Juventus have not been the popular pick to win the Scudetto this season. Ever since Antonio Conte resigned as coach two days into preseason training, the conventional wisdom has been that Juve will finally be knocked off their perch after ruling Serie A for the last three seasons.
I say to heck with conventional wisdom.
The loss of Conte is a serious one, yes. Untested when he took over the club in 2011, he has proved to be a tactical wiz and a master at finding the setups that got the most out of the players at his disposal. But Juventus still have more than enough firepower to be the first team since Inter in the mid-2000s to win four titles in a row.
First, a word on Massimiliano Allegri, Conte's replacement. He was not a popular choice among the fans, but he is also not the bumbling joke that many made him out to be following his exit at AC Milan.
Allegri started his career at Sassuolo. He is the one who started the tiny team on the meteoric rise that has culminated in the Neroverdi not only making Serie A but staying there. He then won Serie A Coach of the Year with Cagliari, which put him on Adriano Galliani's radar to replace the departing Leonardo at Milan in 2010.
In his first year at the San Siro, Allegri won the Scudetto, breaking five years of Inter dominance. From then on, it went downhill.
Milan were in financial trouble, and a period of austerity was on the horizon. Two summers after winning the title, Allegri had lost his two best players, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva, to Paris Saint-Germain. Their replacements were cut-rate.
The fact that Allegri kept Milan anywhere close to competitive in the league and in Champions League play was a miracle.
But the fact of the matter is that without the support of the board and the declining squad, Allegri still managed to get Milan to the knockout rounds of the Champions League every year he was there, and the club's impressive 2012-13 comeback to make it to the Champions League playoff round was almost as wondrous a feat as Conte's unbeaten season the year before.
Allegri does have his weaknesses. In particular, his strange approach to squad rotation saw some critical players injured for big games and saw others whipped to the point of exhaustion by the end of the year. That may be ameliorated by the fact that Allegri has a much deeper roster, but it's still something that ought to be monitored.
With that said, Allegri is a very good tactician. The adjustments he made in Champions League knockout ties against Arsenal (2011-12) and Barcelona (2012-13) both resulted in major victories. In the latter case, Milan were the width of a post away from knocking the Blaugrana out of the competition in the second leg.
There will be something lost in the mentality that Conte imparted to his players over the last three years. But in spite of all that might be lost from Conte's departure and all of Allegri's deficiencies—real or imagined—Juventus did not hire Bozo the Clown to manage the team.
Allegri has the best roster in Italy at his disposal.
Goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon is talismanic in his role as captain and is still one of the better shot-stoppers in the game today in spite of his age.
The team's trio of center-backs—Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini—have anchored one of the best defenses in Europe over the last three years. The addition of Patrice Evra gives the Bianconeri their first true left-back in years and provides the valuable tactical flexibility that the squad has lacked in the past.
Farther forward, Carlos Tevez and Fernando Llorente developed into a pairing that evoked visions of Alessandro Del Piero and David Trezeguet at the height of their partnership. That forward line is only going to get better when Alvaro Morata returns to full fitness.
But the real strength of this team is the midfield. One can make the case that Andrea Pirlo, Paul Pogba, Claudio Marchisio and Arturo Vidal make up the best midfield unit in the world. They're backed up this year by even more depth in the form of Roberto Pereyra, Romulo and budding youngster Kingsley Coman.
Vidal is the key. He has been the subject of constant transfer rumors this season, with Manchester United reported as a constant suitor. But on Wednesday, Football Italia reported that with the exception of La Gazzetta dello Sport, most Italian print media—as well as Italian transfer sage Gianluca Di Marzio—are under the impression that Juventus are not interested in listening to offers at this point of the transfer window.
This prediction is contingent on Vidal remaining with the team. I have repeatedly made the claim that he has a distinct case for best player in the world and expanded on that argument in December.
No player combines goalscoring ability, passing prowess and defensive steel the way Vidal does. When he fully recovers from the knee injury that has hampered him since March, he will be the key piece of this team.
And what about their challengers? The only team with a truly viable shot at Juve is Roma. The Giallorossi had the best season in club history last year. Since Serie A was expanded to 20 teams in 2004-05—excluding the 2005-06 season and the calculus it took to come up with the official final table—Roma's point total would have been enough to win the league in four different seasons and tie for first in one more.
Unfortunately for them, Juve had the best domestic season Italy has ever seen and set a league record with 102 points.
Roma have now been anointed as the No. 1 contender to the title and have acted accordingly. They have fortified the roster with Davide Astori, Seydou Keita, Ashley Cole, Urby Emanuelson, Kostas Manolas and Juan Manuel Iturbe, who was signed from under Juve's nose.
Their excellent mercato and the departure of Conte has many tipping them to be champions this year. But the sale of Mehdi Benatia, the best defender in Serie A last year, to Bayern Munich this week has in my opinion undone a lot of that good work.
Astori, Manolas and incumbent Leandro Castan are all capable, but none have the special quality that Benatia showed last season, and it will take time developing chemistry. Their defense is going to hurt.
I also doubt Roma because they have yet to prove that they have overcome their biggest weakness—their brains.
Roma have had one of the most talented rosters in Serie A for the last few years, but their problem has always been mental. A classic example of this was in their first meeting with Juventus in January.
Roma arrived at the Juventus Stadium as an unbeaten team with a chance to make a firm statement in the race for the Scudetto. Instead, they were picked apart.
Three minutes into the second half, Juve had all but polished the game off.
Fifteen minutes before time, two Roma players were sent off in the space of 60 seconds. Had Roma kept their heads they could have had a statement win. Instead, they were on the wrong end of a 3-0 thrashing and ended the game with only nine men.
Roma will be under extreme pressure as the top contenders to dethrone the champs. The added strain of Champions League play—and a horrendously difficult draw—will only add to the mental taxation. Until Roma prove they can play in the right headspace, they're at a massive disadvantage to a Juve side whose hallmark under Conte was mental toughness.
Make no mistake: This will not be an easy title defense. There will not be another 102-point season in 2014-15.
Roma have improved.
Juve's own moves have also given the team a flexibility that they haven't had in recent years, but they did allow the Giallorossi to close the gap. The expectations to advance in the Champions League will also weigh heavily on them.
Their squad, however, is still the best in the league. They also have a massive advantage in their home stadium, where they haven't lost a league game since January 6, 2013. Yes, you read that right—it's been 20 months since a team defeated Juventus in their house.
In the end, I think that Juventus have what it takes to outlast Roma. Somewhere along the line, the lack of mental discipline that has been the unfortunate hallmark of Roma over the last few years will cost them crucial points.
On the other hand, the winning mentality instilled in Juventus by Conte the last three years will serve them well. That, the superior quality of their roster and their familiarity with balancing domestic and European competition will make the difference.
I predict that Juventus will win the league by two points, with Roma second and Inter sneaking past Napoli for third.
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