Milan (AFP) – Juventus will dust themselves down for the Serie A title race with Sunday’s visit of Salernitana after a devastating Champions League last-16 exit which left Italy on the fringe of European football with the 2022 World Cup play-offs looming.
Continental disappointment is nothing new for Juve after recent early exits at the hands of Lyon and Porto but the humiliating manner in which they were dumped out 4-1 on aggregate by Villarreal, currently seventh in La Liga, was a huge blow to their and the country’s reputation.
Italy don’t have a single representative in the competition as it enters its most exciting phase and Juve’s exit was perhaps the most embarrassing of the four suffered this season.
A strong start in which Dusan Vlahovic smashed a volley off the bar gave the impression that the pre-match favourites would complete their task after drawing 1-1 in Spain.
But as opportunities went begging Villarreal clammed up and soon Juve were paralysed by a well-organised yellow wall. When Gerard Moreno slotted home his penalty opener in the 78th minute for the side nick-named ‘Yellow Submarine’ the hosts collapsed in on themselves before being loudly booed off by their fans.
Leonardo Bonucci said that “apologise is the only thing we can do right now”, a sentiment which came in stark contrast to coach Massimiliano Allegri’s claim that talk of failure was “intellectual dishonesty”.
“There are 10 better teams than Juventus in Europe. It’s not something to be ashamed of, it’s just a fact,” Allegri told reporters, without specifying whether Villarreal were one of that group of 10.
Italy defender Bonucci was one of a number of players either out of or not fully match fit on Wednesday, with Paulo Dybala, Gorgio Chiellini and Federico Bernardeschi only ready for the bench, and the absence of dynamic midfielders Denis Zakaria and Weston McKennie was keenly felt on a night of largely trudging football.
The defeat was Juve’s second since late November, a run which has seen them grind out results without ever looking convincing.
However they should have enough to see off Serie A’s bottom team Salernitana and stay in their Scudetto hunt, just seven points separating them from AC Milan ahead of the league leaders’ match at relegation-threatened Cagliari on Saturday.
Juve could even move level on points with third-placed Inter Milan, who host Fiorentina but have struggled in 2022 and may be without midfield lynchpin Marcelo Brozovic.
Bonucci is set to feature in Roberto Mancini’s squad for the World Cup play-offs, which Italy start on Thursday in Palermo against North Macedonia after conceding an automatic spot in Qatar to Switzerland on the final day of regular qualifying.
A trip to either Portugal or Turkey awaits in the final, and an incredible sporting summer for Italy feels a very long time ago now as Euro 2020 triumph risks being followed up by failure to qualify for a second straight World Cup.
Player to watch: Ciro Immobile
Immobile will be one of two in-form strikers on show in Sunday’s Rome derby, with the Lazio forward and Roma’s Tammy Abraham both gunning to continue their hot streaks in one of Italy’s most colourful matches.
Last weekend Immobile broke Lazio’s all-time Serie A scoring record, set in the 1940s by Italian goal icon Silvio Piola, and his 10 goals in 12 matches since the turn of the year is good news for Mancini heading into next week’s play-off semi-final.
15 – Juve’s unbeaten run of matches in Serie A.
18 – Immobile and Abraham’s combined all-competitions tally since the turn of the year.
Fixtures (times GMT)
Sassuolo v Spezia (1745), Genoa v Torino (2000)
Napoli v Udinese (1400), Inter Milan v Fiorentina (1700), Cagliari v AC Milan (1945)
Venezia v Sampdoria (1130), Empoli v Verona, Juventus v Salernitana (1400), Roma v Lazio (1700), Bologna v Atalanta (1945)
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