In the first installment of this idiosyncratic season review, we contemplated a somewhat dull but ultimately very successful domestic 2012/13 season. This time, we’ll cast our minds back to the European efforts of the Bianconeri. For starters, let’s make one thing absolutely clear: What the league may have lacked in terms of real drama and excitement, the return of Juventus to the upper echelons of world football certainly didn’t! It might have crash-landed at the hands of Bavarian Bullies, but, in due course, it documented both the potential and weaknesses of a Team being back for the first time in a while amongst top competition.
Being handed the small task of facing the reigning European champions at Stamford Bridge seemed both a tough and somewhat befitting task for a club aiming high after more than a few seasons in the proverbial abyss. And what a game that turned out to be! None of us are likely to ever forget the sudden, lead-like weight of our hearts brought on by the two freakish goals by Oscar that for different reasons seemed so very unfair (one a wicked deflection, one perhaps the hit of the season, anywhere).
But likewise, few will fail to cherish the memory of a team demonstrating the sheer will power that secured them Italian glory shine through on the Big Stage in the beautiful shape of Vidal’s half-limping snooker shot and Quagliarella’s dazzling nutmeg on Petr Cech. And to think Quags so nearly scored one of his famous “Eurogoals” shortly after as well… In the end, the claw-back 2-2 draw was a fair result, though, and not least exactly that signal of intend that was so severely needed upon the Old Lady’s return to the High Table.
While the Chelsea game was something of a fairy tale, the two subsequent games proved a rude awakening in terms the realities of the CL – for different reasons. Shakhtar Donetsk’s visit to Turin showed that you should never underestimate Eastern European Powerhouses (before the winter break), as the Ukrainians (well them, the Brazilians and various Slavs, to be more precise) outfoxed Conte and Co. by showing up not in the slightest the defensive, counter-attacking unit one expected them to, but instead dominated Juve for large parts of the game and were in truth unlucky only to grab the one goal in the 1-1 stalemate at Juventus Stadium.
In Copenhagen, the Bianconeri were taught a different lesson: Do not treat inferior teams as such before or during the game! While all the right words were said before the match, the rotation of the squad and a distinctive scent of over-confidence amongst players and staff made possible what should not have been so: Despite the obvious chasm in talent and physique, FC Nordsjælland ensured their only CL point in history against Juventus – much to the bitterness of this writer, who, hailing from Denmark, had the misfortune of watching his prophecies come true in Delaware, USA (sic).
Luckily, the impact of those two ‘mistakes’ (much more so in the latter case than the former) would not compromise the European adventure, as Juventus duly learned and left little doubt about the outcome when the Danes received a 4-0 lesson in Turin, prompting the FCN captain, Nikolai Stokholm, to describe the experience the following day as “being punch drunk after being completely played off the park”.
That victory was followed by a much harder fought – but also much, much sweeter – 3-0 dismissal of the reigning champions Chelsea at the Juventus Stadium; a game that perhaps more than any other this season showed the world what Juventus were capable of when really called upon. The Londoners could settle for a draw, facing underdogs Nordsjælland in the final game, but Juventus were not up for sharing. While perhaps not meriting the 3-0 final score as such, a surprisingly resolute and clinical Juventus side (cf. the Celtic away game later) send The Blues home hoping that Shakhtar would beat the Old Lady in Ukraine.
They didn’t. In a very tight but mostly unspectacular game at the Donbass Arena, Juventus emerged victorious, snatching first place from the already qualified Miners, leaving CFC with a Europa League spot that they duly converted into yet another shining trophy – but that is a different story altogether…
As group winners, Juventus went on to face Celtic. The Glaswegians seemed a lucky draw, and as it turned out, they were. However, few will think back to the showing in Scotland as ‘deserving’ the 3-0 away win that was to be the outcome. The home team huffed and puffed in face of Matri’s early goal and – to be perfectly honest – could have had a few themselves, as they dominated the game more or less throughout. But it wasn’t to be, despite their cries of unfair manhandling – a reaction that I to this day have a hard time attributing to any self-respecting, Scottish team.
Instead, Juve secured victory by being clinical in front of goal. I shit you not – this was actually what happened! Learning from previous mistakes, Conte set up in a new, counter-attacking style as opposed to his usually pressing and possession-based programme, and while it did backfire somewhat as Celtic were able to push back Juve more than (you’d expect) the Mister had anticipated, the early goal and subsequent strikes on the break made sure that the tie was basically over as the two teams left Park Head.
The score from the first leg made the return match in Turin a formality, a billing which the game itself fully lived up to as Celtic were comprehensively dispatched with a 2-0 win, conducted by a Juventus team that here was able to more or less relax, for the first time with a right to do so in this competition.
And then it happened. As much as Celtic were a kind draw, facing Bayern Munich in the last eight turned out to be exactly what some us wished for, but most dreaded at that stage: Facing up to Europe’s finest. At the time we were talking in plural, but as it turned out, the reply from Bayern was indeed in singular: The Bavarians were by far the best team in Europe this season and demonstrated as much by unceremoniously dumping the Old Lady out of the competition with a pair of convincing 2-0 wins, the first of those being particularly dominant, even if the early first goal was rather freakish.
So, what did we learn from the European odyssey of 2012/13? Well, two thing were very clear:
1) Juventus are able to take on tough European opponents, as shown by results against Shakhtar, Chelsea and (to an extend) Celtic.
2) The VERY best team(s?) of the competition proved to be a bridge too far for a Bianconero team at the first time of asking.
Neither point was particularly surprising, truth be told, and overall Conte’s boys gave a really good account of themselves, proving they belong in the top eight of European football. No mean feat from a team that scraped into that position in a relatively weak Italian league a few years before, lest we forget!
But being Juventini, we of course wish for more! And while it would probably take more than the collective amount of acid taken in listening to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967 to even suggest that Juventus would have been able to compete with Bayern Munich this year, the future seems – to this blue-eyed observer at least – very bright indeed.
With every major club in the European elite either facing a managerial change, or challenges rooted deeply in their very identity (Barcelona and Dortmund), this might (emphasis on that last word!) be the perfect time for Conte to add those two-three pieces to his puzzle, completing his triumphant return by delivering the Big-Eared trophy once more…
However, I shall leave the speculation on who these missing parts may be firmly in the hands of others with greater knowledge on the subject (and, of course, the Football Manager prowess to back it up). I’m sure they will make themselves heard loud enough!
Suffices to say: We can finally dream big. Very big. Again. And for that, I thank the players, Our Conte, the management – and not least all you tifosi who, despite diverging opinions on more or less every subject imaginable, made sure that Juventus has become once more a force to be reckoned with, globally.
Never, ever underestimate your own role in that.
Our collective efforts made 2012/13 a very successful season. Here’s to an even greater 2013/14!
FINO ALLA FINE.