They may have suffered a defeat, but Juventus have every reason to be proud of its Europa League semifinal loss to Benfica. Proud of giving it absolutely everything they had, for showing great character and determination and most important for laughing in the face of every Italian Football cliche. Attacking and positive in every sense of the word, Juventus tried until the final moment to score their goal but failed against Benfica’s dogged defence. Congratulations to the Portuguese for reaching the Europa League final vs. Sevilla on May 14.
Benfica, who have suffered disappointment by missing out on many trophies in the final minutes of last season, have learned their lesson. Their game plan well executed and their chances were well taken, but nothing has been more impressive than their defence. They tightened lines, pressed effectively and ran relentlessly to close down every offensive movement. Defence wins you trophies and Jorge Jesus is simply another coach proving the motto.
It takes three things to win European trophies: defensive steel, efficiency and most important, luck. The defence has sadly let Juventus down in Europe, both in this competition and in the Champions League. We can easily blame that fateful and somewhat unjust night in Istanbul when they lost to Galatasaray or on the wasted chances against Copenhagen, but Juventus lost their place in the prestigious competition when they allowed Galatasaray to equalise in the 88th minute in Turin just one minute after the Italians thought they had won the important match thanks to a Fabio Quagliarella goal.
In Portugal, they suffered the same problem. Working so hard to score the away goal, their good work was wasted when they allowed Lima the room to score a belter and grab the win that forced them into a pressure situation tonight. Benfica had only three shots on target in the two games and yet managed two goals. However, this is football and each match, whether lost or won gives a team the opportunity to learn. These experiences help to grow a team, to help them conceive new ideas and to improve the mentality of those not yet accustomed to this level, and that includes coach Antonio Conte.
Attacking wise, they have much to learn. Pressure robs the Turin giants of clarity and forces them into imprecise and poorly constructed plays. They are still prone to forcing their forward movements, of pushing forward with no clear idea of what to do next. How many times have we seen that chip over the top or the hopeful cross into the box with no recipient earmarked. They attempt to run past too many defenders whilst they turn to their physical edge when frustration takes its toll. They lack the composure necessary for this level and that will come in time. They must learn to calm down, look up and use their minds to unlock a situation. The right decision is not always made and that must be addressed.
Not making the most of their chances has long been Juve’s weakness and whilst one can blame the tactics on occasion, we have to also acknowledge the lack of varied skill within the side. Conte is right to demand certain players so that he has options. That includes players that allow for different tactics and a change in formation as well as players that can resolve certain situations. These include dribblers who possess pace, strikers that make intelligent runs and creative players who ease the pressure of Andrea Pirlo to offer alternatives.
However you can never discount luck. Juventus were unlucky in Istanbul and again tonight, but luck is on Benfica’s side this year. The Portuguese had the experience, the desire and necessary dose of good fortune to reach their second consecutive Europa League final. It’s unfortunate for Juventus, but football is cyclical and luck can either desert you or stand right beside you in nervy moments.
Lady luck abandoned Italy in the 2002 World Cup and as if remorseful, she sought out the Azzurri in 2006. She came through in that match against Australia and Marcello Lippi’s squad will never forget the joy of lifting that coveted trophy in Germany. She looked down upon Chelsea that fateful night in 2009, allowing Barcelona to steal the show but repaid the London boys when she awarded them an iron goal frame that saw so many thunderous Barca shots bounce off it in 2012. She guided them along to their first ever Champions League trophy. Juventus hardly suffered the same bad luck this season, but they deserved more and it’s only a matter of time before they will celebrate their next achievement.
The final note belongs to Conte. There is absolutely no shame in exiting the competition as Juventus did tonight, against experienced and determined opponents. The blog has often criticised him for his perceived snobbery but tonight he played his best team, attempted every change he could to encourage more but lost. Tonight they were just not enough. To try and to lose shows courage and slowly it will come together as they learn from their mistakes.
Tonight he made his fans proud -- proud to have a coach who is truly attempting to raise his boys into footballing heroes. We expect more because we always expect more, it’s part of Juve’s DNA. To be pleased with defeat is to surrender to mediocrity thus criticism is vital for their development and his ideas going forward. Under his guiding hand and bottle throwing tantrums, one has no doubt the Bianconeri will grow into a formidable team that will have their say in Europe and for that, Turin and Italy are grateful.