Rusty Ronaldo looking to improve in Italian Cup final
A missed penalty. A series of missed chances. A miserable performance grade. For Cristiano Ronaldo, nothing seemed to go right in the Italian Cup semifinal match against AC Milan.
Fortunately for the five-time Ballon d’Or winner, a 0-0 draw earned Juventus a spot in Wednesday’s final against Napoli and Ronaldo now has every reason to be motivated as he chases his 30th trophy for club and country.
Like almost every other player featured in the semifinal return legs — the first two matches of Italian soccer’s restart — Ronaldo showed signs of rust after being inactive for more than three months during the coronavirus pandemic.
His attempt off the post early on marked his first missed penalty since January 2019.
“He doesn’t miss many penalties. This one was quite unfortunate and he probably struggled because of that,” Juventus coach Maurizio Sarri said.
Ronaldo also appeared to struggle with a positional switch from his usual spot on the left wing to center forward, as evidenced by a grade of only 5 out of 10 in the Gazzetta dello Sport’s report card.
“We discussed it with him and he was completely open to the idea,” Sarri said. “He’s such an extraordinary player that I don’t think it changes anything for him whether he plays five meters ahead or behind. He can play any of the forward positions.”
With Gonzalo Higuain likely still unavailable for the final in Rome, Ronaldo could again line up at center forward as Juventus seeks a record-extending 14th Italian Cup title.
Juventus is hoping it’s the first trophy of a triple. The Bianconeri hold a one-point lead over Lazio entering the Serie A restart this weekend and are also looking to overturn a 1-0 loss to Lyon in the second leg of the round of 16 in the Champions League.
Napoli, which is also still in the Champions League, is looking to win its sixth Italian Cup.
Named after Naples’ patron saint, coach Gennaro Gattuso will secure himself a spot in Napoli lore if he can bring a title to the soccer-crazy city six months after replacing the fired Carlo Ancelotti.
A title could also serve to raise Gattuso’s spirits following the recent death of his younger sister, Francesca, to diabetes.
Napoli was in complete disarray when Gattuso was hired in December amid a player mutiny over a forced training camp ordered by club president Aurelio De Laurentiis.
“He’s restored our self-confidence,” Napoli defender Kalidou Koulibaly said. “In the first three months of the season, I don’t think we wanted to suffer when we were in trouble.
“Now we have the ability to suffer when needed and push forward when we have the ball. We still have some work to do but we’re on the right path.”
The 1-1 draw with Inter Milan on Saturday was a case in point, as Napoli responded to an early goalkeeping blunder to equalize and move ahead on aggregate — then clamped down defensively.
Gattuso has been here before. He was Milan’s coach during a 4-0 loss to Juventus in the 2018 final.
No matter the outcome of this final — a victory would bring the 2006 World Cup champion his first coaching title — Gattuso seems destined for a contract extension.
“Fortunately, I’m not interested in money, I just care about having the respect of those I work with,” Gattuso said. “Contracts are worth little to me, as I fully admit that I can lose my temper and walk off, so I need to improve that about myself.”
Juventus coach Maurizio Sarri will always be linked to Napoli, his first big club and the city where he was born.
It was in Naples that “Sarriball” captured the imagination of soccer purists before the coach moved on to Chelsea last season and won the Europa League.
It was also in Naples that Sarri angered Juventus management when he acknowledged after a 2-1 loss to his former club in January that the defeat didn’t bother him and that he’ll “always remain fond of them.”
While fans will not be admitted to the final, there are still security concerns surrounding the game.
When Napoli last played in the final in 2014, a supporter was shot outside the Stadio Olimpico by an opposing Roma fan and later died — even though Roma was not playing.