28th May 2003, Old Trafford, Manchester
The scenes of Shevchenko celebrating after an epic penalty shootout will be clearly etched in Antonio Conte’s mind, who then was still playing for Juventus.It has been 10 years since Juventus went past the quarter finals of a European Cup and for a club of Juventus’ stature, it is kind of an underachievement. Yes, the Calciopoli Scandal in 2006 is a major and a valid reason behind the slump, but it has been six years now since The Old Lady returned to Serie A, and after a few turbulent years, Antonio Conte, now manager, has done a commendable job in assembling a title-winning squad. It will not be completely wrong to label Juventus as European underachievers, despite being the first team in the world to win all the European and Intercontinental titles; but with only two European Champions Cup (or Champions League) out of a possible seven to show for, it is kind of a disappointment for the most successful Italian club boasting of one of the largest global fan-bases.
Juventus had to wait agonisingly long for their first European Cup triumph. After defeats in two previous finals, the Michel Platini-led team finally won their first European Cup in 1985; but in the most tragic of circumstances. The final against Liverpool was a mere footnote to the Heysel tragedy where 39 fans lost their lives in one of the darkest hours of football. Another 11 years later, Juventus laid hands on the European Cup for only the second time, but their win was again marred by controversy surrounding illegal drug use and doping allegations. Losing in three finals since then, Juve have mostly experienced lows, Calciopoli scandal being the major one of them, which saw them relegated for the first time in their history to Serie B. The city of Turin deserves more for their patience where they have seen Juventus rise again heroically and will be hoping that this would be their year and one which would be remembered for the right reasons.
The Bianconeri have a realistic case to believe they can reach the finals in Lisbon next year.After winning back to back domestic titles in the last two years and reaching the last-8 in the Champions league last season (bowing out to eventual winners Bayern Munich), Juventus will be eager to prove their credentials in Europe this season. Arsene Wenger recently commented-“Whoever puts Juventus among the possible surprises for the next Champions League is wrong, because Juve is not a surprise, but a strong team, which has come back to the top after a few years.” Wenger is partially correct in placing Juventus amongst the contenders for this season’s title, but The Old Lady have not yet upgraded completely from the ‘dark-horse’ status to the ‘favourites’ tag. This being their second season in Champions League after their return to the competition, the club from Turin can be excused for not being experienced as regular challengers for the much coveted European Cup.
On the other hand, with the squad they have put together this season, adding the likes of Carlos Tevez, Fernando Llorente and Angelo Ogbonna to an already strong core of the last 2 seasons, it could be considered as a failure if they don’t go past the quarters this time around. The black and white stripped team have bought smartly and quickly, addressing their main issue of lack of goals in last season which was evident in their 4-0 aggregate loss to the eventual European Champions. Carlos Tevez has been one of the steals of the transfer window, coming in at 10M euros from Manchester City. Having already agreed a deal with Athletic Bilbao last season for the free transfer of Fernando Llorente, Juve spent another 13 million Euros on Ogbonna who is destined for great things.
Juventus already have arguably the best defence in Europe with the Italian quartet of Buffon, Bonucci, Barzagli and Chiellini. They can also boast of one of the strongest midfields with the ever classy Andrea Pirlo along with Europe’s finest box-to-box midfielder Arturo Vidal. Completing the trio in the middle is Paul Pogba, the French youngster who is on his way to stardom, already replacing Claudio Marchisio in the M-V-P midfield of last season, with some strong and matured performances over the year. Marchisio, who is currently injured, adds solid strength to the squad.
In Stephan Lichtsteiner, Juve have a workhorse, who keeps marauding up and down the right wing and is one of the better players in Europe in his position. Asamoah, Pepe, Isla are decent backups and complete the midfield showcasing their depth. In attack, Tevez has already cemented his place with an impressive start (3 goals in 3 starts). Llorente was intended to be Tevez’s partner in attack in Conte’s 3-5-2 formation – the Spaniard as the penalty box striker and the Argentine as the second striker. However, Llorente struggled in pre-season, meaning that Vucinic has retained his starting role alongside Tevez. Vucinic and Tevez,both similar kind of players,who like to drop deep and link midfield with the attack,have gelled brilliantly till now and it might be a difficult battle for Llorente to dislodge either one of them . The way in which Vidal, Vucinic and Tevez combined in the 4-1 demolition of Lazio in their first home league match of the season, Juve have sent a warning to all those big powerhouses in Europe. The Italian giants can now effectively blend their strong steely defence with some fast paced, high quality and intelligent attack. Sebastien Giovinco may already be a forgotten man, but he and Quagliarella will definitely add more firepower to their attack in what is going to be a long season ahead.
Having been placed alongside Real Madrid, Galatasaray and FC Copenhagen in the group stage of the Champions League, qualification for the round of 16 looks certain for the Bianconeri. Playing the star-studded Madrid side will give a good account of Juventus’ capabilities in Europe. After their European campaign last season that was impressive in patches but disappointing overall, this season might be a good start for Juventus to reclaim their place in Europe’s elite. Conte has strengthened the squad efficiently and after conquering the domestic scene, should be able to deliver a third consecutive Scudetto despite several rival clubs having beefed up their rosters during the transfer window. He still, however, has to prove his tactical chops on the big European stage with the Juventus Stadium yet to experience those magical European nights of Turin.
It is going to be a tough and exciting season ahead for Juventus, but with all the hype again around La Decima, The Old Lady might, and ‘might’ being the keyword there, just realize their own dream of Il Terzo (the third in Italian).
Written by Dev Parikh