NEW YORK - JULY 26: Andrea Pirlo #21 of Juventus FC moves the ball in front of Christian Benitez #11 of Club America during an exhibition match on July 26, 2011 at Citi Field in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
John Cascarano takes a look at the upcoming season for the Old Lady of Italian soccer, and discusses what could be in store.
Juventus in 2010-11
Last season marked what most people would characterize as a forgettable one for Juventus. Finishing 7th out of 20 is hard to label a success, and for those of you reading without the benefit of a statistics background, it's slightly above mediocrity. Disappointing for certain, particularly for a team which was pretty commonly considered - despite in a rebuilding period - a Champions League qualifying-caliber team.
First thing's first, is Coach Gigi Delneri. After a promising beginning to the season, Delneri was notified he would be given the hook before the season ended, following a string of poor results. Someone had to take the blame for the team's seeming inability to hold leads against provincial sides (i.e. Chievo, Catania), and the Ranieriesque substitutions and a mind-boggling infatuation with Marco Motta (think Shallow Hal), spoke for themselves.
As for players, Felipe Melo was loaned out to Galatasaray, and Momo Sissoko was shipped off to Paris Saint Germain for an impressive 8 million Euro haul, clearing out what was becoming a very crowded central midfield. The club opted to allow Hasan Salihamidzic's contract to expire, and he moved off to Wolfsberg. While they'd surely like to find new homes for Fabio Grosso, Zdenek Grygera, and Vincenzo Iaquinta, the most likely remaining sales target remains Amauri, who has been linked with a move back to Parma where he enjoyed a productive loan spell during the second half of last season, and as well as a return to Palermo. Albin Ekdal looks likely to be lent out for yet another season of...seasoning, along with other youngsters such as Luca Marrone and Manuel Giandonato. Despite having an impressive first season filling in at right back, Frederick Sorensen could also find himself on loan in order to gain more Serie A experience at his natural center back role.
Here's where things become controversial. While "top players" were promised to arrive by Beppe Marotta, consecutive disappointments in the attacking department from Sergio Aguero to Giuseppe Rossi opened the former Sampdoria man to a series of critiques. If you're Italian, you're likely a cynic at heart, so it's easy to see Mirko Vucinic (signed from Roma for 15 million Euros) as the calcio equivalent to winning a microwave on a game show after you've come so close to the brand new Mustang. And it's easy to level complaints towards Marotta for operating as if he's still at a smallish club like Sampdoria. But you would also be ignoring the rest of the moves he's made, as well as the ability of Vucinic - when he's on, of course.
Consider by the time July rolled around and the market officially opened, Juventus had a new world-class, World Cup and Champions League winning playmaker (Andrea Pirlo), a solid left back (Reto Ziegler) to compliment Paolo De Ceglie (who was impressive pre-injury last season), a competent defensive midfielder (Michele Pazienza) with a skillset comparable to the aforementioned Sissoko on half the wages, and one of the top two or three best right backs in Serie A (Stephan Lichtsteiner) - the last of whom being the only one who cost a transfer fee, at 10 million Euros. Not a bad bit of business. Meanwhile, Arturo Vidal was signed for 10.5 million to fill the Melo void, and is widely considered to be a more complete, skillful midfielder.
Yet, the mercato is not over. The reports have suggested the team has been looking for a new center back, and Chelsea's Alex is a name often floated around, with a price tag in the region of 8-10 million. Juventus can do worse than the big, strong, prototypical Mourinho defender, while Diego Lugano of Fenerbache had also been mentioned, although that talk has cooled. Still without a "true" experienced left winger for the new Coach's preferred 4-4-2/4-2-4 style of play, the team has been linked with heavily with Fiorentina's Juan Manuel Vargas, and to a lesser extent with Bologna's Gaston Ramirez and Sevilla's Diego Perotti. While the latter two are younger and theoretically could have higher ceilings, the Peruvian Vargas is in his prime right now, and when in top form, among the best left-sided attackers in calcio.
Speaking of the new coach, this brings me to what could be the most significant move. What tifosi moaned about throughout the team's poor form last season was the lack of grinta - that true grit that has always defined Juventus throughout its glory days. If anyone knows a thing about that, it is Antonio Conte. Anyone who's been to a World and European Cup Final, as well as two Champions Leagues (with one title) has got to have a strong stomach for adversity, and know what it's like to be a winner. And he knows how heavy the black and white shirt can be, having worn it himself throughout his illustrious playing career, before coaching two small clubs to promotion.
What to Expect From 2011-12
Last year was admittedly phase one in a long-term project. The objective was to build a solid base of players to build on, qualify for the Champions League, and buy some top-class talent the next summer, all while reinvigorating the primavera squad and cutting the payroll. While European football won't happen this year, the project still seems to be moving along as planned. This team is built to qualify for the Champions League, although this year nothing short of a top 3 finish will get them there.
Conte's boys will have their work cut out for them. He prefers a possession-based 4-4-2 style of play, with skillful, attacking wingers who press downfield, stretching out the opponent's backline, and ultimately resembling a 4-2-4. This could make for some beautiful-looking football in a world of counterattack-obsessed calico, or it could be suicidal. While there have been rumblings of employing a 4-3-3, namely after links to bringing back Alberto Aquilani, those rumors have died down and looks unlikely at this point.
Ultimately, the biggest weak spot from last year - wing backs on both sides - have been addressed. While Marco Motta inexplicably remains, a stable of Ziegler, De Ceglie, Lichtsteiner and Motta looks better than last year's crop of Grosso, Traore, Motta, and Grygera.
Undoubtedly, Arturo Vidal is the first name that pops into one's mind. If the center midfield consists of he and the defensively-challenged Andrea Pirlo, he will be key to breaking up play in the center of the pitch. He also provides versatility that no other midfielder on the team does, able to play virtually any role from defensive to attacking. Even Luciano Moggi approved of his transfer, a rarity for Juventus in the post-Calciopoli world. He also approved of the Vucinic signing, who also will have plenty of eyes on him, and will be looked to as a focal point of the attack.
Paolo De Ceglie will also be one to watch. A hot run of form ended suddenly with a freak injury late last October against Milan. It took PDC the rest of the season to recover from his broken kneecap, but if he'd been fit all year, I have a good feeling that people would have been speaking about him in the same manner in which they speak of Ignazio Abate. He'll be back, undoubtedly motivated to make the left side of the defense his own.
Potential Breakout Players
Although with Lichtsteiner's reputation and Krasic's 2010 it's difficult to label them as "potential breakouts," that tandem could be devastating from the right side. Meanwhile, a run of good preseason performances keeps Christian Pasquato as one to watch. His stunning goal against Club America (of which the build-ups, by the way, was begun by a Krasic-Lichtsteiner tandem) is just a glimpse of his potential. He could be looked at to contribute to the attack from the left side of the pitch, whether or not the team brings in another left winger. Also, for the reasons written above, Paolo De Ceglie deserves to be on this list as well.
I've written before, and I'll write it again. hegemony of any sort can never have any real longevity. If there's one thing that I've learned in life, it's that things are cyclical. Climate patterns shift, political preferences change, and for some ungodly reason, 80s fashions are coming back despite never having been cool in the first place. And now, it seems Juventus are at an impasse. The big question is, where does the team go? Does it bring back the grinta grow and move forward, the old Juventus way? Or, do we see more of the second half of last season?
One trend that has been fairly consistent is that Juventus does not stay mediocre for very long. The club made some key acquisitions in its most vulnerable areas, and Antonio Conte has both the tactical astuteness and the proper mentality to bring back winning habits. Milan are worthy defending champions, Napoli still look dangerous, and Roma are making moves. Inter, meanwhile, appears to be a team in transition, struggling to get themselves in compliance with the new UEFA Fair Play regulations. Because of the all of this, particularly the latter, a turned corner with a top-three finish is not impossible.
At the very least, I'll have plenty of clever puns to work with all season long. Between the new Swiss Guard, all the reasons we can count on The Count (Conte), and how truly vital Vidal will be commanding the midfield, plays on words will be plentiful. Hopefully wins will be as well. As Axl sang, all we need is just a little pazienza.