For this Juventus team's Champions League hopes, is it now or never?
The Champions League round of 16 kicks off on Tuesday and, ahead of the return of European club football's elite competition, ESPN FC is asking -- and answering -- a series of "burning questions."
In the latest, James Horncastle looks at Italian champions Juventus and wonders if this might be the last chance for the current squad to achieve European success.
CHAMPIONS LEAGUE BURNING QUESTIONS
- Hunter: Can Real Madrid successfully defend the trophy?
- Horncastle: Is this underachieving Juventus' biggest test yet?
- Marcotti: Will a previous winner manage another triumph?
- Cox: Which English club has the best chance of glory?
- Honigstein: Are Bayern Munich ready for another title?
For Juventus, the road to Champions League glory passes through Dortmund and ends in Berlin. It's a route familiar to captain Gianluigi Buffon, defender Andrea Barzagli and midfield maestro Andrea Pirlo. Signal Iduna Park and the Olympiastadion were the settings of Italy's World Cup triumph in 2006. Is it a sign of destiny?
The veteran trio are raging against the dying of the light. Buffon is 37. His intention is to play into his 40s, like former Italy and Juventus shot-stopper Dino Zoff, but time is running out for one of the game's greatest goalkeepers to lift this particular trophy.
The European Cup is the one that, so far, has evaded the most expensive hands in football history -- Juve signed him from Parma for 32.5 million pounds in 2001. He saved penalties from Clarence Seedorf and Kakha Kaladze in the shootout that settled the 2003 Champions League final at Old Trafford and was agonisingly close to palming away Alessandro Nesta's, but AC Milan prevailed.
Pirlo was on the winning side that night. He'll be 36 in May and hoping it still isn't too late to add a third Champions League medal -- he also won in 2007 -- to his collection.
Barzagli will turn 34 in the same month and Germany holds fond memories for him. Before joining Juventus four years ago for 300,000 euros, his only success in club football had been as part of Felix Magath's Wolfsburg side that won the Bundesliga in 2008-09. Now he'd like to add the Champions League to three scudetti, a Meisterschale and the World Cup.
While this isn't the veterans' last ride, as they grow older the road becomes harder.
Zoff, as Buffon will know, was 41 when he reached a European Cup final in 1983. Defeat to Hamburg in Athens was blamed on his eyesight because he didn't appear to see what everyone else did: a Magath screamer from distance.
And what of the other members of this team? Carlos Tevez plans to return to Boca Juniors in 2016. His window for a last hurrah in the Champions League is closing. The same goes for his buddy Patrice Evra, 34 in May, a fellow winner with Manchester United in Moscow seven years ago. Meanwhile, Fernando Llorente, one of Juventus' four World Cup champions and a Europa League runner-up in 2012, is about to enter his 30s and knows this team has to seize the day.
One thing's for sure: Juventus have cultivated or acquired the requisite experience. Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Claudio Marchisio are all in their prime and have, like Buffon, Barzagli and Pirlo, all been to a major tournament final in the last two-and-a-half years, namely Euro 2012. Juventus' players know what it takes to go all the way.
Even Paul Pogba has won an Under-20 World Cup and he is representative of the youthful exuberance complementing the wisdom of the old guard. There's not only the Frenchman but also Alvaro Morata, top scorer and winner at Under-19 and Under-21 European Championships, and Kingsley Coman as well.
In midfielder Pogba, Juventus have a possible future Ballon d'Or winner, who, even today, can be spoken of as the best player of his position in the world. But he might not be at the club next season, considering the reported interest in his signature, which again reinforces why there really is no time like the present for this group of players at Juventus to realise their potential in Europe.
They find themselves at the same stage as Inter after Jose Mourinho's first season: so dominant in Italy, so unfulfilled in Europe, which in turn has bred a scepticism of what they were accomplishing on the domestic front.
This Juventus team is considered great in Italy. An undefeated season, a statistically better title defence, and an all-time record breaking three-peat -- the club's first since 1933 -- in which they were perfect at home and broke the 100-point barrier for the first time in Serie A history will do that for you.
But to be elevated to another level, such feats of conquest need to be translated to Europe. Former manager Antonio Conte resented the notion. He felt it lacked an appreciation of just how hard it is to win on the continent. Juventus got to four finals in Conte's time as a player with the club and even then they won it only once, in 1996.
It was "less hard" then, too. The wealth gap between Juventus and the rest wasn't as big. Real Madrid, the current holders, make close to double what the Turin club do. But money doesn't talk as loud as Conte liked to make it sound, otherwise Real wouldn't have had to wait 12 years for La Decima, nor would Borussia Dortmund and Atletico Madrid have reached the final in the past two seasons with their inferior turnovers and payrolls.
Still, Conte grew resigned and did resign. He didn't like the sense of entitlement, the delusions of grandeur and the prospect, after putting up numbers that were impossible to improve upon in Serie A, of forthcoming seasons being judged solely on whether or not Juventus did well in Europe.
Juventus didn't have the resources to bring in the players he believed could help them make the step up and only would if they sold one of their best players, something he was unwilling to contemplate. That "Zidane protocol" has long been acknowledged in Turin, but thoughts return to Inter.
Under Jose Mourinho, they sold the league's top scorer and best player, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, to Barcelona in 2009, got Samuel Eto'o in exchange plus 49.5 million euros in cash, and bought Lucio, Thiago Motta, Wesley Sneijder and Diego Milito -- still ending in profit from a number of other deals -- and went on to win the treble. That has to be the aim if Juventus do part with Pogba in the summer. But as of today, while they do have him, they have to make the most of it.
Juventus' players want to prove they can win without Conte, and that conquering Europe isn't as distinctly unlikely as he claimed it to be. Head coach Massimiliano Allegri knows it's the only area at Juventus where he can do a better job than his predecessor. By abandoning Conte's 3-5-2 and imposing his own 4-3-1-2 on, of all nights, that of the delicate group stage match against Olympiakos, he showed a willingness to dare and to take a different approach.
He also seems more willing to compromise, taking a draw in the league if it means he can rest, rotate and keep players fresh so they have a better chance of winning in the Champions League. Conte, by contrast, was relentless and wouldn't allow his players to take their foot off the gas for even a moment in Serie A.
While Juventus have been humbled by the Champions League, never before have they been more aware of their strength. They have the best defence of Europe's top five leagues and have only been behind for seven minutes all season. Seven minutes! Meanwhile, their midfield, with Pogba, Pirlo and Arturo Vidal, is the envy of Europe.
They haven't lost at the Juventus Stadium in any competition since Bayern knocked them out at the quarterfinal stage of the Champions League in April 2013.
Juventus have to bring that swagger, that confidence to Europe, because round-of-16 opponents Dortmund are short of it. While their Champions League form has so far been impressive, never have they been so vulnerable since Jurgen Klopp opened a cycle of success at the club.
Last Saturday, they emerged from the automatic relegation spots in the Bundesliga after 49 days in their clutches. Their domestic form doesn't reflect BVB's true worth, just as Juventus' elimination at the group stage of the Champions League last season didn't reflect their own.
This Dortmund team, however, doesn't have to prove itself in Europe in the way this Juventus collective undoubtedly does, even if a quarterfinal and a semifinal appearance -- albeit in the Europa League -- is actually indicative of progress in a continental knockout format.
It might be now or never for this particular group of players if they are to win the Champions League in the black and white of the Old Lady.
James covers the Italian Serie A and European football for ESPN FC Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.