Life after Ronaldo? How Juventus are coping without Cristiano

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It wasn’t Cristiano Ronaldo’s Juventus departure which shocked his former team-mates. It was the timing.

It had been clear for months that the Portugal international wanted out.

He repeatedly passed up opportunities to commit his future to the club, most amusingly when he lashed out at the media for reporting his desire to return to Real Madrid, even though one of his closest associates, Edu Aguirre of El Chiringuito, had sparked the speculation in typically over-the-top fashion live on Spanish television.

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Ronaldo claimed that such talk was “disrespectful to all of the clubs involved in these rumours, as well as to their players and staff”, and yet not once did he mention Juventus in a 286-word statement on social media.

The writing had long been on the wall, of course. During Euro 2020, he would only say: "Whether I stay at Juventus or leave, whatever happens will be for the best."

However, while there were – and are – obvious advantages to his eventual transfer to Manchester United for the Bianconeri, most notably from a financial perspective, his decision to leave four days before the close of the summer transfer window had a negative impact on his colleagues. 

As captain Giorgio Chiellini told DAZN, “Ronaldo left on August 27. It would have been better for us if he had left earlier.
 
“We paid something for it, a little bit of a shock, we paid something for it in terms of points. If he had left earlier, we would have had time to prepare better.”

Cristiano Ronaldo Juventus Serie A 2021-22 GFX

As it was, Ronaldo’s move to Manchester was confirmed a matter of hours before Juventus were beaten at home by Empoli in their second game of the new Serie A season.

The international break presented coach Massimiliano Allegri, back at the helm after two years away, with a much-needed opportunity to take stock, but his still shell-shocked side were beaten again upon their return to action, at Napoli, and were then held to a draw at home by AC Milan.

At the close of play on matchday four, the mighty Juventus were in the Serie A relegation zone. It was obvious that Ronaldo’s lethal finishing was being sorely missed - but it went beyond mere goals.

For the previous three seasons, ever since the arrival of the prolific Portuguese from Real Madrid, Juve’s primary focus had become getting the very best out of their No.7. 

As centre-back Leonardo Bonucci said earlier this week, “the team played for [Ronaldo].” However, the Euro 2020 winner also acknowledged that the players were guilty of expecting miracles from Ronaldo whenever they found themselves in a tight spot.

“We were all playing with a great champion and wanted him to do well,” Bonucci explained to reporters, “so perhaps we lost that desire to all suffer and sacrifice ourselves together, because we assumed he would sort it out."

Bonucci believes that Allegri has, at least, already addressed the attitude problem, arguing that the passion and resilience they have demonstrated in racking up six successive wins in all competitions proves that the players have rediscovered that "Juve spirit that was there before Ronaldo’s arrival".

"The coach has done really well to get that character and humility back," he enthused. “We all work together now to get the result."

That Juve have won their last four games 1-0 also suggests that Allegri has resolved the defensive issues which preceded his summer return.

Before Manuel Locatelli scored the only goal in the derby against Torino at the start of this month, the Old Lady hadn’t kept a clean sheet in the league since the 3-0 defeat of Spezia on March 2.

Of course, one of the principal reasons for Juve’s sudden stinginess is the fact that they are playing a more negative brand of football, often sitting deep against decent footballing sides in the hope of hitting their opponents on the break, or nicking a goal off a set-piece.

Such an approach can only last so long. Juve, after all, are still playing catch-up in Serie A. They may be rapidly rising up the table but they are still only seventh, seven points behind Napoli. The onus is on them to close the gap and they will only be able to continue winning games if they add more goals to their game.

Paulo Dybala’s return from injury for this weekend’s Derby d’Italia is, therefore, a most welcome boost. The Argentine remains Juve’s joint-top scorer in all competitions with three goals – even though he has missed five games through injury. 

It was Chiellini, remember, who tipped Dybala to take command of the Juve attack following Ronaldo’s exit. 

Cristiano Ronaldo Paulo Dybala Juventus 2020-21 GFX

And yet, for all of the financial and tactical conundrums that the Portuguese presented, the Bianconeri could always rely on him to score goals (Ronaldo already has six in eight games for United). They can’t even rely on Dybala to stay fit.

However, the hope is that his return will at least lighten the load on Federico Chiesa, who kickstarted Juve’s campaign with a virtuoso showing at Spezia on matchday five, while also netting the winner in their morale-boosting 1-0 win over Chelsea in the Champions League.

The Italy winger still needs to add even more goals to his game but there is no denying his status as one of the best big-game players in the world right now – which obviously bodes well ahead of Sunday’s trip to San Siro.

Of course, if Juve are to maintain their winning streak against free-scoring Inter, who have netted nearly twice as many goals as the Bianconeri in the league this season (23-12), they are likely to have to once again produce a heroic rearguard action. 

And that doesn’t just mean Chiellini & Co. doing their jobs. Allegri will need his infamously unreliable and unbalanced midfield to protect his back four and his forwards to defend from the front. 

Still, on the evidence of what we’ve seen in recent weeks, Bonucci may well be proven right: Ronaldo’s goals may be gone but Juve’s fighting spirit does at least seem to have returned.