It has been eight long years since Juventus last won the Serie A title. Much has befallen La Vecchia Signora in that time, but after a string of trophyless seasons the Turin giants are back on top, leading the race for the 2011/12 scudetto.
The arrival of Andrea Agnelli, the latest heir of the car-making dynasty, as the club’s president last summer was a major factor in the sudden turnaround, as was the opening of a gleaming new stadium, and the appointment of former midfielder Antonio Conte as coach.
The son and grandson of former club presidents Humberto and Giovanni Agnelli respectively, the 36-year-old head is on a mission to restore the old values of one of Italy’s grandest footballing institutions, values held dear by its former idols, among them UEFA President UEFA Michel Platini.
“In coming in here I’m only too well aware of the circumstances and mismanagement that caused the steep decline in the club’s sporting fortunes and undermined the quality of the playing staff,” he said on taking up his post in July 2010. “Some of the new faces that came in did not understand what Juve were all about, while some of the people who were already here had forgotten.”
That message struck a chord with the 42-year-old Conte, who took over before the start of the season, following Luigi del Neri’s failed bid to restore the fortunes of the Italian aristocrats.
“More than anything else we have to get the Juve spirit back. The rest will come automatically,” said the one-time midfield general, who last week celebrated the 20th anniversary of his Juve debut, the first of the 295 appearances he made for the club between 1991 and 2004.
Having since moved into coaching, learning the ropes at Arezzo, Bari, Atalanta and Siena, he is now facing his first major test since hanging up his boots, one that involves revitalising a great club that has fallen on hard times, a fact underlined by last season’s failure to qualify for European football.
“We have to show that we’re up for a fight,” added Conte. “We have to show that we believe in the jersey, that we’re going to sweat for it. We have to come off the pitch having given every last drop of energy and remind everyone that we’re Juventus and that Juve equals victory.
“I haven’t come here to do the bare minimum,” he continued, driving home the message. “I want to win. You can see that from my record. It’s my life, and that’s how things should be at Juve.”
As well as getting the dressing room right behind him, the ex-warhorse can also count on the support of the club’s most legendary figures.
“Conte lives and breathes Juve, and he’s already imposed his desire and will to win,” commented Ciro Ferrara, a former team-mate and a short-lived predecessor of Conte’s in the Bianconeri dugout.
“Antonio has got a grip of the situation brilliantly,” added Marcello Lippi, one of the club’s most celebrated coaches. “He’s completely turned things round on a technical and psychological level, and you can see from the way the players are pushing themselves that they’ve taken his message on board.”
Aware that he did not have the resources to deploy his favoured 4-2-4 formation, Conte quickly switched to a classic but fluid 4-4-2 system. It has proved an inspired decision. Leaders on goal difference from Lazio and with a game in hand, Juve boast the only unbeaten record in the league and have conceded a miserly seven goals in ten games.
Watertight at the back, the rejuvenated Bianconeri have also been playing some stylish football, thanks to the understanding struck up by the likes of Mirko Vucinic, Arturo Vidal, Leonardo Bonucci, Emanuele Giaccherini, Simone Pepe, Marco Motta, Alessandro Matri and Fabio Quagliarella. Keeping a watchful eye between the posts is the ageless Gianluigi Buffon, while fellow veteran Andrea Pirlo and Claudio Marchisio, seven years his junior, have been setting the smoothest of tempos in the midfield.
The work ethic
Marchisio’s ability to drift into space and Pirlo’s gift for picking a pass have made them perfect partners, adding to the latter’s sense of satisfaction at making the move from AC Milan.
”I wanted a new experience and I wanted to succeed in a different jersey,” Pirlo told FIFA.com. “As soon as I arrived at Juve I could sense that will to win, that desire to get back to the top as quickly as possible. The coach, the club and the players are all on the same wavelength and we’ve got everything we need to succeed.”
Despite spending more time on the bench than he would like, Alessandro del Piero is another experienced campaigner fully committed to the cause: “We’re not playing in the European Cup and that means there’s less rotations. It’s tough to be on the bench because the fire still burns in me, but I’m the club captain and it’s vital we’re all in this together. We can’t let the intensity drop.”
That intensity is plain for all to see whenever Conte’s charges run out at the state-of-the-art, 41,000-capacity Juventus Stadium, where the sold-out signs have been up since it opened its doors in early September. With the massed ranks of the Juve fans behind them once more and the old fighting spirit restored, the Old Lady of Italian football is on the way to restoring her faded lustre.
As far as Conte is concerned, however, his work has only just begun: “We’ve done nothing more than lay the foundations here, and no one should forget that. We need to keep our feet on the ground and our eyes on the road ahead. That means working hard, giving everything and atoning for the past. We need to dig as deep as we can every day. And if that’s not enough, then we’ll need to dig even deeper.”