Andrea Pirlo battles for the ball against Trabzonspor in Europa League play. The team can make Europe's secondary competition a major stepping stone for its future aspirations.
This December, Juventus were ingloriously dumped out of the Champions League and into the Europa League for the second time in their last three trips to Europe's premier competition.
It sent fans into depression.
For the second time in two seasons, Juve struggled in the group stage against teams they should have beaten, and this time, there was no miracle comeback at the end. For Juve's fans, the European season was a failure.
That judgement, however, is premature. There are, after all, more games to play.
Juve have begun play in the Europa League and look set to move on to the round of 16 after a 2-0 home win against Trabzonspor on Thursday.
The Europa League trophy certainly isn't the kind of silverware Juventus and their fans were envisioning after entering the season as dark horses to win the Champions League. But if Juve were to win the Europa League, this season should not be considered a failure. Rather, it should be considered an important success.
When Antonio Conte arrived in the manager's office at Juve in 2011, most at the club would have been happy with a top-five finish and maybe an outside shot at the Champions League. No one expected the team to morph from back-to-back seventh-placed finishes to the first team ever to go unbeaten in a 38-game Serie A season to the domestic juggernaut that it is today.
This team's development is far ahead of schedule, and it has taken time for the team to adjust to European competition because no one expected the team to be at this high level so soon.
The playing staff has needed time to get used to playing at Europe's top level. By the time Conte had guided Juve back to the Champions League, only two players—Gianluigi Buffon and Andrea Pirlo—had had significant Champions League experience.
To expect Juve to leap directly back into the elite after their travails following Calciopoli is to expect too much. This is especially so given the current financial climate in Italy, which likely precludes any paradigm-shifting signing that can turn Juve into a Champions League winner overnight.
Instead, this team has to build toward the heights—and the Europa League has helped them do it before.
Of course, back then it was called the UEFA Cup, and it had a bit more prestige attached to it than it does now. But when Juve have won the tournament, it has often been a prelude to bigger and better things.
In 1976-77, Giovanni Trapattoni led the team to its first European trophy in a UEFA Cup victory over Athletic Bilbao. That win spurred the team to a long run of domestic success and eventually its first European title in 1985.
Trapattoni won the Cup again during his second stint with the club in 1992-93. That victory set up his successor, Marcello Lippi, to preside over arguably the most successful period in the history of the club.
During his first reign in the early 1990s, Juve won three Scudetti and reached three consecutive Champions League finals, winning the first against Ajax in 1996.
Will Winning the Europa League set Juve up for bigger things?
Juventus have a deep squad that oozes class, and there are a slew of promising young players developing that could make them even more dangerous. What they need now is a stepping stone from which to climb to the very top—and the Europa League trophy is the perfect thing to make the jump.
Conte had to build his old club back from the ground up when he arrived three summers ago. That he has taken the Bianconeri to such heights in such a short amount of time is amazing. To categorize him as a failure in Europe after two seasons in which the team wasn't yet built for the Champions League is ludicrous.
This season's European campaign may not have delivered the result fans wanted, but it's not over. Lifting the Europa League trophy in front of their own fans this May will make that campaign a major success and maybe lift the team to where it truly wants to be in the seasons to come.