By Kris Voakes | Italian Football Editor
Some neutral observers found reason to smile this summer when Juventus announced that they’d paid €7.5 million to make the signing of Simone Pepe permanent, while many Bianconeri followers greeted the news with a raised eyebrow. But the Italian’s winner against Lazio at the Stadio Olimpico last night was just the latest reason to believe he will be one of the most important cogs in the club’s push for a first official Serie A title since 2003.
The former Roma youth was something of a nomad during the early stages of his career, but in a three-year spell with Udinese from 2007 he finally found something of a home, and gained the recognition of Marcello Lippi in becoming a regular squad member for Italy in the lead-in to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. All this came despite at times being seen as a figure of fun, with his lack of technique occasionally leaving him open to ridicule.
But it was his unbelievable work-rate which won him international honours, and after being one of the few players to depart the World Cup with his head held high, he arrived at Juventus on a €2.6m one-year loan with a chance to finally make his name at a big club.
Despite often being played on the left due to the great early form of Milos Krasic – as had happened in his latter days at Udinese due to Alexis Sanchez’s emergence – Pepe showed signs of promise for the Old Lady. He was even played at full-back from time to time as coach Luigi Del Neri used the ex-Palermo and Cagliari man’s versatility to the benefit of a flagging outfit.
|MATCH FACTS | Lazio 0-1 Juventus
Since his switch was made permanent this summer, things have only got better for Pepe and Juventus. With Krasic struggling, the winger has made the most of his chance to finally nail a spot on the right. While he continues to sometimes leave himself red-faced with an unwieldy miskick or reckless tackle, it’s in his tireless and intelligent running that he has made a success out of Antonio Conte’s emphasis on stretching and pressing opponents deep in their own half.
Last night at the Olimpico he delivered another performance worthy of great credit, and sprinted beyond Stefan Radu to fire home from Alessandro Matri’s low cross after Mirko Vucinic had led a breakaway from one penalty area to the other. If anyone deserved to net the winner, it was Pepe.
It was just reward for Juve too, as they passed with flying colours the first of four massive tests away from home in the run-in to Christmas. With Napoli, Roma and Udinese still to visit before the winter break, it was important that the Turin side stamped their authority on the standings in the capital, and they did exactly that.
Though they did look occasionally suspect at the back, and Anderson Hernanes caused them a number of headaches – not least when hitting the post with a powerful strike in the second half – the three points were richly deserved. Matri’s movement up front was more than the Lazio back line could handle, while Andrea Pirlo again directed from the middle despite playing with his knee heavily strapped following a training-ground injury in the week.
The very fact that Conte sent him out short of 100 per cent backs up the theory that Pirlo is currently irreplaceable to the Bianconeri, and they will hope that he will be ready for the trip to Naples on Tuesday.
But regardless of Pirlo’s presence or otherwise, there is one thing Juve can be assured of, and that’s a lung-busting display from Pepe. In a modern footballing world of prissy prima donnas and bad attitudes galore, his effort for the cause should be an example to all.