'To hell and back' - Juventus' struggle in Spezia shows Allegri has bigger problems than Ronaldo exit
This was the last thing Juventus needed.
It was not just that Spezia had equalised against them on Wednesday evening, but the goalscorer, Emanuel Gyasi, had then imitated Cristiano Ronaldo's famous 'Siu!' celebration.
The Ghana international was merely mimicking his idol, but it must have felt like mockery to beleaguered Bianconeri fans.
Ronaldo may be gone, but he has certainly not been forgotten at Juventus. Not yet, at least. The nature and, in particular, the timing of his departure still rankles.
Massimiliano Allegri, though, had said the time for talk was over ahead of the trip to Spezia.
"It's been 60 years since Juventus had two points after the first four games of the season," he told reporters on Tuesday. "We just need to win."
And they did.
Juventus kickstarted their campaign with a 3-2 victory, and while it was not convincing, it was certainly essential. The Old Lady had begun the day in the relegation zone, after all.
But the worrying thing is that it looked like a battle between two teams fighting for survival, a low-quality contest between two sides incapable of defending.
Allegri conceded that his side had been lucky not to fall 3-1 down early in the second half, but he will obviously take some positives out of the game.
Matthijs de Ligt proved the match-winner, volleying home right-footed after a half-cleared corner had dropped nicely for him in the area, and this was undoubtedly a timely boost for the Dutch defender.
Just like Juve, De Ligt has had a tough start to the season. He may not have even played had Giorgio Chiellini not been laid low by fever on the eve of the game.
A decisive goal was, therefore, the perfect response to all of the criticism and controversy swirling about him.
"I just have to work to improve," he diplomatically told DAZN afterwards. "It's normal to receive criticism. I have had a lot but, for me, that's not important. The only thing that mattered was the three points."
And Juve were indebted to not only De Ligt for their maximum haul, but also Federico Chiesa.
Indeed, while the Netherlands international may have settled the game in the visitors' favour, it was Italy's Euro 2020 hero who dragged them back into it.
Moise Kean had opened the scoring with a smart finish in Liguria, but Juve looked in very real danger of throwing away more points from a leading position.
In three of their first four games of the new season, the Bianconeri had blown leads after fading physically in the second half. So, falling behind by the 50th minute to goals from Gyasi and Janis Antiste did not bode well at all.
Chiesa, however, levelled matters after nutmegging Dimitris Nikolaou in the area before stretching out his right foot to guide the ball past Jeroen Zoet.
It was a goal that perfectly epitomised the winger's talent and tenacity, and also underlined why so many view him as the man to replace Ronaldo as the leader of Juve's attack – if he had not already assumed that role during the second half of last season.
Just like De Ligt, though, Chiesa's campaign had yet to really get going, partly because of an injury picked up on international duty. But there were also murmurings of tension between the player and his coach.
Allegri had certainly made it clear in the press that he expected more from Chiesa, having been left particularly unimpressed with the attacker's performance after coming on as a substitute in the 1-1 draw with AC Milan at the weekend.
Chiesa needed "to mature" apparently. So, after more key passes (eight), tackles (six), duels won (20) and successful crosses (six) than any other player on the pitch, was this the kind of response the coach was expecting from the 23-year-old?
"I don't have to wait for answers from anyone," Allegri told reporters afterwards.
The coach clearly still was not in a good mood. He freely admitted that Juve had actually given up more clear-cut chances in Spezia than they had against Milan. Still, he was glad that they had been made to work for their victory.
"Luckily, we won a match suffering," he told DAZN. "Otherwise, we might have thought we had done well and there was nothing more to do, when in fact there are many things to improve."
He was certainly right there. Some observers are obsessed with the loss of Ronaldo, but Juve's problem areas remain in midfield and defence. The Portugal icon would not have papered over the ever-expanding cracks in the Old Lady's team.
They have not kept a clean sheet in Serie A for 19 games – a pitiful streak that extends all the way back to March – while they have shipped eight goals in their opening five games. On the only other occasion that has happened over the past 60 seasons, in 2010-11, they finished seventh.
Of course, Antonio Conte quickly transformed that squad into champions, and the hope is that Allegri can do likewise in his second spell in Turin.
However, as former Juve defender Andrea Barzagli pointed out, "two years have passed, the players have changed."
Allegri may have had no issue with Ronaldo leaving; he had wanted to rebuild without the Portuguese in 2019 as it was. The problem now is that Juve are in a far worse state, both from a sporting and financial perspective.
They tried to go in two very different directions, first with Maurizio Sarri and then Andrea Pirlo, and now find themselves right back where they started, only with less money, no Ronaldo and an unbalanced squad.
On account of those financial issues, Allegri did not get all of the signings he wanted during the summer and he is less than impressed with several players, with the Tuscan also slating midfield duo Adrien Rabiot and Weston McKennie for their woeful finishing this week.
After the Milan draw, he was caught on camera storming off the pitch shouting, "And these [guys] want to play for Juventus!"
They had at least fought for the shirt against Spezia, as Allegri acknowledged.
"I must compliment the boys because it wasn't easy to play against such a good Spezia side and I'm less angry today because I don't want to hammer the boys every day," he said. "But we have to take them out of their comfort zone; otherwise, it will become a mess."
It probably already is, in fairness. Juve may be out of the bottom three but they certainly are not out of trouble just yet.
The club are still counting the cost of the economic crisis caused by Covid-19 and the abrupt ending of 'Project Ronaldo'. Their problems are deep-rooted.
But victory in Spezia has offered some temporary respite. Juve had been 'to hell and back', as the Gazzetta dello Sport put it, but their Serie A campaign is belatedly up and running.
Now, they just need to keep winning...