Fernando Llorente got up off the bench and started his warm-up. The plucky Danes, aided by an inspired goalkeeper and some sloppy finishing, were becoming annoyingly resilient. Fabio Quagliarella had equalised to get Juventus back into the tie, but settling for a point at the start of a Champions League campaign against a side of the meagre calibre of FC Copenhagen was never an option for the Italians.
After 76 minutes of seeing Quagliarella and Carlos Tevez struggle to give the Old Lady an advantage that their play deserved, boss Antonio Conte opted for a change. The stage – according to more than one report on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning – was set for Llorente to come on and save the day, an imposing centre-forward who could get physical in the box. Instead, the 44-year-old opted to replace Quagliarella with the little Sebastian Giovinco.
“I made some players warm up, including Llorente and Giovinco, as I wanted to see how the game was going to develop,” Conte stated after the tie ended 1-1. “Against a side with players who are strong in the air but slow, it would be stupid to play with tall forwards. Tevez, Quagliarella and Giovinco gave them the most problems, as they are shorter and quicker.”
It was a reasonable explanation from the former midfielder, or at least it should have been. But when a tactical switch is made that doesn’t produce the desired effects then a Coach, no matter who he is, will be questioned. And by ignoring Llorente, Conte inevitably made sure that the big Spaniard would again be making the headlines after another snub.
Juventus announced the Bosman free signing of the 28-year-old in January, six months before his arrival. An international striker, he bagged 85 goals in 262 League games for Athletic Bilbao. He may not have been the top player in attack who Juve were looking for, but he was clearly a forward who could be useful to the cause over the course of a long, hard season.
Llorente, however, arrived in Turin after a problematic campaign. His refusal to sign a new contract in Bilbao saw him marginalised from the first team. Without regular action, the Lion King inevitably lost his roar.
Expectations in Italy, however, were still high. And following the later capture of Tevez from Manchester City, Juventus would supposedly start the term with a front two of the Spaniard and the Argentine. Pre-season experiments certainly suggested as much, with Mirko Vucinic – a better player than Fernando but without his eye for goal – relegated to first reserve. By the time the season proper got underway, Vucinic was back in the team and Llorente was out.
“Juventus was the best decision for me,” Llorente said in August. “But I need to adapt and it will take time. The Coach uses me as an attacker in his 3-5-2, so I will need to improve my movement and understanding with my teammates. I need to do things which I haven’t done in the past, but things will improve. I am doing all that is possible to integrate myself into the team’s way of playing.”
In five official games so far this season, Llorente has been used just once – as an 89th minute substitute in the Week 1 win over Sampdoria. Those are stats which fuel the Caso Llorente stories, ones which predictably talk about a quick move away – either in January or at the end of the season.
The official club line is rather different. “I can categorically deny any problem,” stated director general Beppe Marotta who, according to Gazzetta salary figures, handed him a deal worth €3.5m a season. “We signed a player on a free transfer after carefully evaluating his qualities. Don’t forget that he basically hasn’t played for a year and he needs time. We’ve signed him on a four-year deal because we believe in him and we will wait for him.”
Conte too, prior to the Copenhagen game, asked for patience. “He’s just getting back after a year out and I need to play him when he can shine. I can’t put him on the field of play if he isn’t in a position to give his maximum just to keep the journalists happy.”
In response to the soundbites from Turin are media whispers that Conte doesn’t think the Spaniard can fit into his way of football, which requires a certain mobility in his forwards, or that he didn’t want the player in the first place. Such accusations are yet to be confirmed, especially as they prematurely come in the month of September.
The only certainty right now is that it is too soon to call time on Llorente’s spell with Juventus. He might not have yet convinced Conte, but ‘yet’ is the key word. If the Coach truly felt he had no need for the forward, then he’s shown with Reto Ziegler that he would have no hesitation in telling the club so.
The most striking feature though in this whole Llorente affair is that the decision making of Conte is being questioned. After taking a side who finished seventh in consecutive seasons to winning back-to-back titles, it’s pretty safe to say that Antonio knows how to judge a player. Don’t forget, it wasn’t too long ago when La Signora would take to the field of play with Christian Poulsen, Tiago and Amauri in their ranks.
After returning the Old Lady to their rightful place where their history suggests they deserve to be, there has to be a trust in a Coach who bleeds black and white. He makes decisions in the interests of winning a game, not to pamper to the club’s summer transfer campaign as the recent examples of Ziegler and Eljero Elia testify. If Llorente wants a game there is only one way of getting one – to impress on the training field. And as Conte sees him on a daily basis, it’s only right that the ultimate decision is left to him.
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