Cristiano Ronaldo and Juventus facing Champions League catastrophe

Sunday's 3-0 home beating off AC Milan left the Old Lady fifth in table and manager Pirlo battling to avoid the sack

“Clearly,” said Andrea Pirlo, “there are things that haven’t worked.” The Juventus manager could hardly say otherwise, surveying the debris of a spectacular defeat.

Spectacular because of the venue, the Juventus Stadium, formerly known as the club’s impregnable home fortress. Spectacular because of the 3-0 scoreline against arch-rivals AC Milan, who had hardly arrived in the best form, with two defeats in their previous three Serie A matches.

As for the debris, it is corrosive. Juve’s loss on Sunday, a week after the defence of a league title they captured in every one of the last nine seasons was claimed by Inter Milan, plunges them down to fifth place in Italy’s top division, beneath the line that separates Champions League qualifiers from the clubs bound for the group phase of next season’s Europa League.

The club’s share price fell with the drop down the table. Word on Monday was that Pirlo may not be in charge for all of the remaining three games that Juventus, their top-four fate now out of their hands, must aim to win to avoid the ignominy of not reaching Europe’s premier club competition.

“We have a squad made up of great players,” said Pirlo, facing reporters after one of the toughest evenings of his short career – he was appointed in August – as a head coach, “so I have to take responsibility.”

Those great players include several for whom a season without Champions League football would be greeted as a personal offence. The Champions League’s all-time leading scorer, for instance – Cristiano Ronaldo.

CR7 is not a Europa League type. Juventus hired him as a five-time European Cup winner from Real Madrid in 2018 and made no secret of the fact that they were prepared to offer a contract that would extend beyond his 37th birthday because they saw Ronaldo as the cure for years of frustration in the Champions League. Juve reached the final in 2015 and 2017, but finished second-best. Ronaldo won four finals between 2014 and 2018.

The move appealed to the Portuguese, too, an eager collector of trophies and records. He shared Juve’s Champions League ambition, although it has not been remotely realised: Porto knocked Juve out in March; the previous year they lost out in the last 16 to Lyon; the season before that Ajax eliminated them.

None of those clubs are established modern heavyweights, but to make this Juventus roll over, you do not need to be.

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Benevento are scarcely a Serie A middleweight. They have taken four points off Pirlo’s Juve. Apparently modest, but shrewdly coached opponents have made a habit of tripping up Juventus and showing up deficiencies in the inexperienced Pirlo’s planning and capacity to react to setbacks. Bottom-of-the-league Crotone held Juve to a draw; Fiorentina, 13th in the table, came, like AC Milan, to the weakened Turin fortress and won 3-0.

The good news for Ronaldo, Pirlo and the anxious Juve board is that the jostle for the top-four is still tight.

The bad news is that when Milan scored their third goal – a header from on-loan Fikayo Tomori to add to brilliant drives from Brahim Diaz and Ante Rebic – they effectively went in front in the overall the head-to-head meetings with Juve this season. That could be important as a tiebreaker if the clubs finish up equal on points.

Right now, Milan and Atalanta are on 72 points, and Napoli, in fourth place, have 70, one clear of Juventus. The good news, from Juve’s perspective, is that Milan must play Atalanta on the last match day. The bad news? Juventus have to face new champions Inter this weekend.

The gap between fourth and fifth could grow on Tuesday, when Napoli play Udinese. Juventus then take on Sassuolo – eighth – on Wednesday. It will be Pirlo’s 49th match as a senior coach. He must suspect that his total number of games before he is relieved of this, the job he was promoted to from a flimsy base of working knowledge, will not greatly exceed 50.

“I will not be stepping away,” he insisted. “I came in with a lot of enthusiasm and took on some big challenges and I’ll continue as long as I am allowed to.”

Published: May 11, 2021 07:25 AM

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