Juventus's Gambles on Ronaldo, Pirlo Fail With Another Early Champions League Exit

Juventus spent big on Cristiano Ronaldo to win the Champions League. For a third straight season since, it's not happening.
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It’s happened again—and worse than ever before. Three years ago, Juventus paid €100 million for a 33-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo, apparently on the logic that his guaranteed goals would propel the club the extra step to Champions League glory. Since then, Juventus has been eliminated in the quarterfinals and twice in the last 16, the latest instance Tuesday's extra-time ouster at the hands of a Porto side playing with 10 men for over an hour. 

The gamble has failed, and Ronaldo played a critical part in the away goals defeat that accompanied a 4-4 aggregate draw. The second leg was a quite remarkable game, a reminder of why, despite all the greed, all the unseemly maneuvering about a restructure of the tournament—led coincidentally enough by Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli—the Champions League remains such a special competition. But the critical goal, Porto’s second on the night and its fourth in the tie, was a Sergio Oliveira free kick that went through the legs of Ronaldo as he turned his back in the wall. Perhaps it was unfortunate, but still, these are basics: stand still in the wall, at least face the ball, and the ball will cannon to safety. 

And perhaps the tendency would have been to look more kindly on the error had it not felt so symbolic of Ronaldo’s wider contribution, which was all but non-existent. Over the tie, Porto deserved to progress. Porto had been much the better side in the first leg and had been a little unfortunate only to win 2-1, with Federico Chiesa’s late away goal giving Juve a platform it barely deserved. Porto was the better side in the first half Tuesday as well, taking the lead through Oliveria’s penalty. 

But then, in 14 minutes, it almost threw it away, conceding twice to Chiesa and having Mehdi Taremi stupidly sent off for a pair of rapid yellow cards, the second of them for kicking the ball away. It seemed at that point like another of those games, like the win over Tottenham in 2018, when Juve inexplicably induced a meltdown on an opponent. But somehow the winner didn’t arrive. Chiesa hit the post, Alvaro Morata, inevitably, had a goal ruled out for offside, and Juan Cuadrado hit the bar, which sent the tie into extra-time. Surely there, it seemed, Juve would find a way through. 

But Pepe, at 38, was magnificent, as was Chancel Mbemba alongside him at the heart of the Porto back four. In goal, Agustin Marchesin made a handful of critical saves. And then five minutes from time, came Oliveira’s free kick. Even then it wasn’t over, with Adrien Rabiot leveling the aggregate from a corner two minutes later, but the away-goals advantage—and ultimately the spot in the quarterfinals—was Porto’s. 

Since signing Ronaldo, Juve has been outplayed by Ajax in the 2019 quarterfinals and been dumped out by Lyon in the 2020 last 16. It may point to another away goals defeat here and claim misfortune, but the truth is Porto was much the better side for three-quarters of the tie. Ronaldo has one year left on his contract, but barring something remarkable next year, the experiment will have failed. In Tuesday's match, which goes down as a 3-2 Juventus win on the day, he was barely involved. His first touch in the Porto box didn’t come until the 49th minute when he teed up Chiesa’s first goal. 

When he dropped deep to find possession, he looked slow, heavy legged, immobile. He is a forward who needs service. That is understandable enough given his age, but that only provokes the question of why a 36-year-old is being paid more than the next four highest players at the club put together to lumber around ineffectually. 

Juventus's Andrea Pirlo and Cristiano Ronaldo

Inevitably, questions will be asked as well about Andrea Pirlo, who was appointed Juventus coach last summer with no experience whatsoever. The problem was less this game than the first leg, when Juve was desperately poor for long periods. He may well be charming and intelligent, and he was undoubtedly a very fine player, but with Juve third in Serie A, 10 points behind league-leading Inter Milan, and seemingly likely to fail to win the scudetto for the first time in 10 years, there’s absolutely nothing to suggest he was ready for a job of this magnitude. 

Agnelli has burdened his club with an expensive striker well past his best and with a manager whose inexperience is repeatedly exposed. Quite why he is the man who seems to have been tasked with rejigging the Champions League is mystifying. It’s readily understandable, though, that he would want a format that guarantees the big teams money, so that they’re less dependent on actually being well-run. Juve three years ago took a bewildering gamble, and it has failed. The question now is who has to clean up the mess.