The New Year hasn’t turned out to be very happy for Italy’s most successful club. After a decent start to the Serie A campaign in 2010, the Old Lady has lost 2 out of 4 Serie A games in 2011. The sole win has come against relegation sure-shots Bari, that too a narrow 2-1 win courtesy of a late Aquilani screamer. In this period, Juve has scored 3 goals while letting in 8, with two humiliating defeats by a three-goal margin. Serie A is extremely competitive this year, and a long run of indifferent form can throw Juve out of the UCL spots. Does this mean it’s time for Juve fans to panic?
In 2011, Juve have played four Serie A matches. The first game in new year ended in a shocking 4-1 loss to Parma at home. Parma are not one of the strongest teams in Serie A by any stretch of imagination, yet they inflicted a heavy loss on Juve, breaking an 18 match unbeaten streak. It will be safe to say that the result in the Parma match was nothing but an accident. Felipe Melo got sent off as early as the 17th minute for an irrational off-the-ball kick. Fabio Quagliarella suffered a heart-breaking injury in the 6th minute. Losing two of their most influential players weakened the team psychologically, as Coach Delneri was forced to make two substitutions within the first half an hour. Juventus also played this match without Leonardo Bonucci, thereby breaking his impenetrable combo with Chiellini.
If the Parma match can be dismissed as an accident, the result of the Napoli match was not surprising. Napoli has been one of the strongest teams in Serie A this season, and it is never easy to play at the San Paolo. Juve were also denied a clear goal in the 23rd minute. If Luca Toni’s strike was not chalked off, it would have been 1-1, and the match could have turned out differently. It is still very likely that Juve would have lost that match even if that goal was allowed. However, losing to the second placed team away from home does not point to a crisis situation.
Reasons Behind Recent Slump
Two incidents in the Parma match affected Juve’s performance graph – Melo’s sending off and Quagliarella’s injury. Felipe Melo has been possibly the most consistent player for Juventus this season. In most of the matches he has started, the Brazilian has been the best player on the pitch. Melo acts as a midfield enforcer, winning possession as well as shielding Aquilani. He often drops back deeper as a defensive screen when the full-backs are out of position. Melo has often made timely blocks to deny opposition strikers – most notably this one against Ibrahimovic. However it will be unfair to dismiss him as a purely defensive player. His passing percentage has been impressive this season, often matching that of Aquilani. He often delivers decent passes to Krasic and Quagliarella when Aquilani is having an off-day.
Melo was banned for three matches after his horrible kick against Parma, with Momo Sissoko filling up for him. The problem with Sissoko is that he is not as effective as Melo. To his credit, the Malian did perform doggedly in the last 2 matches, but he clearly lacks the passing ability of Melo. With Sissoko, Juve has only one passer in the middle of the park. Sissoko retrieves possession and leaves it to Aquilani to find the strikers. This means that whenever Aquilani is marked, the central midfield’s supply line is completely cut off – something that happened against Sampdoria.
Comparative study between Melo and Sissoko. Melo’s passing range acts as a back-up when Aquilani is having a bad day. Sissoko on the other hand is totally dependent on him.
The current Juventus team has a fair share of workman like players, players who lack flair but work hard. In such a team, Fabio Quagliarella added a degree of unpredictability. His ability to strike the ball cleanly from anywhere near the penalty box has enabled him to score some incredible goals. He was also very mobile, and often dropped back to link up with midfielders. With his injury, Juve’s flair is gone; now Delneri has to depend on three very similar centre-forwards. Injuries to Iaquinta and Luca Toni hasn’t helped the team at all. The only available strikers are the 37 year old Alessandro Del Piero and Amauri, who hasn’t scored in almost a year.
Last season around this time, Juve had 33 points; at that time, it was deemed as a crisis situation, and coach Ciro Ferrara got the sack. This season, the club has 35 points right now. Does that mean Juventus is in a crisis again? No, it doesn’t. It’s a case of misleading stats. Of the 33 points Juve had last season, 13 came in first 5 matches; Juve’s form steadily went downhill. This season, the low points tally is because of Juve’s inability to finish off matches despite creating chances. Two examples of this profligacy are the draws against Fiorentina and Chievo Verona.
All Hope is Not Lost
Coach Luigi Delneri is someone who is not new to crisis situations. Last season, his Sampdoria team endured an awful eight match winless streak in mid-season. In that period, they lost to teams like Livorno, who eventually got relegated. Delneri didn’t give up, and made crucial changes in the team. He didn’t back down from benching Antonio Cassano, aND the Blucerchiati roared back to form. In the end, they managed to capture the 4th spot and denied AS Roma a shot at the title. Therefore, there is no reason why this slump in form will determine how the season ends for Juve. The club has an experienced man in charge, who can make the right decisions. The onus lies on Giuseppe Marotta now; he has to bring in atleast one new player to bolster Juve’s weakness in attack or full-backs positions.
Things can get better from here. Gianluigi Buffon is back under the sticks. He is not just a great shot stopper, but also a brilliant organizer of defence. His presence on the field itself will motivate his team mates. Since he has returned, Juve has conceded one goal in three matches and the defence has looked better organized. Jorge Martinez has returned from injury and has looked lively in his cameo appearances. He is a technically good winger with a bagful of tricks. With Krasic’s pace on the opposite flank, Martinez’s skills can form an interesting combo. He can also play as a support striker when needed.
The Mister can turn it around
Vincenzo Iaquinta is all set to return from an injury lay-off. Iaquinta is not a world class striker, but most importantly, he is not Amauri. He adds more pace and movement to the frontline and is capable of scoring good goals occasionally. The most crucial piece of the puzzle will be return of Felipe Melo. Melo has served his three match ban, and will return to action from next week. In his first game since getting banned, the Coppa Italia match against Catania, Melo looked uncharacteristically focused and serious. There is a good chance that he will return against Udinese in a better frame of mind and won’t commit such mistakes in future. It’s very crucial that Marotta doesn’t sell Momo Sissoko in the winter window, as Juventus don’t have a good backup for Melo and squad depth will be of great importance in next few months. Delneri needs to get his squad focused on this season’s objective – a UCL spot. Juventus started the season targeting a place in top-4. After a few good results, talks of winning the Scudetto slowly popped up; this has shaken the mental focus of the team. Delneri needs to get his players back on the right track, and he has the ability to do so.
The current Juve team has shown enough grinta (grit) to get results when needed. It is good enough to finish in top-4, and the recent run of bad results doesn’t mean the season is over. It is important that the Juve board and fans keep faith on Delneri’s methods.