The Cristiano Ronaldo circus a major hit in its Serie A debut in Verona
VERONA, Italy -- The whooshing rotor blades gave it away; the helicopter overhead could mean only one thing. Juventus fans have learned to associate Cristiano Ronaldo with them. A month ago, the club's president, Andrea Agnelli, boarded one for Greece to shake hands with the five-time Ballon d'Or winner on his move to Juventus. Now, one belonging to the local police hovered overhead as the Juventus bus, designed by Agnelli's playboy cousin Lapo Elkann, weaved its way into Verona.
Arriving from Valpolicella, Italian football's finest had stayed the night in fine wine country, preparing for the first game of the season in a hotel that doubles as an art gallery. Who knows if Ronaldo was contemplating his next masterpiece. An Instagram story of the most expensive signing in Serie A history performing his initiation song on a chair -- Ronaldo chose "Minha Casinha" by Xutos & Pontapes -- soon went viral, another reminder of the Ronaldo effect on Juventus' booming social networks.
The supporters rushing to climb the fence of the car park where the team bus pulled up hoped he'd be on song again when the game started. Alerted by the noise, those already inside the Stadio Marcantonio Bentegodi came out on the top tier, ringing the outside of the ground to catch a glimpse of the champions of Italy and their new No. 7.
Crowds like this haven't descended on Verona since Pope Benedict XVI visited in 2006, leading to a security operation and the kind of anti-terrorism measures usually implemented when there is a G7 summit.
Juventus' ultras stayed away in protest of the hike in ticket prices levied by the Bianconeri's opponents who want to cash in themselves on Ronaldo's presence, and a sector of the Curva Sud, where Hellas' hard-core stand, remained empty supposedly because of a pact with Chievo whereby no one can sit there when they are not playing. But other than that, the Bentegodi was a full house.
The gate receipt, estimated to be worth €1 million to Chievo, broke the club record set here when the Inter of Javier Zanetti, Juan Sebastian Veron, Edgar Davids and Adriano drew 2-2 with them in 2004. The majority were not here for Chievo, though. The sheer number of black and white shirts in line at the turnstiles, many of which were Marchisio No. 8s after the news of his departure on Friday, made the Bentegodi feel like Juventus were the ones playing at home. The roar when they came out for the warm-up made the ears wince.
Casual fans also showed up from all over Italy and beyond and the press box, filled with 135 journalists from all over the world, no longer spoke exclusively Italian.
On the eve of the game, Juventus manager Massimiliano Allegri said he was "curious" to see how Ronaldo and the team would do after playing so little together in a preseason shortened by the World Cup. Evidently he wasn't the only one. Diego Maradona made his Serie A debut at the Bentegodi in 1984 and the comparisons with Ronaldo reflected the gratification at no longer needing to be nostalgic about all-time greats playing in the league. No longer a thing of the past, it is the here and now.
Chievo hoped to upset Ronaldo in the same way Hellas embarrassed Maradona when they beat Napoli 34 years ago. Lorenzo D'Anna, the Chievo coach, went into the game as the only Serie A manager with a better win ratio than Allegri after winning all the three games he took charge of at the end of last season to save the Flying Donkeys from freefall into Serie B.
The Chievo winger Emanuele Giaccherini, who was part of the first two league titles Juventus won in this seven-year streak, took delight in recalling how his Cesena side upstaged Milan on the day of Zlatan Ibrahimovic's debut in 2010. A repeat looked beyond him and his Chievo team as they fell behind just over two minutes in when Sami Khedira put his World Cup blues behind him and bundled in a knock-down from Giorgio Chiellini following a Miralem Pjanic free kick.
Conversation in the stands turned to how many Juventus and Ronaldo might score. Allegri named a very attacking side with Douglas Costa, Paulo Dybala and Juan Cuadrado playing off Ronaldo and his swashbuckling compatriot Joao Cancelo at right-back in an adventurous 4-2-3-1.
Another debutant, just the second time around, Leonardo Bonucci was whistled initially by those Juventus fans who are yet to forgive him for walking out on them last season. As fate would have it, it was Bonucci who let Chievo back in. The Italy international was to have an eventful evening.
Caught out by a Giaccherini cross, Mariusz Stepinski took advantage, beating fellow Pole Wojciech Szczesny with a fine header. "I prefer Messi," Stepinski told La Gazzetta dello Sport when asked whom he preferred in the Messi-Ronaldo debate.
On Friday, Allegri had warned his team against getting carried away amid all the euphoria and treble predictions that followed Ronaldo's signing. He pointed out that while Real Madrid won their fourth Champions League title in five years last season, they were also 20 points off the top in La Liga after 10 games. Allegri won't tolerate the same happening under his watch.
The idea that Juventus have everything sewn up already before a ball had even been kicked led him to joke that if it really is such a foregone conclusion, what are we all doing going to games? We should be at the seaside or in the mountains skiing. Chievo obligingly helped prove the point Allegri made.
Allegri echoed this sentiment after the game: "Our concentration levels dropped. You think you have the game under control. Your tempo and concentration drop. You let them cross, defend poorly in the penalty area and you concede. But need wins like this. They immediately make you understand how hard it is to win again. We've only been working together for seven days. Now in this phase of the season we have to get points."
Early in the second half, Giaccherini got away from Cancelo and was pulled down in the penalty area. Improbably, he stole the show from Ronaldo, dispatching his spot kick and putting Chievo into the lead. A team with a wage bill of just €9.5m, a fraction of the €31m Juventus are paying CR7, had the bit between their teeth and dared to believe in a first win over the Bianconeri since 2010.
Made to pay for not killing the game when they were on top in the first half, Juventus huffed and puffed around the pitch. Positioned out on the left for much of the game, Ronaldo hit a half-volley over the bar from a tight angle, and cut inside on his right foot twice to force Stefano Sorrentino into decent saves from outside of the box. His first shot on target arrived after 47 minutes and 22 seconds, illustrating the lack of cohesion and understanding in Juventus' ranks, which perhaps shouldn't come as much of a surprise after training together for just a fortnight with so many of their players involved at the World Cup. Allegri was happy with Ronaldo's performance, saying afterward, "I am sorry he didn't score. But we have been only working together seven days. He did well."
Allegri attempted to change things up by throwing on Federico Bernardeschi and Mario Mandzukic, who made the centre-forward role his own, pushing Ronaldo to a more fixed position on the left flank. But the frustration continued until Juventus fortunately were handed an own goal from a Bernardeschi corner to pull level.
Ronaldo had a chance to win it shortly afterward with his first free kick in a Juventus shirt. And as the Portuguese hitched up his shorts and assumed his trademark stance, a hush became a roar with every step of his run-up. However, the outstanding Sorrentino, another player with Juve ties, proved up to it. It was only when he went off, knocked out cold in the build-up to a goal disallowed by the VAR, that Juventus found the winner through Bernardeschi. The 24-year-old slotted home in stoppage time to spare the Old Lady's blushes.
On a baking-hot summer's day in fair Verona, Juventus were made to sweat for the victory. Welcome to Serie A, Cristiano. Maradona didn't find it easy here, either.