Last December, when the dust had settled to reveal the final standings in the group stages of the Champions League, Juventus came out on top in Group E -- a group that included last year's winners, Chelsea. They were undefeated, with three wins and three losses. At the same time, they were still top of Serie A, having lost just twice, to both Milan sides.
Two months later, with Juve about to face Celtic in the knockout stages, the Old Lady are still in first place, with a five point lead over Napoli. Their league dominance is rarely questioned, and it seems that most take it as a given that Juventus will run out the winners on Tuesday. But their play in recent weeks highlights the fact that Juventus, too, have their weaknesses.
Last season, the bianconeri were undefeated in the league, a tally that lasted until Inter Milan visited Turin in November. But, as has been noted again and again, Juve had no European competition to distract them from their scudetto run. On the other hand, AC Milan played in the Champions League until April; Udinese were in Europa until mid-March; same with Napoli in the Champions League. Even Lazio clung on in Europa until the end of February.
It's evident that European play is taking a toll on the Old Lady this season -- although, oddly enough, it took until January, a month with no Champions League ties, for the exhaustion to really show. Juve had to play seven matches last month: four in the league, three in the Coppa Italia. In Serie A, they won just once, lost once and drew twice. As for the Cup, Juve made it through to the semi-finals, only to lose to Lazio in a dramatic final ten minutes.
What's most surprising about January is the level of competition Juventus faced. Yes, they had to overcome Milan to reach Lazio in the semi-final. But the month started with a 2-1 home loss to Sampdoria, who were in 15th when they paid a visit to Turin. Then came the 1-1 draw with Parma, which was always going to be a difficult fight, as the Crociati were in 8th at the time, and had yet to lose at the Tardini. But it was the 1-1 draw with Genoa that had to have hurt the most, as the visitors were firmly in the relegation zone at the time of the meeting.
If Juventus had only dropped points, perhaps their struggles could be put down to mere tiredness. But in each of those three matches, they took the lead, only to surrender it sometime after the halftime whistle. The Sampdoria match is perhaps the most bizarre: the visitors played with just ten men for 60 minutes, with Mauro Icardi scoring two second-half goals to give Samp the win. In fact, only twice this season have Juventus come from behind to grab a win, in games against Genoa and Cagliari.
So what's going on? Despite the popular belief that Juve have one of the world's best midfielders, the problem may, indeed, lie with their midfield. The Old Lady do very well at creating goals from midfield, but when it comes to stopping them, they don't quite measure up. Juventus have relied upon an excellent defense as well as their wingbacks, who drop back to help cover. And Gianluigi Buffon is always available when the midfield can't soak up the pressure. But with Giorgio Chiellini out until March, the pressure is getting to be too much.
Last month, a host of injuries, suspensions and absences plagued the squad. One of the most notable absences has been that of Kwadwo Asamoah, whose presence in midfield lightens the load of the defense. Stephan Lichtsteiner, too, is able to get back and help with defensive woes, and his presence was sorely felt in the loss to Sampdoria. In that match, Antonio Conte surrounded Andrea Pirlo and Claudio Marchisio with Paul Pogba, Simone Padoin and Paolo De Ceglie -- a much weaker midfield than usual, and one that was sorely punished.
Another reason for Juve's recent slip could be their tactic of press, press, press. By exerting so much energy early on in the match -- even when it's not entirely necessary -- the players are wearying themselves before the match has played out. Conte has no one to rely upon for late-game goals. The lack of a world-class striker playing in bianconeri means there's also not one on reserve, waiting to score a winner in the dying minutes. That's fine when Juve get the lead early on, and can fall back on their excellent defense, but when injuries and exhaustion combine, it's a factor that causes them to drop points.
Of course, it could be argued that January was just a slip, and Juventus have come back to their winning ways. They beat Chievo Verona two weeks ago and Fiorentina last week. But they struggled even against Chievo, allowing a second half goal from Cyril Théréau, who very nearly found a second as well. As for the Viola, it was a typical match, with Juve finding an early lead in the first half and, without much pressure from the hapless visitors, failing to create much in the second.
In good news for the Old Lady, as they head into the match against Celtic, is that their midfield is both healthy and reunited. Asamoah, fresh from the Africa Cup of Nations, is included in the squad. Pirlo, Marchisio and Arturo Vidal all played a full match against Fiorentina, despite rumors that both Pirlo and Marchisio were nursing injuries. Add Lichtsteiner to the mix, and this is a midfield that certainly can stand up to the best sides in the world.