This was to be Juventus' season. They'd won two league titles, back to back. A midfield the envy of Europe, now with Carlos Tevez and Fernando Llorente as the finishing touches up front. Antonio Conte's hard work had built and fine-tuned a truly impressive squad—it was the time to reap the real rewards.
Elsewhere in Italy, football was struggling, but in Turin there was a new stadium, success and the belief that the Old Lady would make her mark in the Champions League.
Their manager had continental pedigree as a player and was proving himself to be among the very best on the sideline. The squad wasn't as expensively assembled as some of their rivals, perhaps, but no team with the likes of Andrea Pirlo, Gianluigi Buffon, Arturo Vidal and the prodigiously talented Paul Pogba could be accused of being short on talent.
All of the pieces were in place, or so the thinking went. Unfortunately, it wasn't to be so black and white for the Bianconeri. An embarrassing draw in Copenhagen was not the most auspicious of starts. Then came another draw at home to Galatasaray. They were better against Real Madrid, but still not good enough to win.
There was an inevitability to the whole thing: Juve were going out of the continent's biggest competition before it had really even begun.
True, the weather that caused their away game in Istanbul to be postponed was unfortunate—but the damage was done to Conte's European campaign long before the Turks got out the tractors. Real had managed six goals when they visited Galatasaray earlier in the season. Before the blizzard came, Juve hadn't managed six shots.
It was a harsh lesson for Juventus—and in particular, for their manager. Conte is among the most highly rated coaches in world football right now, but the truth is that his side was poorly prepared to deal with the different footballing styles they encountered on their travels.
What's happened since suggests that the tactician won't make the same mistakes twice. When Juve welcomed Roma to Turin, they were up against their biggest domestic threat. A team that was unbeaten all season, with enough talent and tactical nous to snatch a victory. A worthy opponent.
It was the perfect opportunity to show off his managerial abilities and to steal a gargantuan march in the title race at the same time. Having seen plenty of Rudi Garcia's Giallorossi, Conte figured out a plan: All they had to do was not play like Juve.
Since the arrival of Pirlo, the Bianconeri have been all about possession. And with Tevez running himself ragged up front, Conte's men had been pressing hard all season, working tirelessly to win the ball and surge forward. Against Roma, they did the opposite. They sat back—and Garcia's side were left clueless.
The 3-0 win was an emphatic response to their European woes. There was still a lot to play for, after all, and the Champions League would still be there next year.
Winning three titles in a row would put this Juve among the league's very best sides. Discounting the rather fortuitous titles won by Roberto Mancini at Inter post-Calciopoli, no one's done it since Fabio Capello's Milan in the early '90s.
Having beaten both Roma and Rafa Benitez's Napoli, there's no doubt that Juve are in pole position for that hat-trick of Scudetti—but it all depends on the coming months, which will be among the most important in the club's history.
Their own manager is cagey about pulling off such a feat, knowing all too well from bitter experience that the best side doesn't always win. The problem with opponents, after all, is that they so rarely do what you'd like them to.
Speaking to the press in Italy about the challenges ahead (here in English via goal.com), Conte said:
The fact that our opponents, in spite of having achieved something extraordinary, are strengthening further definitely leaves me unable to relax.
We have to keep up an extraordinary pace to maintain our position.
That they are reinforcing is certainly not a positive thing. I also see the second half of the season as a busy schedule and therefore we must hold a lot of attention.
Because, while I read that only we can lose the Scudetto, or that the title is already Juve's, I believe that this is said by those who have never won anything in their life.
It is why winning is always very difficult, even when you are eight points ahead with seven weeks until the end. That has happened to me in losing and winning title races.
On top of the league, there's the small matter of the Europa League final being played at the Juventus stadium. It might be UEFA's ugly duckling, but the prospect of a home final gives the competition a rare allure for Juve. It's no Champions League, but if they can lift that trophy in Turin in front of a packed house, it will go a long way to satiating the appetite until they get another crack at the real prize next season.
The final battle left for the Old Lady will take place away from the pitch. It will be decided in the board room. Juventus, like all of Italian football, are at a crossroads. Restructuring and long-term planning should help to return Serie A back to the very highest level, but in the short term Italy's clubs—even the biggest ones—are no longer able to compete financially with the continent's elite.
That same elite will be knocking on Juve's door very soon. Pogba's contract extension hasn't been finalised yet, and unsurprisingly, that's created quite a bit of interest. The mercurial Frenchman has developed into one of the game's brightest young talents under Conte, but the lure of a massive contract elsewhere might tempt him to stray. Juventus must hold firm.
If the Agnelli family can ward off Pogba's suitors and tie the midfielder to a lengthy contract, they'll have sent a resounding signal of intent to their biggest rivals at home and abroad.
The club has never been above selling if the offer is right—Zinedine Zidane being the most obvious example—but Pogba represents more than just a profit right now. He represents aspiration and ambition. The biggest clubs don't sell players like that at 20. At the very least, they hold on to them until they've achieved something special.
Conte could be on the cusp of that special something. A momentous few months lay ahead.
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