This was supposed to be it. Juventus' return to the big time. They'd dominated at home and now it was time to reassert themselves on the European stage.
Problem was, no one told Bayern Munich.
The last time Juventus reached a Champions League final, Gianluigi Buffon was just 25 years old, a relatively new face in Turin having moved from Parma the season before.
A young Andrea Pirlo was on the winning side that night in Manchester, wearing the red and black of AC Milan, and Antonio Conte was still a feature of the Old Lady's midfield. He hit the post that night. Now, he's on the Bianconeri bench. A lot's changed since in what has been a decade of turmoil and upheaval for Juve.
In truth, getting past Bayern Munich was always going to be difficult for the Italians. For all the Turin side's history and standing in the football world, it shouldn't be forgotten that the Old Lady is still in a transitional stage after what were a very difficult few years.
Bayern, by contrast, have firmly established themselves as one of Europe's footballing powerhouses. They might not have the A-list status of Barcelona or Real Madrid, but this will be their third semifinal in four years—form only the Catalans can match.
Their Spanish rivals have won three finals in the last seven years, while the Germans have lost two of the last three. They're used to this level of competition, whereas for most of the Juventus squad the Champions League still represents a very steep learning curve.
Conte said as much before the Bayern clash. The Italian was irked at the fact that his team were being discussed in the same terms as their German opponents, despite being as he saw it, some way behind Europe's very best clubs.
Before the second leg, he told the press (per Reuters):
The expectations on us are just too high. It's easy to forget everything and not see the past. I heard people saying that our performance in Munich was Juve's worst for years. But we've only been working on this side for 18 months and people are too quick to forget what we have done.
People think everything is easy, but success is never easy, you are never gifted anything in life. We have a path to follow [but] two years ago we weren't even in the Europa League.
Juventus had to be rebuilt and we have just started our journey after so many years of difficulty. Bayern have been building their team for years. Bayern are a skyscraper and we are a building which is only one-third complete.
It's an interesting analogy. In many ways, Bayern are a product of decades of sound management and stable investment, a skyscraper whose foundations were laid back in the early 1980s when Uli Hoeness & Co. first set about modernising the club's commercial model and making sure it was as successful on the balance sheet as it would come to be on the pitch.
Juventus, meanwhile, are still finding their feet after Serie A's decline and the 2006 Calciopoli scandal left the club's fortunes decimated. The Turin outfit are leading the way in terms of modernizing Italian football, but even with their new stadium and financially sensible approach to recruitment they're still some way behind the likes of Bayern.
Failure to qualify aside, the Bianconeri's return to the upper reaches of European football has been staggering, and is something that should be applauded. That it took so little time for them to recover from scandal, stagnation and relegation is a measure of the club's massive potential—and of the competence of those in charge.
Even forgetting about horror stories like that of Leeds United, the football history books are littered with once-great clubs that failed to regain their former stature after falling on hard times. For Juve, it only took the right manager. Conte's work has been commendable, and he's created one of the continent's most promising sides, regardless of how they looked against Bayern.
Yes, Conte hit the ground running, leading Juventus to their 28th Serie A title unbeaten and back to the Champions League quarterfinals for the first time in seven years, but this should be taken in context. He's overachieved, and now he should be applauded rather than criticized for it.
After the Bayern match, the manager said (per soccerladuma.co.za):
This was an opportunity for us and we were basically newcomers to the Champions League after so many years out. We reached the quarter-finals, which in my view was something extraordinary. When we were paired with Bayern, I said this was an opportunity for us to face an extremely strong side and understand the gap that separated us from the superpowers.
On the face of it, being dominated over both legs and losing 4-0 on aggregate would suggest the gap to those superpowers is still quite large. But Bayern are still something of an unknown quantity, having romped to league success at home but sometimes looking shaky in Europe.
The next round will reveal a lot. We know how good Barcelona are, and after they go head-to-head with Bayern in the next round, we might have a better idea about how good Juve are. If the Bavarians can beat—or even come close to—Barcelona, then the Italians' performance will have to be re-evaluated because there's no shame in losing to a team that can match the Catalans. Time will tell.