By Kris Voakes | Italian Football Editor
As Turin wakes up to the kind of morning-after feeling nobody in the city has experienced for the past six years, it does so without the doubt and suspicion surrounding the last such celebration. For this time around there is no denying that Juventus are the worthy champions of Italy, with a season of exhilarating and dominant football rightly rewarded with the Serie A title.
Last summer was a period of new hope around Vinovo, with the inauguration of the new Juventus Stadium and the return of midfield legend Antonio Conte as coach allowing Bianconeri supporters to finally buy into a justifiable belief that the club could regain a Champions League berth after two seasons of failure.
The Scudetto, however, was rarely touted as a realistic target, with Conte himself still expressing deep into the second half of the campaign that it was third place that his troops needed to aim for first and foremost.
But there has been a very different feeling about Juventus this term, right from the opening day. Due to the players’ strike in August, the club’s campaign got off to its right and proper start, with the chance to welcome in their season and their new home venue on the same day.
The 4-1 win over Parma was notable for Juve playing with the kind of swagger few had seen in them for some time, but the whole of Italy would soon get used to. With Stephan Lichtsteiner grabbing the first competitive goal in the new surroundings, the last three goals came from midfield. That also would prove to be a running theme in their eventual title win.
Suggestions that it was simply the buoyant mood supplied by a fresh beginning with the sun on their backs was expunged in early October when reigning champions AC Milan came to town. The Rossoneri were dominated from start to finish, and quite how it took Juve so long to open the scoring remains a mystery. There were elements of fortune about both of Claudio Marchisio’s late goals, but they had earned all of that luck and then some. It was the first truly great night in the Old Lady’s new home.
New coach, new style | Conte had Juve imposing themselves on the opposition
Marchisio was earning early rave reviews for his regular contributions in front of goal, which would later include the winner in the San Siro leg of the Derby d’Italia with Inter, but he was just part of a midfield which was quickly becoming the focal point for Juve’s attacking machine.
With summer Bosman signing Andrea Pirlo’s creativity and Arturo Vidal’s magnificent engine also patrolling the centre, the trio were able to protect the defence and supply the forwards and wingers in equal measure.
The metronomic Pirlo was a particular symbol of their success, adding to the Juve ranks exactly what appeared to be missing from the Milan side he left behind. He had looked a shadow of his former self in his later years with the Rossoneri, but any talk that he was finished was quickly shot down once he donned the black and white stripes for the first time.
Having avoided defeat heading to the end of November, they finally appeared beaten when trailing 3-1 to a confident Napoli at the San Paolo. With a vital Champions League win over Manchester City having been recorded just a week before, the Partenopei looked set to claim a huge domestic scalp too, but Juve’s ability to keep asking questions of wanton back lines saw them through once more. Marcelo Estigarribia and Simone Pepe both found the net to preserve the unblemished record, and one of the most difficult hurdles of the season had been overcome.
The equaliser had been Pepe’s third goal in successive fixtures. To the delight of Juventini, and the surprise of much of the country, the former Udinese man was the embodiment of the new Juve way. Without the flair or pace of Milos Krasic, he instead used his sheer determination to overcome his technical shortcomings to such an extent that he was becoming a key member of the side. Meanwhile, just a year on from having exploded onto the Serie A scene, the Serb was left picking splinters on the bench.
As 2011 became 2012, Conte continued to mix things up. Having started the season playing in his tried and trusted 4-2-4 formation only to switch to a 4-3-3 to accommodate his trio of dominant midfielders, the coach changed shape once more in a bid to give all three of his centre-backs a starting shirt without having to use Giorgio Chiellini as a left-back. Far from having only one string to his bow, Conte was proving he could play a number of instruments when necessary.
The main concern at this stage was the lack of goals. At one point, Juventus had had around 100 shots more than any other team in Italy, yet ranked only seventh when it came to finding the net. With Alessandro Matri and Mirko Vucinic trusted for much of the first half of the season, Fabio Quagliarella was left out for almost four months before finally being given a start, while for Alessandro Del Piero it was turning into a campaign to forget. Rarely used and seemingly unwanted, the club legend’s departure at the end of term was confirmed by club president Andrea Agnelli.
|SERIE A TABLE ON MARCH 16
The announcement was hidden amongst good news, with Juve fans informed at a time when the club was flying high at the top of the table and the mood in the camp good. However, left catching up games due to the arctic Italian winter, the Old Lady recorded six draws in seven matches in February and March to undermine their push for silverware. Their first really notable injury worries had seen Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli miss successive games and resulted in Vidal dropping into a makeshift back four alongside Leonardo Bonucci.
By the time they were back to full strength, they remained unbowed, yet had now chalked up only 13 wins against 14 draws. There seemed no obvious end to the profligacy that had blighted them in front of goal all season, but then something clicked. Away to Fiorentina, there was a new hope, with the Viola left battered and bruised by five goals from five different scorers. It was the first time they’d racked up more than three since the opening day win over Parma, and the same emotions flooded back. This time they would ride them long enough to take them on a Scudetto march while a battered and bruised Milan foundered.
Inter were beaten for a second time after Conte changed shape midway through the game. Del Piero was suddenly deemed important again, and sure enough it was his introduction that sparked the 2-0 win, with his first league goal at Juventus Stadium crowning the evening. He would add another, altogether more important, strike weeks later when firing home a stunning 82nd-minute free kick winner against Lazio. With that goal, the Bianconeri were back at the top of the table, and they would never again be deposed as leaders. The dispassionate destruction of Roma was the sign that it was over, and despite the Lecce slip-up, Novara and Cagliari were mere formalities.
|JUVE'S NEAR-FAULTLESS RUN-IN
| Fiorentina (away)
But that is not where the Juventus story ends. For this is still that great club which had racked up almost as many titles as Milan and Inter combined up to 2006, and as such they just don’t do one-year wonders. With the return to the top comes the rebirth of great expectations … if they ever really went away.
The next stop is the Champions League, with the Turin side having only previously conquered Europe twice to this point. In a modern game in which such huge emphasis is put on achievement on the continent, a third and perhaps even fourth success should be the aim in order to take the great Juventus name back to the very top of the football reckoning.
To do that there is a need for evolution. The term “never change a winning side” never seemed so foolhardy. With the extra demands of European football next term comes the need for extra resources, but most importantly, extra quality. If the squad is not injected with big-game players this summer, the work of the past 12 months could well be wasted. The current first team is young enough, but needs to also become good enough.
Make no mistake about it, this season has been a huge success story, providing the denouement to six years of strife the like of which no football giant has ever known. However, this is not a time for self-congratulation, rather it is a point from which Juventus can become Juventus again.
The Bianconeri faithful live and breathe dominance, and it is now the job of Agnelli, Giuseppe Marotta, Fabio Paratici and Conte to ensure that this is not the full story. If the post-Calciopoli tale is told in years to come by a budding Stieg Larsson figure, 2011-12 must represent the Old Lady with the Dragon Tattoo, not she who kicked the hornet’s nest.
No, this has to be the first part of the trilogy. Next comes domestic domination, then finally European glory. The club craves silverware, and the fans need it too. Success is in the black and white blood, and that is one thing the last half-decade has not changed one iota.
Redemption starts here.