Giorgio Chiellini, who has been immense for the Bianconeri this season, should have been sent off three minutes after the restart for a nasty, two-footed challenge on Francesco Pisano. And if not then, he might well have been shown a second yellow card for bringing Andrea Cossu down in the area on a play the transplanted Sardinian home support felt should have resulted in a penalty for their side. Cossu, as it turned out, was booked for diving.
Of course, these are things that could well be pointed out in any given match involving any given sides. Milan, who lost 4-2 to Inter in Sunday’s derby, were gifted a penalty in the 46th minute, for example. But because it’s Juventus, and because of their history of corruption and match-fixing activity, the Spockian eyebrow just seems to go up that much more easily.
Conspiracy—inspired mostly by reality and partly by jealousy—is an inevitable part of the Juventus conversation. It will always be there. But it hopefully doesn’t detract from what has been an exceptional eight months of football delivered by a club coming off back-to-back seventh-place seasons and, incredibly, just one result away from going the entire campaign undefeated.
Juventus were seven points back of league leaders and Scudetto holders AC Milan when they took the field for their 29th match of the campaign on March 25. Opposing them were a tricky Inter Milan side that had gone unbeaten in three following their worst spell of an up-and-down season, and when the whistle blew on a scoreless first half it looked as though Milan would hold a commanding lead atop the table heading into the final stretch.
It was in the next few moments that Juventus matured.
Through much of the first two thirds of the season Bianconeri manager Antonio Conte had relied on a consistent group of players and had kept his circle of trust as small as possible for the rigours of top-flight football. A back four that only changed out of necessity played behind the reliable midfield trio of Andrea Pirlo, Arturo Vidal and Claudio Marchisio. Simone Pepe and Mirko Vucinic worked the attacking flanks, and Alessandro Matri led the line.
It was this group that couldn’t find an opening against Inter and spent much of the opening period on the back-foot. After eight minutes of the same to start the second half Conte had had enough. Pepe was replaced by Leonardo Bonucci; Matri came off for Alessandro Del Piero. Martin Caceres and Paolo De Ceglie re-deployed as wingbacks; Vucinic tucked in.
The result was a 3-5-2 formation Conte had toyed with in previous matches but had yet to use as a mid-game adjustment. And it came off splendidly. In an instant the pitch tilted in Juve’s favour, and with nearly three quarters of possession they received well-earned goals from Caceres and Del Piero. In the end, the victory seemed almost convincing, as if the first half had been completely forgotten.
It was in this match that Juventus went from being merely a watchable side with an eye for a draw (a split decision with Inter would have been their seventh draw in nine matches) to legitimate title contenders. Their credentials would be laid down in the following weeks as Conte juggled formations and increased his pool of players, but the Inter win would serve as a touchstone in what went on to be their 28th championship season.
When Juventus host Atalanta next weekend they’ll be looking to become just the third Italian side, following AC Milan and Perugia, to complete an entire season in the first division without tasting defeat. A week after that they’ll contest the Coppa Italia final against Napoli in Rome. In other words, the Bianconeri are two results removed from winding up their campaign without a loss in all competitions.
That, of course, is at least partially down to the absence of European football. When Juventus finished five points back of the Europa League places at the end of last season they recognised their competitive future required the biggest rebuild since coming back into Serie A in 2007 after a year in the second division. Conte was part of the overhaul, but considerable changes were applied to the squad as well.
In the penultimate game of the 2010-11 season the Juventus starting lineup included Fabio Grosso, Felipe Melo, Manuel Giandonato, Jorge Martinez and Alessandro Del Piero. Only Del Piero wasn’t jettisoned in the summer, and he played only a small part of the team’s success in the current campaign.
All in all, 28 players who were on the books at the end of last season were ushered out of the club in the following summer and winter transfer windows. Conte really had no choice but to begin his tenure with a small pool of trusted players. The wall-to-wall renovation required it, and he learned as he went along which members of his squad fit into which roles, and which he trusted.
The groundwork has been laid, but the restoration will continue over the next few months. Juventus are heading back to the group stage of the Champions League for the first time since 2009, and the demands of an extra competition will require even more squad enhancements in the summer. Juventus, it can safely be said, will not go unbeaten next season.
That’s why this campaign has been so unique, and is unlikely to be replicated in Italian football anytime soon. It took until now for the full effects of Calciopoli to be absorbed. In a roundabout way it’s because of their 2006 relegation that Juventus find themselves in their current set of circumstances.
Football is funny like that.
Follow Jerrad Peters on Twitter @peterssoccer