Juventus will need to improve for heavyweight date in semifinals
After 12 long years of suffering, 12 long years of hardship, struggling with demotion to Serie B, the disgust of mediocrity and the creation of a balanced squad, Juventus are back in the Champions League semifinals.
The quarterfinal second leg performance in Monaco was not what was expected from a team that proved so delightfully technical and tactical in Europe. The squad lacked intensity, composure and attacking ambition. The midfield was incapable of asserting their quality, the forward line failed to make decisions, let alone the right ones, while the inability to release the ball quickly and accurately frustrated the travelling fans. This was not a typical Juve performance, as rarely have they offered a simple whimper when the occasion called for total domination.
Yet perhaps there was no need to be anything more than average against a poor side that failed to exploit their opponent's mistakes. Feeble going forward, the home side had countless opportunities to take advantage of a broken opponent, yet they relinquished possession too swiftly in the final third. Monaco's lack of genuine quality on the ball was baffling. Organised, certainly, but Monaco did not boast the intelligence and technique required in the final third to either threaten or convert efficiently.
In their defence, they should have been awarded a penalty. Geoffrey Kondogbia was clearly sandwiched in the box, but the referee opted not to award a spot kick, much to the delight of the Italians. Yet even the home side must admit that the lack of genuine quality up top is the real the reason behind their European exit.
According to Juve's Massimiliano Allegri, a coach clearly disappointed with the performance judging by his antics on the sideline, his men had an excuse for the below-par performance. A virus has spread through the dressing room taking down Carlos Tevez, Alvaro Morata and Arturo Vidal. The Chilean has been struggling with tonsillitis, while the young Spaniard reportedly vomited on the bench. Yet while the coach attempted to explain certain performances, others cannot be excused.
Giorgio Chiellini was simply abysmal for much of the game, especially in the first half, and is lucky he wasn't punished either by the referee or the opponent. Andrea Pirlo miscued many of his passes, squandering opportunities to create danger, while Vidal struggled to offer much after a good start, disappearing as the night darkened.
In the second half, Juve's anxiety softened and they looked more in control, as Monaco began to tire and surrender to frustration. However, it's safe to say a better opponent would have destroyed a Juventus team that committed countless errors.
Asked about the challenges the Bianconeri will face in the semifinals, Allegri looked to allay fears. "These are the three biggest clubs in Europe. I can certainly guarantee it will be a completely different game against these sides than with Monaco," he said. Juve fans will hope these guarantees are not like the ones Rudi Garcia made regarding Roma and the Scudetto.
However, the night belongs to wild celebrations and little criticism. The club must expect that the struggle for excellence is not yet over and Juventus still have a lot to do to improve on their level, but a place in the semifinal is just reward for a club that has devoted itself to improvement and success, investing wisely and batting off unwarranted criticism to have the last laugh.
Management have built a wonderfully balanced team despite limited funding, a league that offers no competition and a former coach, Antonio Conte, who left the club just before the preseason. Let's put things into context, German Bundesliga side Schalke makes approximately €20m more in commercial revenue than the Old Lady.
Borussia Dortmund and Atletico Madrid proved that excellent tactics, squad spirit and organised play can be enough to reach the final of Europe's premier competition. Conte didn't agree, and neither did many of the fans who called for better reinforcements.
Yet the only difference between Allegri's Juve and Conte's is Roberto Pereyra and Alvaro Morata, and despite their excellent displays, neither player forced Juve to make the step up. Juventus have had the potential to excel in this competition for several years now and have only just managed to express it. Luck has certainly smiled down on the men in black and white, but then it often does in this competition, watching certain greats fall against lesser teams.
It only takes one excellent year in Europe for a well-managed team to improve. More money will mean better investments, a more formidable brand and better hope for further glory. Conte revived the sleeping giant and Allegri is now perfecting it. Two perfect performances in the next stage and the story will read like a fairy tale. Juventus have truly risen from the ashes.
Mina Rzouki covers Juventus and the Italian national team for ESPN FC. Follow her on Twitter: @Minarzouki.