The Old Lady regains her roar

by Ciaran Kelly

Some may called it long-standing favouritism, the Bianconeri have seen it as their destiny.

It all goes back to 1981 and 1982. Juventus’ fans, who had grown disillusioned with the stubborn Giovanni Trapattoni and his il gioca all’Italiana (the system over personnel) philosophydespite him leading Juventus  to Scudettos in 1977 and 1978, longed for flair. Trapattoni relented in the summer of 1980, realising 1980/1981 was a crucial season in defining his reign, and signed Liam Brady from Arsenal.

Juventus were much-improved: having the best goals scored (46) and goals conceded (15) record in the league, reflecting Brady’s influence but also Trapattoni’s striking a perfect balance with the retention of Juventus’ impregnable defensive foundations. Juventus won the title, but a major point of controversy occurred at the Stadio Olimpico on 10 May, 1981. Juventus were one point ahead of Roma going into the match and the game finished 0-0 but in the 74’, Roma’s Maurizio Turone controversially had a goal disallowed for a marginal offside by the linesman, Diego Perissinotto. It would have been Roma’s first title for 39 years and would have broken the Milan-Turin (Milan, Internazionale, Juventus and Torino) axis that had held the Serie A title since Cagliari won their first ever title in 1970.

A year later, it was a case of déjà vu: the title race went to the last game of the season, again, on 16 May, 1982. Fiorentina, who had not won a Scudetto for twenty-three seasons, were level on points (44) with Juventus before they faced the relegation-threatened Cagliari and Juventus went to the already safe Cantanzaro. Already, the sceptics were proclaiming fixture favouritism, although few would have predicted that Fiorentina, despite talents like Giancarlo Antognoni, would have been title challengers at the start of the season. Fiorentina drew 0-0 with Cagliari and had a goal from Francesco Graziani controversially ruled out after an alleged foul by Daniel Bertoni, while Juventus defeated Cantanzaro 1-0 through a brave penalty from Brady (who knew he was about to be sold) in the last quarter of the match. Again, though, controversy overshadowed Juventus’ win and Cantanzaro should have had a penalty on 35′, but it was dismissed by the referee, Pieri.

Then, there was the Derby d’Italia against Internazionale at the Stadio Delle Alpi on 26 April 1998. There was just three matches left in the title race and a win would have sent Inter top, having been one point off Juventus going into the match. After Alessandro Del Piero had put Juventus 1-0 up on 21’, Ronaldo flicked the ball in the box, readying to shoot, and was blatantly body checked by Mark Iuliano on 71’. Nothing was awarded and ironically, on the resulting counter, referee Piero Ceccarini awarded Juve a penalty when Taribo West was alleged to have brought down Alessandro Del Piero. A massive brawl ensued between Ceccarini and the Inter players, and Inter’s manager, Gigi Semoni, was sent-off for shouting “you should be ashamed” at the referee. Although Gianluca Pagiluca saved Del Piero’s penalty, Juventus, nonetheless, went on to win the match 1-0.

Since then, though, controversy and  ecstasy have not gone hand in hand for Juventus. Yes, seven Scudettos and two European Cups have been won, but three regrettable incidents tainted this dominance: the Heysel disaster in 1983, the Processo Juve doping scandal of the ‘90s and Calciopoli from 2004-2006. What should have been a landmark occasion for Juventus, winning its first European Cup, was forever tainted by Heysel. Despite the ground’s standing as Belgium’s national stadium, with a capacity of 50,122, the stadium was in poor shape with outer cinder block walls being easily scaled and smashed by fans.

Coupled with this was poor crowd control by the police and an hour before kickoff, a section of Liverpool fans breached a neutral area (should never have been in place due to its openness to ticket touts) of the stadium to confront the Z section of Juventus fans. This caused the Juventus fans to back peddle, crushing those sitting near the back wall of the section, and leading to the wall collapsing with thirty-nine people dying. Captains Phil Neal and Gaetano Scirea addressed the crowd, telling them that the match would go ahead to alleviate further trouble, but the trophy was tainted from that moment on. Juventus ‘won’, courtesy of a Platini penalty on ’56, but the lap of honour at the end of the match was widely-criticised and Trapattoni was forced to vehemently deny that the team celebrated the victory when they returned to the hotel.

The 1990s doping scandal saw Juventus’ then doctor, Riccardo Agricola, eventually found guilty, in 2004, by the Court of Arbitration of Sport for administering excessive pharmaceuticals between 1994 and 1998. In this period, Juventus won three Scudettos and one Champions League. The allegation was made by Zdenk Zeman (once referred to Gianluca Vialli and Alessandro Del Piero as “mysterious miracles”) in 1998, then managing Roma, and Erythropoietin (EPO) was among the drugs abused (administered in a performing-enhancing way) – which saw Agricola being handed a suspended 22-month prison sentence, but Juventus did not have to give up the titles they won in this period.

Then, as a near-direct result of the doping investigation, due to an endless collection of transcripts of phone calls, came Calciopoli in 2006. For Juventus, it centered on their notorious but brutally effective general manager, who joined in 1994, Luciano Moggi. Moggi was accused of bribing referees and even falsely imprisoning the referee, Gianluca Paparesta, after Juventus were defeated 2-1 by Reggina on 6 November, 2004. In one mobile phone transcript, Moggi, who possessed numerous phones in a bid to cover his tracks somewhat, spoke to Pierluigi Pairetto, the vice-chairman of UEFA’s refereeing commission, to put pressure on him to appoint Juventus-friendly referees in the future.

Then, of course, there was the desperate call made by Moggi to the Italian government minister, Giuseppe Pisanu, to have Juventus’ match away to a conveniently under-strength Fiorentina go ahead on the weekend of Pope John Paul II’s death on 2 April, 2005. It was clear that Moggi had left no stone unturned and even the host of Italy’s most popular football show, Aldo Biscardi, resigned amid allegations that he collaborated with Moggi to boost the club’s image on television. These were just some of the astonishing charges, with Moggi also in trouble for his operations with his son – the agent – Alessandro, over illegal gambling activities in Rome and Naples. From this, Juventus’ final punishments were devastating: relegation to Serie B for the first time in their history, being stripped of their 2005 and 2006 Scudettos and being thrown out of the 2006/2007 Champions League.

The scandal blackened Juventus’ image – encapsulated in the Bianconeri legend, patriot and team manager, Gianluca Pessotto, attempting to commit suicide, despite never being implicated in the scandal, on 27 June, 2006 – and Calciopoli continues to rumble on. Recent revelations have revealed that Marcello Lippi, in 2007, called on Moggi to “give [Roberto] Mancini a lesson” and Antonio Giraudo, a former chief executive of Juventus, and Moggi have since been given prison sentences for their actions. Juventus, too, remain committed to re-claiming their 2006 title at the very least (are also planning to put a third star on the club crest if they win the title, reflecting thirty Scudetto wins rather than what would be the official twenty-eight) and Massimo Moratti, Internazionale’s president, and Telecom Italia have been accused of wire-tapping by former player, and self-proclaimed whistleblower, Christian Vieri.

Isolated: Del Neri quickly lost the support of the fans, the Agnellis and the players

Regardless, up until 2011/2012, Juventus’ on the field direction has reflected the off the field chaos: six managers, no major trophies, countless rash and overpriced signings, and a failure to seriously challenge for the title (finish of 2nd, ten points off Internazionale, in 2008/2009 was Juventus’ best finish post-Calciopoli). Following Luigi Del Neri’s 7thplace finish in 2010/2011, it seemed that Juventus really could not have plummeted any further: claiming just 58 points, their worst tally in the three-point era. However, having handed Del Neri the chance, in what should have been the then 60 year old’s career-defining job after brilliantly leading Sampdoria to a 4th place finish in 2009/2010, Juventus were running out of options. The ex-player route had been explored through Ciro Ferrara and the brilliant Didier Deschamps, with the latter not being convinced to stay, and the old-school Claudio Ranieri and Alberto Zaccheroni had ultimately failed. Giuseppe Marrota’s arrival as sporting director along with Del Neri would prove crucial to Juventus’ eventual progression, though.

Lippi and Gianluca Vialli had been earmarked as potential replacements, who both had the pedigree and experience, and who both understood the unique dynamics and essence of Juventus. However, both had been out of touch with the club and club management for some time so there was only one man who could bring Juventinità back to Turin: Antonio Conte. Conte, unlike when Ferrara was appointed, was blessed with Serie A experience (with Siena and Bari) to compliment the his brilliant playing career at Juventus from 1991-2004. Also, Conte would benefit from this relationship with the fans, too, not to mention not having the ‘welcomed’ distraction of European football, in order to consolidate his position. Just like when Josep Guardiola took over at Barcelona in the summer of 2009, a new era was to be ushered – perhaps, even, to a greater extent.

Firstly, the club firmly moved on from Moggi, with the former general manager being banned from football for life on 16 June, 2011. Then, the new and precocious club president, Umberto Agnelli, confirmed it would be Del Piero’s final season (has, nonetheless, played an important role as the club’s only fuoriclasse and his league goals against Internazionale on 25 March and Lazio on 11 April were crucial) and that a new stadium will prevent sales of stars, a la Vieri in 1998 and Zidane in 2003, with Juventus’ turnover at the Stadio delle Alpi in 2010 having been ‘just’ €204 million (well behind Manchester United on €349 million, Barcelona on €398 million and Real Madrid on €438.6 million). While this may seem harsh on Juventus, they are Italy’s most well-supported club with an estimated twelve million fans worldwide. The unattractive co-tenancy, unlike the very distinct Giuseppe Meazza and San Siro which have been shared since 1925, of the delle Alpi with bitter rivals Torino reflected the lack of club identity and stadium atmosphere – without even mentioning the atmospheric, and viewing, restrictions of the running track.

The Juventus Stadium has certainly boosted the Bianconeri’s atmosphere, with the stands just 7.5 metres from the pitch, and will set the tone for future English-style built stadiums in Italy in the coming decades. For Juventus’ fans, this seemed the mere beginning as the likes of Javier Pastore, Alexis Sánchez, Sergio Agüero and Giuseppe Rossi were deemed realistic and tangible transfer targets. Merotta, though, would prove his worth and why he did not follow Del Neri out of Turin. Rather than selling sizable assets to fund one of these multi-million targets, Merotta instead focused on culling flops for cheaper fees and getting them off the wage bill, including Felipe Melo, Mohamed Sissoko, Hasan Salihamidžić, Tiago, Sergio Almirón, Zdeněk Grygera and, in January, 2011, Marco Motta, Amauri (inadvertently did Juventus a huge favour with his winning goal for Fiorentina against Milan on 7 April), Luca Toni and Vincenzo Iaquinta. Focus was instead placed on hungry footballers under the age of 30: Stephan Lichsteiner, Arturo Vidal, Simone Pepe,  Emanuele Giaccherini,  Marcelo Estigarribia, Eljero Elia, Fabio Quagliarella, Alessandro Matri, Mirko Vučinić and, later, Martín Cáceres.

Yes, the signings of Elia, Reto Ziegler and Marco Borriello (the loanee has, nonetheless, scored the most crucial Juventus goal of the season in the narrow 0-1 win away to Cesena on 25 April) were somewhat bizarre, but Merotta’s worth was epitomised in him favouring the seemingly over the hill Andrea Pirlo over the injury-plagued Alberto Aquilani. Pirlo. Pirlo had been mainly used as a substitute by Massimiliano Allegri in 2010/2011, due to the lack of need for a regista (ignores the fact that Pirlo also plays an important role in stopping and dictating tempo) and Allegri’s preference for medianos in his 4-2-3-1. Even though he arrived at the age of 32 and as one of the club’s highest earners, one should never doubt Pirlo, – as he has constantly proved over the years when he suffered setbacks, such as being sold by Internazionale in 2001. While Gianluigi Buffon’s statement upon Pirlo’s arrival was, at the time, hyperbolic, he was, eventually, not far off:

I believe that signing a player of his level and worth for free has been the deal of the century. When I watched him play [in the first training session of pre-season], I thought: ‘there is a God.’

As important as Pirlo has been, though, the whole team have impressed. Remarkably, in pre-season, Buffon’s place was under serious threat due to his failure to play more than forty games in seven of his previous eleven seasons and due to the consistent form of Marco Storari. Still, though, Buffon has stayed fit and, naturally, improved as the season has gone on after some shaky punches from crosses and a mute command of his box earlier in the season. Buffon has worked hard in training, failing to let the Azzurri captaincy inflate his humble ego, and his brilliant, and key, penalty save against Francesco Totti on 13 December, 2011 reflected this. Juventus have had a difficulty in finding a stable right back post-Lillian Thuram and Gianluca Zambrotta, with Federico Balzaretti and Mattia Cassani being eventually cast aside for the poor Zdenek Grygera, Jonathan Zebina and Fabio Grosso. So, the importance of the consistent Lichsteiner cannot be understated and given his unsung work-ethic and contribution to Simone Pepe’s great form, it was perhaps fate-like that he was the man to score the first competitive goal at the Juventus Stadium, against Parma on 11 September.

Giorgio Chiellini took time to re-adapt to the left-back position, following Leonardo Bonucci’s fine form, but since the winter break, Chiellini has grown into the role and his unselfish mentality epitomises the great team chemistry that Conte has built. Andrea Barzagli’s career never took off after an impressive spell at Palermo, which should have led to a pre-contract agreement with Fiorentina, but an ultimately ill-fated move to Wolfsburg saw the Italian move to Juventus for just €300,000 in January, 2011. It has been a remarkable comeback of sorts for Barzagli, who has made 32 appearances for Juventus this season and has also broken back into the Azzurri starting XI after some remarkably assured and committed displays for the Bianconeri. Partly why, without even addressing the Dutchman’s terrible attitude and application, Elia did not make the massive impact he should have was because of the fine form of Pepe. The Italian has proved his doubters wrong again and again, after being deemed a somewhat average footballer at Udinese, and his attitude and work-rate at Juventus has been remarkable.

It has been a coming of age season for Claudio Marchisio, following frustrating inconsistency in his previous three seasons as a senior Juventus player, and he has become a brilliantly effective attacking midfielder under Conte: scoring a personal best of 8 goals in 32 league matches. The remarkably disciplined, yet tough-tackling and dynamic, Arturo Vidal was a coup at €12.5 million and his importance as a dynamic ball carrier cannot be understated. Vidal has become the fans’ favourite, frequently crediting his consistent displays to the undying roar of the Bianconeri crowd, and, along with Pirlo, has been Juventus’ most impressive player. The one-time temperamental Vučinić has been, arguably, Juventus’ most influential player (badly missed his guile in the 0-0 draw against Udinese on  21 December in particular) this season and has adapted to the role of inside left forward brilliantly (even tracks back, such is his commitment) – even if still infuriating with his often poor ball retention. Alessandro Matri has been Juventus’ key goalscoring outlet, with 10 goals in 25 Serie A matches, and offers a unique option as a technically-gifted number nine.

A remarkable situation: Despite - or maybe even because of - being former team-mates and there being just over four years between them, the Agnellis' backing of Conte meant that an André Villas-Boas style standoff with Alessandro Del Piero (Frank Lampard), and the influential dressing-room figures as a whole, did not materialise.

Credit, though, certainly has to be given to Conte – who vehemently refused, even as the season drew to a close, to talk up Juventus’ title prospects. Remarkably, he has undergone a tactical evolution, despite the obvious pressure, at Juventus and has utilised everything from the 4-2-4 and 4-1-4-1 to the 4-2-3-1 and 3-5-2 (matched Napoli and Udinese with this, which worked to good effect). Juventus’ players have a newfound commitment, too, with their teamwork and undying pressing, and have produced countless performances with late resolve, including, notably, a late, and hugely psychological, 2-0 win over Milan on 1 October. From this, Juventus have rarely taken the foot off the gas and one of Conte’s hallmarks – along with his relentless gestures and patrolling of the touchline (2-1 victory over Udinese on 28 January in particular) – has been that Juventus have continued to hunt for goals. This trait has been evident even with advantages established, such as the 3-0 victory against Palermo on 20 November and the 5-0 win over Fiorentina on 17 March –  which instigated a prolific spree of a whooping twenty-three goals in just eight league games, compared to just thirty-nine goals in their first twenty-seven Serie A matches .

Finishing as winter champions reflected how far Juventus had come under Conte, with many fearing that Juventus would struggle to even finish in the top four, but, as previously mentioned, this title challenge and possible title win feels fate-like – or controversial, in some eyes. After all – even if Juventus have suffered some bad luck too, such as Sebastiano Peruzzo’s failure to award the Bianconeri a penalty in the 0-0 draw against Siena on 5 February – Conte has pressured referees, with Sir Alex Ferguson and Guardiola-like criticism, and this has surely seeped into referees’ consciousness. Chiellini’s controversial goal against Catania on 18 February, Zlatan Ibrahimović not having his three-match ban reduced, Matri’s controversial (regardless of the fact he had a legitimate equaliser ruled out on 80’) equaliser against Milan on 83’ and Ibrahimović having a goal wrongly ruled out for offside in the 22 April 1-1 draw against Bologna were examples of this champions-elect luck.

Still, immense credit must be given to Antonio Conte in doing such a remarkable job – leading Juventus to a club-record thirty-five games unbeaten in Serie A and to the Coppa Italia final against Napoli on 20 May- and his man management and revival of the careers of Gianluigi Buffon, Andrea Pirlo, Claudio Marchiso et al has been magnificent. From this, it is safe to say that the Old Lady has regained her roar – for the first time in five long, troubled seasons.

1 Response

  1. JT says:

    A good in depth read to ups and downs of a European giant. Juventus have finally found their feet again after Calciopoli and if Pirlo can perform again as he did this year the team will do well again.

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