It's not often that teams in their third year back from Italy's second division have title aspirations. Most clubs who get promoted are fighting to not get relegated the next few terms instead of splashing cash for big-name signings.
But we aren't talking about any other club. We are talking about Juventus—the most storied club in Italian football history.
Upon Juve’s first year back from Serie B, nobody really knew what to expect from the Old Lady. It was warranted—they were returning to the league with a quality core of players, but definitely not the star-studded roster they had before their forced relegation.
The second year back in Serie A brought higher expectations because, unlike 2007-08, there were people in the media picking Juve to make a serious run for the Scudetto.
It looked like it could seriously happen with great end to the first half capped off by an emotional 4-2 win over archrival AC Milan. However, the good vibes were quickly ruined by a defensive meltdown that spanned most of the second half of the year. They may have finished in second place, but things should’ve certainly gone better.
But a new year brings a rookie coach and a totally different outlook on life in Turin.
Once a player for and now the coach of Juventus, Ciro Ferrara has brought his winning mentality with him to the sidelines. He certainly brings a different view on things then former manager Claudio Ranieri had—every game must be won.
With that winning vision, Ferrara is also bringing a new formation to Turin. Gone is Ranieri’s trusted 4-4-2 and in comes Ferrara’s 4-3-1-2 formation as a result of Secco splashing €24.5 million to bring in diminutive Brazilian playmaker Diego—who has been sensational in his limited action so far in a Juve uniform.
Diego, and fellow pint-sized magician Sebastian Giovinco when the Brazilian is rested, will be playing behind one of Italy and Europe’s most potent group of strikers. Despite David Trezeguet missing the majority of the season due to double-knee surgery, Juve was just off the league pace with 69 goals scored.
Evergreen captain Alessandro Del Piero led the team in goals for a second consecutive season (third if you count his Serie B scoring crown), finding the back of the net 13 times. Close behind, 34-year-old King Alex was last summer’s big signing, Amauri, and the always-underrated Vincenzo Iaquinta with 12 goals apiece—each being the offensive catalyst in the first- and second-half of the season, respectively.
If one striker is struggling, Ferrara can just plug in another top-flight striker to keep the offensive mojo going. It’s a nice problem to have, isn’t it?
One significant problem this team has is that it doesn’t have a legitimate midfield general to distribute the ball. This summer’s other big money signing, Brazilian Felipe Melo who arrives after his €20.5 million move from Fiorentina, has looked average at best in preseason action. His tackling has been solid, but his distribution has been anything but that—he'll win a ball, but then give it right back to the other team.
With an injury keeping Momo Sissoko out the first couple of weeks of the season, Claudio Marchisio, who seems like he is on the brink of stardom, will likely be the top choice in the starting lineup. However, when Sissoko is at full fitness, it will be interesting to see if Ferrara keeps Marchisio in the lineup or goes with the more defensively-minded Malian.
If the oft-injured Mauro Camoranesi can stay healthy, he will certainly be one of the starting three midfielders—something he hasn't been able to do very often the past two seasons. If he can stay on the pitch more than the training table, Juve might not need a genuine distributor like Andrea Pirlo or Gaetano D’Agostino. He can pass, dribble, maintain possession with the best of them when he is at his best.
The one thing that may keep Juventus from seriously challenging, however, is the uncertainty in defense. Compared to Inter’s group of defenders, Juve’s doesn’t come close.
The always-reliable Gianluigi Buffon is back to full health after missing almost half of last season and had a tremendous preseason when he was called upon. But judging by what has occurred the past few weeks in Juve’s friendlies, the 31-year-old Buffon might be a busy keeper this season.
The previously mentioned inconsistent defensive corps has barely been addressed by Secco. As he has spent the entire transfer budget on two midfielders, Secco has brought in just two defenders—one on a free transfer and one on loan.
Fabio Cannavaro seems to have displaced Nicola Legrottaglie as Giorgio Chiellini’s partner in the center of the Juve defense. He may have just passed Paolo Maldini as Italy’s all-time caps leader, but the 35-year-old Cannavaro has looked consistently inconsistent during the preseason.
The Chiellini-Cannavaro partnership hasn’t clicked and if it continues to be shaky, it won’t just be Italy boss Marcello Lippi wondering what is going to happen down the road.
The fullback position is another concern as Secco has brought in just Martin Caceres on loan from Barcelona to an average group at best.
It seems as though Ferrara is set to give Jonathan Zebina a bigger role with the club at right back. The 31-year-old Frenchman has been with the club since 2004, but has failed to land an consistent playing time due to injuries, suspensions, you name it.
If Zdenek Grygera can regain his form from two years ago or Caceres can continue to impress like he has this season, the right wing will be certainly improved. But as of right now, it’s tough to tell if there is going to be a regular starter every week.
The left side of the defense is almost as certain as the right. Incumbent starter Cristian Molinaro improved a lot last season, but is still inconsistent to say the very least offensively and can throw in a few clunkers in a row as well.
Paolo De Ceglie is definitely the better offensive option but it remains to be seen whether his future is as a left back or in the midfield.
With his team competing on all fronts, it will be interesting to see how Ferrara handles the squad. He recently said that playing time will not be an issue as the weeks go by and the games played start to mount.
If Ferrara can keep his regulars fresh, something that Ranieri failed to do as the season went on last year, then competing in three competitions won’t be that big of an issue.
There is no doubting, however, that this Juventus team is the one that is going to be the biggest challenger to Inter Milan for the sacred Scudetto. The offense is going to be there, but the defense is going to be the thing that determines where Juve finish.
You get a team playing well defensively, your offense becomes that much better.
And that is the Old Lady's recipe for success.