Juventus suddenly look vulnerable, though Serie A victory seems certain
"It was in the air," Massimiliano Allegri said. You could feel it coming. Wednesday's 3-0 defeat to Atalanta in the Coppa Italia was Juventus' first to an Italian side this season. And within that context, the stunned headline on the front page of Il Corriere dello Sport -- "They know how to lose" -- is understandable.
To put the loss into some perspective, Juventus had not been eliminated from the Coppa Italia since Antonio Conte was in charge. They have won it four years in a row and now, finally, relinquish their title in 2019. The mix of shock and awe owed much to the scoreline, too, as Juventus did not lose narrowly. They were not unlucky. From start to finish, Atalanta dominated. Before Wednesday night, the only other teams to beat Allegri's Juventus 3-0 were Real Madrid and Barcelona.
We should pause here and take a moment to salute Gian Piero Gasperini and the job he continues to do in Bergamo. Such is his body of work over the past 2½ years that, regardless of the champions' recent unconvincing form, the prospect of Atalanta beating Juventus -- something that hadn't happened since 2004 -- felt genuinely possible. Bergamo is arguably the hardest away day in Italy, surpassed only by visits to the Allianz Stadium.
Allegri drew attention to that and stressed how unrealistic it is to expect his side to win every game. Juventus have dropped four points all season in Serie A and, at least when it comes to results, have been as close to flawless as any team in the history of Europe's top five leagues. Pep Guardiola, of all people, was name-checking them Monday, citing them as the best teams of the past decade along with Bayern Munich and Barcelona. Teams he wants Manchester City to imitate in terms of relentless consistency.
As for going out of the cup, fans are divided on how much stock to put in it. On the one hand, there are those who look at it as the least important major trophy of the season. When Allegri was appointed, it meant something to the club because Juventus had gone 20 years without winning it. Now after four in a row, the allure isn't as great; the idea of having more time to rest and recuperate for an assault on the Champions League holds an obvious appeal.
On the other hand, elimination denies Juventus the chance to win the treble, which is why Inter supporters were celebrating as hard as Atalanta's on Wednesday. Juventus president Andrea Agnelli told the players the treble was an objective on the eve of the season and so, for all the mitigation, a club that hates losing will be disappointed, and the president's presence at training on Thursday morning duly noted.
Of relative concern over the past two months are the performances and a mounting injury list of high-profile players. The two are not mutually exclusive and coincide with a gauntlet of tricky fixtures against Fiorentina, Torino, Inter, Atalanta and Samp before the winter break, followed by Milan, Lazio and Atalanta again once the campaign resumed. Expecting Juventus to play champagne football throughout that run was unrealistic, but the skill of and money invested in the team explain why fans are demanding more.
Roberto Gagliardini hit the post in the Derby d'Italia and gilt-edged chances also went begging for Ivan Perisic and Matteo Politano. The Turin derby was settled by a Simone Zaza backpass, which provoked a Cristiano Ronaldo penalty and the only goal of the game.
In Bergamo on Boxing Day, Juventus took the lead through an own goal, went down to 10 men, fell behind and needed to summon Ronaldo from the bench to rescue a point. Against Samp, a game settled by another CR7 spot kick, the points should have been shared more for the soft penalties awarded against both teams than the Riccardo Saponara goal correctly ruled out by the VAR in stoppage time.
Sunday's 2-1 win in Rome was "the worst performance of the season" according to captain Giorgio Chiellini. Lazio were all over Juventus in much the same fashion Atalanta were on Wednesday; they would have been more than a goal to the good by the hour mark had it not been for poor finishing from Ciro Immobile and some excellent goalkeeping from Wojciech Szczesny. A combination of tired legs, Allegri's subs, Juve's "all the way to the end" mentality and a moment of sheer stupidity from Senad Lulic enabled them to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat and move 11 points clear.
Seven of Juventus' past 10 wins have been by a single goal, which has often felt too close for comfort.
Initially, the absence of Joao Cancelo, who missed five games due to meniscus surgery, stymied the side's creativity. Juan Cuadrado, out for approximately three months, is a big loss not only for his ability to win one-on-ones, but to cover a range of positions from full-back to midfield -- a burden he shared, at least in that area of the pitch, with the over-extended Rodrigo Bentancur. Juventus as a whole, but particularly Ronaldo, have greatly missed the goals and workload of big-game difference-maker Mario Mandzukic over the past five matches, too.
Notwithstanding the depth of the Old Lady's squad, Allegri has either had his options limited or needed to use players he intended to rest. That was the case with Ronaldo in Bergamo at the end of December and, at the weekend in Rome, Chiellini, who came on for a hobbling Leonardo Bonucci.
The decision of Mehdi Benatia to force a move away from the club, for the riches of Qatar, could not come at a worse time. Bonucci is out for a month and Chiellini now faces a race to be fit for the Champions League last-16 first leg against Atletico after straining his groin in midweek. Meanwhile, watching Mattia De Sciglio, the full-back whom Allegri insists can cover at centre-back, get bullied by Duvan Zapata on Wednesday night did not inspire great confidence and even led Juventus to consider intervening in the final hours of the January transfer window.
Benatia made some costly errors during his time in black and white. He was the one who gave away the penalty at the Bernabeu last season. But a specialist of his experience would represent better backup than Martin Caceres, who returns for a third spell despite barely playing since leaving Juventus 2½ years ago.
Last weekend's Lazio win showed how hard the team finds it to build from the back, elude the opposition press, dominate the ball and create when Bonucci, Cancelo and Miralem Pjanic are all missing. "Juventus are human just as all the other top sides are," Allegri commented. "You can't always win."
The next few weeks have the potential to be kind on the Bianconeri. Juve have Parma and Frosinone at home and Sassuolo away before they fly to Madrid to face Atleti, and rediscovering the verve they played with in October is crucial. Juventus' league position gives the impression of imperiousness, but if they are to win the Champions League, things need to improve, starting with a patched-up and thin-looking back line.