Following a second successive underwhelming placing in Serie A, finishing in seventh place on each occasion, the appointment of Juventus coach Antonio Conte 11 months ago has sparked a revival no-one would have dared predict.
Formed over 100 years ago, I Bianconeri boast one of the most illustrious trophy cabinets in Italian football. However, the last decade is likely one the Juve faithful would like to forget. At the turn of the century, it appeared La Vecchia Signora would continue to reign supreme under the guidance of Marcello Lippi as they bagged back-to-back Scudettos in the 2001/02 and 2002/03 seasons. And then, with Fabio Capello at the helm, the club followed up those successes with two more league titles.
Juventus were soon stripped of those accomplishments, though, as they became the focal point of a match-fixing scandal that embroiled five Italian clubs in 2006. As a result, Juventus were relegated to Serie B the following season for the first time in their history. Although the demotion will certainly linger painfully in the memory, Juve returned to the top flight after just one season with the likes of goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon and the club’s all-time leading goalscoring Alessandro Del Piero pivotal in seeing them bounce back.
Despite reclaiming their place in the first division, the last half-decade has been one of underachievement and numerous managerial shifts for the Turin outfit. After failing to qualify for European competition during the last two campaigns, Juventus sporting director Giuseppe Marotta rang in the changes once more, announcing Conte as the club’s fifth head coach in as many years in May 2011.
A Juve past
With expectations high for the northern giants, Conte was tasked with clinching a return to the European scene as well as a place at the top of the Italian league. The 42-year-old has a rich history of success not only as a manager, but as a player too. The Lecce-born midfielder made his debut as a Juventus player back in November of 1991, before embarking on a trophy-laden 13-year stretch with La Fidanzata d'Italia.
His triumphs as a player in Turin between 1991 and 2004, some of which while sporting the captain's armband, would eventually prove out to be a mere forshadowing of what feats were in his future as coach. Keen on engraining a strong work-ethic among his players and implementing an attacking style, Conte has enjoyed successful spells at a handful of clubs on the sidelines. Perhaps the most memorable of which being when he led Siena back into the top flight just last season.
Now, fulfilling his aspirations to become manager of the club where he hung up his boots after unbridled success, Conte has revived the Turin side from its early-millennium slump. In fact, with 32 matches gone, Juventus sit one-point clear of title rivals AC Milan at the top of the table, have booked a Coppa Italia final against Napoli, and still remain unbeaten in all competitions.
Conte certainly has the adoration of his players, with goalkeeper and vice-captain Gianluigi Buffon stating: "The secret of our success is the ambition our coach has. He has shown that ambition since day one and has combined that with hard work."
If anything has tarnished Conte’s reign as Juventus coach, it would be the side’s 14 draws to AC Milan’s seven. Even so, Juve remain in a heated battle atop the table that is sure to continue until the final matchday with the defending champions.
With just six games remaining, today marks a decisive juncture for I Bianconeri as they are set to host a Roma side chasing European competition next season, while Milan welcome mid-table Bologna. Despite the looming implications of facing Francesco Totti and Co, Conte has instilled a strong mental focus and a fighting spirit among his men.
And, after early reservations, he has finally made one thing clear: beyond claiming a place in next season’s UEFA Champions League, Juventus are also out to dethrone Milan. “We have to play without regrets,” Conte said. “We're proud to be fighting against a battleship such as Milan. From the beginning of the season I've never spoken about the title, it seemed crazy to me. But I don't want to blow smoke in everyone's eyes, we'll give everything and then see where that takes us."