OLYMPIASTADION, BERLIN — For Juventus, the sharp sting of defeat was tempered somewhat by the knowledge of strides made, of tangible progress already achieved.
But as the pain of Saturday's Champions League final defeat to a worthy Barcelona side begins to recede, the question for Juventus fans, starved of such nights for so long, slowly began to turn to thoughts of when the club might reach such a stage again.
Was this simply a one-off, a great team peaking for one season only, or the start of a sustained return to prominence for one of the giants of European football?
The performance of La Vecchia Signora this season seems to have reinvigorated the club’s fanbase while simultaneously restoring some pride in the Italian game in general after years of disappointment for Europe's boot in the continent's elite club competition.
There was a reminder of Juventus' own glorious history before kick-off, as current goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon peeled away from his warm-up to greet former team-mate Alessandro Del Piero. Both players were in the side last time Juve reached the Champions League final, the 2003 defeat to AC Milan, while Del Piero was also in the starting lineup last time Juventus won the competition back in 1996.
Since that loss in the 2003 final, when Andrea Pirlo was on AC Milan's side in an all-Italian meeting at Old Trafford, just three Serie A sides have made it to the final of the Champions League—the most recent of them being Inter Milan in 2010’s treble-winning campaign. Juve have watched from the sidelines in recent times, but so too has Italian football as a whole, with clubs from Spain, England and Germany pushing forth and asserting their superiority.
After Juventus lost on Saturday, falling to a 3-1 defeat as Barcelona secured their fourth Champions League title in 10 seasons, Juventus boss Massimiliano Allegri reminded his disappointed players of what they had achieved just by making it to Berlin, of the pride they had restored in both their club and the league they represent by beating the likes of Borussia Dortmund, Monaco and Real Madrid.
“That is down to these boys,” he said of his players, when asked about the enthusiasm of Italian fans throughout the weekend of the final. “Above all, we come out of this final with greater self-esteem, greater confidence and a greater awareness of what we can do.”
Prior to kick-off, Allegri had stressed the need for Juventus to build on the experiences of this campaign regardless of the final result—to take the lessons learned from their knockout adventure, the win over Dortmund being highlighted as a key turning point, and apply them to future campaigns.
Buffon, more bluntly, said: "This is a club that should be reaching the semi-finals every season." Allegri, keen to temper expectations, was not setting his sights quite so high.
“I think we can improve still,” Allegri said. “Not necessarily in results, because that would mean winning the [treble], but what we can still improve is the quality of the game. We can consolidate and strengthen our way of playing and we can try and stay among the eight top teams in Europe on a stable basis.”
That means continuing to dominate domestically while trying to make further strides on the continent.
“Our first objective is winning the Scudetto and the Coppa Italia. The Champions League is still one of our dreams. This year we came close, and maybe one year, we will win it.”
Domestically, at least, there seems to be little impending challenge to their domination. This season saw Juventus club clinch a fourth straight Serie A title, with challengers to their supremacy once again falling away long before the business end of the campaign.
For now, Juventus seem to face little real threat at domestic level, a situation that may yet come to hinder their hopes of becoming better prepared to contend in the Champions League—a problem Bayern Munich have perhaps faced in the Bundesliga over the last two seasons.
That status is perhaps in part a result of their financial situation—as one of only a handful of Italian clubs that owns their own stadium, the Turin side’s revenues dwarf most of their competitors—but also owes a nod to the impressive nature of their recent recruitment.
Unlike Barcelona, which has a large share of academy graduates, much of Juventus' side has originated from the transfer market. Saturday’s side demonstrated the impressive nature of the club’s transfer strategy, with Paul Pogba, lured away from Manchester United for next to nothing, and Alvaro Morata making impressive contributions, while Patrice Evra, Carlos Tevez and Andrea Pirlo have all been important factors this season despite their being discarded by other top sides.
Juventus have already started planning for next term, having completed an expensive deal for young Palermo forward Paulo Dybala. Yet the fear lingers that such a signing is accompanied by a corresponding sale soon to come—that this impressive current side will be broken up just as it reaches its culmination, with Pirlo likely to seek a new challenge to end his career and the stars in an earlier phase of their career, such as Pogba and Arturo Vidal, perhaps set to receive lucrative offers from overseas.
There is cause for optimism, especially in the growth of the likes of Kingsley Coman and Daniele Rugani, but as with all young players, there are no guarantees.
"Tonight is the continuation of a journey which we set out on years ago and which has seen us enjoy domestic success," sporting director Beppe Marotta insisted, per the club's official website. "Now we'll get stuck into the Champions League again next year and try to get back into the final.
"The footballing season ends here, but we must already start thinking about the future. We need to start again with players of the very highest calibre—players like Paul Pogba, for example."
Morata, on whom Real Madrid have an option to re-sign, added, per Eurosport: “This is a great squad, a great family and we must continue working hard. This team has no limits, it can win the Champions League and the directors are working to build an even stronger side.”
That will be much harder if the team loses its stars, the likelihood of which is only increased by an acceptance that Juventus, while a behemoth in their country, can no longer compete financially with Barcelona or the rest of Europe’s elite. Lionel Messi may have been the architect of Saturday's victory, but it was Luis Suarez and Neymar who scored the decisive goals. They are players Barcelona signed for the sort of fees Juventus can only dream about these days—but are now almost annual occurrences for others.
“I think we can say he is one of the best players we have signed,” Barca boss Luis Enrique said of Suarez, whose finish to give Barcelona the lead at 2-1 effectively sealed the match. “It was a good decision. We paid a lot of money, but he has tremendous hunger, he wants to win trophies and that is what we have achieved together.”
At the final whistle, after an exhausting and ultimately disappointing 90 minutes, Allegri took his team aside, congratulating them for the season they had just produced and commanding them not to be disheartened by the way it had ended.
They had lost to a great team but could still take great credit from a season in which they restored both the club's and Italian football to a level of credibility they once enjoyed.
“Unfortunately, when you play against great players, you think you have things under control and then one of these players gets away,” he added. “During a final, you have to be careful because the thing that tips the balance is the minor detail. But I am proud of what my boys have achieved.”
This defeat was no shame. The battle now for Allegri, his players and the board is to find a way to ensure it is not another 12 years before Juventus reach such a stage again.
Having got there, though, perhaps they are well-equipped to do so again.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise stated.