The scenes on Wednesday night in Poland perfectly depicted a winter wonderland. Fresh falling snow, icicles hanging in the stadium, the public covered in layers of thermals and wool, and a white pitch greeting an Italian team who expected Vinovo to be the coldest place they would ever have to train in. The conditions may have been fine for a snowball fight, but not a crucial football match in the Europa League.
With temperatures plunging to minus 12 degrees Celcius, panic ensued and Juventus desperately began to plead with UEFA to postpone their critical clash with Lech Poznan to avoid a probable defeat and a possible new batch of injuries due to the icy pitch.
Upon watching the match in which the entire first half was played with a white ball, leaving TV audiences having to rely on the players’ body language to find the ball on the screen, it was clear to see that it was somewhat unjust to ask a team to play under such circumstances.
The lines of the pitch were covered in snow, the players were unable to keep their balance and the goalkeepers looked like they were withering away. However, UEFA rules dictate that matches can only be called off if temperatures fall below minus 15 degrees – and on the night a mere three degrees separated Juventus from a possible postponement and perhaps a chance to qualify.
The Bianconeri, unaccustomed to these types of conditions, failed to play the kind of football required to yield the necessary result. The home side could have done more to make the playing surface more away team friendly but they chose not to and their plan worked. While the Poles bombed forward at electrifying pace and glided effortlessly around the pitch, the Italians stayed faithful to their usual brand of football. With each elegant pass, they lost possession, and almost every time they were handed an opportunity to score that equaliser, they fluffed it – somehow Poznan survived.
Tactically, Juventus were not prepared. In such stifling circumstances, they desperately needed to elongate their attack and get rid of horizontal play. This was a match that required the skills of Alberto Aquilani, who could have spread play and delivered those long crosses to bypass the midfield and avoid loss of possession. As he was ineligible, it would have been interesting to see Manuel Giandonato on the pitch instead.
Unfortunately, Juve had to make do with Momo Sissoko. Despite being aggressive and tenacious in his method of play – required in the face of such tough opposition, his knack of losing possession meant his efforts yielded little by way of results.
Luigi Del Neri should have gambled much earlier in the game as the moment he began to bolster the attack, Juve found the equaliser. It was a shame they only had a few minutes thereafter to find the winner in conditions that were worsening by the second. With a little bit more time, the Old Lady would have surely won but instead they had to bow out in unfair circumstances.
But how much did Juventus really want to win this game? Despite years of pleading with Italian teams to start taking this tournament seriously for the sake of calcio and its reputation, Clubs still prefer concentrating on the domestic league in hope of qualifying for the bigger and better Champions League. Clubs like the Old Lady simply cannot afford to go without the type of revenue the big tournament would bring in, and every ounce of effort has been made to ensure that nothing distract them from reaching that objective.
Even the transfer market was conducted with little thought to the impending European matches. Aquilani and Fabio Quagliarella, both crucial assets with regards to the balance of the team, were brought in despite being cup-tied, yet that did not seem to deter management. Furthermore, the Club has also been reportedly keen on securing the signature of Diego Forlan in the winter market – another player who would not have been available. It certainly appears to further signal Juventus’s indifference towards winning this trophy.
Whilst Juve seemed determined to win in the dying minutes of the game in Poland, it was a case of too little, too late. The Bianconeri were staring at the face of elimination the moment they allowed visiting teams to walk away with one point. If the new management truly plan to take this team back to great heights, then the competition should have been treated with a little more respect.
Big teams should be able to handle more than one competition at a time, and the valuable experience on offer for the youngsters in black and white would have held them in good stead if Juve do indeed qualify for the Champions League next season. Unfortunately for now, yet another Italian team has been knocked out whilst the Germans push through. One cannot help but feel disappointed – especially considering the quality of opponents Juventus faced in the competition.