How Antonio Conte Can Help Juventus Rebound in the Champions League Next Year

Colin O'Brien@@ColliOBrienContributor IJanuary 31, 2014

Juventus coach Antonio Conte shouts during a Serie A soccer match between Lazio and Juventus, at Rome's Olympic stadium, Saturday, Jan. 25, 2014. (AP Photo/Riccardo De Luca)
Riccardo De Luca/Associated Press

How do you solve a problem like Juventus? Improve a team that's on its way to a third straight domestic title, with a squad full of world-class players and a healthy mix of youth and experience. Not to mention a man on the bench who is generally regarded as one of the best in the business. 

It's hard to know. But improve they must, because they can't afford another Champions League embarrassment.

As anyone who follows Serie A regularly will tell you, the Juventus we saw in Europe this year was far from its usual self. Everything we've become used to seeing from Juventus—structure, resilience, intelligence, quality—was lacking in the group's key early games against Copenhagen and Galatasaray.

They were better against Real Madrid, but against one of the best teams in the world, almost any side would struggle. Expecting to walk away from those encounters with enough points to seal qualification, having inexplicably failed to put the group's smaller teams to the sword beforehand, would be wishful thinking. 

Antonio Conte is nothing if not adaptable, and he's not afraid of taking drastic action. Since retiring as a footballer in 2004, the Lecce native quickly turned to coaching, cutting his teeth at Arezzo and Bari in Serie B before enduring a difficult spell at Atalanta, which he left in turn for Siena.

Every time, it was a step in the right direction. Every time, Conte came out the other end a better manager. His work at Bari laid the groundwork for their promotion the following season, having steadied the ship for Giampiero Ventura, now also in employment in Turin, albeit on the red side of town. 

The problems at Atalanta were mainly down to his relationship with the club's Ultras, known to be a difficult bunch at the best of times. It came to a head after a difficult run of games and a 2-0 loss to Napoli. Police had to intervene when a confrontation between the manager and a group of fans looked like it was turning violent. The next day, he resigned. 

Conte's work at Siena, bringing them back to the first division immediately, earned him the bench at Juventus after a string of coaches had failed to make an impact with the Bianconeri. 

His work in Tuscany had an urgency about it, almost as if the criticism of the Atalanta Ultras had spurred him on, drove him to improving further still as a coach. It was exactly the kind of thing Juve needed, someone with the ability to work with limited resources on offer while those behind the scenes worked hard to rebuild the Old Lady into a continental force once more. 

The way he left Bergamo also proved that he wasn't afraid of confrontation, or of making big decisions. That ability to adapt and to make the tough calls has revolutionised Juve. And they are exactly the kind that he'll make before next season's Champions League, because he'll desperately want to prove that this team—with one or two additions—is good enough to at least reach the competition's latter stages. 

This season, their game at home to a rampant Roma showed just what Juventus and Conte are capable of. It was shocking to many to see the Bianconeri so reactive, obviously weary of the threat Roma posed. But no one was more shocked than Roma, who were allowed space but couldn't exploit any space in the Juve setup and were unable to play to their pacey, technical strengths.

Without ever looking like their usual, dominant, aggressive selves, the hosts won 3-0. It proved that Conte, unlikely so many in similar positions, knew what he was doing. He'd seen Roma play. Understood what Rudi Garcia was doing. And he simply set out to counter it. 

He can do the same in Europe. He'll know that Juventus have to be more adaptable, more flexible when faced with strange formations and different styles of football. But he still has plenty of time to figure out how to do that, and with the wealth of talent at his disposal—Paul Pogba alone looks like a player who could drive a side to the UCL's final rounds—you get the feeling that he'll make it work. And if he does, casual observers are in for a surprise. 

On top of that, you'd have to think that fate will be kinder. The loss to Gala in Istanbul was a freak turn of events, from the drastic weather that postponed the game to the rushed, desperate nature of the following day's clash on a pathetically prepared pitch. 

Of course, if they'd done the job early on, it wouldn't have mattered. Without wanting to disrespect the Danes or the Turks, Juve are a much better side than either and should have won the opening two games of the campaign comfortably. 

It will be bittersweet for Conte to know that, of those to make the Round of 16, his side are vastly superior to at least half of them. He'll learn from his mistakes. He almost always does. And when the Bianconeri start next season's European campaign, it will be firing on all cylinders and better prepared for the strange, unpredictable eventualities that the world's best cup competition has a habit of throwing up.