Richard Whittle on why Antonio Conte is considering his future at Juve despite guiding them to a third successive league title...
Antonio Conte may have entered the record books as only the second coach in Juventus history to lead the team to three consecutive Serie A titles, but it remains to be seen if he has the appetite to continue to sit at the head of the top table in the Italian game.
Juventus did not have to kick a ball to be crowned champions once again last week, after Roma lost at Catania. It meant the eight-point gap at the top could not be closed and the party could begin in Turin, where Juve duly defeated Atalanta 1-0 to extend that lead to 11 points with two matches remaining.
It was current club president Andrea’s Agnelli father, Umberto, who proposed the idea in 1958 of awarding a star for every 10 scudetti won, when Juventus reached the milestone that year. Juventus officially have three stars to their name, although it is something of a contentious point as the titles won under Fabio Capello in 2004/05 and 2005/06 were taken away from the club in the wake of the Calciopoli scandal.
Agnelli has maintained that no further stars will appear on the team shirt until another club can add one of their own – Milan and Inter are closest currently on 18 and the way they have been performing it could be some time before that happens.
So, even as the players were taking in their achievements, there was a feeling that maybe this was the end of the line for this domestically-dominant Juventus side. Conte hinted that success in Europe could not be achieved without deep investment in the transfer market when he drew a comparison with dining out in the finest eatery: “You cannot expect to eat at a €100 restaurant with €10 in your pocket,” he quipped.
The inference was clear; Juventus need to start acting like the major European club they once were by enticing the top players to the Juventus Stadium. Carlos Tevez arrived in the summer and was instrumental in defending the title, but one new big name a year will not suffice, especially as the squad is aging and there have been reports that PSG are ready to table a major bid for Paul Pogba.
Conte will not want to see the young, rising star leave. And having helped drag the club out of the quicksand of those Calciopoli years to quickly rule over the domestic game, his own career ambitions are clearly not limited to holding off the challenge of Roma and Napoli, and possibly Inter and Milan, who are expected to be resurgent next year.
Conte was left chastened by his side’s failure to navigate through the group stages of the Champions League, and what looks like the final straw came in Juve's exit to Benfica in the semi-finals of the Europa League, thus denying Juventus the chance to play the final in their own stadium.
Despite all the records on the home front, this campaign more than any other has taken its toll on Conte. He admitted as much in a post-game interview following the win over Atalanta, where his own celebrations were tinged with a sense of relief that the season was coming to an end.
Coming into the penultimate match of the season at Roma, the statistics made for impressive reading: 96 points, one behind Inter’s all-time record in the 2006/07 season; 31 wins overtaking the Nerazzurri’s 30 of that same season, the best attack with 76 goals and joint-best defence with Roma on 23 goals conceded. The team also set a Serie A record of scoring in 43 consecutive matches running from February 24 2012 until March of this year when they lost 2-0 at Napoli, and are just one game away from securing a 100 per cent home record.
Conte will now sit down with Agnelli and sporting director Beppe Moratta to discuss the future direction of the team, but there have been mixed signals coming down from the hierarchy who have yet to provide the assurances that a new cycle can begin until there is some movement out of the exit door.
It could be helped if Pogba was to make a big-money move but further trimming of the squad is needed. The likes of Mirko Vucinic, Fabio Quagliarella and Sebastian Giovinco would all fetch a substantial fee, while Federico Peluso, Simone Padoin and Mauricio Isla could also be offloaded to make way for some new bright talent. Additionally, there seems little to be gained in taking up a permanent option on Pablo Osvaldo, who has failed to make any real impact following his loan signing from Southampton in January.
The investment in retaining a co-ownership deal with Torino for Ciro Immobile could also land Juve some extra cash if Borussia Dortmund follow through on their reported €15 million bid, although with the youngster set to be crowned Serie A top goalscorer if might be wise to bring him back to the club.
Barcelona’s Alexis Sanchez and Manchester United’s Nani have also been targeted in attack, and if either deal is sealed Conte may then feel he has the resources to start a new era. It would also probably prompt a change in formation to 4-3-3 to accommodate the new arrivals along with Tevez. And it would open up a way of putting central defender Leandro Bonucci and target-man Fernando Llorente on the transfer list, with both players raising further funds for more top-quality replacements with experience in European competition.
In the meantime, before talks on the way forward, there was the pressing matter of hitting the century-points mark for the season. Standing in the way were Roma and a trip to the Stadio Olimpico where Conte had never won against the capital club. That was another record to fall thanks to a last-second winner from Osvaldo, who was introduced as a late substitute to a chorus of whistles but had the last laugh against his former club with his first goal in Serie A for almost a year.
Winning at their closest rivals in such dramatic fashion ensures that a draw at home to Cagliari next weekend, when the Serie A trophy will be presented, would see Juventus hit 100 points - a record that would surely last for a long time to come and one that Conte may feel is a legacy fitting enough to end his time with the Old Lady.