Juventus still need to being in a top class central midfielder if they’re to end their Champions League heartache

Juventus may have been to two Champions League finals in the past three seasons, but fans of the Italian giants have been waiting too long to see their side lift “Old Big Ears.” It has been 21 years since the club last lifted that most prestigious of trophies, and it is becoming increasingly apparent that a gaping hole in midfield is the biggest hurdle preventing them from doing so again.

Back in 2015, the Bianconeri could call upon Andrea Pirlo and Arturo Vidal, but both men left immediately after suffering defeat at the hands of Barcelona, while Paul Pogba followed them just twelve months later. In their place, Sami Khedira and Miralem Pjanic have joined Claudio Marchisio in Max Allegri’s squad, but as the latter battled with injury throughout 2016/17, it was clear the Old Lady was in need of reinforcements. 

That point was hammered home during the heavy Champions League Final loss to Real Madrid, the Spanish side repeatedly slicing through the centre of the pitch on their way to a comfortable 4-1 victory in Cardiff.

Juve fans have lamented the performances of reserves Stefano Sturaro, Mario Lemina and Tomas Rincon, but in truth the issue does not lie with them. They are serviceable backup players, each undeniably qualified to be the fifth or sixth choice player in their role, but none able to make a case for being the fourth-best midfielder on a team hoping to become the continent’s top side.

Director General Beppe Marotta appears acutely aware of this shortcoming, making repeated attempts to sign Steven N’Zonzi from Sevilla, Paris Saint-Germain’s Blaise Matuidi and even Belgium international Axel Witsel over the past three transfer windows. Indeed, the latter of that trio was in Turin for a medical on deadline day last summer, only for of Zenit St. Petersburg to pull the plug when they failed to secure a replacement in time.

“It’s always nice to hear that a club like Juventus are not giving up on me,” Witsel himself told the  RTBF website last November. “Right now I’m not asking whether it’ll be in January or June, I’m playing my matches and we’ll see what happens for me. I’ll join Juventus, but right now I just don’t know when.”

However, in January he would instead join Chinese Super League outfit Tianjin Quanjian, unable to refuse a contract rumoured to be paying him €18 million. ”It was a very difficult decision because on one hand there was a great team and a top club like Juventus," the 27-year-old told Tuttosport. "But on the other there was a crucial offer for my family that I couldn't turn down. The leadership at Juventus have always behaved like gentlemen with me and I can only be grateful to them.”

That gratitude sounds great, and future generations of Witsels will not go hungry thanks to Great Grandfather Axel’s chosen career path, but the Juventus squad somehow still remains incomplete. Always a coach who has innovated and reinvented, Allegri opted to mask that weakness shortly after learning he would not be seeing the Belgian in black and white, switching to a 4-2-3-1 formation that meant he needed only two players in the middle of the park.

The presence of summer acquisitions Douglas Costa and Federico Bernardeschi seems to hint that a similar framework will be utilised in 2017/18, a decision that seems highly logical given the success it brought. The Old Lady swept aside domestic opponents with ease playing that way, while also eliminating Porto, Monaco and Barcelona from the Champions League, the latter handed a 3-0 lesson at Juventus Stadium that will live long in the memory.

However, it is the thought of what happened in Cardiff that should be resonating loudest right now. Outmanned and outclassed in midfield, Allegri needed more than Lemina – a 78th minute substitute – could ever hope to bring in such a high-stakes game. That Zidane could start Casemiro, Toni Kroos and Luka Modrić yet still have the choice of introducing either Mateo Kovačić or Marco Asensio from the bench only serves to highlight the colossal gulf in quality. 

Unable to control pace or tempo, Juve were of course hindered by Marchisio’s lack of fitness, but it remains a problem that must be addressed, particularly as Milan, Inter, Roma and Napoli look set to push them harder than ever in Serie A this term. The Scudetto should at last be hotly contested, draining even more energy from Allegri’s first three options and once again meaning he will need to call upon the reserves.

Marotta and the club need to act quickly to mend a problem that has existed for over a year already, because it only takes one injury or suspension to cause a major problem and Khedira is certainly no stranger to the treatment table. That would see Lemina or Sturaro quickly pressed into service, something that is ok when facing Bologna or Benevento, but nowhere near enough if it was Barcelona or Bayern Munich.

There is less than a month to go and delays that led to the Witsel fiasco cannot be repeated this time around. A midfielder – a good, top class, energetic, powerful midfielder – needs to be brought to Turin before the transfer window slams shut. Whether its two seasons or 21 years, there is no question that the Old Lady has waited long enough.