LYON, France, Feb 27 – Jurgen Klopp recently labelled Juventus as the favourites to succeed his Liverpool side as winners of the Champions League, and Lionel Messi has also talked up the Italians’ chances, but they looked nothing like contenders to lift the trophy as Cristiano Ronaldo and his teammates fired blanks against Lyon on Wednesday.
Juve will have to come from behind in the second leg of their last-16 tie on March 17 after going down 1-0 in France as a first-half goal by Lucas Tousart separated the teams.
The French side were worthy winners, despite enduring a mediocre season in Ligue 1 and only just scraping through their group. They will be confident of scoring an away goal in Turin, too.
All the pressure is on the Serie A outfit. While their rivals talk them up, those within the club admit winning the competition is the major objective, although they have emphasised the importance of luck in the knockout phase.
“We are very lucky to be able to chase the Champions League dream, because if we achieve it, it will be bliss, and if we don’t the journey will have been beautiful,” insisted coach Maurizio Sarri on the eve of the Lyon game.
However, no Juventus supporter, or director, will agree with that if they do not improve on their performance in Lyon.
The Italian league leaders mustered just one attempt on target, with Ronaldo unable to continue the form that had seen him score in each of his first nine appearances of 2020, and bag 19 goals since the beginning of December.
He is 35 now, so Juve are in a hurry to win the Champions League with the Portugal star, who cost them 100 million euros ($109 million) from Real Madrid in 2018, not to mention his astronomical wages.
– No holding back –
The Italian press did not hold back on Thursday, with Turin-based sports daily Tuttosport leading the assault by complaining that “This is not Juve!”
Meanwhile, Gazzetta dello Sport asked: “Juve, where are you?” The paper also warned Sarri “is in trouble”.
Skipper Leonardo Bonucci accepted his side “got it all wrong” while Sarri himself admitted his team had been “slow and sluggish”.
Yet there are enough young legs in the Juventus team — not least 85.5 million-euro centre-back Matthijs de Ligt — for them to play with greater energy than they did against Lyon.
Perhaps there is simply too much pressure on Juventus, who are desperate for Champions League success having lost five finals since last lifting the trophy in 1996.
Along with Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich, they are also one of those European mega-clubs whose domestic dominance has become so entrenched it is now all about the Champions League. European failure can leave any other success feeling rather hollow.
Lyon, probably the worst team left in the competition when the draw for the last 16 was made, looked transformed on Wednesday, with Brazilian January signing Bruno Guimaraes outstanding in midfield.
However, their coach Rudi Garcia knows not to get carried away.
“We demonstrated that we are not in the last 16 purely by chance, but there is still the second leg to come and it will be very difficult there,” he said.
Home advantage could be decisive for Juve, who have not lost in front of their own fans in Turin since Ajax dumped them out in last season’s quarter-finals.
In the round before that they lost 2-0 at Atletico Madrid only for a Ronaldo hat-trick to turn the tie around in the return leg.
Anything is still possible if Ronaldo shows up in the second leg, and the Italian champions can also take comfort from the fact few of Europe’s other giants — Bayern and Manchester City apart — have really excelled so far in these knockout games.