Despite downplaying their chances, Juventus took care of business. In an ideal position thanks to a 3-0 away win in the first leg, the Bianconeri gave a thoroughly professional performance on Wednesday evening to see off Celtic and advance to the quarter-finals of the Champions League. It marks their first trip to such an advanced stage since 2006, since when they have been relegated, won promotion and suffered numerous false dawns.
This time however, things are different. Having lost just four league games since taking charge in May 2011, Antonio Conte has rebuilt the Turin giants, moulding them in the image of the team he was once a part of. The current Juventus contains the same ruthless streak as the Marcello Lippi side of the late nineties and, while lacking that team’s European pedigree, they are beginning to believe that they too can achieve something special.
Ahead of that first leg in Glasgow, Andrea Pirlo said that facing Celtic was “a bigger challenge than anything domestically," and it is hard to disagree. He was of course referring to the gulf in quality between the Scottish Premier League and Europe’s elite completion but, given the relative ease at which the current campaign is going for Italy’s grandest club at home, he could have also been discussing the Champions League prospects of his own side.
While Juve may not have the same sixteen point lead Celtic currently enjoy, the Serie A season has developed into something of a canter for the reigning champions. They have won just four of the nine games since the winter break yet, thanks to last weekend’s draw with second placed Napoli, they have still managed to maintain a six point gap with just eleven rounds remaining.
The recent run of poor results, punctuated by losses to both Sampdoria and Roma, is perhaps the closest thing to a crisis the Turin giants have endured over the year-and-a-half since their former captain took Gigi Delneri’s place on the bench. He has inspired an incredible turnaround from the two previous seasons – in which the club limped to consecutive seventh place finishes – and their success is based almost entirely on team ethic. Conte, now believed to be wanted by Chelsea, values the power of the collective over individual contributions, and this is perhaps most clear in their goal scoring.
No team has scored more than the 54 Serie A goals netted by Juve this term, yet top scorer Fabio Quagliarella has just seven to his name. Behind him, another twelve players have found the back of the net, following on from last season where Alessandro Matri led the way with ten goals, but no fewer than twenty members of the squad found themselves on the score sheet. The lack of a clinical finisher has been regularly levelled at Juventus; the one genuine criticism of the squad, but finding the right man has not been easy. Fernando Llorente has agreed to join the club in June and appears to ally the ability to regularly contribute goals with the work ethic Conte demands of all his players.
For all the virtues of group dynamics and goal scoring by committee approach that Conte extols, Pirlo himself still remains perhaps the one untouchable member of the side. He has been showered with superlatives since making the move from Milan to Turin eighteen months ago, yet almost all fall short of capturing his value to this team. Renowned for the passing and pressing style implemented by Conte, Pirlo is at the heart of both, completing over twenty passes more per game than any of his teammates, whilst also trailing only Arturo Vidal and Giorgio Chiellini in terms of tackles per match.
He has displayed the work ethic demanded by the coach without ever sacrificing any of his own effectiveness, stroking the ball around the pitch with his usual nonchalant ease. His über calm demeanour and philosopher-esque beard belie a ruthless incision which has routinely sliced through opponents since donning the famous black and white stripes of Juventus. He has registered 27 assists since the move highlighting his value to the Bianconeri, but it would surely be many more were it not for his misfiring teammates.
Stats site WhoScored.com places the 75 clear scoring opportunities he has created this term second only to Leighton Baines across Europe’s top five leagues, a figure which shows the true extent of Juve’s recent wastefulness. Though, if those statistics show it is the 33 year old who opponents must first look to stifle if they are to slow down the Italian giants, it would be a hugely reductive and naive approach.
Regularly flanking Pirlo are Claudio Marchisio and Arturo Vidal, with the trio forming perhaps Europe’s most well balanced and effective midfield outside of Catalonia. The latter pair have nine goals and seven assists between them in Serie A, and their dynamism is the perfect foil to Pirlo’s own deliberate and metronomic pace. They have all the attributes required of a modern midfielder in abundance; skill, stamina, speed and an on field intelligence which allows them to seemingly always be in the right place. Whether that sees them popping up with a crucial goal or clearing their own lines, Juventus have come to rely on them at both ends of the pitch.
While there is no mistaking the fact that the teams in Madrid and Munich have far more experience than his own side, Conte once again extolled the virtue of effort as he spoke to reporters on Thursday morning. “Should we meet these great teams next then we certainly won’t start the tie as beaten,” he declared. The omens in Europe are seemingly in their favour as, should Bayern despatch Arsenal as expected, this season will mark the first since 1995-96 that no British team has reached the quarter-finals. That year saw Juventus lift the European Cup for what remains only the second time in their storied history, a tally to which this team would love to add. Maybe, just maybe.