Juventus is not a very good team right now. Their unprecedented decade of success came to an abrupt close last season when not even Cristiano Ronaldo’s reliability could drag them into the Serie A title fight. Instead of celebrating what could’ve been a 10th consecutive scudetto, Juve had to settle for squeaking into a fourth-placed finish.
This season has been even worse. Ronaldo is gone. Federico Chiesa is out with a torn ACL. Giorgio Chiellini (37) and Leonardo Bonucci (34) look their age. Álvaro Morata is still Álvaro Morata. And Paulo Dybala, while still great, seems stranded and forlorn, like a boy with a big imagination who can’t get any of his friends at the park to see his vision while playing make believe.
It will take time and money to return Juventus to Europe’s elite. The squad will need a substantial overhaul along all three outfield lines, especially if Dybala makes good on his threat to leave in the summer when his contract is up. It will be long, expensive work rebuilding Juve, but if there exists a shortcut to success, the club might have already signed it.
On Tuesday, Juventus faced Villarreal in the first leg of their Champions League round of 16 tie. It was also the fifth match in which the club could call upon the services of Dusan Vlahovic, the Serbian striker the Bianconeri paid some €70 million to sign last month. The transfer between Fiorentina and Juve was completed on Jan. 28, which happened to be Vlahovic’s 22nd birthday. But if anyone was celebrating a gift that day, it was Juventus. Vlahovic is a goal-scoring monster, and it took no time at all for him to demonstrate it in Tuesday’s match.
There were just over 30 seconds between the referee’s opening whistle and his signaling that the first goal of the match had been scored. It came, unsurprisingly, off of Vlahovic’s foot in a move that typified what makes him so good as a player and so valuable to a club like Juve.
Vlahovic scored this goal practically out of nothing. Danilo’s quick thinking and well-played pass was important, but it was the striker who made it all possible. There was his powerful run in behind the Villarreal defense, which more or less commanded Danilo’s pass into being. There was his perfect chest control, its delicacy and its angle, which demonstrated Vlahovic’s touch and awareness of space and coolness while under pressure from two defenders right on top of him. Then there was that finish, the way he seemingly detached his hips from the rest of his body to swing them clear in the opposite direction of his torso, the way he never even looked at the goal in between tracking the pass through the air and controlling it and shooting, how even with his weaker right foot he could kick the ball right where it had to go to beat the keeper. Simply from the elements of that goal alone you can tell that Vlahovic is something serious.
After the early goal, Juventus spent more of Tuesday’s match trying protect its lead than trying to extend it, with varying degrees of success. Villarreal controlled the final half hour of play, which saw them score an equalizer and push hard for a winner that didn’t come. This too was a marker of Juve’s current status. Their star striker is capable of scoring them a go-ahead goal, but the rest of the group isn’t as good at building on it. It’s one of the many facets the club will have to improve on in order to once again be the kind of team that expects to go deep in the Champions League.
In Vlahovic, the club has acquired a reliable source of goals who doesn’t even need much help to bang them in. That ability is like manna from heaven for a struggling team. Yes, growth is a process, and a lot goes into achieving it, but what accelerates it all is winning. And to win, you must score.
While Juve is in that process of reconstructing a championship team, Vlahovic should make it all a lot easier. With him, Dybala will at last have a partner on his wavelength, and the two of them should be able to fire the team into the Champions League places by season’s end—something that was far from a foregone conclusion earlier in the campaign. That UCL money will help the club sign bigger and better players in the transfer market, which will re-stock the roster with pieces of Vlahovic’s level. By winning games with Vlahovic’s goals, Juve will grow in confidence and belief, making manager Max Allegri’s job easier and more secure, which should further accelerate the process. The €70 million Vlahovic cost is obviously an enormous sum, but as long as things continue where they seem to be headed, Juve will soon consider it money well spent.