The last meeting between Juventus and Bayern Munich is not remembered fondly among the Bianconeri faithful. As if that 4-1 home defeat in 2009, resulting in elimination from the group stage of the Champions League wasn’t a bitter pill to swallow in itself, what happened that night was an omen of worse things to come for the Turin giants, who were no strangers to adversity at the time.
After having suffered the pain of (controversial) relegation to Italy’s second tier for the first time in the club’s history as a consequence of the so-called “calciopoli” scandal back in 2006, things were finally starting to look up for Juve, as the swift promotion under the stewardship of ex-player Didier Deschamps and the subsequent third and second places Serie A under Claudio Ranieri seemed to have immediately reinstated the club as a force to be reckoned with.
Those results proved to be a false dawn, and the game against Bayern was perhaps the first indicator that all was not at all well with the Old Lady. That very season, another club legend, Ciro Ferrara, had been appointed coach in order to take the club to the next level. Big spending in the summer brought in the likes of Brazilian Bundesliga starlet Diego, the promising midfielder (and not yet confirmed head-case) Felipe Melo as well as two world cup winning Fabios; Grosso and Cannavaro.
All was set for a rebirth of Juventus, but after much success early on, it became apparent that something was amiss. After crashing out of the CL and seeing domestic form deteriorating, Ferrara was sacked for Alberto Zaccheroni, who did just enough to secure Europa League football before being unceremoniously dumped himself at the end of the season.
It was time for change. Again. This time, the entire management structure was affected. The President stepped down to allow the young Andrea Agnelli, born into the job, as his grandfather, father and uncle had all been at the helm of Juventus, to take over. The incredibly inept Sporting Director Alessio Secco was replaced with the more prudent Beppe Marotta from Sampdoria, who brought with him a new coach, Gigi Del Neri. New players were bought, the tactical system changed once more and behind the scenes, a vast overhaul was begun.
The first stab at glory under this new management however, was thoroughly disappointing. Del Neri did not manage to instil the right attitude and awareness into a squad that was only half-way transformed, and another seventh-place league finish sealed a season that was perhaps best defined by the team’s Europa League campaign: Unbeaten in the tournament, the Bianconeri never made it through the group stage thanks to a UEFA record of six draws in the same competition…
Anyhow, important foundations had been laid outside of the pitch, and the introduction of former club captain Antonio Conte as new manager in the summer of 2011 signalled a change that, as we now know, would go a long way in making up for the agony of the previous seasons. Firstly, the Juventus Stadium, a modern, compact arena which is owned by the club and not rented from the municipality, as is the rule in Italy, was inaugurated with a ceremony that reminded every Juventino, be he President, fan or player, of the illustrious history of the club. There was no doubt that such an event demanded that everyone involved with the club was to do their utmost to rekindle the fire that had been flickering from the gushes of calciopoli and the turmoil that followed.
Amongst the new players witnessing this spectacle were uncompromising right back Stephan Lichtsteiner, mercurial midfielder Arturo Vidal (bought from under the nose of a much dissatisfied Bayern hierarchy), former Roma forward Mirko Vucinic – and one Andrea Pirlo, secured on a free transfer from AC Milan, who did not consider it worth it renewing his contract.
Those four players became key components in Conte’s Juventus, joining the likes of legendary goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, the tough and smooth defensive unit of Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini, as well as home grown midfield ace Claudio Marchisio. Together, they would form the backbone of a side that went on to not only win Serie A for the first time since Calciopoli, but to do so unbeaten, while at the same time reaching the final of the Coppa Italia and subsequently securing the Supercoppa as revenge for their one defeat of the season; losing out 2-0 to a much hungrier Napoli side in said cup final, played after the Scudetto was secured.
For Juventini, it was a dream come true, following the nightmarish years that preceded it. The penned up frustrations after the unheard-of poor seasons that went before were wiped away, but most of all it was the confirmation that the Calciopoli scandal and all that followed was now overcome, if not forgotten and certainly not forgiven. It was a new, very real, dawn, and I have yet to meet a Juventus fan who, all other triumphs and iconic moments included, does not consider the 2012 return to glory as his most precious memory.
Yet, like in all good narratives, there was a touch of melancholy to the celebrations as well. Earlier in the season it had been decided that the contract of the greatest Juventus icon of all, Alessandro Del Piero would not be renewed. It turned out to be a glorious goodbye to the Captain as he lifted the trophy to the Turin sky that night in May and bid his farewell to the club that he gave his all. But the fact that Del Piero himself was ready to stay while the club thought otherwise left many fans of the Old Lady with tears in their eyes and a bleeding heart.
Nevertheless, things – as they tend to do – moved on, even if the sting remained. In the summer of 2012, Juventus strengthened the squad ahead of the forthcoming Champions League campaign, securing the services of Uruguayan all-round defender Martín Caceres (who had earlier been at the club and inexplicably let go), midfielders Kwadwo Asamoah and Mauricio Isla from Udinese as well as the 19-year-old prodigy Paul Pogba from Manchester United. In attack, which remained perhaps the only area lacking consistency, home grown player Sebastian Giovinco was brought back into the fold along with the somewhat underwhelming signing of Danish forward Nicklas Bendtner, who was never much more than a back up to the former and the likes of Vucinic, Alessandro Matri and Fabio Quagliarella.
Unfazed by the unyielding criticism of the forward line (and the farcical four-month ban of coach Conte for not reporting an instance of (failed) match-fixing of which it seems unlikely he was aware), Juventus went on to win nine of the first 10 domestic games of the season, laying the foundations of what still looks likely to be a second championship in a row. In the CL, however Juve needed to find the their feet. After an impressive comeback 2-2 draw against reigning champions Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, successive disappointing 1-1 ties with Shakhtar at home, and even more so, FC Nordsjælland away, meant that the team had to give their all to secure further progression in the competition.
As it happened, they did just that, and after beating both Nordsjælland and Chelsea comprehensively in Turin, Juventus secured top spot in the group by beating Shakhtar away at the fearsome Donbass Arena, which led to a rather kind draw in the last 16 in shape of Celtic.
While the eventual 5-0 dispatching of the Scottish club on aggregate was somewhat harsh on the Glaswegians , it did highlight a trait not hitherto prominent to the “new Juve”, namely that cynicism and ability to play to the opponent that became a somewhat novel feature in the last games of the group stage too.
Domestically, Juventus usually apply a high-energy pressing game that sees them having the bulk of ball-possession, trying to find a gap in the enemy lines. However, in recent European matches, Conte appears to be pulling his trademark 3-5-2 back a lot more, allowing the opponents more time on the ball and launching counter-attacks through the flanks or in the channels.
This alternative approach is partly to do with the generally more attacking nature of the European opponents, and partly a result of an often stern man-marking of Andrea Pirlo, which has seen the team opting for different outlets at times, specifically the runs of the wing-backs and the added space given to Vidal and Marchisio when Pirlo is shadowed.
It will indeed be interesting to see which style Conte will apply against this ubiquitously impressing Bayern Munich side. Much will depend on whether Pirlo is stifled methodically or if the Germans prefer to play their own game and not focus on the Bearded Genius. In any case it is safe to say that while Juve are in light of recent years’ performances to be considered the underdogs, they will not easily crumble under pressure this time around.
As Shakespeare would say: Hell hath no fury like an Old Lady scorned!
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