Solving the Ronaldo problem key to Sarri saving his job at Juventus

Cristiano Ronaldo Maurizio Sarri Juventus 2019-20 GFX
The Portuguese has gone four games without a goal in all competitions and is unhappy with being asked to occasionally play through the middle

Juventus were being whistled even while winning games back in February.

Who knows what kind of treatment Maurizio Sarri's side would have been subjected to had their fans been allowed in for last Wednesday's Coppa Italia final?

In the grand scheme of things, missing out on a trophy that doesn't even carry the same weight in Italy as the FA Cup does in England is hardly a hammer blow for the Bianconeri.

However, it was, as legendary Juve No.10 Alessandro Del Piero put it, "a big slap in the face". And nobody felt the impact quite like Sarri.

He never had much support at Juventus to begin with, because of his previous ties to Napoli, but now he looks increasingly isolated in Turin.

Sarri's name was trending on Twitter quickly after the conclusion of the Coppa Italia final, which Napoli won 4-2 on penalties, and it obviously wasn't for the right reasons.

On Instagram, meanwhile, Cristiano Ronaldo's sister decided to get involved: "My darling [brother] can’t work miracles and do it all by himself... I don’t understand how they can play like this..."

Elma is hardly an impartial observer or a noted tactician, but her confusion was wholly understandable: why are Juve performing so poorly?

Serie A table 2019-20 GFX

They don't just boast a five-time Ballon d'Or winner, they are in possession of the richest, most successful squad in Italy. Yet they don't, as former chairman Giovanni Cobolli Gigli argues, have a "clear identity" – other than playing painfully pedestrian possession football.

Juve have a group of well-paid stars that should be capable of conquering Europe, so why were they deservedly beaten by the sixth-best team in Serie A?

All of these awkward questions are being firmly directed at Sarri. He may have produced two wonderful passing sides at Empoli and Napoli but Juve are a different beast.

He was hired to make the Old Lady more beautiful but, ultimately, all she cares about is success.

A style as complicated as Sarri's requires time to implement but Juve fans are hardly renowned for their patience.

Nor are the Italian press. 'Juve Under Attack' read the headline on the Turin-based Tuttosport on Friday morning, while the Corriere dello Sport concluded that their coach was 'In Trouble!'

The Gazzetta dello Sport went further, claiming that Sarri was at risk ('Sarrischio!') of losing his job primarily because he was losing the support of the players.

All three dailies concluded that retaining the Serie A title is now imperative – Juve are one point clear of Lazio at the top of the table – and that he may even need to land the Champions League if he is to avoid the sack.

His future, then, pretty much hinges on getting Cristiano Ronaldo firing again. After scoring in a record-equalling 11 consecutive Serie A appearances, the Portuguese has now gone four games without a goal in all competitions.

It was reported last week that Ronaldo made it clear to Sarri in a training session before the Coppa final that he didn't want to fill in as a centre-forward in the absence of the injured Gonzalo Higuain.

And the coach confirmed that story on Sunday, on the eve of Juve's first Serie A outing since the coronavirus-enforced suspension of play back in March.

“We talked before the Coppa Italia games with Milan and Napoli, and again yesterday (Saturday)," Sarri told reporters.

"He scored 700 goals by starting slightly wide of centre, that’s his preference and that is normal."

Yet Ronaldo was still moved into the centre at various points during the game against Napoli – and to little effect.

Worryingly, Higuain will not be fit to return for what could be tricky fixture against a flawed but talented Bologna side at the Dall'Ara on Monday night.

Consequently, Sarri is likely to once again have to try to figure out how to get Ronaldo, Paulo Dybala and one of Douglas Costa, Federico Bernardeschi or Juan Cuadrado to function as a front three.

Finding the right balance in midfield will be just as important, of course, particularly as the build-up has been dominated by talk of a training-ground bust-up between Sarri and his under-performing regista, Miralem Pjanic.

“That’s fake news, there was no argument,” Sarri told Sky Sport Italia on Sunday. “Mire is one of the players I fielded the most this season and I have to rely on him, because he has a decisive role in the three-man midfield.”

That may very well be true but Pjanic has performed the role dreadfully since the turn of the year. Juve are suffering as a result.

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Pjanic's struggles, coupled with injuries to the likes of Higuain, have hardly helped Sarri.

What's more, the Bianconeri clearly have an unbalanced squad, and more and more fans are starting to question the recruitment strategy of Fabio Paritici, who has been handling Juve's business since the departure of market guru Beppe Marotta to Inter.

However, as Fabio Capello quite rightly pointed out on RAI Radio 1, “It’s awfully strange if Sarri as the coach of this Juventus squad complains he doesn’t have enough strength in depth.

"It’s not about how many players you have on the bench, but the quality at your disposal." And Sarri undeniably has the best players in Serie A, at least on paper.

On the pitch, though, they have not impressed. Indeed, it is telling – and damning – that while fourth-placed Atalanta, the side with the 13th-biggest budget in Serie A, have scored 74 times this season, Juve have netted just 50 goals.

Sarri, for his part, says that Ronaldo is "not physically at his best right now", which is strange given the 35-year-old's post-lockdown fitness levels amazed the club's medical team.

Something doesn't add up. And something is clearly not right at Juve.

Sarri may not have to deal with whistles for the remainder of the season but he's facing more and more awkward questions.

It's imperative he finds some answers. To his Ronaldo problem, most importantly of all.