runs were all Juventus had. Even Chiesa’s partnership with Paulo Dybala did not really work, both players dropping deep and neither offering a reference point to teammates up front.
Empoli took the lead in the 21st minute. There was a slice of good fortune in Leonardo Mancuso’s goal, yet the construction of the move presented a stark contrast to Juventus’s muddled approach. Where McKennie looked lost in the No10 role, Nedim Bajrami was a perfect pivot, volleying a first-time pass to the overlapping Filippo Bandinelli before running on to the return ball. His shot was blocked by Danilo but broke to Mancuso, who hooked it beyond Wojciech Szczesny.
It was not this goal that drove Allegri to distraction, so much as his team’s failure to react. Juventus scarcely threatened to get back on level terms before a pair of half-chances for substitute Manuel Locatelli near the end of the match. Allegri used all five of his changes, tweaking the team’s shape repeatedly, yet his players never got a grip on the game.
Paulo Dybala was left frustrated by Juventus’ lack of attacking fluency. Photograph: Alessandro Di Marco/EPA
Empoli held on to secure their first-ever win away to Juventus in Serie A. There were fewer than half as many fans in the visitors’ section of the Allianz Stadium than there had been for Ronaldo’s last training session at Continassa three days before, but they certainly made the most of this moment.
Serie B champions oflast season, Empoli’s lost manager Alessio Dionisi, to Sassuolo in the summer. His successor, Aurelio Andreazzoli, had led the club into the top-flight in 2018, only to take them immediately back down again. Empoli’s defeat to Juventus that season was such a footnote that barely any journalists even bothered to show up to his post-game press conference.
This time, Andreazzoli beamed as he told reporters: “We came here to get a result. Now we’ve understood that we can do that against anyone.” For Juventus, that same logic is reversed. A team that seemed invulnerable for so many years has shown recently that it can slip up anywhere.
This was their second disappointment in a row to start the season, after throwing away a two-goal lead to draw against Udinese on the opening weekend. Such results should not be framed around Ronaldo’s departure. He played all 90 minutes in March when they lost 1-0 at home to Benevento – a promoted side now back in Serie B.
Still, his exit does leave hard questions. Allegri has no shortage of options up front, between the players who started on Saturday and those who came off the bench – Álvaro Morata, Dejan Kulusevski and Federico Bernardeschi – but how do they fit together? And who among them is going to fill the gap left by a player whose 29 league goals were almost 40% of Juve’s total last term?
“I’m not worried,” Allegri had insisted at his pre-match press conference. “This team has plenty of goals in its legs, so they will be redistributed. If anything, it’s important to concede fewer.” He hopes to do that by tightening up the midfield, but here too there is concern.
Allegri’s decision to move Danilo up the pitch reflects the absence of a high-quality regista who the manager trusts to set the tempo for his team. Locatelli may wind up filling such a role, though his best performances for Sassuolo and Italy have been in a hybrid role that allows him to move box-to-box. Arthur is recovering from knee surgery, but rarely lived up to his billing last term.
Juventus are expected to move for another player before the transfer window shuts, and a move to bring Miralem Pjanic back from Barcelona has been mooted. Ronaldo’s arrival three years ago was supposed to herald a bold new era for Juventus. Right now, they would settle for just getting back to the stable successes of their recent past.
Serie A results
Friday: Udinese 3-0 Venezia, Verona 1-3 Inter. Saturday: Atalanta 0-0 Bologna, Fiorentina 2-1 Torino, Juventus 0-1 Empoli, Lazio 6-1 Spezia. Sunday: Genoa 1-2 Napoli, Milan 4-1 Cagliari, Salernitana 0-4 Roma, Sassuolo 0-0 Sampdoria.
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