From Ciro to Zero

Juventus has been one of the most successful teams in Italy and Europe over the last few decades. Thus, their dramatic demise has been particularly curious to witness. Many of the Bianconeri’s fans suggest that the directors in power at the club are not ‘football people’, with many of them rising to power in the business realm.

The fans have been divided over the appointment of Alberto Zaccheroni following the rightful dismissal of Ciro Ferrara. While it is true that there were few quality managers available to come in straight away, the return of Zaccheroni is baffling. This is a man whose last job ended back in February 2007 following a poor run at Torino, Juve’s great rivals. Prior to working for the Granata, he was unemployed for a further two years. So, in the last five years, Zaccheroni has been employed for a mere five months.

Zaccheroni is a proponent of a dated 3-4-3 system (for a modern, dynamic one, see how Genoa uses it). This could perhaps work at some clubs in Europe, but the Bianconeri is certainly not one of them. Sebastian Giovinco and Mauro Camoranesi could occupy the wide berths in the attacking trident, but both are injured. Vincenzo Iaquinta could deputise if he was not also injured and new signing Antonio Candreva could adapt his game to play out wide. Thus, Juventus would struggle to play Zaccheroni’s way. Even if everyone was fit, where would Brazilian playmaker Diego fit into the system? Surely he could not play in a 3-4-3 or 4-3-3, thus the system would have to be changed to a 3-4-1-2 to fit the trequarista’s style. A three-man backline would require Juventus to have three defenders capable both defensively and physically (i.e. pace) to do this and I can only think of Giorgio Chiellini as having the attributes to do this.

Zaccheroni’s track record is also extremely doubtful. In the last decade, he failed to capture any silverware. He has previously managed Lazio and both Milan clubs, but will be better remembered for being responsible for crushing 5-1 defeats for Inter and Lazio by Arsenal and Roma respectively. Zaccheroni has won the Scudetto once, albeit in 1999 under some dubious circumstances when his average Milan side somehow overcame a far superior and dynamic Lazio squad. One could suggest that the Zac has lived off the reputation he forged when in charge of Udinese in the mid-to-late 90’s, with a fearsome attacking trio of Marcio Amoroso, Oliver Bierhoff and Paolo Poggi. Indeed, it was off the back of an incredible third place finish in 1998 with the Zebrette that convinced Milan to hire him.

I fully believe that Juventus will struggle with Zaccheroni in charge and should he lead the team to Champions League qualification, it would be a magnificent achievement. Juve currently sits fifth, four points adrift of Napoli. It is not an insurmountable gap, but Juve’s form that saw the end of Ferrara was that of a side flirting with relegation, with nine defeats in twelve games. This run saw the side eliminated from the Champions League and slide horribly down the table. Zaccheroni’s first game in charge was a 1-1 draw with former side Lazio in what can only be described as a turgid display by both sides. It is sad to think that such a powerhouse is fifteen points off leaders Inter Milan and actually closer to the relegation zone.

Should Juve qualify for the Champions League, there is a great chance that the Bianconeri will look to appoint Rafael Benitez in the summer. On the surface, the current Liverpool boss is made for Italian football. While he has failed to win the league, he has, this season apart, led his team to success in Europe, where there is greater weight on tactics. His achievements should not be dismissed – he has done all this with a pretty average Liverpool side and managed to set the team out to punch well above its weight. The emphasis on speed in England means that a manager like Benitez, who excels in tactical warfare, struggles. Benitez is a pragmatist and his philosophy over “head over heart, defence over attack” would suit him well in Italy. His preferred 4-2-3-1 could also bring out the strengths of the squad – indeed, one can imagine a potential line up with Sissoko/Felipe Melo alongside Marchiso with Diego just ahead in midfield.

Benitez, though, has his faults. In previous years, he has rested key players like Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres and his side has subsequently failed to win. While it is a valid theory that rotating enables players to stay fresh for the business end of the season, the extent to which Benitez does this means that his side struggles to build cohesive partnerships in crucial areas of the pitch.

The Spaniard’s reputation was greatly enhanced after Liverpool’s miraculous recovery against AC Milan in the Champions League Final of 2005, seeing the Reds come back from 3-0 down in the first half to force the game into extra-time and win on penalties. Any Juventus fans believing that Benitez’s appointment would guarantee continental success should perhaps watch the tape of the match. Barring a six minute collapse by Milan and some freak occurrences – Gerrard dive, Dida blunder (though neither of these are that rare!), a wonder-save by Dudek from Shevchenko and the lottery of penalties – Liverpool were battered. Furthermore, there was Luis Garcia’s ‘phantom goal’ against Chelsea in the 2005 semis and some dodgy refereeing that saw Liverpool eliminate Inter and Arsenal en route to the semis in 2008.

The biggest concern for fans of the Bianconeri has to be Benitez’s transfer record. For every Fernando Torres, there’s a Josemi, Gabriel Paletta and Mark Gonzalez. Rafa has spent £230 million since taking charge of Liverpool. Taking into account money recouped through player sales, Benitez has a net spend of £80 million. The club has relatively little to show for it. Liverpool has not had to offload key players to acquire new ones. The only major player sold was Xabi Alonso last summer. The fact is that Benitez has bought pretty badly.

Josemi – £2m

Luis Garcia – £6m

Peter Crouch – £7m

Sebastian Leto – £1.85m

Gabriel Paletta – £2m

Fernando Morientes – £8m

Craig Bellamy – £6.5m

Lucas Leiva – £6m

Jermaine Pennant – £6.7m

Dirk Kuyt – £10m

Mark Gonzalez – £1.5m

Robbie Keane – £20.3m

While these signings have perhaps gone on to perform better elsewhere (e.g. Crouch, Bellamy), they failed to make a mark under Benitez.

This makes Benitez a difficult choice as manager. The Juventus squad needs an overhaul. It needs new defenders and further options in the midfield. There needs to be a way of balancing some of the quality players the squad has, such as Diego, with some steel and graft. The strikers are failing. Amauri’s confidence is shot to pieces and the club can no longer rely on the ageing legs of Alessandro del Piero. Should Benitez be charged with such crucial transfer decisions required? He would be tempted to move should the Bianconeri qualify for Europe and there is the chance to spend, which is something he might not receive from the Liverpool owners who have their debt to service.

One must stress that Benitez is not the only choice. Many fancy Italian boss Marcello Lippi to return to his spiritual home and help the Old Lady out in these desperate times. Gian Piero Gasperini, the man who has impressed so many at Genoa with a very dynamic 3-4-3 system (unlike Zaccheroni’s), has a long history with Juventus. However, he has no experience at such a big club, thus, after the failure of Ferrara, the board might be hesitant to take a perceived gamble. For now, however, Juventus must do everything it can to secure fourth. Or else, after fighting so hard to climb back to the top following the Calciopoli scandal, a period of anonymity might ensue at Italy’s most successful side.


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