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Juventus-Fulham: Much Improved Bianconeri Await Cottagers

Adam Digby@@Adz77Featured ColumnistMarch 9, 2010

FLORENCE, ITALY - MARCH 06: Diego (L#28) of Juventus FC celebrates the goal during the Serie A match between at ACF Fiorentina and Juventus FC at Stadio Artemio Franchi on March 6, 2010 in Florence, Italy.  (Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images)
Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images

When the draw was made for the next round of Europa League ties, Fulham had every right to be optimistic when seeing the name Juventus pulled out of the pot.

The Old Lady of Italian football was in turmoil, losing games domestically and being eliminated in humiliating fashion from the Champions League, losing 4-1 to Bayern Munich.

All this while Fulham were riding high in the English Premier League, enjoying one of the best spells in their history under vastly underrated coach Roy Hodgson.

Juventus limped into January, losing five games out of six, falling as low as sixth in the Serie A table, and suffering elimination from the Italian Cup as well as the Champions League. A difficult-looking Europa League tie with Ajax awaited a team that was in a desperate state and whose fans had taken to setting fire to the stadium in protest at the lack of progress.

On Jan. 29 the decision was made to part company with coach Ciro Ferrara, a Juventus legend in his first season of club management. His appointment was a gamble that looked to be paying off in the early part of the season, but as injury, fatigue, and poor form set in, the club's hierarchy were left with no choice but to make a change.

That change was hardly inspiring at first, as ex-Milan, Inter, and Lazio coach Alberto Zaccheroni took charge of the fallen giant. Out of work since being fired by Juve's city rivals Torino in 2006, he was hardly the big-name appointment the fans craved.

Yet somehow, despite not being appointed until after the transfer window closed, unable to bring in any players to make a difference, Zaccheroni made this Juventus squad his own, transforming them from a disconnected bunch lacking direction into a compact, resilient, and cohesive team.

Players who previously were being jeered by their own fans were almost instantly improved. Felipe Melo and Momo Sissoko drive them on, while iconic captain Alessandro Del Piero has found his form once more to create goals both for himself and strike partner Amauri.

Ajax were humbled 2-1 in Amsterdam and then shut down in the return leg in Turin, a stereotypical Italian performance where neither side posed a genuine goal threat at any point.

A return to winning ways in Serie A followed too, with victories over Bologna and Genoa seeing them rise up the table and back into a Champions League berth.

The turnaround has not been without fault—a home loss to Palermo last week saw fans fear the worst had returned—but beating storied rivals Fiorentina away from home this weekend has done much to appease those fears.

That one of the goals came from a player whose form has mirrored that of Juventus all season long, Brazilian playmaker Diego, is perhaps as big an indicator of the improvement as the result.

Juventus still has a long way to go to rediscover the standing in world football it enjoyed before the Calciopoli scandal saw them relegated to the second tier, but under Zaccheroni they are at least headed in the right direction.

Fulham have reasons to fear them now, and with their own talisman Danny Murphy suspended, they have an even tougher task. Roy Hodgson, who knows Italian football well after spells in charge of both Inter and Udinese, will prepare his team well as always.

La Vecchia Signora awaits, and you know what they say about a woman scorned...

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