Juventus struggles amplified by the exit of Cristiano Ronaldo and his guaranteed goals

Italian giants have scored just seven times in opening five Serie A games while defensive issues have also been a constant concern

With 25 minutes to go of their fifth match of the Serie A season, Juventus had plunged deeper into the relegation zone. They were trailing 2-1 at La Spezia, the club with the lowest wage-bill in Italy’s top division.

A pair of excellent La Spezia goals, from Emmanuel Gyasi and the French teenager Janis Antiste on Wednesday, had brought up another unwelcome milestone for the deposed Italian champions, the 19th league game in succession that Juventus have not kept a clean sheet.

The main damage of that run, which began in March, was measured in the last-day scrabble, last season, to finish in the top four. Juventus managed that, although for a club who had come first in Serie A in the nine previous seasons, it was small compensation.

Those 19 matches on the trot without a clean sheet match are Juve’s poorest defensive sequence since 2010. Concede goals in Sunday’s game against Sampdoria, the Turin derby and the meeting with Jose Mourinho’s Roma on October 17, and Juve will equal their leakiest run ever, dating back to 1955.

It is not a proud record for Wojciech Szczesny, the goalkeeper, to contemplate. He has made some conspicuous errors lately, although he was thanked by head coach Max Allegri for the late save he made at La Spezia, from Giulio Maggiore.

That was in the 85th minute. And it kept safe Juve’s comeback, launched by Federico Chiesa’s goal in the 66th minute and sealed by Matthijs de Ligt’s winner six minutes later.

Allegri was relieved. “It was a game where we suffered but at least we came out on top,” said the head coach, whose second spell at a club where he oversaw five successive league titles and two Champions League finals had until Wednesday yielded just two points from four Serie A matches.

“It’s an important win,” said Allegri, “but we have had a bit of luck. We need to be better in our decision making and our finishing.”

On which point there is one very obvious distinction between Juventus now and the Juventus who last won the title, under Maurizio Sarri. Or indeed the Juventus who lost that status last season under the novice head coach Andrea Pirlo. It is one man, one giant of a finisher: Cristiano Ronaldo.

There had, even before Ronaldo eagerly welcomed a chance to return to Manchester United in the tail end of the summer transfer window, been much earnest debate over how much he truly added to Juve, or whether he had become a restriction on their playing style. But the plain fact is Ronaldo was the highest goalscorer in Serie A last season - for the club that finished fourth.

Rewind a little under year, and there are some pertinent statistics about the value of CR7. In the first five Serie A matches Ronaldo played for Juve at the beginning of 2020-21, he scored seven goals, and was directly responsible, with his goals, for five of the 11 points Juve gained in those matches, Ronaldo on the scoresheet in all of them.

This season, the entire Juventus side have scored seven times in five league outings. Incidentally, Ronaldo still believes that figure should be eight, his last appearance for the club, on the opening weekend, ending with him fuming because he had a ‘goal’ ruled out by VAR after he came on as a substitute at Udinese with the scores locked at 2-2.

So it was that Ronaldo’s three-year adventure in Italy - one that cost Juventus a staggering amount of money given the combination of the €100m fee they paid Real Madrid and almost the same again in three seasons’ worth of salary - ended in frustration. The feeling had carried over from the end of the previous campaign, with the run of league titles halted, and the Champions League campaign extinguished in a last-16 elimination by Porto.

Hence the sacking of Pirlo and the summons to Allegri, who did not envisage his return being quite so challenging. Key figures from the squad he led to the 2018-19 title are still there; the likes of Chiesa and De Ligt have been added since, younger talents around whom to build a post-Ronaldo future.

Allegri has worked successfully with Alvaro Morata and Paulo Dybala in the past, too, and of Dybala in particular, much is expected. The Argentinian’s productivity as a goalscorer diminished while Ronaldo was at Juve.

But there is a long game of catch-up ahead, confidence to restore and a daunting meeting with Chelsea in the Champions League next week. Allegri hopes thoe messy three points at La Spezia means a corner has been turned. “The bells were tolling,” he said.

Updated: September 24th 2021, 8:54 AM
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