In the 1990’s, Juventus were the most feared team in Europe and boasted arguably one of the finest collection of players that modern football has seen. Italy’s World Cup-winning manager, Marcello Lippi, took over the helm in 1994 and transformed The Old Lady into a dominating force domestically and continentally as they claimed their first Serie A title in ten years and defeated Ajax in a penalty shoot-out to claim their first Champions League since its conception in 1992 (they had won the old European cup in 1985).
An outstanding component of their all encompassing glory days was their talismanic captain, Antonio Conte. An astute leader and commanding sergeant of Juventus’ midfield, deployed with his two trusted lieutenants, Didier Deschamps and Paulo Sousa, Conte was Lippi’s managerial blueprint reincarnate. Fast forward to now and Conte is finding himself in the unenviable position of trying to live up to the standards set by him and his team-mates. Juventus have enjoyed a renaissance at home under the 44-year old but have yet, failed to really make their mark on the Champions League and cannot command the same level of fear in their opponents as was evident under Lippi. Ominously for Conte, his men find themselves on the brink of elimination at the first hurdle.
Conte has been something of a post-Calciopoli salvatore in restoring Juve as champions of Serie A, claiming the Scudetto in last two seasons. However, revolution has been bubbling deep within the walls of Rome and has shook the foundations of Juventus’ rebirth. Indeed, this season, Roma have been the early pacesetters in Italy with Rudi Garcia’s intoxicating blend of slick attacking and nearly impenetrable defensive fortress. Juventus have been forced to reassess things domestically which has spilled over into what has been an uncertain and uninspiring Champions League campaign. Real Madrid, Galatasary and FC Kobenhavn have proven worthy adversaries in Group B as Juventus find themselves bottom with a dreary 3 points from 4 games. They claimed a point in their last outing against the might Madrid with a 2-2 draw at the Juventus Arena. Unfortunately, 3 was definitely required to ease the pressure.
In fact, La Vecchia Signora have failed to register a single win in this season’s competition, having played out a 1-1 draw with underdogs Kobenhavn before being frustrated at home once more with a 2-2 draw against Roberto Mancini’s Galatasary. This has left Conte and co. with a do-or-die situation. Only maximum points from their remaining two games will guarantee a safe passage through to the last 16.
They host Kobenhavn tonight in what would appear the group’s easiest game on paper but they can afford no complacency despite the relative inferiority of their opponents. The Danish champions are the only team to have reached the second stage of the Champions League and will be looking to repeat that feat to extend their record-setting Danish legacy. The Dane’s sit on 4 points, level with Galatasary, knowing that Mancini’s men will be up against it in the Bernabeu tonight. Drawing parallels to Group F where Arsenal, Napoli and Borussia Dortmund all stand a chance of qualification, 2 draws in Group B tonight will leave second-place up for grabs with Galatasary and Kobenhavn on 5 and Juventus with 4, adding considerable intrigue to the Danish welcoming of Real Madrid and the showdown in Istanbul between Galatasary and Juventus.
What is uncertain; Juventus’ tactical set-up tonight. Part of Conte’s compelling tenure has been his intelligence and tactical flexibility, having employed a 3-5-2 magnificently for his two trimuphant seasons in Serie A. However, he has appeared to realise that, although there are clear benefits of conducting such a formation, it may not be sufficient in tackling the elite on the European stage. The arrival of Carlos Tevez in the summer prompted Antonio Conte to display his versatility and display a bold alteration to his philosophy. He tested a 4-3-3 against Real Madrid where Tevez gave their attack width and creativity. Despite this shift in emphasis towards attack, Conte’s mantra has always been defensive solidarity and cohesion in the middle.
As a central midfielder himself, he knows the benefits in forming that barrier in front of the defensive line to shut out the various styles of counter-attacking quality on display in the Champions League. Therefore, against Madrid, Claudio Marchisio was given a ‘faux-winger’ role where he shifted back into midfield when Juventus did not have possession. This added a vital defensive dimension to their shape and kept them from being humiliated by a usually ruthless Madrid.
Conte will know that, realistically, only a runners-up position is attainable so he will have to contend with losing the advantage of being at home in the last 16, should they qualify, not to mention that they will face the winners of a different group.
If his new forays into the vast tactical universe come off, Conte will have the added psychological edge of knowing that he can chop and change between system and tactics against the likes of Bayern Munich, Manchester City and Barcelona. This new found adaptability may prove the key for Conte to enter the pantheon of Juventus’ greatest managers, elevating them from Serie A winners to European champions and strike fear into the hearts of their challengers, once again.