Leonardo Bonucci's return symbolic of Juventus' win-now approach
So much has been written about the economic stimulus Juventus expect to enjoy from signing Cristiano Ronaldo that the primary motive has, to some extent, been lost. For all the noise about gaining millions of new followers on social media, breaking into new markets and closing the wealth gap with the other cash machines at the top of the European game, this is about a club making a final push to win the big one.
There was a time when the Old Lady was guarded about her designs on the Champions League. She did not want to get anyone's hopes up and sought to manage expectation. She claimed winning Serie A and maintaining domestic dominance remained the priority. As for Europe, she limited herself to targeting the quarterfinals. But the external image of her was that the Scudetto was no longer enough. She must be aiming higher.
Juve's International Champions Cup game vs. Real Madrid, at FedEx Field in Maryland on Saturday, once again brings into sharp focus the Italian champions' pursuit of European glory. Madrid beat them in the 2017 final and knocked them out at the quarterfinal stage with a last-minute penalty last season but, just four months later, Juventus seem emboldened after signing the Bernabeu's best player.
Whereas, in 2015, Juventus did not anticipate making the final, two years later the story was different. Listening to the players afterward it became clear that, far from an unexpected extra, Champions League glory had started to be the driving force of their season. That mentality remains in place, with players, coaches and directors no longer disguising their ambition.
Hiding isn't an option when you buy Ronaldo, but the evolution of mindset, from inferiority complex to cautious optimism to going on-the-record with their desire to win, is significant. Before their new No. 7 arrived, recruitment had been geared toward rejuvenating the squad and starting a new cycle.
And while the team has got younger, it doesn't feel that way. That is partly down to signing a 33-year-old Ronaldo, but is also conditioned by Juventus' other high-profile piece of business: The swap deal that sent Mattia Caldara (24) to Milan and brought Leonardo Bonucci (31) back to Turin, barely a year after he forced a move away and vowed to "shift the balance" of power to San Siro.
Bonucci's return has been met with indifference by fans, who have not forgotten how he celebrated scoring against them in March. The cold shoulder shown in the poor turnout for his medical was captured in the Corriere dello Sport headline: "The Big Chill." However, tribalism isn't the sole reason for the low opinion.
Last year, the impression took hold of Bonucci being on the way down, with Caldara going in the opposite direction. One is entering the twilight of his career, the other has it all in front of him and is set to lead Italy's defence with his new Milan teammate Alessio Romagnoli. A survey by La Gazzetta dello Sport showed 89 percent of those polled thought Milan were getting the better deal.
Nevertheless, Juventus' pursuit of Diego Godin in the weeks preceding this deal underlined the feeling within the corridors of power that an experienced, charismatic defender -- undaunted by the biggest Champions League nights -- was something they needed. It reiterated the win-now approach.
Apparent differences between Bonucci, manager Max Allegri and some members of the dressing room have been downplayed in a fashion reminiscent of Allegri's 2014 arrival at Juventus, which came with speculation about his relationship with Andrea Pirlo, who he was deemed to have phased out at Milan.
In support of that argument, Allegri can point to an interview he gave just a matter of weeks before Bonucci's exit, in which he said the centre-back was "the future leader of the dressing room." No one embodied what Juventus were about more, with the exception of Gigi Buffon.
That is especially important, now Buffon is at Paris Saint-Germain, Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli are closer to retirement, Stephane Lichsteiner is gone and Claudio Marchisio's influence has waned. Juventus need continuity of leadership.
"Another piece of the Champions League puzzle" was Tuttosport's assessment of Bonucci redux. If Juventus have lacked a big-game matchwinner up front over the last few years in Europe, last season they also missed the playmaking that he and Dani Alves provided from the back.
Now restored and with Joao Cancelo also in the mix, the threat of Bonucci's passes over the top will make teams think twice about playing a high line and force them to defend 10m further back, a feature of play that would have come in handy in ties against the likes of Tottenham last season.
Far from Mission Impossible, La Stampa are calling Juve's moves Operazione Carpe Diem. Gearing up for a push to reach a third final in five years -- third time lucky, she hopes -- it is time for the Old Lady to seize the day.