The Portuguese tested positive again for Covid-19 on Tuesday, ruling him out of the Bianconeri’s Champions League showdown with Barcelona in Turin
The Blaugrana’s entire board resigned on Tuesday evening. The club is finally rid of Josep Maria Bartomeu, the worst president’s in Barcelona’s history, but he has left Camp Nou engulfed in chaos and controversy.
Of course, the supporters that have long been calling for his head will be delighted; Lionel Messi, too, you’d imagine.
However, it’s hardly great news for Ronald Koeman. The man who hired him is gone and none of Bartomeu’s potential successors are particularly interested in entrusting the Dutchman with the responsibility of overseeing the upcoming rebuilding job at Barcelona.
Still, at least Koeman has Messi in his ranks. Andrea Pirlo won’t have his best player available for Wednesday’s Champions League clash.
Just moments after Bartomeu’s resignation had been confirmed, it emerged that Cristiano Ronaldo would not be able to face Barca, having once again tested positive for Covid-19.
Happily, the Portuguese has been asymptomatic since first contracting the virus while on international duty a fortnight ago. He will return soon enough and, knowing Ronaldo, probably stronger than ever.
However, Pirlo really could have done with his star striker for such a high-profile fixture, which has arrived at the time when the pressure on the rookie coach is rising ever slightly.
These are very early days, of course, and Juve remain unbeaten, but they have won only two of their five Serie A games to date – and one of those was a walkover.
Indeed, even accounting for what was an impressively professional 2-0 defeat of Dynamo Kiev in their Champions League opener, the Bianconeri’s 3-0 ‘win’ over Napoli undoubtedly ranks as their best result of the season so far.
The Partenopei, unlike Juve, are in fine form and Gennaro Gattuso and his players were very much looking forward to tackling a team that is still trying to find its feet under Pirlo.
The reigning Italian champions have drawn their last two league games, away to Crotone and at home to Verona, and find themselves fifth in the Serie A standings, already four points behind early pace-setters AC Milan.
Pirlo was always going to require time to implement what are innovative and exciting ideas. A huge admirer of Pep Guardiola’s methods, the former Juve playmaker wants his players to press the opposition intensely and change positions constantly. The objective is a fluidity of movement that will make the Bianconeri very difficult to read – and, therefore, stop.
They are already unpredictable, at least, although only in that it’s difficult to know what to expect from the Old Lady. Successfully guessing who is going to play – and where – is close to impossible.
The net result has been unsurprisingly stop-start performances. There have been signs of real promise, but too often their play has lacked imagination and energy.
Last Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Verona was a perfect case in point. Juve were sluggish and sloppy, and deservedly fell behind. Second-half substitute Dejan Kulusevski – the one forward playing with any consistency this term – not only earned his side a point, he also injected some much-needed energy into their game.
“We shouldn’t need a slap in the face to wake up,” Pirlo lamented in his post-match interview with Sky Sport Italia. “We ought to start with intensity and continue from there.”
There are mitigating circumstances surrounding Juve’s largely uninspired performances. It’s not just Ronaldo who’s been sidelined.
Captain Giorgio Chiellini is out injured and Matthijs de Ligt has not yet been cleared to return to action after shoulder surgery, making the doubts over Leonardo Bonucci’s availability for the visit of Barca a major cause for concern.
Pirlo has already admitted that there will be no chance of him playing with his preferred three-man back-line, given he only has four fit defenders in total. If Bonucci misses out, Merih Demiral could be partnered in the heart of the defence by versatile full-back Danilo, which is hardly ideal for a meeting with Messi.
The make-up of the midfield is also a problem. Former Barcelona ace Arthur is proving himself unsurprisingly excellent at retaining possession but is doing very little with the ball and may be denied a reunion with his former team-mates by Rodrigo Bentancur, who would at least offer greater dynamism and defensive cover.
Elsewhere, Adrien Rabiot and Aaron Ramsey are performing better than they were last season, but that’s not saying much, while Weston McKennie looks a talented but incomplete player.
In attack, Alvaro Morata is enjoying his football again and has led the line well in Ronaldo’s absence but Paulo Dybala looks anything but happy.
The Argentine has only just returned from injury but has not been best pleased by his lack of game time in recent weeks, particularly the fact that he was an unused substitute in the game against Crotone.
Pirlo acknowledged Dybala’s irritation – but there could be further frustration ahead for the Argentine, given it’s not yet known where exactly he fits into the new coach’s preferred starting line-up. If indeed he has one. Pirlo seems to envisage chopping and changing his side on a game-by-game basis.
When asked about what would happen to his forward line when Ronaldo returned, he told reporters, “We can play Ronaldo with Morata or with Dybala, depending on the characteristics of the opposition.
“Positions are interchangeable during a game, too. The important thing is to move within certain zones to create problems for the opposition defence.”
Juve will certainly be optimistic about their chances of upsetting a Barca backline shorn of the services of Gerard Pique, who misses out through suspension. However, Clement Lenglet & Co. will be relieved that they won’t have Ronaldo to worry about.
Koeman insisted in his pre-match press conference that he was hoping that the Portuguese would be cleared to play but his absence is undeniably a boost for Barca’s new coach. And a blow for Juve’s.
Pirlo has been at pains to point out that this is not a “decisive” match in terms of qualification for the last 16 but it could play a major role in who tops the group.
He is also acutely aware that he will be given time to rebuild Juve, he cannot afford for his side “to keep dropping points everywhere”.
Nobody is gunning for Pirlo. He is a popular character in Italy and has many friends in the game, and the press. As Alessandro Del Piero quite rightly pointed out on Sky last week, his former team-mate deserves some patience.
“It is not the right time to talk about [his position],” the Juve legend argued. “We’ll have to see what happens in a few months or weeks.
“If Andrea is able to qualify for the Champions League last 16 and challenge for the Scudetto, he will have done an extraordinary job.
“Otherwise, questions will be asked.”
Some questions are already being asked, though; this is the top job in Italian football, after all.
So, beating Messi’s Barcelona without Ronaldo would be a timely and compelling riposte to Pirlo’s growing list of doubters.
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