Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 7 April 2020

Coppa Italia: Maurizio Sarri feels the heat as Juventus struggle with 'Sarriball'

Cristiano Ronaldo's excellent run has masked deficiencies as Juve prepare to take on brittle Milan

Maurizio Sarri took over as Juventus manager last June. EPA
Maurizio Sarri took over as Juventus manager last June. EPA

On the immediate horizon, there is a small blessing for Maurizio Sarri, the beleaguered manager of Juventus. The clubs who carry the greatest threat to Juve retaining their Serie A title for a ninth successive season will, he can realistically hope, take sizeable chunks out of one another on Sunday. Lazio versus Inter Milan, third against first, is the game of the weekend ahead in Italy.

The most popular sport of this week, meanwhile, has been to guess at the identity of Sarri’s successor and speculate on when exactly he will arrive. Pep Guardiola? The logic behind that story, published initially in England, is that Juventus are long-time admirers of the Manchester City manager, and Guardiola’s career history is a studied hopscotch with no stay longer than four seasons, through the mightiest clubs in each of Europe’s strongest leagues, from Barcelona, to Bayern Munich, to City, who Guardiola joined in 2016.

But the notion of Guardiola preparing to pack his suitcases for Turin is fanciful. Max Allegri then? Juventus parted ways with the urbane Italian last June, the watershed moment the defeat against Ajax in the quarter-finals of last season’s Champions League.

It was a competition in which Allegri had guided Juve to two finals, both lost by large margins, alongside his clean sweep of five scudetti – Serie A titles – in five years in charge.

Allegri has turned down several job offers in the last eight months, which means he would be free to return to Juventus if they called suddenly, but would only be inclined to do so on his terms.

Neither of these alternatives were outlined to Sarri over a dinner he shared with the Juventus president Andrea Agnelli and the club’s sports director Fabio Paratici last weekend, but there was discussion about how Juventus – who go to San Siro on Thursday to play AC Milan in the first leg of their Coppa Italia semi-final – have contrived to lose two of their last three league matches, the most recent the 2-1 loss at Hellas Verona.

They had taken the lead in that fixture, still had the leadership of Serie A after it and well into Sunday evening, but saw it snatched from them by the extraordinary Inter performance in the Milan derby, when a 2-0 deficit was turned into a 4-2 Inter victory.

Agnelli watched that turnaround with alarm and grudging respect for Inter manager Antonio Conte, who nine years ago Agnelli, then fresh to the position of Juventus’s most senior decision-maker, appointed as Juve’s coach.

The rest is repetitive history: every Serie A title from then on has belonged to Juve, Conte’s three on the trot the platform for an unprecedented domestic dominance and the base foundation for Sarri to build on.

Or at least that was the theory: that Sarri should graft his particular style, one that made Napoli Serie A’s most entertaining side during a period of Juve’s serial title-winning under Allegri, onto Juve's in-built resilience.

The marriage of Sarriball and Juve has worked only sporadically. An almost impeccable record in the Champions League, where Juventus dropped only two points in a group including Atletico Madrid and Bayer Leverkusen, signposted the sort of authority in Europe that Allegri had been deemed to lack.

Yet in Serie A, Juventus have not been commanding. Victory over Inter in October put them top of the table, displacing Conte’s team. Inter then regained the summit once Lazio had inflicted on Sarri his first defeat in his new job, a 3-1 win Lazio repeated to deny Juventus the Italian Super Cup trophy in December. Inter again took top spot, on goal difference, last Sunday.

The losses to Lazio made Juventus look insipid, and predictable in their tactical reliance on Cristiano Ronaldo’s individual brilliance.

The dependence on Ronaldo has been all the more pronounced since the beginning of December. The Portuguese, who turned 35 last week, has scored goals in every one of his last 10 matches. And most of those goals were needed. Put bluntly, without Ronaldo’s goals or assists in the last two and half months, Juve would be 14 points worse off and not second in the table but fifth.

Sarri detects a lack of gumption, and called the performance at Verona “shallow. "If you are not at 100 per cent mentally, you won’t be strong enough physically,” he said, adding his concern about poor away form. Juventus have lost four of their last six matches outside Turin, not a run to embolden them for trip to San Siro, even against a brittle Milan.

Updated: February 13, 2020 08:35 AM

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