There have been a handful of European games in recent years that have really marked the end or beginning of an era. Those matches stick in our minds, because they’ve provoked an endless debate about the current and future status of our beloved club.
The 4-1 home defeat to Bayern in 2009 was the start of a precipitous decline. We thought we were returning to Europe’s elite, but it was all smoke and mirrors. At that point, most Juventini knew that things would get worse before they were going to get better, but few expected the club to decline so far, and the humiliation at Fulham really drove it in – for all the good work Claudio Ranieri and the Old Guard did, that era of Juventus, built in the early 2000s, was definitively over. It was time to move on.
And thus, another defeat to Bayern induces much navel-gazing and introspective thought, not just among Juventus fans, but among the directors and playing staff as well. After losing 2-0 at home to Bayern, Conte and Marotta hailed the work they’d accomplished in the last year and a half, truly a remarkable effort, but repeatedly addressed that there was a big gap for Juventus to truly return to Europe’s elite. Many of the pieces of the puzzle are there, a terrific coach, a great starting XI and solid depth, and a stadium we’re proud to call home. But there’s still something missing.
Football fans can be fickle and demanding, and Juventus fans are no different. But the Bayern defeat is unique – there isn’t a howling cry for a “top player” or world class striker, nor are there calls for anyone’s resignation or a massive investment. The fans as a whole realize the club has done tremendous work in the last 18 months, but there’s something missing. The fans realize it’s a complex issue not solved by a signing or a new director or coach, as evidenced by the wonderful applause at the end of the Bayern home defeat. The club did everything it could in the last 18 months, but it will take some time to continue forward.
With Juventus now out of the Champion’s League and Coppa Italia, the only task that remains is to retain our Scudetto crown. There are 7 games remaining in the season, and with a 8-point advantage over Napoli (and 12 over Milan) going into Mnday night’s game, it would take a truly epic collapse to give up the crown, and that is incredibly unlikely at this club with this coach. Conte is no Cuper.
It almost feels like Juve’s season is over. Rather than discussing the upcoming mercato, the debate has been what Juventus has to do to return to Europe’s elite, with a cursory glance at the league matches that are coming up. Fortunately, there are some great games in the home stretch of the league to grab Juventus fans’ attention. The next few weeks feature Lazio, Milan, and Torino, after which the team closes out 2012-2013 with some “weaker” opponents. The Bianconeri play Palermo, Atalanta, Cagliari, and Sampdoria in the month of May.
With the Scudetto likely secured, and no cup or midweek commitments, it is time that Conte should be experimenting and tinkering with an eye to the future. Sebastian Giovinco, Luca Marrone, and Paolo De Ceglie showed up early at Vinovo on Thursday to attempt to regain fitness for the last 2 months of the campaign – all 3 former Primavera players whose futures are very much in the balance.
It’s understandable that during the stressful “meaty” part of the season, Conte cannot rotate or experiment as much as he’d like to. But there’s a lot he can do now. The Lazio match should begin the experimenting with the following series of questions that needs to be resolved:
#2- Should Juventus continue to rehab Mauricio Isla? The Chilean has played less than 90 minutes since his poor outing against Milan back in November, and minutes are crucial for someone recovering from an ACL tear. He was once one of the most fearsome fullbacks in Europe, but recovering him will take playing time and likely poor performances.
#3- Who will be manning the left flank? Kwadwo Asamoah’s days as a left wingback seem increasingly numbered, as his wide play is simply lacking. Federico Peluso has convinced, but does not seem good enough to be the first name on the XI. Paolo De Ceglie had a great season under Conte in 2011-2012, with many suggesting a Euro 2012 call-up, but has regressed this season with less playing time and an injury. Should he stay at Juventus?
#4- What is Martin Caceres’ role long-term at Juventus? As a backup? As a central defender or as a wing-back?
#5- Can Conte promise Luca Marrone enough playing time to properly develop him at Juventus? Or should the former midfielder go on loan to gain some experience.
#6- Do we have a tactical Plan B? Not just in terms of formation (4-3-3 vs 3-5-2) but can Juventus play a more direct style, and should the club do so on occasion? What’s our Pirlo-less plan?
There are a few months left in the season to figure out some of these questions, all while evaluating the needs of the team in the mercato. We fortunately have a healthy +8 cushion, based on which we can pretty much use real league games in a way coaches often tinker in friendlies.
The blue side of Rome has had a bad habit in recent years – the Eagles soar in the first half of the season, often vying for 1st place for much of the campaign. And then, just like Juve’s miserable Januaries, the team collapses for much of early Spring. Lazio’s form in the last few months has been miserable, seeing the team drop into 5th place, 7th off of a Champion’s League spot. Like Juventus in most Februaries, there has been a slow revival, but for Lazio, it may be too late to win that coveted 3rd spot.
The Laziali hired a Swiss coach in the offseason, Vladimir Petkovic, and he’s been a breath of fresh air to Serie A. A relatively quiet, unassuming coach, he’s done a very good job managing Lazio this season. While they slipped up in March, unlike his predecessors and most Italian coaches, Petkovic firmly committed to a 3-front campaign, fielding strong teams in both the Coppa Italia and the Europa League.
Lazio doesn’t have the depth to compete on all 3 fronts and they’ve suffered accordingly, losing in the Europa League to Fenerbahce (albeit very unluckily) and slipping down in the league. It was a bold move, and while some may say it didn’t pay off, his side didn’t fare much worse in the league than his predecessors, and they had a solid Cup/Europa League run that their fans should be proud of. They have been rewarded with a berth in the Coppa Italia final after defeating Juventus back in January.
In general, Petkovic’s team plays in a counter-attacking style. They have a well-drilled defense without any star names, but who are competent. Their defense has a better record than any club except for Juventus, Milan, and Napoli. In midfield, it’s a mix of hard workers and great talents. Hernanes is probably one of the most underrated midfielders in European football, Cristian Ledesma is a capable regista, Antonio Candreva acts as an all-action man, and Lorik Cana and Cristian Brocchi provide steel. Up top, they have decent physical strikers in Kozak and Floccari, but Miroslav Klose has been the man for Lazio ever since signing from Bayern Munich.
It’s no coincidence that Lazio’s worst period of form was the same time that Klose spent a good amount of time on the injury table. A stingy side like Lazio relies on a few goals from their hitman, and without him, they simply couldn’t score enough. Klose now seems likely to play, but Petkovic has been hit hard with bans to three key players, defenders Biava and Radu, and midfielder Lulic,which means Petkovic needs to reinvent his left flank entirely for this game.
One of the key men to watch will still be Federico Marchetti, though. The ex-Cagliari keeper has played brilliantly this season when facing Juventus, pulling off jaw-dropping saves and stunning reaction blocks. Gigi Buffon picked him out as one for the future years ago before anyone had heard of him, and it seems Marchetti has taken it upon himself to impress his idol every time he faces him.
This is a strange Juventus-Lazio game. In the past it has often been a top of the table clash, like Krasic’s memorable 94th minute goal under Delneri. Earlier this season, the two sides clashed high in the table in the league, before Lazio defeated Juventus in the Coppa Italia over two legs. Lazio probably have a Europa League spot locked up, either between the league or their presence in the Coppa Italia. (depending on Inter/Roma’s final league position) A berth in the Champion’s League is probably too much to ask, so while both sides will be aiming to win their remaining league games, neither Juventus nor Lazio are in a league dogfight.
Conte will likely not practice any full scale rotation, given the strength of our opponents, but will probably throw in a surprise or two in the lineup. Lazio will field as best of a side as they have available, so it won’t be a friendly. But despite both teams having a successful 2012-2013, neither side’s focus will be on this game. Juventus fans will consider the medium-term future of the club, whereas Lazio fans, fresh off their Europa League exit, will be eagerly awaiting the possibility of silverware in the Coppa Italia final.