The referee blows. Full time: Real Madrid 1 – Juventus 1.
With a Clasico final in the offing, Real Madrid went all out for a victory. Missing out would’ve hurt, but they’ve gotten quite used to these wounds over the last 13 years, when their dominance of the Champions League ended. A few individual awards and a couple of marquee signings would go a long way in healing them. They’ll challenge again next season.
The significance of this tie for the other team couldn’t have differed more. Juventus have once had players like Platini, Laudrup, Deschamps, Baggio and Zidane donning their colors. They were among a few elite glamour clubs in Europe. Were, being the operative word. Serie A was the ‘in-thing’ back then. The world’s best were here and everyone else wanted to. Their status as one of the ‘big’ leagues has since waned. Part of it was due to the economic situation in the country, which led to so many clubs not making enough revenue. The best players were let go and teams that used to be powerhouses are now meek opponents to a half-decent side. Nothing highlights this more than the rumors around a young Frenchman at Juve becoming a certain departee from the club because he’s playing really well. A far cry from the days when good, really good players would give anything to turn up once at the Stadio Delle Alpi.
Juventus needed and wanted this success a lot more. The last time they this deep into the Champions League was 13 years back. They were playing to empty stands in the Serie B nine years back. The Calciopoli scandal in 2006 had wreaked havoc at the club, which sent the Old Lady of Turin to the second division and docked 9 points. This led to household names like Ibrahimovic, Fabio Cannavaro, Gianluca Zambrotta and Lillian Thurram leaving. The club were extremely fortunate to have absolute greats like Buffon, Del Piero, Pavel Nedved among others possess the gravitas to stay and help their beloved club back to where they belong. It was an almost-unheard-of stance in an era where a few extra thousand dollars a week is an extremely effective transfer catalyst.
It indeed was Serie A next season for them. Claudio Ranieri took over the helm and Juventus finished an unbelievable 3rd in the table that season. Powered by a stupendous season from Del Piero and Trezeguet, who finished with 21 and 20 league goals each, the Biaconneri were immediately back into Champions’ League as a result. They went one better in 2008-09 where the finished second in the table. Even more remarkably, they humbled Real Madrid both home and away in the group stages of the Champions League. The tie at Bernabeu saw what was surely one of the most epic individual performances away from home. The protagonist, one of Juve’s very own.
Two lacklustre seasons under Ciro Ferrera and Alberto Zaccheroni later, they signed-up a manager, who went on to change their fortunes. Antonio Conte spent the last 13 years of his footballing career at Juventus, appearing over 400 times for them. In a lot of ways, he was their Pep Guardiola. So much happened under him, really. The first season, Juventus finished unbeaten champions. The 4-3-3 with the amazing, amazing midfield that read: Claudio Marchisio, Arturo Vidal, Andrea Pirlo. They happened to sign another rather mercurial kid from Manchester United. He was tall, strong and French. He is Paul Pogba, a name you will likely hear at a Balon d’Or award function in a few seasons from now. The next two seasons saw two more titles, but no cigar in Coppa Italia or Europe.
With a highly-motivated Carlos Tevez and Fernando Llorente on-board in 2013, the formation slowly gave way to a 3-5-2, which was untouchable at most times. In Stephan Lichsteiner, Georgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci, they had extremely able ball-playing defenders. The MVP midfield was flanked with Kwando Asamoah and Paul Pogba, initially. With the Frenchman showing his natural class every time he seemed to touch the ball, Conte had no option but to shift him into central midfield and move Marchisio outwards. Pogba scored 9 goals that season, most of which were absolute crackers. The constant pressure Tevez put on the opposition defenders left enough space for the midfield to weave their magic.
Under Conte, Juventus were miles ahead of every other team in the Serie A. Roma came close with two marvellous seasons, but not enough. Tevez and that midfield made up most of the difference in consistency and performance. Carlos Tevez has played two seasons in Turin, and has already notched up 50 goals for the Bianconeri. Arturo Vidal scored 18. EIGHTEEN goals from central midfield in 2013-14. Penalties were there, yes, but those numbers from a central midfielder make the eyebrows go up.
A word about ‘the architect’ and his allies. When Milan let Pirlo go in 2011, they wouldn’t have imagined that a few of his best years were yet to come. Not only has he oozed class and composure on the field, his ability to dictate the tempo of the match has been influential beyond the scope of this article. Vidal, Marchisio and Pogba’s agility and dynamism are perfect foil to his easy-going, no-frills style of football. Each one of them complements the other and that is a mark of a truly, truly fabulous team. Claudio Marchisio might not have the numbers to make someone sit up, but his versatility and impact is not lost on anyone who’s cared to watch Juventus over the last few years. He’s consistent, a marvelous passer of the ball, tackles well, is pacy and has a good finish on him. Guy can walk into most teams in the world.
But then after unprecedented success since joining, and finally getting the Old Lady back into the groove, Conte decided he had had enough. He up and left the Serie A Champions – not least after they had begun training for the 2014-15 season under him already. He quoted a lack of support from the Juventus faithful and boardroom, but one must wonder if the Italian FA had a role in turning his head. In step Massimiliano Allegri. I have seen terror-attacks get lesser hate in media than what Max Allegri copped before even managing one game for Juventus. What he has ended up doing, however, is something even Conte couldn’t. He has managed to get the side to change formations and style for European games. While the league games saw a 3-5-2, they turned up with 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 in Europe. Conte’s 3-5-2 got outrun in most games, but Allegri made sure his defense is more guarded and Arturo Vidal plays primarily as a shield. Roberto Pereyra and Simone Padoin have added to the depth, allowing an ageing Pirlo to play lesser and have more impact.
More often than not, it’s a delight to watch Juventus play. Well, how won’t it be when a 21 year old is doing roulettes in the centre of the pitch with three men around him. Alvaro Morata has been a welcome foil for Tevez upfront, as the Argentine can now easily drop back and influence the game more. Bonucci and Chiellini make for one of the most formidable central-defense partnerships in Europe today. It bodes really well for the club that they’re just 28 and 30 respectively. Should they stick to the club, that makes another five seasons of them holding fort, at the very least. Catenaccio might be long gone, but let’s admit, them Italians can defend.
They’ve been smart in the transfer market too, Juventus. As soon as Antonio Conte came in, they spent heavily on bulking up the side. One of the incoming players was Arturo Vidal for 10.5 million euros, surely one of the biggest bargains of the last decade. It allowed them to go through the next few seasons without having a large net-spend. This summer promises to be eventful too. Juventus have already bought Paulo Dybala from Palermo, a signing that already bodes well for the Turin club. He’s 21 and got into double figures for both goals and assists in the Serie A this season. They look very likely to sign Sami Khedira too, which is another proactive move given Pirlo’s age and Pogba’s suitors.
87 points in the Serie A, winning the league with a 17-point margin, Coppa Italia winners, Champions League finalists. The Old Lady has done her rehearsals and is warmed up. She’s ready to sing again.