Is it too soon to invoke ‘Fatal Verona’? There are certain footballing folk stories that Italy’s sporting media love to revisit, and the tale of how Hellas Verona denied Milan Serie A titles with upset victories in spring 1973 and 1990 has a way of coming back around every year.
What happened at the Bentegodi on Saturday was not exactly a repeat. Verona’s opponents were Juventus, for one thing, and instead of beating them, they drew 1-1. The month was still only February. Defeat was fatal to Milan in 1973 because it arrived on the final weekend of the season, dropping them from first to second with no time to recover. In 1990, they were undone on the penultimate weekend.
The context is quite different for Juventus in this campaign, with 15 games left to play. Yet by the end of the weekend, they had fallen 10 points behind the league leaders, Internazionale. For a team that has not been able to string together a winning sequence longer than three games, that gap looks daunting.
If this does turn out to be the end of Juve’s run of nine consecutive league titles, then Verona have played their part. These teams already drew the reverse fixture last October, when Dejan Kulusevski’s late goal rescued the Bianconeri from a home defeat. Back then, it still felt too early for sweeping judgments of a Juventus side finding their identity under Andrea Pirlo.
Perhaps we ought to temper our judgments of this weekend’s result as well. Juventus were missing seven potential starters on Saturday, with Paulo Dybala, Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci, Juan Cuadrado, Álvaro Morata and Arthur injured, while Danilo served a suspension. The only players on their substitutes’ bench over the age of 22 were two goalkeepers, Gianluigi Buffon and Carlo Pinsoglio.
Was it not earlier this same season, though, when we marvelled at the depth in their squad? Were there not pundits on Sunday afternoons last September who glanced over Juve’s team-sheets and argued you could make a Scudetto-winning side from the players left out? It did not look that way at the Bentegodi.
Juventus started well, Aaron Ramsey and Federico Chiesa leading an early high press that seemed to catch Verona off guard. The hosts settled, and ended the first half stronger, but it was still Pirlo’s team that took the lead just after half-time, Cristiano Ronaldo sweeping home after neat build-up play from Ramsey and Chiesa.
One goal ought to have been enough for the reigning champions, against opponents whose starting centre-forward, Kevin Lasagna, had scored twice in six months. It was not. Verona had already sent on Miguel Veloso at half-time, and now introduced Darko Lazovic to replace Federico Dimarco at left wing-back as well. Both played key roles in the equaliser.
It was Veloso who began the move, gliding effortlessly away from Ronaldo and Rodrigo Bentancur as they rushed at him from different directions, each hoping to capitalise on an underhit pass from Rolando Vieira. Cutting in from the right, he moved the ball on to Mattia Zaccagni, who spread it out again to Lazovic on the left. His cross found Antonin Barak, who rose above Alex Sandro to head home.
Verona could have gone on to win. Wojciech Szczesny had already turned one Marco Faraoni effort on to a post at 0-0 and pushed another effort from Lazovic on to the bar. “In truth, I have a little bit of regret,” confessed their manager, Ivan Juric, afterwards. “In the second half we totally dominated, despite the fact this wasn’t a great match by us.”
Juric has done exceptional work over the past two seasons at Verona, taking a squad with the third-smallest wage bill in the division and keeping them in the top half of the table despite lacking a reliable goalscorer. Before Lasagna joined on loan from Udinese in January, the starting centre-forward role had rotated mostly between , Andrea Favilli and Eddie Salcedo, who have found the net three times all season between them.
Barak, lining up most often as a playmaker behind the forward line, is the team’s leading scorer on six goals. He has been a man for the big occasion, with previous strikes in the win over Napoli and draw at Milan. Asked what his secret was on Saturday, he replied: “Juric makes me run a lot. But then, he does that with everyone.”
It was a self-deprecating line, but it would be wrong to distil Verona’s overachievement down to a question of work ethic. Juric has shown himself to be a subtle tactician and excellent man-manager, furthering the development of young players such as Zaccagni and Dimarco while also putting his veterans in position to perform to their best.
The cool control exerted by a 34-year-old Veloso stood in stark contrast to Juventus’s chaotic shape. Ramsey, notionally on the left of a midfield three, spent much of his game closer to the line of attack. With Federico Bernardeschi also seeking to push on from the wing-back position outside him, Bentancur and Adrien Rabiot were left with a lot of ground to cover. As a result, Chiesa, Juve’s most effective attacking outlet, was often forced to play more cautiously on the opposite flank. Juric’s introduction of Lazovic was an effective move to exploit the situation, pushing the Italian further back.
Pirlo was forced to defend his selections at full-time. Sky Sport’s Giancarlo Padovan accused him of deploying players out of position and highlighted, among other things, the use of Alex Sandro on the left of a back three. The manager pointed out the lack of available alternatives, before losing patience and accusing his interlocutor of not watching the games.
How much blame ought we to assign to a man thrown in at the deep end, promoted to first-team manager with no prior experience after nine days in charge of the Under-23s? Pirlo is not responsible for a recruitment strategy that has left Juventus with too many wide players and none who can dictate a game in the centre.
What is certain is that this is not where the club aspired to be, three years on from their record-breaking move for Ronaldo. The Portuguese has scored 26 goals in 29 games this season, yet the club is at risk of dropping out of the Serie A title race, and trail 2-1 after the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie against Porto.
Ronaldo made no secret of his frustration at Verona’s equaliser on Saturday, throwing out his arms in disgust. With one year left on his contract, speculation over his future has already begun. Pirlo insisted on the eve of this game that his players still liked their chances, claiming “people still talk about the Scudetto in our changing room”. At full-time, he reframed the conversation by saying Juventus were focused on one game at a time and could worry about the standings at the end.
Right now, the table shows that his team have 46 points from 23 games – fewer than they have had at the corresponding stage of any season in this run of nine consecutive Scudetti. To draw, for a second time, with Verona was not fatal. But Juventus’s title defence is not in good health.