Having finished the past two seasons in 7th place, Juventus’ 2011-12 campaign was greeted with humble expectations. With a new stadium and a new coach in Antonio Conte, the Agnelli family was ready to bring back the winning mentality to the club. The arrival of Conte brought a new playing philosophy which focused on possession, pressing and high octane football, as Del Neri’s 4-4-2 was replaced by (what some refer to as) a 4-2-4. The beginning of the year saw the likes of Zdeněk Grygera, Felipe Melo, Mohammed Sissoko and Alberto Aquilani leave Torino, as the starting 11 was totally revamped to fit Conte’s system thanks to some key signings by Director General Giuseppe Marotta. The right-back position, previously occupied by Grygera (and at times a shaky 19 year old Frederik Sørensen with the occasional Marco Motta appearance), was solidified by signing the hard working Stephan Lichtsteiner from Lazio. Fan outcast and former Bidone D’oro winner (given to the worst player in the Serie A) Felipe Melo was replaced by the more versatile and temperamentally stable Arturo Vidal. However, without a doubt, the most impressive signing of the summer was the free transfer of AC Milan playmaker Andrea Pirlo, who has made sure that Aquilani will be quickly forgotten at the Old Lady. The World Cup winner has been orchestrating virtually every attacking move and is the beating heart of this revamped Juventus side. The right-back position now presents a counterattacking option, as Lichtsteiner offers pace down the right flank, while Vidal has become the modern holding midfielder that many expected Melo to be, the perfect foil for the regista Pirlo. Whether playing the 4-2-4 or 4-3-3 (which includes fan favorite Claudio Marchisio), the Juventus midfield has arguably become one of the best in Europe and has proved to be the main reason for their success.
The first half of the season witnessed an undefeated Juventus lead the league nearly every week, boasting one of the most compact defenses in Serie A, and eventually claiming the ‘title’ of winter champions. Nevertheless, coach Conte remained humble, and when questioned by reporters, he refused to talk about Scudetto prospects. As the unbeaten streak persisted, the inevitable question continued to arise, but Conte insisted just over a week before Juve’s Coppa Italia match against Milan, that the Rossoneri were still favorites to win the Scudetto. February 8th saw Martin Cáceres return to the Old Lady with a stunning two-goal debut to silence the San Siro, leaving Milan down 2-1 on aggregate. After a draw with Bologna two weeks ago (part of a run where the Bianconeri tied six out of seven games), Antonio Conte claimed that winning the Scudetto at this point, would be a “miracle”.
Today, we see a Juventus team fresh of a 5-0 away victory over Fiorentina and a 2-2 draw at home to Scudetto rivals Milan which booked the Bianconeri a spot in the Coppa Italia final. The latter result ensures the continuation of Juve’s unbeaten streak (albeit being 2-1 down after 90 minutes), but also means that in four contests during the 2011-12 campaign, Milan has been unable to beat Juventus managing only two defeats and two draws. In the league title race however, Milan have won five out of their last six Serie A games. The only draw came in the controversial match against (you guessed it) Juventus at the San Siro, where a potentially game sealing Sulley Muntari disallowed goal re-opened the classic goal line technology debate. Before the demolition of Fiorentina, the Juventus Scudetto speculators were greatly humbled as wasteful finishing continued to plague the Bianconeri, but after two absolutely brilliant performances from forward Mirko Vucinic, anything seems possible. The Montenegrin has hit his stride during what will be the most crucial stretch of Juventus’ season. While the four-point gap Milan have secured atop the Serie A may not seem like much considering the ten games remaining, a look at Juve’s schedule vindicates Conte’s “miracle claim”. This sunday, Juventus host Inter Milan, topping off the short week with one of the fiercest encounters in Italian football. Despite Inter’s dismal form this season, the derby d’Italia will surely bring out their A-game. The subsequent three games offer no respite, with games at home against Napoli, away at Palermo (always a tough one), and a home encounter against a Lazio team who will surely be fighting for third place.
The next three weeks will undoubtedly put Juventus to the test. Whether or not the unbeaten streak continues is beside the point. This team must continue their recent form, bury their chances in front of goal, and stop settling for draws; they must stay hungry. While Juve’s route to the title is filled with potholes, Milan’s remaining schedule is a smoothly paved highway, with the two toughest games being the derby match with Inter and a home fixture against A.S. Roma. The rest of March through mid April will likely determine first and second place in the Serie A, but will also ultimately prove whether this Juventus team is ready to challenge the Champions League next season.