Roma Versus Juventus Ends With The Old Lady Crowned Champion Once Again
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Juventus is officially the champion of Italy.
That’s seven in a row, for those who are counting.
For Massimiliano Allegri, this is a period of astonishing success. Coupled with the Coppa Italia they won last week, that makes it four domestic doubles on the bounce for the Old Lady. Following on from the foundations laid by Antonio Conte, Juventus has become a winning machine.
But perhaps the most surprising thing about a team winning its seventh league title in a row is how unsurprising it is. Furthermore, it’s a victory tinged by doubt and failure. Even in the face of this historical success, how should we be looking at Juventus’s latest triumph?
The league was won in fairly unspectacular fashion. After conceding a late goal against Napoli in Turin back in April, it seemed like the title might change hands. A string of bad results against Fiorentina and Torino, however, dampened any hope in Naples and left Juve with a simple task. A point against Roma was enough to snuff out any last sliver of optimism and a point is exactly what they took from the game.
If we’re discussing the Roma versus Juventus match on Sunday, there’s not much to say. There was a suspicion in certain cynical corners that the result might be easily predictable.
A week ago, results dictated that a nil-nil draw would guarantee the title for one team and a third-place finish (and Champions League spot) for the other. Betting markets were suspended temporarily as punters tried to back the mutually beneficial biscotto.
However, the fixtures involving Lazio and Inter played out so that Roma was already guaranteed a spot at the top table of European football next season. They didn’t have anything to lose, leading people to think that Eusebio di Francesco’s men might take the gloves off and really go for the champions. It was, perhaps, Napoli’s last chance at winning the scudetto.
But what had seemed a marquee fixture a few weeks ago failed to really ignite. Juventus didn’t manage a shot on target. They did have a goal disallowed for a clear offside but failed to muster much in the way of an attacking threat. Radja Nainggolan's dismissal midway through the second half effectively killed the game. Juve took its goalless draw and its title and said thank you very much. Job done.
Seven in a row. History being written before our eyes.
Now that the title race is over, it’s natural to think about where we should rank this side among the run of seven successful seasons.
Certainly, Juventus has been far from its best. Ever since Conte began this renaissance, Juve has built its achievements on a rock-solid defense. Gianluigi Buffon, Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci were the best defensive unit in world football for a long time.
But that defensive edifice began to crumble. Internal squabbles led to the sale of Bonucci, while the ravages of time have taken their toll on Barzagli and Buffon. Chiellini remains the lone stalwart, though he too is beginning to be plagued by the niggling injuries that have regularly interrupted his career.
Recognizing this, Allegri switched his approach. This Juventus might not be the most defensively solid, but they are far more of an attacking unit. Their range of options, bolstered in the summer by the acquisitions of Federico Bernardeschi and Blaise Matuidi have added depth and alternatives to the already strong strike force. Along with Paulo Dybala, Gonzalo Higuain, Mario Mandzukic, Douglas Costa and Juan Cuadrado, Juventus has plenty of ways to hurt opponents.
While Juventus does still have the best defensive record in the league, its goal tally greatly increased this year. Recognizing the weakness in the backline, the coach switched the initiative to the forwards. It’s a flexible, insightful solution to an aging defense. Commendable, if not that exciting.
Furthermore, despite this favoring of attacking football, this Juve side is hardly thrilling to watch. Though they have their moments of smooth, lucid attacking football, they wouldn’t rank as being among the most attractive sides in Serie A. Napoli, Roma, Lazio and even Atalanta have played more aesthetically pleasing football at various points this year, even if they have not been as effective.
The real key to Juventus’s title victory is not beautiful, attacking football, nor is it the defensive solidity of old. They have greater resources, better players and a better manager than all the other teams in the division. Systemically, structurally and institutionally, they are better prepared to win the league than any other team. But it’s not these factors that have had the greatest effect.
It’s the Juventus mindset, a factor that has proved telling this year.
It’s difficult to write about these kinds of group psychologies without delving into pseudo-science and peddling self-help fallacies as cold, hard fact. But it’s impossible to ignore the “winning mentality” (for want of a better word) that Juventus possesses.
It’s a mixture of entitlement, arrogance, fastidiousness, competitiveness and determination. It’s the kind of attitude that can only be built through the process of winning seven titles in a row, a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. They win simply because they know how to win.
Even as the team has become — effectively — worse, the attitude remains. This Juventus side might be a pale imitation of its old self, but its mental fortitude remains the same. It’s the same attitude that took them to an unbeaten season, to a 100-point season, to overhauling a Roma team that won its first ten games, to overcoming a catastrophic start to the 2015-16 season, to chasing down a rampant Napoli this year. It’s an essential part of their make up and the key reason for their success.
Season on season, Juventus has overcome all sorts of difficulties. They’ve changed the manager, the players, the style, the formation and practically everything else. But there’s always the same determination and the same attitude. That’s why they’re serial winners.
And it’s not just a weapon they can deploy for their own benefit. When teams like Napoli and Roma are able to build up strong leads, they know that they’re always at risk. They can’t rest for a moment or Juve will run them down. This fear gets into the other teams’ heads.
There have been times this season where Napoli could have pressed its advantage. But they haven’t been able to maintain focus. They wore themselves out, mentally and physically. They had to keep running, lest Juventus catch up. But all that running tired them out. Then, like Jason Voorhees chasing down summer camp teens, the big unstoppable baddie got to them in the end.
The defining quality of these seven titles has been Juventus’s relentless, merciless viciousness.
But everything comes to an end. There’s a sense this Juventus team has come to the conclusion of its cycle. We’ve mentioned the aging defense, but rumors have abounded regarding the sales of Higuain and Mandzukic. Both strikers are approaching the latter stages of their careers at the highest level. Juventus might want to invest in fresh, youthful forwards.
They do have a young, exciting talent in Dybala, but the Argentine has consistently failed in the biggest moments. A red card in this year’s Champions League was evidence that, in the biggest games, Dybala might not have the mindset to achieve everything Juventus wants. Scoring against Tottenham or SPAL is not good enough if he is not able to replicate those performances against Real Madrid and other elite teams.
There might be a temptation to sell a number of key players and renew and refresh this team, though this is hard to do while preserving the winning mentality that has been so key to the seven titles won in a row.
Which brings us to the real problem facing this Juventus side. As dominant as they have been domestically, they are all too aware that they have consistently failed to realize their own, self-set ambitions.
Twice in recent years, Juventus has reached the Champions League final. Twice, they’ve lost. It’s no secret that winning the big-eared trophy is the key goal for the management of the club. No other team has lost more finals in Europe’s premier competition.
Until Juventus is able to lift the trophy again, it will always have a chip on its shoulder, a kind of self-doubt that keeps it from reaching the levels of Real Madrid or Bayern Munich.
After the sale of Paul Pogba, Juventus spent a lot of money with the express purpose of winning the Champions League. A huge chunk of that was spent on Higuain and Miralem Pjanic. The intent was clear: invest the money in the best players from rival Italian sides. This would weaken domestic competition while building a team designed to win the biggest competition.
There can be no doubt that this has failed. In the two finals Juventus has reached, it has been made to look remarkably inferior to the two Spanish giants.
Coupled with this season’s unbecoming exit in the knockout stages, this failure to achieve its stated goals leaves Juventus in a strange position.
Seven titles in a row means they’re undoubtedly a historically remarkable team. This level of domination has rarely been glimpsed in Italy, especially not in the modern era. Given how low the club was 12 years ago, this turn around has been incredible.
But how can we compare this Juventus team to the treble-winning Inter side? Or the number of European cups in the Milan trophy room?
In that respect, Juventus is a victim of its own success. We have become bored of their consistent Serie A victories. Seasons which, taken in isolation, would be considered fantastic have become passé. We have come to expect more from Juventus, to the point where its heroics are run of the mill.
Coupled with this, their inability to truly build on this platform and take their success to the next level has resulted in very public, very obvious failings. The margins are razor thin; had this Juventus side won the Champions League at any stage in the last seven seasons, its achievements would merit discussion alongside the historic Bayern Munich or Benfica sides.
We’re left with a feeling of empty appreciation. It’s easy to praise Juventus for its domestic success, but this praise is colored by their its inability to deliver in the moments when it has really mattered.
Buffon’s now infamous reaction to Michael Oliver’s correct penalty call neatly sums up the problem. We can all sympathize with the legendary goalkeeping, fighting against the aging process and coming so, so close to the goal but falling spectacularly at the last moment.
To fight their way into contention is admirable; that they failed so dramatically forces us to consider this success as, ultimately, a failure.
This article began as a celebration of yet another title. Seven in a row. Four domestic doubles in a row. What kind of success is this? It’s ridiculous. It’s impossible to think of another remotely competitive league that has witnessed such continued domination.
But, eventually, the praise becomes a eulogy. A rumination on what might have been. The more success Juventus enjoys, the more we wish it could move up to the next level. Which is demonstrative of the difficult position the Italians find themselves in, pressing up forcibly against their ceiling, desperate to break through.
Too good to enjoy domestic success, not good enough to make their talents really tell.