Last Summer, Juve did a little shopping.
The quintuple champions snapped up two “bargains”, matching the release clauses of Gonzalo Higuain (€90m, payable in two instalments) and Miralem Pjanic (€38m).
Doing so, they instantly hit two of their biggest rivals, where the two players came from, Napoli and Roma, destabilising them in one single master stroke.
The Neapoltains looked to replace El Pipita with Mauro Icardi of Inter, with no success, despite a final bid in excess of €70m and a lengthy courtship. They had to settle of Ajax’s Arkadiusz Milik who, after a promising start, rutpured his knee ligaments.
Roma, on the other hand, did what all Italian teams who finished in third place, synonymous of late-August Champions League playoffs, did before them: waiting to see if they could make it to the group stages before deciding to invest in a suitable replacement for Pjanic.
The rest of the story was a foregone conclusion: Juventus ran away with the title, much sooner than in previous years, as their rivals floundered, one after the other, for all kinds of different reasons.
In fact, one may argue that Serie A never actually started: the season was over before the first ball was kicked, such Juve’s superiority was evident, right from the start.
The Italian Lega di Serie A should perhaps consider introducing a sort of “2nd Scudetto” from this point onwards and assign the real thing to Juve, automatically, to let them focus on European biz and tour the world like the Harlem Globetrotters.
More seriously, second place is what really matters these days, as it grants direct access to the group stages of the Champions League, money and more time and resources for planning.
This is why now, with four games to play, Roma and Napoli, currently in 2nd and 3rd place respectively, sweat like it’s Ferragosto.
They both know they can’t afford to finish in 3rd place: both endured an early exit from the CL in the last preliminary stage: in 2014, Napoli were eliminated (that’s the word) by Ahtletic Bilbao; last year, Roma stumbled (apt description) upon a slick Porto side.
And the ones before all met the same fate, almost every single time in recent years: Sampdoria (2010-11, knocked out by Werder Bremen), Udinese (2011-12, by Arsenal and 2012-13, by Braga), Lazio (2015-16, by Bayer Leverkusen). Only Milan in 2014 managed to get through.
Demotion to the Europa League, where nobody actually wants to go because of its meagre returns and disruptive/punitive Thursday evening games off to distant venues, inevitably followed.
However, this year, more than ever, neither Roma nor Napoli can afford to finish in 3rd place, whatever both may claim.
Here’s why: Roma need the cash, Napoli need to mount a serious title challenge, 30 after their first crown.
Cash: Corriere dello Sport valued at €32m the cost of non-qualification alone. That’s before you factor in the comfortable return from points in the group stage and wins in the knock-out phase. Roma need the cash to rebuild a shaken and fragile squad – and build, later, their flashy new stadium by the Tiber River.
Title challenge: Napoli feel their young team will soon be within range of Juve and look to sign less numerous but much bigger players during the Summer to make it happen. Sans CL, they can just forget about it.
Both challengers look from their distant places Juventus fly higher and higher (note: I still maintain I’m no fan of the Bianconeri), soon blessed with more cash reaped from the Champions League. Who knows who they’re going to buy next Summer.
And, oh, they could win the CL, too, in the meantime.
If they do, the Others will be in impossible situations, sandwiched between the Turin giants and Chinese-Milanese teams who, let’s face it, aren’t going to stand idly by forever.
Yeah, definitely, Lega Serie A should introduce the Scudettino…