Juve under Conte sweep all before them at home and dare to dream of European glory once again
Antonio Conte spoke blandly of revenue streams and the economics of Champions League progress and of the need for his team still to “mature” but, when he considered the occasion ahead, the Italian could not disguise his excitement.
“This is a dream for us, to be in the knockout stages,” said the Juventus manager. “Like Celtic we’re back in this competition for the first time in a while so, in some respects, we are both outsiders here.”
That may have been diplomatic but, back in Turin, the Bianconeri are starting to believe they belong. Juve, twice winners and seven-time finalists in Europe’s elite club competition, feel like contenders again after the traumas endured in the wake of Calciopoli and the spluttered attempts since to regain lost status. The Old Lady of Italian football is revived.
It has been a laborious route back. The match-fixing scandal had disgraced the club, condemning them to Serie B back in 2006, wrecking their reputation and gutting what had been an imposing team.
It said much that Gianluigi Buffon, the only remaining member of the pre-scandal playing staff, recognised this season’s European campaign as a return “through the front door”.
This time round they are league champions, Italy’s flag-bearers and the team that eliminated the holders, Chelsea, in the group stages.
They are generating income off the pitch which can fuel ambitions on it. January may have been relatively quiet but Nicolas Anelka has arrived on loan from Shanghai Shenhua and Spain’s Fernando Llorente will join under the Bosman ruling in the summer.
Juve retain the pull of old and over the last 19 months have swept all before them.
Managers had come and gone, from Claudio Ranieri to Ciro Ferrara, Alberto Zaccheroni to Gigi Del Neri, though it was only when Conte returned in May 2011 to the club where he won a European Cup in 1996 the team was heaved on to another level.
The achievements of a man whose top-flight experience had previously amounted to a fraught three-month tenure at Atalanta have been remarkable. Last season’s Scudetto, technically Juve’s first in nine years, was claimed without a game lost. Saturday’s victory over Fiorentina means they are five points clear this term.
Conte has endured his own traumas, not least the four-month touchline ban for his alleged part in the fixing scandal. Yet even then the 43-year-old’s impact remained clear.
“Conte has brought back the “Juventus style”, something which is not really understood outside Juve,” said Marcello Lippi, who had claimed this competition with Conte in his midfield against Ajax in Rome 17 years ago.
“His team have speed, style and determination and are well organised. They work hard for each other, all aspects of the Juve DNA but which had been lost.”
There is class to go with the tenacity. Tactically Conte is cute and, perhaps critically, more adaptable than some.
When he returned to the club in the summer of 2011 he was intent on employing a 4-2-4 reliant on feverish pressing, only for Andrea Pirlo’s arrival from Milan to force a rethink.
The integration of the veteran alongside Claudio Marchisio and Arturo Vidal in a three-man midfield has been key to the team’s smooth progress since. The 4-3-3 has become 3-5-2 and even 3-3-4, constantly morphing.
There has been shrewd investment, not least across the back line and Kwadwo Asamoah has already proved in this competition a player once considered a midfield playmaker can flourish as a left wing back.
The hope is Anelka this term, and Llorente next, add a menacing presence to a front-line heavily reliant upon Mirko Vucinic being in the mood.
“We are building something very good here,” said Conte. “It is only a matter of time before we really challenge [for a European Cup] and I just ask our fans to be a bit patient.”
Celtic have beaten Barcelona this season but, potentially, they will face a more trying evening against Juventus.
“They have an extremely compact collective and it actually helps that they lack a “star” player,” Jose Mourinho said.
“They remind me of my Porto side in 2004.” That team claimed this trophy. Conte and Juve can dare to dream indeed.