Juventus was curious. How far could this team – this team that finished last season unbeaten and took to the Champions League sans nerves – go exactly? What were its limits?
Bayern Munich answered those questions with an emphatic 4-0 aggregate win in the Champions League quarterfinals.
"We were curious to see what the real difference was between us and the elite of European soccer," Gianluigi Buffon told Mediaset. "In all honesty, they have something more."
A week ago Bayern comprehensively outplayed Juve in Munich. World Cup winners Buffon and Andrea Pirlo sank well below expected and acceptable form in a 2-0 loss that could have been worse. In the Turin leg, the Old Lady performed substantially better but still revealed her frailty, losing by the same scoreline. Bayern showed far superior nous, riding out the initial quarter hour of pressure, sucking the sting out of the match and professionally hitting two goals, one in stoppage time.
"When we were paired with Bayern, I said this was an opportunity for us to face an extremely strong side and understand the gap that separated us from the superpowers," Antonio Conte told Mediaset.
"We woke up from a wonderful dream, but are still in the top eight sides in Europe."
A finish among the top eight clubs in Europe is no shame, particularly for a club in the second division as recently as 2007. Bayern, meanwhile, has reached the Champions League final in two out of the last three years. This year marks its third semifinal appearance in four seasons.
"This was our first Champions League in many years, for some of us the first full stop," Andrea Barzagli told Mediaset. "Bayern have been at this level for five or six years, but we are just dipping our toes in."
Juve CEO Giuseppe Marotta pointed out that the current project at the club is only two and a half years old. Coach Antonio Conte has completed one season, and the two years before he arrived Juve finished seventh in the league.
"There was definitely a gap, that was clear, but the German clubs are at a more advanced stage in the rebuilding process. We are following their example," Marotta told Mediaset.
"Juventus is starting on that road with a new stadium, but the other Serie A clubs still have that handicap."
Juventus Stadium opened less than two years ago.
The Bundesliga recently overtook Serie A in the UEFA coefficients, claiming the coveted and lucrative fourth Champions League slot.
But blaming larger structural issues doesn't explain away, for instance, Pirlo's disappointing performances over the two legs. The 33-year-old, one of the most elegant and smooth operators in the world, couldn't calibrate his touch. He only connected on 78 percent of his 50 passes, and three of seven long balls, in the second leg. For comparison, Bastian Schweinsteiger, who didn't have his best game either, completed 84 percent of his 82 passes. All nine of his long balls found their marks. He created both goals in the second leg, the first from a free kick and the second off a surging run and a carefully weighted pass.
Conte didn't show the tactical versatility to turn the tie around once it started slipping away. As opposed to his first season in charge, when he shifted through three formations smoothly (4-4-2, 4-3-3, 3-5-2), Conte refused to budge from this year's 3-5-2 even when his side trailed by three goals on aggregate.
Then again, Conte can safely deflect plenty of blame for Juve's scoring troubles. His formation features two strikers given plenty of freedom. The trio of Fabio Quagliarella, Alessandro Matri and Sebastian Giovinco aren't good enough to take Juventus to a higher level. Flaky Mirko Vucinic doesn't turn it on frequently enough. Nicolas Anelka and Nicklas Bendtner don't count.
Fernando Llorente will arrive in the summer. Italian media continues to link Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani and Alexis Sanchez as well. But at the moment, Juventus needs to dominate games in order to create enough chances for its current striker crop. The team toils through games when an elite, efficient striker would give everyone else a break now and then.
Financially, tactically and in the quality of the strikers, Juve has a ways to go. Juventus isn't a top four team in Europe yet.
"Now we know there is a long and pretty hard road to go on," Conte said. "That shouldn’t scare us, but it should help us keep our feet on the ground and not hear some talking about the treble in preseason. Those who say things like that have clearly never won anything in their lives."
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