Cristiano Ronaldo needs support if Juventus are to ever win Uefa Champions League again
Italian side will look revamp ageing squad to make fresh impetus for elusive European Cup
If Juventus can just manage to avoid a third defeat on the trot on Saturday at home to Fiorentina, they will have much to celebrate.
There will be an eighth successive Serie A title, and they will be the first to capture the main domestic prize out of all the major European leagues, over the finish line even before Paris Saint-Germain pick up their inevitable championnat in France.
But the celebrations? Vivid, certainly, but you won’t need to look too hard to see the clouds in the background.
It has been a bad week for Juventus, not just because they lost their last league game at SPAL, but because they followed up with a defeat at home to Ajax in the competition that, for all their domestic command, their financial punch, remains tantalisingly out of reach.
In the time they have been sweeping up a record number of back-to-back scudetti, Juventus have reached the Uefa Champions League final twice, losing both, and the quarter-finals, the stage where they were undone on Tuesday, three times.
The club have a long, awkward history of frustrations with club football’s most esteemed prize. But in some respects the elimination by Ajax, upstarts in the company of established grandees, brings with it an even heavier hangover than last year’s controversial, last-gasp knockout by Real Madrid, when Juve seesawed from 3-0 down in the tie to parity and then to heartbreak in the form of a very late penalty against them.
There was heroism, bad luck, courage in that cliffhanger.
Against Ajax, armed with an away goal, Juve crumpled, ended up chasing shadows, and might very well have suffered a more emphatic defeat than the 2-1 that leaves them with just the scudetto to chase.
Juve are out of the Italian Cup, too, thanks to a 3-0 loss in the quarter-finals to Atalanta in January. It has not been a vintage season by the club’s modern standards.
Manager Massimiliano Allegri, guide for the last four Serie A successes, offered a reminder that the prospect of “eight consecutive scudetti” was still something to feel proud of.
“We need to reset now,” he said. “The Champions League is made up of very strong sides, and anybody who thinks it is easy to win is misguided. Getting to the quarter-finals is a good achievement.”
It is not a good achievement, though, for Cristiano Ronaldo, whom Juventus identified so clearly as the key to pushing them from contenders to viable European champions that the current season, for all that the national title might be won with five games to spare, will be deemed a shortfall.
Ronaldo, signed for €100 million (Dh413m) from Madrid last summer, with the buyers also committed to twice that sum in salary and transfer fees, scored five times in the four knockout matches Juve played in the Champions League. But the notion he alone could fuel the drive to another final was squarely confronted by Ajax’s young, vibrant, and fluent players.
Ronaldo turned 34 in February, and while his physical condition is such that normal laws of longevity and asset-value can be suspended, his is a huge investment by Juventus. The underdog triumph of Ajax is bound to shine a particular light on it.
The semi-finalists from Amsterdam are built around a teenaged captain, Matthijs de Ligt, and five or six players under 23 years old. Juventus by contrast have staked high on a footballer who is creeping towards an age where he might be classified as a veteran.
Juventus shares plummeted on the stock market after Tuesday’s loss, and the club will be sensitive to that gauge of their health, albeit that constraints on how they can strengthen in the future are relative.
Already they have signed Aaron Ramsey, the dynamic, experienced Arsenal and Wales midfielder, for the 2019/20 season, a capture in keeping with a business practice that Juve have developed over the past decade. Ramsey, his contract expiring, joins on a free transfer, but his wages will be high.
Similar deals brought the likes of Emre Can and Sami Khedira to Juventus.
The urge, after two years of quarter-final exit from the European Cup, is to be bolder in transfer activity particularly in midfield. Juventus are encouraged from within Paul Pogba’s entourage to pursue any possibility of bringing Pogba, who they recruited from Manchester United as a teenager in 2012, then sold to United in 2016, back again.
Isco, restless at Madrid, is also in their viewfinder.
As for Allegri, the glass-ceiling he keeps encountering in the Champions League has not put him off, he says, having another go at winning it next season, by which time Ronaldo may have alternative creative players supplying his ammunition.
Allegri is under contract until 2020, and he is liked by the club’s executives. And he keeps winning Serie A.
Updated: April 19, 2019 09:25 AM