Becoming a Champions League knockout stage fixture and a fringe contender for the title is a dream for most teams, but it's the absolute bare minimum that Juventus fans will accept. They've reached that level of performance, but they could be stuck where they are, and Tuesday's game against Real Madrid was a damning piece of evidence.
Antonio Conte and the Angelli family deserve to be praised for what they've done to revitalize the club, but the realities of modern football limit how much the bianconeri can achieve and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
Less than 10 years ago, Juventus were among the world's biggest clubs, both in global popularity and the quality of their players. Their squad was comparable to Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and England's elite. Today, they are a solid and extremely well-organized team, albeit one that has failed to ascend to those previous heights in their one-and-not-quite-one-half Champions League campaigns since their ban from the competition expired.
This isn't a knock on Juventus, who have achieved a lot in a short period of time. Four seasons ago, they finished seventh in the league, a new low for them after their ascension back to Serie A. It was their lowest finish since coming back to the top flight and, for a lot of their fans, a low point in the modern history of the club.
Calciopoli was, in the eyes of many, a chance for those in charge of Italian football to make an example of Juventus and brand them as cheaters, even though they never directly influenced the outcomes of matches and did nothing different from Serie A's other big clubs. They still claim the two titles that were stripped from them. It was easy to blame others for their relegation to Serie B, but their seventh place finish in 2010-11, a season they were tipped to win the title in by many after finishing second in the campaign prior, was all on the club's players and management. A squad that was seemingly Scudetto-quality in August was a dysfunctional mess by May.
Conte cleaned up that mess faster than even the most demanding and deluded of Juventini could have hoped for, comfortably winning Serie A without losing a game. He did it with a lot of the players who contributed to the previous season's disaster, but mostly with players that were brought in for very reasonable transfer fees, or, in the case of Andrea Pirlo, no fee at all. They spent nearly €50 million net the summer before that season, but they didn't spend it on a couple of stars. They needed to completely rebuild their side and spread it across an astonishing 13 players that would go on to play a part that season.
The result of that rebuild and other transfer business that has followed over the last two years is an excellent squad that can hang with anyone in Europe. Despite an early surge by Roma and the excellent manner in which Napoli strengthened their squad with the money they got from Edinson Cavani's sale, they're clear favorites to win their third straight Scudetto and make it to the Champions League knockout stage. Even though Pirlo and Gianluigi Buffon are advanced in age and can't have much left to give, the rest of the team's stars have plenty left in the tank. Paul Pogba is just 20 and could easily become the best two-way midfielder in the world before Pirlo decides to retire. They have a slew of great youngsters in their academy team, on loan and tied up in co-ownership deals. Juventus are going to be good for a while.
But Tuesday's game was the perfect microcosm of the challenges that Juventus face if they want to return to their pre-Calciopoli stature. Pirlo dictated the tempo of the match perfectly while Pogba and Arturo Vidal provided endless box-to-box energy, working to win the ball back and drive it into the attacking third. Carlos Tevez and Claudio Marchisio provided the flair in attacking areas while Fernando Llorente won 50-50 headers and regularly occupied two defenders by himself. All six of them were excellent throughout the game while the defense more than did their part in the early going. By the time Vidal converted a penalty late in the second half, Juventus' lead was well-deserved.
Juventus not only won the first half, they dominated it. They were better than Real Madrid in every single phase of play. They didn't do it with any individual player or players making incredible contributions, but instead did it as a team, organized while attacking, defending and in both transitional phases. Their intensity, work rate and teamwork was incredible. Without a single player that cost more than €15 million -- save for Buffon, who was bought pre-Calciopoli -- Juventus played Madrid off the park.
They started out where they left off in the second half and looked to be well in control until, in the 52nd minute, Martin Caceres misplaced a backpass by a couple of inches. Instead of finding its way to Buffon, it deflected off a Madrid player and into the path of Cristiano Ronaldo. Less than five seconds later, he had scored, bursting past the Juventus defense and finishing past Buffon, who did everything right in coming off his line and making himself big in front of Ronaldo before his shot. Eight minutes later, Ronaldo set up Gareth Bale for Madrid's second, which he scored despite being hounded by two Juventus defenders, who denied him the space and shooting lane that 99 percent of top flight professional footballers need to put a shot on target.
After 60 minutes of spectacularly played football, featuring just one mistake, Juventus trailed. Their effort and tactical acumen earned them an equalizer, but not a winner, even though they continued to be the better side throughout the rest of the match.
Ultimately, this is a problem that there is no good solution to. Would an available Georgio Chiellini picked the ball off Bale when those filling in for him couldn't? It's possible, but it's also tough to see where those marking Bale made a major error. Bale has the nastiest left foot in the world, near Olympic-quality speed and looks like he's carved out of stone. The same can be said for Ronaldo, who has the same physical qualities and is considerably more technically gifted.
Great defenders and a brilliant gameplan can stop the likes of Bale and Ronaldo when they're just the tiniest bit off their games, but when they're at their best? There's no stopping them. The only counter is having a Ronaldo or Bale of your own, a player who can create goals out of absolutely nothing without help from their teammates. There are only a handful of these players on earth. Pogba might become one of them and it's not out of the question that on-loan youngster Richmond Boakye could as well, but at the moment, Juventus don't have that kind of player. There are only three ways to get one: Being absurdly rich, having world class scouts to go along with persuasive negotiators that can snag one of these players before anyone else knows how good they are, and pure dumb luck.
As good as Pogba, Vidal, Tevez and Llorente are, they're not on the level of Bale, Ronaldo, Neymar or Lionel Messi. They're not on the level of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Sergio Aguero, Robin van Persie, Eden Hazard, Mesut Özil, Marco Reus or Franck Ribery either. If Ronaldo and Messi have their own category and the rest of that group are on the rung below, Juve's stars are on the rung just below that. They're the guys who could fit into the starting XI of any team in the world, who any manager would absolutely love to have, but who can't be the best player on a Champions League-winning team.
Juventus can and will compete with any team in the world this season, next season and well into the future, but they're not going to be serious contenders for a Champions League title unless Pogba makes a big leap and they get seriously lucky with their draw and opposition injuries/suspensions. Tuesday's match all but proved it. Even at their absolute best, they're not able to beat Europe's truly elite teams.
The bianconeri are close enough to being one of those truly elite sides that they see how to get there, but that doesn't mean they actually can get there. They've bumped into their ceiling, and they're going to have a very difficult time crashing through it.