Juventus are dominant on the pitch but precarious off it as Marotta exits
On the surface, things really could not be any better for Juventus at the moment. They've got maximum points in Serie A after winning their opening eight games in all competitions for the first time since 1930. Their 3-1 victory in Saturday's top of the table clash against Napoli at the Allianz Stadium catapulted Juventus six points clear and we're not even in October yet.
No one in the history of the league has enjoyed as big an advantage this early in a campaign. After watching Juventus go undefeated in Antonio Conte's first season, we've now reached the stage where Italy's sporting press are wondering if it they can maybe win all 38.
Massimiliano Allegri has no problem telling journalists they're out of their minds and are underestimating just how hard it is to rack up these results. Instead, the image he wanted to present after Saturday's victory was one of measured dissatisfaction.
Juventus didn't have it all their own way at the Allianz Stadium. Napoli organised their "pressures" in such a way that they made the Bianconeri play badly for the first 20 minutes, forcing a mistake from Leonardo Bonucci that they seized upon with their necessary mercilessness to get an early 1-0 lead. That early spell and the chance Jose Callejon had to make it 2-2, even when Napoli were down to 10 men, left Carlo Ancelotti encouraged by what he had seen from his team.
The five-time Champions League winner had been about to replace Mario Rui when the Portugal international mistimed a tackle on Paulo Dybala and received a second yellow card, condemning Napoli to play the final half-hour shorthanded. Allegri was angry that Juve "stopped playing" at this point but the Italian champions didn't completely zone out. Bonucci finished Napoli off in the end, bundling in his first goal since making his return from AC Milan; it was one of several rather ominous positives on the night from a Bianconero point of view.
After saving a penalty in Valencia, Wojciech Szczesny proved decisive again by snuffing out Callejon's shot at an equaliser. Bonucci's goal signalled the end of the tension between him and the Curva Sud, which has been reluctant to forgive the confident centre-back for walking out on them a year ago. The kicking that Rui gave Miralem Pjanic in the first half ended up bringing out the best of him, too. Mario Mandzukic now has four goals in seven games, his most prolific start to a campaign at Juventus and while Dybala didn't exactly light things up, it was his driving run that led to Juventus' decisive second goal.
"Paulo had a good game," Allegri pointed out. "He drew a lot of fouls," including the one that ended with Rui receiving his marching orders.
Ultimately though, Juventus' seventh straight league win carried the signature of their No.7 with Cristiano Ronaldo rising to the first big occasion of the Serie A calendar. "The same old Ronaldo," Ancelotti said afterwards, "always decisive and effective." Involved in all three goals, La Gazzetta dello Sport marvelled at how "he took charge of Juve in the most complicated moment and the biggest game" of the season so far.
For all the joy Napoli were having by pressing Juventus high up the pitch, Ronaldo repeatedly forced them to look over their shoulder and retreat. Allegri felt it was his best display of the season so far along "with the first half hour in Valencia where he started very well..." In the mixed zone, he added: "Cristiano is a player who misplaces very few passes. He passes the ball with extraordinary speed and in one way or another he's decisive."
In a sense, Saturday felt like the true beginning of the Ronaldo era at Juventus, partly because it also marked the end of another one. The impromptu interview that Juventus' chief executive Beppe Marotta gave to Sky Italia after the game, in which he delivered the shock news that he is on his way out of the club, ended up overshadowing a triumph against Juventus' major title rival and Ronaldo's part in it.
It was, as they say in Italy, una bomba, although rumours had gathered pace on Sunday morning, persuading Marotta to speak now and get out ahead of the story. The size of the reaction serves to underline the esteem with which Marotta is held for the role he has played in re-establishing Juventus as a force not only in Italy, but in Europe too.
Only this week Marotta was awarded the "Best Executive" prize at the World Football Summit in Madrid in recognition of the work he has done at Juventus since 2010, building and rebuilding a team that has won 14 trophies and reached two Champions League finals under his watch with shrewd free transfers ranging from Andrea Pirlo to Paul Pogba (for whom Juventus recouped €105 million from Manchester United) and the Serie A transfer records he helped get the club in a position to break for Gonzalo Higuain and Cristiano Ronaldo.
The sadness with which Marotta broke the news indicated it is not his decision and isn't related to interest from another organisation despite the industry-wise admiration for his work. Marotta ruled himself out of the running for president of the Italian Football Federation and disclosed that his departure comes because "the club is carrying out an extensive renewal" -- CFO Aldo Mazzia, another man in his 60s, is also expected to move on as Juventus look to get younger and fresher at board level, perhaps to be more in touch with new trends and to make the most of their alignment with the Ronaldo brand.
Claims that the Ronaldo transfer, and the break it represents from the model Marotta implemented, are key factors behind his exit have been denied although a lot has predictably been made of how president Andrea Agnelli flew to Greece to seal the deal in person, and how the idea originally came from sporting director Fabio Paratici, whose role in "the deal of the century" was made clear when he appeared beside the player and took questions at his unveiling. Paratici's influence is expected to increase now but he and Marotta have always been a team, arriving as a package from Sampdoria eight years ago.
In Sunday's Il Corriere della Sera, Marotta is quoted as saying: "There was no longer sintonia with president Agnelli" -- one was no longer on the other's wavelength -- and so Juventus continue a long-held tradition of disposing of the supposedly indispensable. What's key here is that when the Old Lady has needed to replace the other men in her life over the past eight years, from Alessandro Del Piero and Pirlo and Conte to Arturo Vidal and Leonardo Bonucci, Marotta is the one who has not only done the replacing, but distinguished himself at it.
The atmosphere around Juventus at the moment is an odd one. Before the game on Saturday, ultras carried a coffin and a banner saying: "The Curva Sud is dead." When sections of ultras weren't insulting Ancelotti -- "I'll console myself looking at the Champions League I won in 2003," Carlo zinged -- or discriminating against Neapolitansm, they were in silent protest against hikes in ticket prices. The mood was funereal in some moments and Marotta's exit, which follows in the footsteps of Claudio Marchisio's departure in mid-August, is clouding what should be the rosiest of times.
Another storm looks to be on the horizon too, with the recent allegations about Ronaldo resurfacing in Der Spiegel and prompting threats of legal action from the star's lawyers.
As for Marotta, Juventus' strength over the past eight years has always been the management structure, the continuity and competence of which has given the club the edge over the competition in Italy. Only last week, Milan's new sporting director Leonardo recalled a Brazilian football cliche: "Players and managers win games, clubs win leagues." At a time when Juventus appear untouchable in Serie A, stronger than ever and primed to finish the work Marotta started with potential fulfilment in Europe, things also seem curiously delicate and sensitive.