Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 20 January 2019

For Gianluigi Buffon and Juve, Barca triumph would represent end of long road to rejuvenation

The road to Berlin began in Berlin. In one respect, anyway.

Nine years ago, Gianluigi Buffon lifted the World Cup in the German capital’s historic Olympiastadion. Historic high preceded a remarkable low. The goalkeeper’s next competitive game marked Juventus’s first in Serie B.

Italy’s most-decorated club took the steep slide down a division not through footballing ineptitude but because they were demoted in disgrace. Investigations by Italian police showed Juventus’s Machiavellian general manager, Luciano Moggi, had conversations with officials to influence refereeing appointments. In short, it was deemed a form of match-fixing.

The Italian Football Federation prosecutor, Stefano Palazzi, called for Juventus to be sent down to Serie C1. Instead, they ended up in Serie B, with a 30-point deduction that, after two appeals, was reduced to nine.

They also had their 2004/05 and 2005/06 championships revoked. That, general manager Giuseppe Marotta said last month, is still “an open wound. We have won 33 Serie A titles.” Officially, they only have 31.

Back in 2006, one of Europe’s finest sides broke up. Fabio Cannavaro, Gianluca Zambrotta, Lilian Thuram, Patrick Vieira and Zlatan Ibrahimovic all left. “I wanted to get out at any price,” Ibrahimovic said.

But Buffon, his fellow World Cup winners Alessandro Del Piero and Mauro Camoranesi, Pavel Nedved, David Trezeguet and others stayed. Del Piero, en route to becoming Juve’s record goalscorer and referencing their nickname of “La Vecchia Signora” (the old woman), said: “A true gentleman never leaves his lady.”

Even with the seismic shock of a scandal, there were unchanging principles to Juventus, an Italian core at a club where players display a longevity that can be alien to their counterparts elsewhere.

Del Piero turned up at Rimini, a seaside resort that is Italy’s answer to Blackpool, but not a town known for its club’s footballing prowess, for their debut game in Serie B. Buffon and Giorgio Chiellini played that day. Claudio Marchisio was on the bench, as he may be again in Saturday’s Champions League final.

Perhaps renewal began in Rimini. Certainly, the departure of Vieira removed a roadblock to first-team football for the youthful Marchisio. And on the Tuscan coast in September 2006, Juventus were a blend of the familiar and the unusual. The Italian champions are allowed to wear the tricolore shield on their shirts. Juve had been stripped of their title, so wore them on wristbands instead for a match of opposites, outsiders against aristocrats, nonentities against nonpareils. Rimini went a goal down, had a man sent off and still drew. La Repubblica’s headline was: “Juve – the debut in Serie B was a flop”.

The season, however, was a success. Buffon went 733 minutes without conceding a goal after Rimini’s equaliser. Juventus did not lose in Serie B until January. Del Piero was the division’s top scorer and, even after starting on minus nine, Juventus still won the division by six points.

And then coach Didier Deschamps resigned. Manager Fabio Capello had left Juventus, along with a cadre of star players, the previous summer. The Frenchman won promotion but quit, saying he did not feel he had the club’s full support.

“I’m not saying that there was a Lippi plan, but there were already people predicting that he could return,” Deschamps said. As it transpired, Marcello Lippi, Italy’s World Cup-winning manager and, after Giovanni Trapattoni, Juventus’s greatest, did not return for a third spell at the club.

Instead, under the serial nearly man Claudio Ranieri they made an impressive return to Serie A, finishing third and then second. It highlighted the quality that remained in the Juventus ranks, but the loss of half a team – some of them to Inter Milan – meant Inter were Italy’s dominant force, winning five successive Serie A titles, including the 2006 title Juventus felt belonged to them.

Italy’s grandest club went backwards before they went forwards. They had successive seventh-placed finishes in 2010 and 2011. Ciro Ferrera, Alberto Zaccheroni and Luigi del Neri never threatened to restore them to greatness. Four years ago, the club that now contests the Champions League final failed to qualify for Europe.

The second stage of their renaissance began, in typical Juve fashion, with a change of scenery and a familiar face. The left the unloved Stadio delle Alpi for the smaller, purpose-built and more opulent Juventus Stadium, a 41,000-capacity ground they did not have to share with rivals Torino. They reached into their past to appoint as manager their former captain, Antonio Conte. The summer of 2011 was notable for the inspired choice of midfielders past and present.

Arturo Vidal was acquired from Bayer Leverkusen for €10.5 million (Dh43). Andrea Pirlo suddenly became available. “Discarded. Tossed aside. Thrown on the scrapheap,” the veteran said in his autobiography. AC Milan’s manager, Massimiliano Allegri, preferred more workmanlike players. Milan’s loss was Juve’s gain.

“When Andrea told me that he was joining us, the first thing I thought was: ‘God exists’,” Buffon said. “A player of his level and ability, not to mention that he was free, I think it was the signing of the century.”

Pirlo was the class act and the catalyst Juventus needed. He offered the brainpower, Vidal the legs. The midfield was remodelled. Conte abandoned his predecessor’s 4-4-2 and adopted his favoured 3-5-2 system. For the first time, officially, anyway, since 2003 Juventus won Serie A. They did so again. And again. They were Italy’s dominant force again. It was like they had never been away.

Except in one respect. They were not a continental force. They reached the Champions League quarter-finals in 2012/13, but were knocked out in the group stages last season. Juventus had bought well on an often-limited budget, by the standards of the superpowers, but Serie A was no longer Europe’s richest league.

Their record signing remains Buffon, who cost £32 million (Dh179.7m) but was acquired back in 2001. Their annual turnover of £272m put them only 10th in Europe; Real Madrid bring in almost twice as much.

Conte reached for an analogy to explain their European disappointments. “You cannot eat in a $100 (Dh367) restaurant with $10 in your pocket”, he said.

Real and Barcelona were the big spenders. Juve found their difference-makers in the bargain basement: Pirlo and Vidal, plus Paul Pogba, who cost a mere £800,000 when his Manchester United contract expired in 2012, and Carlos Tevez, who was acquired for £10m the following year when his Manchester City career ran its course.

Conte had assembled Italy’s best team. Perhaps he had taken them as far as he could. He resigned, barely a month before this season started.

Juventus, sometimes seen as Italy’s arch-pragmatists, made a pragmatic appointment. Pirlo’s former nemesis Allegri brought little stardust but he was a former Serie A winner. He lacked Conte’s charisma but had the common sense not to rip up his blueprint, instead taking his time before introducing a back four and a midfield diamond, while nevertheless keeping the 3-5-2 as a back-up plan.

“His tactical knowledge is outstanding,” Buffon said to Uefa.com. “After years of playing a certain system, he managed to get us to try alternatives and to perform even better. Even so, he has not tried to completely change how we’ve played because in some situations or matches we have returned to how we played before. So I think this is his biggest achievement.”

There were others. Allegri won a fourth successive Serie A. He also secured a first Coppa Italia in 20 years, ending a strangely long drought. Most significantly, he smashed through their glass ceiling in Europe, eliminating the 2013 finalists, Borussia Dortmund, and the 2014 winners, Real Madrid. “We might have had a 35 percent chance of making it past them,” Buffon said. Underdogs excelled. Juventus defended valiantly. Allegri out-thought Carlo Ancelotti.

A seemingly uninspired appointment is 90 minutes away from completing a treble. It would rank among the great managerial feats. Yet Barcelona stand in their way. Once again, Juventus are outsiders.

“The chances of now winning the trophy against this Barcelona side are even slimmer,” Buffon said. “We are aware of this and we can’t deny it, because it’s just obvious.”

Tactical prowess and defensive resilience become crucial. They are age-old strengths of Juventus. Theirs is a rise that has parallels with the past. “You can say that this Juve is following the same path of growth mine did,” Lippi told Gazzetta dello Sport, remembering the mid-1990s. “First success in Italy, then in Europe – maybe intercontinental, too, one day. You can only get there in one way: three or four European successes, like those against Borussia Dortmund and Real.”

Lippi has an indelible association with Berlin, where his Italy club became world champions; Allegri may soon have one, too.

Pirlo, the man of the match in the 2006 final, and Buffon possess fond memories of the German capital. A return, the goalkeeper said, “felt like destiny”. He was a beaten finalist in 2003, but the Champions League always eluded him. When a World Cup winner dropped down to Serie B nine years ago, it seemed it always would. But maybe not anymore.


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Updated: June 3, 2015 04:00 AM