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They couldn’t have asked for a better start.

As Juventus approached their Champions League clash with Villarreal, questions were asked about how Dusan Vlahovic would fare on his debut in UEFA’s elite competition. The 22-year-old had never experienced this level of competition before, but was making his maiden appearance in a crucial last-16 tie against an impressive Spanish outfit.

It took him 31 seconds to quell any doubts. Danilo’s perfect long ball picked Vlahovic out perfectly, and the striker chested it away from two would-be defenders before hooking a right-footed shot beyond the outstretched arm of the goalkeeper.

It nestled into the back of the net and the scorer wheeled away in delight, doing a “talking” gesture with his hand as he did so, suggesting the criticism of a supposed barren spell had been overblown.

Vlahovic had gone three matches without a goal for the first time this season, but instantly put that behind him and seemingly had Juve on the path to victory at the Estadio de la Cerámica.

Yet almost from the moment his name went onto the scoresheet, an eerie sense of familiarity enveloped anyone who has watched the Bianconeri in Europe over the past few seasons. Call it history repeating itself, call it déjà vu, but whatever it is, fans of the Old Lady were forced to sit and watch a movie they had certainly seen before.

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Rather than press home their advantage, Juve retreated, dropping into an extremely negative 5-4-1 framework whenever the ball was lost and conceding field position to their opponents almost willingly.

That allowed Villarreal to push forward, and they looked dangerous as they did so, unfortunate not to grab a goal themselves before the half-time interval. Eventually they did find a way through, Adrien Rabiot caught ball-watching as Dani Parejo made a run in behind him, leaving the Spain international completely unmarked as he met Étienne Capoue’s ball over the top.

According to a number of pitch-side reporters, Juve boss Max Allegri had warned Rabiot about those runs behind him just moments before the goal and his team-mate Matthijs de Ligt – who also could’ve done better – raged at the Frenchman for his fundamental mistake.

Yet in trying to win 1-0 like this, a team is always just one error away from surrendering their lead, and it definitely felt like an equaliser would happen given not only Juve’s negative approach, but also their recent history.

Let’s go back to the last time Juventus reached the final. The knockout phase of the 2016/17 season started with a 2-0 win away at Porto, with Allegri able to start Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli in central defence after he dropped Leonardo Bonucci for a disciplinary matter, with Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain leading the attack.

But a year later, Bonucci had gone to Milan and Juve could only draw 2-2 with Tottenham. Barzagli and Dybala missed that first leg through injury, with the Argentina international returning to score in the second leg as Juve advanced. They were eliminated in the next round by Real Madrid.

The 2018/19 campaign saw Juve beat Atletico Madrid in the last-16, then be paired with Ajax in the quarterfinals where Daniele Rugani was forced to deputise for the injured Chiellini. Dybala was only fit enough for 15 minutes off the bench as the Bianconeri eventually lost 3-2 on aggregate.

The following season under Maurizio Sarri saw a last-16 exit at the hands of Lyon, a tie that Chiellini missed with cruciate injury, while Dybala played in the first leg but was only fit enough for bench in second leg after missing two previous games with a thigh injury.

Then last season saw Andrea Pirlo’s Champions League adventure end at the same stage against Porto. Bonucci was sidelined with thigh injury, Dybala was out with a torn MCL and Chiellini started the first leg but went off injured and missed the second leg completely.

That sorry tale continued last night with Chiellini and Dybala absent once again, Bonucci only deemed healthy enough for a place on the bench, and even Rugani missing with an injury of his own.

What that shows is that over the past four seasons, the defence has been weakened by injury every time. Dybala cannot be relied upon to be available in February and March, and even when he is, he hasn’t delivered a goal in the Champions League knockout rounds in almost four years. 

A different approach is needed.  But rather than push forward, unleashing the attacking talent of Manuel Locatelli and exploiting the threat provided by Vlahovic to build on their obvious advantage, Juve retreated and invited Villarreal to find a way beyond their injury-hit backline.

Just like Ajax, Lyon and Porto, the Spanish side did exactly that. By seeking to grind out a narrow victory and coming up short, Juve were once again shown that a single goal is not enough to triumph in the Champions League.

The best teams in Europe are not built on the strength of their defences any more, they’re built on attacking impetus. Liverpool, Manchester City, Chelsea and Bayern Munich win the ball back high up the pitch and win matches not by keeping clean sheets, but by ensuring they score more goals than their opponents.

Before the match, Allegri told reporters that “our ambition is to win the Champions League” but then sent his team out to try and cling to another narrow lead. His own history shows that doesn’t work, with his two trips to the final coming in seasons when Juve have demolished Jurgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund (5-1) or Luis Enrique’s Barcelona (3-0).

The Coach is capable of delivering those masterclass performances, but since being beaten in the last of those finals back in 2017, this cautious negativity has been their undoing every time. They’re playing and trying not to lose when everyone else is trying to win.

They couldn’t have asked for a better start, but in the end all they had was, as Yogi Berra once said, “déjà vu all over again.”

Source: Forbes

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