The arrivals of Diego Ribas da Cunha and Fabio Cannavaro from Werder Bremen and Real Madrid respectively sent a terse message to Juventus fans and rivals alike: this time we're serious.
Much maligned transfer director Alessio Secco has been viewed equal parts as a joke or as a disaster, and indeed, his work up to the culmination of the last season did very little to defend his name.
It was quite a surprise, then, when Secco triumphantly closed the long-running Diego saga, and brought much-needed experience to the Juventus lineup in the form of Fabio Cannavaro.
For the first time in months, the spirits of Juventus fans were sky-high. Ciro Ferrara, a beloved former player, was now the coach. The last two games of the season were comfortable victories, in contrast to the two previous months where Juve had failed to win a single game.
Fans began to believe that finally, the management was serious about challenging for top honors in the coming season. After all, notoriously poor purchases such as Sergio Almiron were hardly the sort to topple Inter Milan from its position at the top of the table.
It was finally a bold purchase—no more "settling" for the lesser player. Unlike with the Xabi Alonso case last summer, the management didn't settle for another Cristian Poulsen, they agreed to pay the full value of an expensive player.
This was progress, the fans were sure.
A month and a half later, fans are frustrated. The transfer saga of Gaetano D'Agostino has put to shame the drama over the purchase (potential or actual) of Amauri, Xabi Alonso, Diego, and Rafael Van Der Vaart.
The "will he?/won't he?" drama ensued for the better part of two months, and in the end, has fallen through, with both Bianconeri clubs unable to see eye-to-eye over the player's value. Real Madrid, Juventus’ long-time European rivals and recent mega-spenders, are now linked with D’Agostino’s signature.
While some fans are impressed with Secco's toughness with Udinese patron Giampaolo Pozzo, others are aware of a very plain, yet very important fact: Juventus did not get the man to fit into Ciro Ferrara's 4-3-1-2 system as a central playmaker.
With Fiorentina’s Felipe Melo almost certain to arrive, the fact remains that the Brazilian will not play the role of the midfield orchestrator who spreads passes around the pitch.
Ciro Ferrara’s appointment was compared by many to the case of Pep Guardiola at Barcelona, yet the fact remains that Ferrara’s Melo is nothing like Guardiola’s Xavi.
The bigger problem, however, is one that cannot suffer another hasty patch-job like Juve have been wont to do in the past two years. The central midfield regista position, the playmaker, can be covered for using Juve's current squad, though with some difficulty. The vulnerability, however, is in the defensive end of the pitch.
Goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon is arguably the best in the world, despite a recent run of bad form. Yet, there were moments that recalled his pre-injury level of play, and there isn't a Juventus fan on Earth who would want to replace "Gigi".
His backup, Alexander Manninger, performed admirably during Buffon's absence, leaving fans assured that that is one position that needs no reinforcement.
At center back, Juve have Giorgio Chiellini, arguably Italy's best central defender. Originally a left back, Chiellini was first tried in a central role during his Italy Under-21 days, and then given the role again in the 2007-08 season by Claudio Ranieri, to great success.
His partnership with Nicola Legrottaglie, a re-emerging force in defence, has been nothing short of stunning over the past two seasons.
With the arrival of Fabio Cannavaro, a player whose impact will be unquestionably positive, Juve have further bolstered what very well might be the best central trio in Italy. Indeed, until Juve's spell of bad form towards the end of last season, Juventus was tied with Inter for the best defensive line in Italy.
This, however, is a very deceptive statement.
Ferrara's 4-3-1-2 system will involve a more centralized midfield, one without wingers. The onus of bringing the ball up the wings and crossing must therefore fall on the full backs, and this is where Juventus is lacking.
While his improvements have been clear to all, the name 'Cristian Molinaro' hardly inspires the sort of trust that Chiellini's does. A player whose best skill is his speed and determination, his dribbling and crossing often lets him, and the team, down.
While a year ago most Juventus fans would have wanted him packed on the first bus out of Turin, a sense of fondness for the player has grown lately.
The gulf in class between Molinaro's level and that which Juve need is shrinking, but at too slow a pace, and there are doubts as to whether the player will truly ever reach the level that the club needs in order to compete for the highest honors.
A comparison with Juve's domestic and international rivals does not shine favorably on the young Italian. AC Milan have Gianluca Zambrotta, Molinaro's far more successful predecessor at Juventus, and Inter Milan have the hugely impressive young Davide Santon.
Even Roma, unimpressive this season, have John Arne Riise, who—own goals aside—is still a class ahead of Molinaro. Internationally, comparing Molinaro to the likes of Patrice Evra, Gael Clichy, Ashley Cole, even Eric Abidal, is simply an exercise in futility.
With his rate of improvement and work ethic, however, Molinaro is clearly not the largest problem that Juve must solve. The slow, yet sure emergence of Paolo de Ceglie at left back will serve to alleviate Ciro Ferrara’s worries, and provide a fine competitive atmosphere in which both players will do their best to improve in order to warrant a starting position.
On the right side of defense, the immensely uninspiring duo of Zdenek Grygera and Jonathan Zebina are a bigger problem for Juve. It becomes clear just how impressive Juve’s defensive record last season was once it is taken into account that the team’s full backs are far behind the center backs in terms of quality.
At 29 and 31 respectively, Grygera and Zebina aren’t young players either, and rather than improving, seem to have become progressively worse over the past two seasons.
In order to compete at the highest level, it is important that Juve do not concede foolish goals. Even in outings against much smaller teams like BATE Borisov in the group stages of the Champions League last season, Juventus conceded goals through silly mistakes.
Similar showings against teams such as Chievo Verona, where Sergio Pellissier was almost criminally allowed to score a hat-trick against the Turin side, prove that change for the better must be made from the ground up.
At Juventus, that change must come in the form of new players for the right and left back positions. At left back, Juve have the young Paolo de Ceglie standing in the wings. Despite a few shaky performances, it is clear that great things can be expected from the young player. With Domenico Criscito’s return being ruled out for the time being, it is time for De Ceglie to make the step up, and take the starting position away from Molinaro.
At this point, however, neither player is quite at the standard required to play in Europe. The alternative, then, is Corinthians’ Brazilian left back Andre Santos. Already linked with the club, the 26-year-old has already claimed to be in favor of playing at Juventus. Valued at 6 million Euros by Corinthians, Juve would be buying a skilled player with national team pedigree, at a steal.
At right back, Juve’s best option would be Napoli’s Fabiano Santacroce, already well known to Juve fans due to his tough, clinical marking of David Trezeguet in the 2007-08 season’s fixture between the two clubs, to the point of visibly frustrating the experienced forward.
Also valued at 6 to 8 million Euros, Juventus have yet another chance to turn their summer transfers into a resounding success if they purchase this young star. With the arrival of Juan Carlo Zuniga at Napoli, Santacroce’s playing time will be limited, thus making an exit more likely. Versatile enough to be a sturdy option at center back as well, Santacroce is a necessity to revitalize a lacking Juventus defense.
Astute fans will notice, of course, that if these transfers are to be made, it would almost certainly rule out the arrival of the midfield maestro that Juventus have sorely needed. It therefore comes down to the very essentials, leaving the Juventus management with a tough choice to make: bolster the defense, or bring in the regista to cement the attack?
Certainly a very difficult decision to make, it will have an incredible impact on the team’s performance next season. The arrival of the defenders could very well turn the tide in Juve’s favor by restricting the number of goals conceded against the smaller clubs. The arrival of a midfielder could, on the other hand, drastically increase the number of goals scored, and assure more victories through that path.
With the arrival of Fiorentina’s Felipe Melo being a near certainty, it seems evident that the management has decided to pursue a more attacking style of play, leaving the defensive end largely untouched.
It must be said, however, that considering the fact that Juventus has what many consider to be the best set of attacking players in all of Italy, perhaps the wisest course of action would be to sacrifice the option of a midfielder in order to create a defensive line that can stand the test that will no doubt be posed in the Champions League.
As it stands, however, one thing is clear—the current Juventus squad, even with the arrivals of Diego and Cannavaro, cannot hope to do much better in the Champions League than they did last season.