As Serie A winners Juventus ended their season with a whimper by slumping to their third defeat in four, Cristiano Ronaldo’s warning to fans that silverware doesn’t come easily might have more to do with him than he imagines.
“It seems easy but it isn’t,” came the platitudinal post on Cristiano Ronaldo’s Instagram after he sat out the 3-1 final day loss to Roma that gave Juventus their first home league defeat since 2018, accompanied by a photo of himself celebrating with the squad and the league trophy.
Few had been under the illusion that this season had been a stroll for the champions, not least during a run of two wins in their final eight matches, ending the season with successive two-goal defeats following the 2-0 win over Sampdoria that gave them the title, as well as the only game of their final four that they did not lose.
If it would be a stretch to suggest that Juve ever seriously looked liable to lose their lead at the top of the table during a run-in that also saw Inter Milan and Lazio falter, there will undoubtedly have been some alarm at the labored finale to the campaign by a club that clearly prizes style and dominance beyond the mere winning of a ninth successive Scudetto.
Happy to win the last two of the nine Serie A consecutive titles for Juventus! It seems easy but it isn’t! Year after year with talent, dedication and hard work you can achieve your goals and be better than before! Let’s go for my third ??⚪️⚫️ # italychampions?? # 31goals #finoallafine
One more! ? It’s not a bad habit ?
Max Allegri departed at the end of last season having failed to win the double and only reached the quarter-finals of the Champions League despite earning the ninth trophy of his five years in charge, so a subsequent season in which Juve finished with seven fewer points and a gap above their nearest rivals slashed by 10 points already resembles a significant underachievement.
They will also fare no better than they did in Europe last season unless they can overturn a 1-0 first-leg deficit against Lyon in the Champions League round of 16 next week and beat Manchester City or Real Madrid in the next round, making it fair to predict that Maurizio Sarri will be regarded as an underwhelming replacement for Allegri after his first year in charge.
Recovering from the drenching he received from his players while he was trying to relieve his nerves with a cigarette after that decisive win last month, Sarri’s assertion that his squad had triumphed in spite of him sounded like exaggerated self-deprecation from the man who had been the league’s Coach of the Year in 2017 while at Napoli.
Sarri would already have collected two trophies had Juve not lost the Coppa Italia final to his former club on penalties, yet his admission that he had held critical mid-season meetings with key players in an attempt to iron out his side’s issues was telling.
Ronaldo’s boss has been forced to adopt an approach entirely dependent on his top scorer and, to a far lesser extent, playmaker Paulo Dybala this season.
Sarri cops it from his Juventus players ???pic.twitter.com/G4IaAuz7pN
Guess how many trophies these two young men’s won?!? #thestorycontinues
After Ronaldo scored both goals in the win over Parma in January to give Juve breathing space at the top of the table that they never surrendered, Sarri said the almost unthinkable by describing the “problem” that Ronaldo creates for his side.
“It has to be set up around him,” he conceded. “You just have to be clear that everything revolves around him.”
That leaves no room for the fluid, eye-catching ‘Sarri ball’ style he established at Napoli, when his striking trio of Dries Mertens, Lorenzo Insigne and Jose Callejon shared 71 goals in 2016/17, supported by the likes of midfielder Marek Hamsik, who scored as many in Serie A and the Champions League as Dybala has this season, and marauding wing-backs ready to provide more ways to destabilize defenses.
By contrast, Juventus direct almost all of their efforts towards Ronaldo, making them dependent on a player not noted for offering selflessness and inspiration outside of the final third.
Ronaldo, too, has looked frustrated at times this season. He scored in every match he played during a remarkable run of consistency between the start of December and the end of February, only to fail to register in three of his final five league appearances and draw blanks with poor performances in Juve’s two crucial cup games after the restart, missing penalties for the first and second times at the club as he misfired from the spot in both competitions.
Old rival Zlatan Ibrahimovic taunted him as Juve capitulated to lose 4-2 at AC Milan earlier this month, and the 38-year-old needed two fewer matches than Ronaldo required to score his final five goals of the campaign.
Anyone looking for genuine signs of the five-time Ballon d’Or winner’s demise would have found little to grasp at across an excellent 31-goal league campaign that still left him five goals behind Lazio striker Ciro Immobile.
The trouble for Juve is that their success hinges so heavily on this ultimate modern marquee signing, as demonstrated by the release of figures this week that revealed Ronaldo receives a basic wage almost four times higher than their next best-paid player.
While it is hard to imagine a club that has 10 of the 13 highest earners in Serie A on its books reining in its lavish spending, reports around the club have suggested that the days of handing a $31 million salary to a $100 million signing in their mid-30s could be about to end as a knock-on effect of the pandemic.
If and when Ronaldo leaves, Sarri will have the luxury and challenge of being able to deploy far less rigid tactics, focusing less immovably on one man.
Until then, the success of the alliance that they are locked into will dictate whether the coach will still be there when the superstar is gone.
By Ben Miller