Thursday night’s performance by Juventus in their Europa League Round of 32 second leg with Trabzonspor provided a timely reminder to their critics, fans and most importantly themselves as to just what a fine team and squad they are when on song.
Granted, sterner tests than their Turkish opponents lie ahead but the manner in which an under-strength Old Lady side firstly quietened a hostile home crowd, then ruthlessly dismantled their opposition, showed they mean serious business in this competition and in continuing to fight on two fronts until the season’s end. In an extremely one-sided contest, the final score of 2-0 highly flattered the hosts and had it not been for a truly heroic performance from goalkeeper Onur Kivrak, it is not exaggerating to say it would have been at least triple that number.
It was however a performance at odds with what Juve have served up in recent weeks and Coach Antonio Conte admitted as much. “I am very happy, as it is certainly a better performance in every way compared to the first leg,” he told the media after the game. “We approached it in the right way, whereas in Turin we only did what we wanted to in fits and starts. We risked compromising qualification in the first leg.”
While Conte in this instance was specifically comparing last night’s performance to the one from last week’s first leg, the reality is it was a vast improvement on most of their recent showings and it is this that has attracted scorn from their detractors. They narrowly edged out Torino in last week’s Derby della Mole in a game in which they were fortunate not to concede a penalty and have a man sent off. That came on the back of the laboured performance in the aforementioned first leg, which in turn followed an unconvincing showing against struggling Chievo. On that occasion, sections of the Juventus Stadium grew increasingly frustrated with their side’s below par display and singled out forward Sebastian Giovinco for jeers when he was eventually substituted.
The week before that, Conte himself showed his displeasure with his team’s efforts when he reacted furiously to their throwing away of a two goal lead to only manage a draw at Verona. He promptly cancelled his players’ day off and ordered them in for extra training, a decision that infamously then proved to be the catalyst for an ugly media row with former Bianconero Coach Fabio Capello, all of which has been played out in the public domain.
With all of the hassle that has come with this, Conte has since had to field questions about whether he sees his future away from Italy. His references to the Calciopoli scandal as a means of criticising Capello were particularly ill advised, divisive and against the interests of the club who pay his wages. The subsequent criticism and unwanted attention it has attracted can hardly have had a positive impact on his team’s performances in the meantime.
All of this considered however, football is first and foremost a results business and despite the drop in performance levels Juve have, for the most part, continued to win on the pitch. The history books will show that in February 2014 they took 10 points from a possible 12 available in Serie A and successfully negotiated a potentially tricky European tie. They still lead Italy’s top flight by nine points, though Roma have a game in hand, and have set up a mouth-watering Last 16 Europa League match-up with rivals Fiorentina. On the basis of these facts, the notion that they are in any way struggling would seem at best harsh and at worst ridiculous.
With tough games now approaching though, firstly against Milan on Sunday and then a trio of encounters with the Viola to come in the space of 10 days following that, Conte will need his players to up their game once more. They may have gotten away with flat performances against the likes of Chievo and Trabzonspor first time around, but they are unlikely to do so against Clarence Seedorf’s improving side and Vincenzo Montella’s Champions League chasers. Conte can also play his part by resisting the temptation to become embroiled in any more heated and ultimately futile media sideshows.
In summary, the time has come for the Old Lady to draw a line under recent off-field events and focus solely on what happens on it. As they have shown on countless occasions over the last few years, and again last night, they can be a formidable side when they do that.