Should Juventus focus on a Champions League charge as their title challenge falls by the wayside?

A devastating defeat to title rivals Inter Milan at San Siro saw Juventus lose vital ground in the race for the Scudetto this season. With just half of the season played, Andrea Pirlo finds his side seven points adrift of current leaders AC Milan.

It was a real kick in the teeth for Pirlo, who is in his debut season in management, as it came just 11 days after an eye-catching 3-1 over Milan which at the time appeared to be a true statement of intent as Juve chase a tenth straight league crown.

But with title dreams dwindling, it could give the Old Lady a chance to pursue the Holy Grail they have been wishing for since 1996, the Champions League.

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What chance do Juve have domestically?

Despite being a substantial margin behind Milan, Juventus still have a game in hand but it is against Gennaro Gattuso’s Napoli side, a team they have had some problems against in recent years.

With all the sides at the top dropping points regularly recently, anybody who can put a consistent run of wins together will more than likely find themselves at the summit.

AC Milan have the most arduous test of all the Italian sides, as being in the Europa League means they play an additional knockout round to Juventus, while Inter’s dismal showing in the group stage means they are out of Europe altogether, potentially giving them the slight edge in the race with a lighter workload to handle.

If Juventus can win their game in hand and go on to narrow the gap to a few points, their fate will potentially be in their own hands as their final two home games of the season are against both Milan clubs, so it is not time to panic yet.

Juve’s squad has the experience of winning titles while Milan’s youthful squad of players have not experienced these dizzying heights before, and even though Antonio Conte has been there and done it, Inter have been perennial letdowns for the past decade since their treble winning campaign under Jose Mourinho. It is not over until it is over.

Trust in youth

The saving grace in Juve’s season so far has been the instant impact made by so many of their youthful prospects. Dejan Kulusevski and Weston McKennie, brought in this summer from Parma and Schalke respectively, have shone in what has been a frustrating season for the Turin side.

It was those two who linked up excellently for their third goal against Milan, and it is strange to see them both restricted to substitute appearances on a regular basis, as Pirlo prefers Alvaro Morata or Aaron Ramsey over Kulusevski and Adrien Rabiot and Rodrigo Bentancur over McKennie.

Juve supporters have been pleading to see more of the duo and with games coming thick and fast with the return of the Champions League looming, their wishes may be granted.

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Merih Demiral is another great prospect who was often being played in front of big-money signing Matthijs de Ligt, but his last 12 months have been plagued by setbacks after a serious ACL injury against Roma at the start of 2020, meaning he has still only played 14 matches in 18 months at the club.

With both Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci approaching the twilight of their careers, Juve will be hoping the Turkish defender can recapture his excellent form from a year ago, as the two stalwarts gradually come to the end of their playing days.

Striking a balance between a good amount of young talent and experienced pros is a vital cog to any successful side, and Juventus also boast some of the best over 30s in world football.

Cristiano Ronaldo in attack is still seemingly scoring every week, Giorgio Chiellini at 36 still captains the side and remains one of the best at what he does, and Wojciech Szczesny is easily the best and most consistent goalkeeper in Italy.

If Juventus have ambitions of going all the way in the Champions League, then this balance is critical.

Pirlo knows his way around the Champions League

He may not have brought European success back to Turin during his four years at Juventus, but Pirlo played a key role in winning the Champions League twice in Carlo Ancelotti’s famous AC Milan side.

Even though that does not guarantee he will be capable of replicating it as a manager, the former midfield master should be given time to show what he can do in what is set to be yet another wide-open Champions League competition.

Even so, Juventus cannot afford another transition spell like they had with Maurizio Sarri, especially in mid-season, but even he was able to win the Serie A title, so if Pirlo ends the season with just the Italian Super Cup to show for, Andrea Agnelli and the rest of the Juventus board may not have much patience, meaning the Champions League may be his only bailout. 

They have been drawn against Porto for the Last 16, a very similar level of opposition to the Lyon side which knocked them out in last season’s turbulent campaign as the two legs were played over five months apart.

Anything but qualification for the quarter-final will be disastrous, so Pirlo may opt to put all his eggs in the European basket to ensure the side are not humiliated again like they were at the Allianz Stadium by their French opponents in August.

Juventus have by far the biggest squad in Italy and Pirlo needs to utilise it, Serie A is still very much a possibility for a side that has fought off everybody for nine consecutive years. If that become unattainable, Pirlo needs to rally his troops in order to reach the latter stage of Europe’s most illustrious tournament, otherwise he may become yet another member of the 2006 Italian golden generation who has failed in management.

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Andrew Delaney

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