Andrea Pirlo used to love winding up Gennaro Gattuso. In his autobiography, the now Juventus manager described his former teammate as “my favourite target … despite the fact that he tried on numerous occasions to kill me with a fork”. Pirlo recalled bursting out of Gattuso’s wardrobe to scare him in the middle of the night and stealing his phone to message a Milan director with an offer to swap his sister for an improved contract.
It is one thing to tease, though, and another to defeat. If Pirlo derived any additional pleasure from claiming the first trophy of his managerial career at Gattuso’s expense on Wednesday night, then he did a good job of hiding it. “I feel sorry for him,” Pirlo confessed after steering Juventus to a 2-0 victory over Napoli in Italy’s Supercoppa. “But we are doing a different job now to the one that we had before. It was important for me to bring home the win.”
Success is always the expectation at Juventus, but the pressure on Pirlo to deliver in this game had been especially intense. A deserved defeat to Inter on Sunday had dropped his team seven points behind their rivals in the Serie A standings – and 10 behind leaders Milan. The club’s pursuit of a 10th consecutive Scudetto was in jeopardy – and, according to some reports, perhaps his job along with it.
Juventus knew they were taking a gamble last summer when they handed control of their first team to a man whose only previous coaching position was the Under-23 job they hired him for one week earlier. They hoped he could shape a team in his image – one that could win trophies while committing to an aesthetically-pleasing brand of football.
More than that, though, Juventus were seeking a manager to lead a renewal. While the media’s focus has tended to linger on Cristiano Ronaldo over the past three years, the club have been planning for life without him, investing considerable sums in players such as Federico Chiesa, Matthijs De Ligt and Dejan Kulusevski. The theory was that Pirlo might relate well to all parties. Like Zinedine Zidane at Real Madrid, he could speak to Ronaldo as a peer, connecting on a level that only serial champions can. But perhaps he would understand the wants and needs of the younger members of the squad, too, having retired himself as a player only in 2017.
Such considerations ought not to be lightly dismissed. Gattuso himself has spoken this season of the challenge of adjusting his mindset to fit the reality of modern footballers’ lives. “We managers need to understand the world we live in,” he said last month. “If I tried to teach my kids the same way my father taught me, that would be a mistake.”
Juventus have constructed an entire club identity, however, around the belief of their former president Giampiero Boniperti that: “Winning is not important, it’s the only thing that matters.” Pirlo is no more immune from the obligation to claim silverware than anyone who came before him. The Supercoppa might have been the least of the trophies that his team is competing for this season, but it was still the first one up for grabs.
Fans hoping for a reaction to the loss against Inter might have been disappointed with what they saw during a tepid first 45 minutes. Napoli had thrashed Fiorentina 6-0 at the weekend, but were reluctant to commit players forward here and risk granting Chiesa and Kulusevski space to run in behind. Juventus seemed not to have any ideas for how to penetrate a low block.
That changed, though, at the interval. Federico Bernardeschi replaced Chiesa and almost scored immediately, David Ospina barely halting his point-blank effort on the line. Kostas Manolas then sliced an attempted clearance across his own goal and inches wide of the post.
Finally, Ronaldo broke the deadlock. And perhaps another record as well. His goal was well taken, pouncing on the loose ball and hooking it home after a Juventus corner deflected off the head of Tiemoué Bakayoko. Whether it made him the most prolific men’s footballer of all time remains a source of debate. This was his 760th career goal – a figure that some stats services reported to have moved him above Josef Bican into the No 1 spot. Other sources, however, credit the former Slavia Prague forward with 805 goals. Fifa.com calls that an “estimated figure”. Pelé and Romário each claim to have scored more than 1,000 goals in their careers, though those figures appear to include friendlies.
There is no ambiguity, though, about Ronaldo’s enduring importance for Juventus. This was already his 20th goal of the season and he remains a man for the big occasions. Gazzetta dello Sport noted that this was his ninth goal in the last 10 finals he has played in club football.
Napoli needed a response from their own star forward. Lorenzo Insigne was the author of a magnificent assist against Fiorentina at the weekend, dribbling repeatedly around the same three opponents as he took the ball most of the length of the pitch before teeing up Hirving Lozano. But he could not seize his moment when it arrived on Wednesday, stroking an 80th-minute penalty wide of the left-hand upright.
Gattuso absolved him of blame, pointing out that “even Maradona missed penalties”. Still, the fact Insigne has now missed all three he has taken (outside of shootouts) against Juventus is hard to ignore – especially when you consider he has only failed to convert on one other occasion in his entire career. He had scored his previous 12.
Juventus added gloss to their triumph in injury time, Álvaro Morata rolling the ball in at the end of a ruthless counter. The assist came from Juan Cuadrado, who did remarkably well to play a full match after joining his teammates that morning following a fortnight-long coronavirus infection.
His return provides a welcome boost for Pirlo, as Juventus seek to get back on track in Serie A. So too will the simple fact of having that first piece of silverware in the bag. “Lifting my first trophy as a manager is something else – even more beautiful than doing it as a player,” he said. “We have the ambition to compete for every competition, I will not choose between the Champions League and Serie A.”
At Juventus, that was never an option. “It is 10 years in a row now that we have won a trophy,” tweeted the club president Andrea Agnelli. “Not bad. But the most beautiful will be the next one.”