From Near Misses to Tainted Triumphs: Juventus’ Love-Hate Relationship With the European Cup
As Marco Asensio swept home a Marcelo cut-back in the 90th minute of the 2017 Champions League Final, he secured history in more ways than one. His goal capped off a 4-1 win for Los Blancos over Juventus, ensuring Madrid became the first ever team to win back-to-back Champions League titles and stretched their lead at the top of the overall European Cup winning charts to an untouchable twelve titles won.
But the loss also stretched Juventus’ unwanted record of lost finals to seven – comfortably more than anyone else – and equaled a record of five consecutive final defeat, tied with fellow group H side Benfica. It was a game where the serial winners met the perennial losers.
Their love-hate relationship with the competition started all the way back in 1973 as they defeated Marseille, FC Magdeburg, Újpest Dozsa of Hungary and Brian Clough’s Derby County to reach their first final where they took on the might of Ajax.
Just five minutes into the game, Horst Blankenburg strode out from the back and clipped an inviting ball into the box for Johnny Rep to attack and head home – clinching a historic three-peat of European Cups for the Amsterdammers and condemning Juve to a first European Cup defeat. It wouldn’t be their last.
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The 70s and early 80s largely consisted of early exits and non-participation, other than a run to the semi-finals in 1978 where they were beaten by relative minnows Club Brugge who were managed by the legendary Ernst Happel – and he wasn’t finished there.
Juve eventually returned to a final in 1983, where Giovanni Trapattoni took on Happel’s Hamburg in Athens needing a Herculean effort to rewrite the wrongs of their Belgrade Final ten years earlier, but they once again fell short.
Another early goal (this time in the 9th minute) did the damage, as future Bundesliga-winning manager and Fulham lunatic Felix Magath smashed home an absolute slobberknocker on his left foot which nestled into Dino Zoff’s net to condemn the Old Lady to another narrow final.
They would return two years later to take on a Liverpool team who were doing what Juventus could only dream of – conquering European football. Winners in four of the previous eight years – including against Brugge in 1978 and in 1984 against fellow Italians Roma – Juve had their work cut out, but the 1985 Final quickly fell into infamy.
Trouble in the stands before the game led to the collapse of a wall which tragically killed 39 people and injured hundreds more, delaying a game that only took place with the idea of limiting further violence. Juventus ultimately edged a match packed with quality through a controversial Michel Platini penalty, but the victory was hollow and pyrrhic. Paolo Rossi later said that the trophy had no meaning to him. For many, the wait to win a European Cup went on.
That next season, Trapattoni led Juve to the Scudetto before departing Inter Milan – spiraling the Bianconeri into a domestic tailspin of which they wouldn’t return until Marcello Lippi steadied the ship in 1994/95. He returned them to the top of the tree, then set sail on a European voyage to Dortmund, Bucharest and Glasgow to navigate their first ever Champions League group stage.
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Real Madrid stood in their way and took a 1-0 lead home to Turin following Raul’s 20th-minute strike in the first leg, but goals from Alessandro Del Piero and Michele Padovano turned a feisty second leg around to set-up a semi-final tie with Nantes. A 2-0 home win rescued an ultimately disappointing 3-2 defeat in northwestern France, but Juve hobbled over the finish line to meet none other than Ajax in the final – the original foe of 1973.
It might not have been Johan Cruyff, Johnny Rep and Johan Neeskens this time but the Dutch side were serious customers once more, reaching their second consecutive Champions League Final and armed with the likes of Jari Litmanen, Edgar Davids and the de Boer brothers.
It started perfectly for Juve, as Fabrizio Ravanelli – now just 107 minutes away from a transfer to Middlesbrough – pounced on a poor Frank de Boer header which Edwin van der Sar couldn’t recover to slide the ball into an empty net. Litmanen equalised late in the half and eventually pushed the game through normal and extra time before penalties were needed to decide the contest.
Davids – a future two-time Champions League finalist with Juve himself – stepped up, but saw his poor spot kick easily saved by Angelo Peruzzi, before five perfect penalties took the game to Sonny Silooy. A terrific servant at right-back but hardly a prolific goal scorer, Silooy stepped up without a league goal to his name for nine years and also saw his penalty saved by Peruzzi.
Juve were now in touching distance and in the hands of Vladimir Jugović who had scored in every knockout round so far. The number 14 stepped up and assembled his own spirit of Johan Cruyff, blasting the ball into the bottom left corner to win the Cup for Juventus.
A player wearing a Juventus shirt did lift the European Cup that night in 1973, but only because Cruyff himself had swapped shirts before raising the trophy aloft. Now it was Gianluca Vialli’s turn, but as the cup came down on that fateful night in Roma, the feeling became anything but eternal.
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They returned the next year and took on Louis Van Gaal’s Ajax once more in the semi-final stage, leaving the result in little doubt as they defeated the Dutch side 6-2 over two legs on their way to facing Borussia Dortmund in the Final – aiming to become the first team to win back-to-back UCL’s. But it wasn’t to be.
A five-minute double by Karl-Heinz Riedle left Juve with a mountain to climb and just as Del Piero forced a piton into the ice, Lars Ricken scored just 16 seconds after coming on to crown Dortmund as the kings of Europe, and leave Juventus reeling once more.
But what do the Old Lady do better than anyone else? Yes, lose finals. But they also reach them, and have shown more bravery than anyone to keep loving a competition which, clearly, doesn’t feel quite the same way about them.
They trounced the likes of Manchester United and Feyenoord in the groups before dispatching of Dynamo Kyiv and Monaco to reach yet another European Final the next year. This was now their sixth against as many opponents with Real Madrid standing in their way, on the hunt for a first-ever Champions League triumph and a first in Europe since 1966.
An even game for the most part, it appeared it would take a stroke of genius or a slice of luck to decide it, with the latter prevailing. Roberto Carlos hammered in a textbook drive from the left which ricocheted into the path of Predrag Mijatović.
The number six’s relevance continued, as he calmly rounded Peruzzi and slotted home in the 66th minute to win Real the game. That victory began Madrid’s run of winning a record eight consecutive finals, twisting a knife they would soon dig deeper into Juventus who were now in the midst of a record losing streak.
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Perhaps they should have been there the next year, too, as they faced an unfancied Manchester United side in the semis who had barely scraped through the groups and had their sights set on other trophies back home. They took a 1-1 draw back from Old Trafford, and quickly found themselves 3-1 up on aggregate through a Filippo Inzaghi brace in Turin.
But the irrepressible (and as it turned out, unstoppable) United rallied, scoring three unanswered goals to snatch their place in the final out of Juve’s hands. By then, Lippi had departed and Carlo Ancelotti was left to pick up the pieces, but he failed to qualify the Bianconeri in 2000 and fell to a crushing group stage exit in 2001. He too departed that summer and was replaced by Lippi, as Carletto moved east to join AC Milan – they wouldn’t have heard the last of him.
Lippi struggled on the continent initially before the 2002/03 season, where Juve faced the familiar foes of Dynamo Kyiv, Feyenoord and Manchester United before facing Real Madrid in the semi-finals. That 1998 Final turned out to be one of, if not the most important game in Los Blancos’ history; they’d waited 32 years for a title and the expectancy amongst fans and board was massive, but they were underdogs.
Mijatović’s strike carried plenty of weight at the time but its significance has grown further as each trophy has been lifted. If Juve had edged that game, perhaps they would now be the record holders of Europe’s most famed competition. But they weren’t, and in the 2002/03 semis, they were out for revenge.
Goals by Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos either side of a David Trezeguet strike left it all to play for at Stadio delle Alpi. Trezeguet scored again just 12 minutes into the second leg before goals from Del Piero and Pavel Nedvěd – the latter on his way to a Ballon d’Or – sealed the deal to take Juve to the cusp of immortality again. Juve took on AC Milan (another new opponent) at Old Trafford with Ancelotti in the opposing dugout – aiming to achieve what he never could at the helm of the Old Lady.
What followed was the Champions League’s first (and only) goalless final, with two defensive masterclasses carrying the game to the lottery of penalties – but Milan’s numbers came up in Manchester, as Andriy Shevchenko powered home the winning penalty after a raft of poor spot-kicks. Carlo was the hero of Milan but the villain of Turin, with another old boy waiting in the wings to derail the Old Lady.
But before that, they were haunted by one of their former triumphs. Allegations of doping had threatened to take the gloss off of that 1996 victory over Ajax, with club doctor Riccardo Agricola spending 22-months behind bars following a 2004 court case. It was found that the likes of Antonio Conte, Didier Deschamps and Alessandro Del Piero had ‘most probably’ taken erythropoietin in the build-up to the game. It might not have been the infamy of 1985, but it certainly cast a dark shadow over their latest UCL triumph.
They wouldn’t return to a European Final for 11 years after the verdict, even losing a UEFA Cup round of 16 tie to Fulham along the way and suffering the igmony of relegation following the calciopoli scandal. But they returned to the showpiece match in 2014/15, swatting aside Atlético Madrid and Monaco, as well as old foes Dortmund and Real to contest the final.
The Old Lady faced yet another new foe; Barcelona this time, with both sides hunting for a treble which would place them into football’s record books. Massimiliano Allegri was now at the helm of the Bianconeri, but he failed to arrest their European slide – losing a tight game 3-1 to add Berlin to their tale of heartbreak.
But Juve would always come back for more, and always in the same style. Another group stage breezed through. Another former nemesis bypassed, as they humbled Barca by three goals to nil. Another final. Their ninth all told, a number only bettered by three sides. But it was Real once more, hunting for history at the expense of their oldest adversary.
If Juventus won, they would be safe from equalling Benfica’s run of five consecutive final defeats, but if Real did, they would become the first side to ever win back-to-back European cups – a task Juve themselves were robbed of in the 90s. They reach finals as well as anybody, but they lose them like no other.
Cristiano Ronaldo swept Madrid into the lead before Mario Mandžukić brought Juve level with an excellent overhead kick, before Casemiro restored the Spaniard’s lead with a fierce strike which – like Ronaldo’s effort – took a hefty deflection to find the net. Ronaldo soon netted again, before Juan Cuadrado saw red.
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He might have only gently pushed Sergio Ramos, but it was enough to buy the Colombian a red card for a brief yet telling show of petulance. It wasn’t just the frustration of the 90 minutes, but one of the 2010s, the 2000s, the 90s, the 80s and the 70s. Marco Asensio soon swept home, and as Zinedine Zidane – the Juve crown prince of Turin between 1996 and 2001 – lifted a trophy with Real which he never did with Juve. By far and away the record losers of the competition, and the first ever to lose at least one final in five different decades.
Their showings since then have steadily grown more pathetic; losses to Real (again) and Ajax secured quarter-final exits in the next two seasons, before Round of 16 knockouts to Lyon and Porto were a precursor for a third consecutive first-round exit – losing 4-1 on aggregate to Villarreal in 2021/22. With two losses from two so far this season, don’t count your chickens that the Bianconeri will even get that far this time around.
But why is this so bad? Surely a team getting to so many finals and, by and large, losing by the odd goal (three times and once on penalties) is just bad luck? Perhaps, but Juventus have won 36 league titles – a total greater than any team in the big five leagues, and a number which would account for 60% of all top-flight French sides.
Milan have won just over half of that, but boast a seven on their European Cup sleeve. Nottingham Forest have only just returned from 23 years spent in the second and third tiers of England, but can bring as many cups from their City Ground trophy cabinet. Chelsea can say the same, but they contested their first final over 12,000 days after Juventus did.
Their European background is illustrious, but their few successes have been outweighed by a chronic sense of failure, while larger issues have – rightfully – dictated the discourse around the seldom victories in a catalogue of near misses.
By: James Pendleton / @Jpends_
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Getty Images