“The numbers are extraordinary,” smiled Juventus coach Antonio Conte, “They fill me with pride.”
Monday night’s 1-0 win against Atalanta was his 100th in 149 games on the club’s bench. It was Juventus’ 31st in the league this season and their 18th in a row in front of their own supporters. Both are Serie A records.
Take a point from their two remaining games and they will match the highest ever points total established by Inter in 2006-07. Win them and Juventus will become the first team ever to break the 100-point barrier in the history of the Italian game.
Whoever you support, whatever your colours, it’s hard not to marvel at what they have achieved and can still accomplish this season. Not least because, as Conte himself said, “What we’ve done over the last three years isn’t easily improved upon.”
Juventus remember went unbeaten in the league in his first season, a feat that has only ever been realised by two other teams: Perugia in 1978-79 and Milan in 1991-92. They then carried that run into the following year, stretching it to 49 games before Inter ended it, becoming the first of only three teams to leave the Juventus Stadium with an away win since its opening.
At the time there were questions about how the Old Lady would respond to that defeat. There needn’t have been. She reclaimed her title, finishing the season with more points, scoring more goals and conceding fewer than the year before. Bettering that would be hard.
And yet Juventus have done it. Quite absurdly some have claimed it has been easy. If Conte has made it look that way then it’s of great credit to him because it really has been anything but.
People quickly forget the state Juventus were in when they appointed him. It wasn’t so much that they hadn’t won a Scudetto since Calciopoli, it was that they weren’t even close. Seventh in consecutive years, they concluded 24 points behind champions AC Milan in 2010-11. There was absolutely no reason to believe in a shift in power. Milan still had Thiago Silva and Zlatan Ibrahimovic while Inter finished the season so strongly they looked to have recovered from their post-treble, post-Mourinho hangover.
Hindsight of course is a wonderful thing. Milan’s decision to allow Andrea Pirlo to leave for Juventus on a free transfer to Juventus now appears to have been the epitome of foolishness. But so peripheral had he been at San Siro in his final season that some were inclined to believe that, while maybe not finished, he was at least in decline.
Then there was the signing of Arturo Vidal. Again, it’s easy to say now that Juventus were getting their hands on a great player, but outside of Bundesliga circles he wasn’t a big name at all and after the flop of another import from Germany, Diego Ribas, few people anticipated that, with Pirlo, he would have such a transformative effect on the team. If Vidal did, it’s because Conte had the tactical nous to get the best out of him and the other players at his disposal.
Far from being the integralista or one-system-man as the papers proclaimed him to be, Juventus evolved from playing a 4-2-4 to a 4-2-3-1 then a 4-3-3 and a 3-5-2 before that formation became their default. For all the plaudits Pirlo and Vidal received, they were never reliant on just one or two individuals. Juventus were a true collective. No fewer than 18 different players got on the scoresheet. Remember Alessandro Matri was their top scorer in the league with 10 goals.
Their overhaul of Milan was a surprise. One of the reasons cited was not playing in Europe. It meant Juventus could focus on Serie A. Retaining their title would therefore be more difficult because they had to play on three fronts. Complicating matters further was Conte’s four-month ban for supposedly failing to report an instance of match-fixing while at Siena.
And yet Juventus overcame every obstacle and went back-to-back in Serie A. They were knocked out in the quarter-finals of the Champions League but that was rationalised as follows: it was this group of players and this manager’s first season in the competition, and they were eliminated by eventual winners Bayern Munich.
At the beginning of this campaign, Carlos Tevez and Fernando Llorente were signed to take the team up a level. Juventus finally had the players they were missing: strikers capable of scoring 15 to 20 goals a season. Everyone made them favourites, but again context is important here. Conte and his captain Gigi Buffon revealed their own fears that the players might not have the same hunger and desire as before. They might no longer respond to his methods. Juventus hadn’t won Serie A three times in a row since 1933.
The competition looked fiercer. Napoli, runners up the previous season, had lost Edinson Cavani, Serie A’s Capocannoniere, but they had gained a winning coach in Rafa Benitez and had €64m to spend on top of the Champions League money they were entitled to after automatic qualification. Napoli came out the blocks flying. But Roma surprised everyone, establishing a new Serie A record by winning their opening 10 games. This is a significant detail when judging Juventus’ season in my opinion.
Juve were out of sorts to begin with. A number of players involved in the Confederations Cup had started pre-season late. Llorente needed a period of adjustment. Juventus got results, good results, but not performances and that was a concern. Slip up and they knew that at the pace Roma were going the league risked getting away from them.
To stay on their coat-tails required attention. It burnt physical and mental energy. It meant Conte couldn’t rest and rotate as he wanted. The depth of his squad is overblown: Peluso, Padoin, Ogbonna and the often injured Isla are all good Serie A pros but not up to continental standard. And so when it came to playing in the Champions League, Juventus were vulnerable.
That doesn’t excuse failing to beat Copenhagen away and Galatasaray at home. They shouldn’t have allowed qualification to rest on the outcome of their final group game either, the Istanbul ice bowl, which they lost. Juventus only had themselves to blame and they held their hands up. Conte got a few of his selections wrong. The players didn’t perform like they know how. It didn’t reflect this team’s true worth. And it’s a shame that it is colouring perceptions of Conte and his team’s extraordinary season. Their continuity has been unbelievable.
“In order to win once talent is enough,” Gianluca Vialli told La Repubblica, “but in order to win again you need character. In order to win three times in a row, you have to be monstrous.”
And Juventus have been just that. You can scoff at the competitiveness of Serie A, but the truth of the matter is that they have been challenged this season. They have been pushed.
That might sound silly considering Roma are 11 points behind, but Rudi Garcia’s side have set club records for wins and for points accumulated. Their total of 85 is only two short of what Juventus finished on a year ago and there’s still a couple of games to spare. And even if they weren’t to add to it between now and the end of the campaign, it would have been enough to win the championship in five of the last six years, which surely only enhances Juventus’ achievement.
How they translate their domestic dominance into European success is the question the club will be asking itself when they sit down to plan their recruitment strategy ahead of next season. Not reaching the Europa League final - which is due to be held at the Juventus Stadium on May 14 - was a disappointment, but again Juventus will learn from that experience. They went deep in a European competition. Their players will know the physical and mental pressures that getting to a continental semi-final entails. That will see them in good stead for the future.
A change of system has been called for and, even though it mustn’t be forgotten the 3-5-2 has got them to where they are today, Conte seems to be pondering it in order to make the breakthrough in the Champions League. He has been relentless in the pursuit of success and providing he wants to continue, providing Juventus match his ambition, he won’t stop until he makes them kings of Europe again for the first time since 1996.
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