Eletiofe Juve’s punt on Sarri and Ronaldo typifies superclubs’ vast...

Juve’s punt on Sarri and Ronaldo typifies superclubs’ vast carelessness | Jonathan Wilson


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In 2015, Max Allegri led Juventus to the double. In 2016, Max Allegri led Juventus to the double. In 2017, Max Allegri led Juventus to the double. In 2018, Max Allegri led Juventus to the double. In 2019, Max Allegri did not lead Juventus to the double, although he did lead them to an eighth straight Scudetto.

Failure to win last season’s Coppa Italia was not why Allegri was ousted last summer. He probably would have been replaced even if he had landed a fifth double in five seasons, because this is the pitch of absurdity European football has reached: a manager can win five league titles and four cups in five years as well as twice reach the Champions League final and yet his club can still decide he hasn’t done quite enough.

It is easy to identify an entitlement that grips the modern elite, the managers removed for winning only the league – Barcelona replaced Ernesto Valverde in similar circumstances in January – but from the point of view of the superclub it makes sense. As you win a ninth straight title (Juve), or an eighth in 11 years (Barça), or an eighth in a row (Bayern Munich) or a seventh in eight years (Paris Saint-Germain), it probably doesn’t seem a worthwhile challenge any more.

Juve and Barça are desperate for success in the Champions League, which restarts on Friday. Both decided the football they were playing under their previous coaches was not dynamic enough, not modern enough, to achieve that.

Perhaps there is something admirable about that degree of ruthlessness, not just settling for the level you’re at and the steady accumulation of trophies about which you’ve ceased to care. But there is nothing admirable about the way either side has gone about it.

Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli in full flow was a team practising a highly sophisticated and exciting philosophy that, instilled in the sort of squad Juve can afford, might perhaps be capable of dominating Europe (although that Allegri’s side twice reached the Champions League final suggests just how contingent such things can be). Sarri’s season at Chelsea never lived up to what he achieved at Napoli, the football may even have been stodgy, but it did bring a European trophy. His appointment was not irrational.

But what was irrational was hiring him while Juve’s previous huge gamble on winning the Champions League, Cristiano Ronaldo, remained at the club.

Ronaldo is still a very fine footballer. He has scored 31 league goals this season. He remains in impeccable shape. But a fee of €100m, a four-year contract worth a reported €31m a year, plus €12m in bonuses and “solidarity payments” to Ronaldo’s youth clubs for a 33-year-old was an outlay that even before the Covid downturn made no economic sense. From the outside, it looked like desperation, a last throw of the dice to try to bring the goals and interventions at key moments that would bring a first European title since 1998.

Ronaldo, though, dictates a certain way of playing. Even at his peak, he never pressed consistently. His reluctance to track his full-back is why Alex Ferguson began playing him at centre-forward rather than on the wing in European ties. These days, he is essentially static with the odd explosion of energy.

It is impossible with Ronaldo in the side for Sarri to recreate the fluency of his Napoli forward line of José Callejón, Lorenzo Insigne and Dries Mertens, with overlapping full-backs and Marek Hamsik and Piotr Zielinski or Allan breaking from midfield. Everything at Juve goes through Ronaldo, which is why only two other players have managed more than three league goals this season.

This is not to denigrate either Ronaldo or Sarri. Ronaldo is manifestly a phenomenon and, at least in the Champions League, brought great success to Real Madrid. Sarri has produced thrilling football in Serie A before. But he did not do it with a fixed unit in attack through which everything must be fed. The two do not fit together.

Barcelona, meanwhile, got rid of Valverde while they were top of the league having won the title the previous two seasons. Nobody could pretend there were not midfield problems, as seen in the Champions League collapses against Juventus, Roma and Liverpool, but the decision to sack him was taken without any clear plan of who should succeed him.

Quique Setién was, at best, third-choice. The result was to surrender the league to Real Madrid and Barça now must deal with all the structural issues that have undermined them for years, but with a manager who is barely even a placeholder.

Juventus have a 1-0 deficit to overcome against Lyon, whose only competitive football in the past five months was Friday’s Coupe de la Ligue final loss on penalties to PSG. They should prevail. Barcelona, similarly, will expect to overcome Napoli at the Camp Nou, having been held to a 1-1 draw away.

The last eight of the Champions League will almost certainly have a familiar look, albeit with the addition of RB Leipzig (who have already lost their centre-forward to Chelsea) and Atalanta (a genuinely uplifting outsider, but one around whom the alpha predators are already circling).

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This is the crisis of modern football’s economic model. At one end of the professional scale, clubs are facing bankruptcy because they cannot get a couple of thousand people through the gates every other week; at the other the consequences for failure of management are minimal.

In boredom with what they have, clubs like Juve and Barça can recklessly pursue a greater dream. No matter how confused the leadership, a superclub will probably have accumulated enough good players to have a better than evens chance of reaching the last eight of the Champions League. They can smash up things and creatures and then retreat back into their money or their vast carelessness.

The decadence of modern football is seen nowhere more than in the insulation of the rich.

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