One of the great fixtures in European football returns tonight when Real Madrid travel to Turin to take on Juventus. After a home victory against Zenit St Petersburg and a surprise 2-2 draw in Belarus against BATE in their opening games back in the Champions League, the arrival of the Madrid giants confirms the Old Lady’s return to the upper echelons of European football after the Calciopoli scandal saw them relegated to Serie B for the 2006-2007 season.
It has been a rapid return to the big time for Juventus. Under the tutelage of former captain Didier Deschamps they secured promotion from Serie B at the first attempt. Deschamps quit after just one season and ex-Chelsea boss Claudio Ranieri was hired with the mission of getting them back to the top as soon as possible. In his first season he led them to a very respectable third place finnish and as a result, a place in the Champions League qualifying rounds.
To see them return to their natural place within Europe’s elite so soon makes you question whether they were punished severely enough for their part in the match-fixing that shook Italian football. However the decisions of top players like Gigi Buffon, Alessandro Del Piero and David Trezeguet not to jump ship have been vindicated and Del Piero enjoyed arguably his finest season yet upon return to Serie A, scoring 21 league goals and winning the Capocannonieri award for being the leagues top goalscorer for the first time in his illustrious career.
Returning to the Champions League was vital for the recovery of the club as the money that the tournament generates will be much needed if they are to challenge for major honours again soon. In their absence Inter have gone from strength to strength.
Over the summer Juve splashed out on Palermo striker Amuari and Sevilla’s Danish midfielder Christian Poulsen. While the signings were met with mixed response from the fans, the money spent showed the clubs intent on challenging Inter’s stronghold on Serie A and making an impression in the Champions League.
However the optimism surrounding the new campaign has soon faded away. Injuries to key players have exposed the lack of strength in depth in the squad, especially defensively where Buffon’s excellence in goal had saved them last season. In midfield they have lacked creativity, which has led to criticism of the signing of Poulsen. The Dane is a very capable defensive midfielder but when paired with Momo Sissoko in the heart of the midfield there is no spark and this puts even more pressure on the ageing shoulders of Del Piero. Injuries to Camoranesi and Ranieri’s lack of faith in Tiago have also meant that the gifted young midfielder Sebastian Giovinco has been thrust into the spotlight and has been expected to deliver.
Back-to-back defeats against Palermo and Napoli have left the Old Lady in 12th position, already 7 points behind Jose Mourinho’s Inter and Ranieri is feeling the heat. General manager Jean Claude Blanc had admitted that things aren’t going according to plan. He said: “There’s disappointment, it is a difficult moment”, he continued, “However, we do not stop here, we know we have to work hard, we have to get organized especially with all the injuries we have: we are Juventus, we have to win even with the players available.”
The pressure on Ranieri hasn’t been helped thanks to his public spat with Inter manager and the man who replaced him at Chelsea, Jose Mourinho. Ranieri had said “Unlike Mourinho I don’t need to win to be sure about what I am doing.” Mourinho replied, dignified as ever, by saying: “Ranieri was right, I do need to win things to be sure of what I am doing. That’s why I have won so many trophies in my career. By contrast he has the mentality that winning isn’t crucial and at nearly 70-years-old he has just won a Super Cup and other small tournaments. He is too old to change his mentality.”
Harsh as Mourinho’s words may have been, especially given that Ranieri is 57, there is an element of truth to them which has not been lost on the Juventus fans. The club have a history of great managers including Marcelo Lippi and Fabio Capello and when compared, Ranieri falls a long way short.
All this means that they are renewing acquaintances with Real Madrid at a bad time. Bernd Schuster’s side may have struggled in the Champions League over the last couple of years but they have won the last 2 La Liga titles and have put together a squad that, if not as good to watch as the Galactico era team, is far more efficient. They are a team who seem capable at scoring at anytime and as they showed in the Madrid derby at the weekend, they have the mental strength and hunger to keep searching for a win right until the end.
The last time the 2 clubs met was back in April 2005 when Juventus overturned a 1-0 first leg defeat in the Bernabeu to go through 2-1 on aggregate. A victory tonight would be more than welcome. Not only would it give them 7 points and put one foot in the next round, it would also ease the pressure on Ranieri and provide him with more time to prove his doubters wrong.