The following is a post from Shereef Ezzat – You can follow him here on Twitter
When two teams have trudged their way to a final, more often than not, they have what it takes to win it. What decides the outcome then is usually the finer details, the details which we always seem to lack.
To understand what it is we have been missing for long, tortuous years, let us roll back to a time when Juventus had what it takes to reign victorious in the most testing of finals.
In 1995, Juventus had only one UCL to their name, which they had won 9 years before. They were up against the defending champions in the final: Ajax, a team that revolutionized how football was being played. It’s safe to say that finals do not get tougher than this.
Ravanelli, if anyone saw him play, was not at all a technical player. From what I saw of him, I would argue that he would never make it in the Juventus squad of today, but he was a man amongst men.
The only goal Juventus scored that day did not come from open play. It did not come from a set piece. It did not come from a tactical weakness that Lippi had cunningly exploited in Ajax. It came from Ravanelli, and only Ravanelli.
He chased what clearly was a dead ball; he viciously pressured the defender and the keeper into making a mistake, and then, from a tight angle, he attempted the impossible—all in the span of a few seconds.
This ball should not have been in the net, but with his sheer desire and character, it was.
That’s not to say that Ravenelli won us that match: Torricelli was everywhere that night, chasing down the opposition players, Conte was fighting like a warrior till he came off with an injury, Di Livio was a constant thorn in the sides of our opponents, to name just a few. But not everyone was at their best that night. Vialli, an undisputed champion, missed tons of chances and had a match to forget. Deschamps was simply awful. Del Piero was not his usual sharp self. Peruzzi, who saved us plenty of times across that tournament, made an atrocious save and the follow-up led to the equalizing goal.
You cannot expect everyone in a team to play at their best in a final, but in order to win, there has to be enough champions who have the character to carry the team on their shoulder toward victory, like Sergio Ramos and Cristiano Ronaldo did for Real Madrid against Atletico Madrid and, well, Juventus.
On Wednesday against Napoli, I saw a group of boys, not a team of champions. Buffon was the exception, a player who has never failed to turn up at the highest levels. Whether in the World Cup against France, in the UCL final against Milan (which we lost), in the UCL final against Barcelona (which we also lost), or, last night against Napoli, his best saves came at the most important times. He is a rare breed of champion that are seemingly missing at present.
In a team of champions, it is normal for every player to feel that victory depends on him. That is why some of these players attempt the impossible, like Mandzukic did against Real Madrid, and that is why, the team with the most champions in their side win in finals, even when they play badly. They shed every last drop of sweat. They feel that no one can take the night from them. They never give up. Like Buffon, they scream and shout and never stop until they have won. What I saw against Napoli in the Coppa Italia was the opposite. I saw players who never failed to pass the torch to their teammates, who never even attempted anything special. I saw a team afraid to take a risk, always picking the easiest pass; a team which, when spotting a player running inside, would hesitate to attempt a through ball. And in the dying minutes, I still saw we had the chance to win it. Napoli were tired, the spaces were there, but our spirit and character were not.
Every year, our mentality kills us in the high-stake games. Our issue, first and foremost, is one of character and bravery, of the willingness to step up and take responsibility for the outcome of the match. We needed Cristiano Ronaldo much more than we imagine, but he cannot do miracles on his own.
Pjanic used to be that kind of player, but he seems to have lost himself, whether he will ever reignite that spark is in the realm of the unknown. Perhaps the failure that has plagued our midfield has finally caught up to him. Our current crop of midfielders has neither technique nor character. They do their defensive duties well enough, but nothing else. They are the kind of hard-working soldiers you need in a team, but who cannot be the main component of a winning team.
Bentancur is a future champion. He has everything but the experience, which, unfortunately, is what matters the most in nights like these. He should not be given the full-time responsibility of wearing the heavy Juventus no.8 shirt. He is simply not ready for it.
I would exclude our entire line of defence (including the reserves), along with Cristiano, Dybala, and Higuain from this particular criticism. Cristiano and Dybala did their best against Napoli, and although their best was very poor, one cannot blame them when they’ve had an extended break, and when their first test is against teams who field ten at the back. Strikers need sharp instincts, and the only way to get this is game-time.
Everyone has the right to be out of sorts after such a period without football —even Napoli players were out of sorts —but none have the right to be as complacent and lacklustre as most of the players yesterday. Playing for Juventus means that you are ready for these nights, but we have got all too used to a group of players that fail particularly in moments when they need to step up. We need more champions on the pitch, not free agents, not old players, and not bargains, and it’s time we had them.