Pirlo for Sarri – proving even champions get axed

IT IS becoming the fashion these days – the removal of a coach because he no longer fits the bill, regardless of how successful he is. In the case of Maurizio Sarri, an inevitable event that was foretold weeks ago, it confirms Serie A has been a one-horse race for so long that even winning the title by a single point is considered relative failure.

Juve “only” won the Scudetto, they fell short in the other competitions. For the second successive season, Sarri finishes a one year project with a trophy and Juve let a championship-winning manager go.

It was so predictable. Champions League exit would signal the end of Sarri’s year in northern Italy, especially when Andrea Pirlo was unveiled as the club’s new under-23 coach. It is hard not to assume that Pirlo for Sarri was the game in play, Juve appointing one of their own, the club’s attempt at making their former playmaker into Pep of Turin. It’s a nice idea but can a club the size of Juve afford to be managed by a relative rookie?


What are Juventus hoping to achieve with Pirlo? In short, they want the Champions League – badly. It is a quarter of a century since they won it and they have been desperately hanging onto the shirt-tails of Real, Barca and Bayern for the past decade. Making that extra push is not about money – Juventus have enough of that, but the lack of competitiveness in Serie A does not prepare them well for combat against the continent’s best. Juve, off the pitch, have shown they are innovative, with their new logo and marketing acumen, but they need a vision and a style to go with their glossy corporate identity. Sarri was never going to be that man and surely they knew that, just as he wasn’t Chelsea’s man.

They have Cristiano Ronaldo, surely that’s all the style they need? True, they rely on CR7 a great deal, but Juve cannot pin their hopes on a player of his vintage –  not on his own. As well as accelerating stories on Sarri’s exit, the two-legged defeat to Lyon, albeit on away goals, fuelled speculative reports about Ronaldo’s future, with PSG one of the parties interested in the veteran striker. It is, however, entirely possible PSG have moved beyond taking on “names” to further their cause.

Juve may be the top club in Italy, but their aspirations of European glory are identical to half a dozen clubs with greater resources. Since reaching the 2017 final they have fallen at the quarter final stage twice and the last 16 in 2019-20.

The club has signed some accomplished players in the last few years, but with the exception of Matthijs De Ligt, they are a club that attracts big names but not in the crucial stage of their career. This has proved enough to dominate Italy but it may not be the case going into 2020-21.

Whereas they had things their own way since 2012, comfortably maintaining a position of superiority over traditional and new rivals, Juve in 2020 have genuine challengers to their throne, which doubtless added to the anxiety around Sarri. But what can Pirlo realistically do with the current squad that Sarri could not?


Being realistic, Juventus must have taken their foot off the pedal in the closing games of the Serie A campaign. They lost four of their 12 post-lockdown games, but three came after the title had been clinched. That allowed Inter to paint a slightly misleading picture on the final table? Juve’s form had been patchy before they won the Scudetto, which started to put pressure on the hapless Sarri. In the final analysis, Juve won 20 points from 12 games when Serie A resumed, while AC Milan racked up 30, Atalanta 29 and Inter 28.

Inter would have won the title with just one draw from their two clashes with Juventus. It is hard to judge if Juve’s poor closing would have occurred if the race was still wide open. Certainly, Juve were not the team of old but that should be no surprise given the average age of the squad. The ageing process is no surprise, they’ve been talking about it for a couple of years now.

Inter Milan lost fewer games than anyone else – four – and conceded just 36 goals. They spent heavily and will be fancied to run Juve even closer next season. But Conte did a very good impression of “Mr Angry” at times and was very critical of the club’s management- is he happy at the San Siro? He’s been here before but Inter will surely want to keep him – they could be on the brink of something special.

The team that won all the plaudits and continued to provide some romance for the Italian game is Atalanta from Bergamo, the city in the eye of the Covid-19 storm. Third for the second season running and in the last eight of the UEFA Champions League, along with a growing reputation for attacking football that yielded no less than 98 goals.  Players like Hans Hateboer, Robin Gosens, Josip Iličić and Papu Gómez all impressed for Atalanta, whose budget is little more than 10% of the Juve wage bill.

Lazio were in tremendous form up to lockdown, 21 games, 17 wins, but after the break, they fell apart, losing six of 12 despite having Serie A’s capocannoniere, Ciro Immobile in their ranks.

If Inter showed they are in positive territory, AC Milan had an excellent post-lockdown run, winning nine and drawing three of 12 games. This was in contrast to their first 12 games where they lost seven. Zlatan Imbrahimovic joined the club and scored 10 goals in 18 games and Milan scored impressive wins against Juve and Lazio. It was enough to claim sixth place in Serie A, but not enough to return to the Champions League.

Juventus may feel as though they are under threat in 2020-21, but a more competitive Serie A will be good for Italian football. Pirlo will have a tough baptism next season, but will Inter still have Conte, can Milan maintain their improvement and will Atalanta continue their unlikely story? Their success in the Champions League may fund another campaign of over-performance. Meanwhile, Sarri is in the market again – he may be thinking that a career in Italian banking was far easier than an impatient and brutal football world.



Juventus are champions – but the Sarri doubters emerge once more

JUVENTUS clinched their ninth consecutive Serie A title with two games to go, beating Sampdoria 2-0, but not many people seem convinced about the club’s latest success. As in London, when Maurizio Sarri led Chelsea to the Champions League and picked up the Europa League trophy on route, the fans, media and pundits are all predicting the self-effacing Neopolitan will soon be packing his bags again.

Inter pressure

Juventus, by their usual standards, have not impressed much in 2019-20. Inter Milan have run them pretty close all season and if Antonio Conte’s side had not slipped up, they may well have been champions. Inter lost fewer games than any team in Serie A, but they failed to beat Juve, who completed the double over the Nerrazzurri. Lazio, too, looked like possible champions, but they faded and were knocked out of contention when Juve beat them 2-1 recently.

Juve have had an age problem creeping up on them for a few years and their regular squad has seven players over the age of 30, including Leo Bonucci (33), Cristiano Ronaldo (35), Blase Matuidi (33) and Gonzalo Higuain (32). On top of that, they have another four who are approaching the big three-zero in Aaron Ramsey, Alex Sandro and Douglas Costa. At some point, Juve are going to have to seek-out some fresher talent to replace players who, while still excellent at Serie A level, no longer have the legs to keep the club at the top. Juve’s average age (29.2) is one of the highest in Serie A and there is a lack of home-grown talent in the squad. Indeed, of their most-used players, only Bonucci and Federico Bernardeschi are Italian.

If the club was to replace its long-toothed collection in one foul swoop, Juve may have to endure a transitional period that could compromise their position at the top, especially if their nearest rivals reinforce their capabilities for 2020-21.

Debut campaign

It was Sarri’s first season, so a certain level of bedding-in was surely expected, although clubs like Juve do not allow any margin for error. What more did they expect of Sarri? The scudetto has been won, the Coppa Italia lost on penalties and they’re still in the UEFA Champions League. Since losing in the final of 2017, Juve have gone out at the quarter-final stage in 2018 and 2019. They’re a goal down from the round of 16 first leg to Lyon, but will probably still be favourites to reach the last eight. They came through the group unbeaten, drawing just one of their six games, including two clashes with Atlético Madrid.

Juventus demonstrated their ambition in the summer of 2019 by securing Ajax skipper Matthijs de Ligt for € 75 million. This not only underlined Juve’s financial muscle, it also suggested the club was firmly part of the elite by acquiring one of the hottest talents in European football. But midfield has been the real problem for Juve all season and they’ve already started to address this by swapping Pjanic (30) for Barcelona’s Arthur (23). There’s also growing rumours that Juve will go after Wolves’ 24 year-old winger Adama Traoré.

It’s vital that Juve get some younger blood. Their key striker is 35 years-old and although that player is Cristiano Ronaldo, how much longer can he go on being so effective? He’s robustly fit, has as keener eye for goal than ever, but he’s five years off 40. Dybala and CR7 linked-up well in 2019-20 after a summer in which the club appeared to be on the verge of selling the 26 year-old to Tottenham, but he’s now looking to extend his contract with Juve as far out as 2025. Ronaldo and Dybala have netted 42 goals between them in Serie A, no wonder Sarri has credited the duo with being the key element in the title race.


In recent weeks, Juve have looked tired, both mentally and physically, and have had trouble holding onto leads, but they had just enough to get over the finishing line. Will that be enough to keep Sarri in a job? Expectations about the mythical “Sarriball” have not quite worked out. New systems take time but today’s football culture is all about instant gratification. Those fans that berate Sarri for struggling to win Serie A with a team that knows all about being champions should factor-in that the current Juve is not the team of five years ago.

Is it merely that he lacks the charisma of some of the more high profile and vocal coaches in European football? Is he an easy target for the critics because of his personality and appearance? Juve is one of those clubs that is forensically dissected after each result – as one former official recently said, after every draw or defeat and even solemn victory, the club appeared to be having a nervous breakdown. Sarri didn’t fit Chelsea even though he won a trophy, but he knew where he was not welcome and took the chance to return to Italy. Sarri’s not stupid, he will be aware of the rumours and media speculation about his role, so he could jump ship again. The question is, you can possibly understand Chelsea not knowing enough about the man they hired (although that is also debatable given the global nature of the game), but Juve must have known Sarri only too well?

Juventus have definitely known for a while they need to rebuild and that needs to happen soon if the club is to remain competitive in Europe. At home, they may also come under pressure as Inter Milan are breathing down their necks. Juve’s era of dominance may not be coming to an end, but they might have to fight a lot harder for the privilege of being champions in 2021.

Photo: PA