FFT's man in Italy on the summit meeting between the champs and challengers
In Italy, the new year is usually a sedate affair: tradition dedicates the country waits until after January 6th to come back to life. Not this year, however, as the whole of the nation was glued to their television sets for the top-of-the-table clash between double champions Juventus and the latest pretenders to their throne, AS Roma.
Long-standing antagonism between the clubs dates back to 1981, when Maurizio Turone’s disallowed goal denied the Romans a chance to overtake the Turin side at the top of the table with just two matches of the season remaining.
Two years later, when another decision went against Roma, their president Dino Viola complained that it was always down to “centimetres” against Juventus – to which his counterpart Giampiero Boniperti responded by posting him a ruler.
Through the 1990s, Zdenek Zeman's one-man anti-doping campaign against the Bianconeri players led to an investigation which brought into question the Juventus stars' “muscled” physiques. Juventus general director Luciano Moggi was accused of sabotaging Roma moves for players including Paulo Sousa, and for tempting the scudetto-winning Fabio Capello away after the coach had promised he would never take charge of Juventus.
When Juventus were relegated in 2006 on the back of Calciopoli, the celebrations of vindication were loudest and longest in the capital. However, Roma couldn't capitalise on Juve's absence: first Inter dominated Serie A, then Juventus returned and rebuilt to such an extent that they have at times seemed impregnable.
Even the keenest Bianconeri fan couldn't have foreseen the club's excellence under Antonio Conte’s iron coaching grip. Juventus saw off AC Milan in 2011/12 by remaining undefeated all season, then retained the title by nine points from closest rivals Napoli.
Roma, for their part, lurched from one crisis to another both on and off the pitch, jettisoning five coaches as their new American owners attempted to drag the club out of administration. And while Juve made inroads in the Champions League, the Giallorossi could not even qualify for the Europa League.
Champions and challengers
This season, however, promises so much more as the latest Roma chief Rudi Garcia has already made history in setting a new Italian record of 10 straight wins at the start of the season, and arrived in Turin as the only unbeaten side left in Serie A – even if they had started to collect draws rather than victories.
In fact, although the champions had only lost one game, Roma’s stunning start pushed Conte to demand even more from his team – and by the winter break the champions were on a nine-game winning streak which left them five points in front of the visitors coming into the first round of 2014.
However, hanging over the match was the memory of this time last season, when Sampdoria left the Juventus Stadium with all three points – but since then 17 visitors had failed to win in Turin.
Francesco Totti and Daniele De Rossi had attempted to raise the ante further with their claims that Juventus could always rely on “help” in their quest to remain out in front, leaving Conte to counter that it was the usual “bar-room” talk coming out of the Giallorossi camp.
JUVE'S PERFECT 10
- 5 Jan: Roma (H) 3-0
- 22 Dec: Atalanta (A) 4-1
- 15 Dec: Sassuolo (H) 4-0
- 6 Dec: Bologna (A) 2-0
- 1 Dec: Udinese (H) 1-0
- 24 Nov: Livorno (A) 2-0
- 10 Nov: Napoli (H) 3-0
- 2 Nov: Parma (A) 1-0
- 30 Oct: Catania (H) 4-0
- 27 Oct: Genoa (H) 2-0
Anyone expecting a bar-room brawl on the pitch was left solely disappointed, despite Roma having De Rossi and Leandro Castan sent off, as Juventus eased to a 3-0 victory to take their winning streak to 10 and end Garcia’s unbeaten run.
The victory also saw Juve crowned winter champions; for the last nine years, the halfway-point leaders have lifted the real title at the season's end – and with this performance taking them eight points clear, Conte's men look odds on to make it a hat-trick of scudetto triumphs.
Roma were already trailing 2-0 heading into the final quarter when De Rossi saw red for a two-footed challenge on Giorgio Chiellini, who in the first half had effectively ended Roma's best player Miralem Pjanic’s participation in the contest with a scything tackle.
Just over a minute later Castan followed his team-mate down the tunnel for a handball on the line and substitute Mirko Vucinic dispatched the penalty to put further gloss on the result.
Home side play on the break
For much of the encounter Juventus had treated the match in the manner of a European tie, sitting back for long periods and biding their time to launch attacks – something they had failed to do in this season’s Champions League, getting knocked out in the group stages after being caught out on the counter to lose at Galatasaray.
Roma have built their impressive run around the quick break, and Juventus should have been a goal down within six minutes when they were left exposed at the back. However, Adem Ljajic took too long to decide on his shot as he angled in on Totti’s through-ball.
The home side quickly learnt that they couldn't afford to be drawn too far up the pitch to enable Roma to pass the ball into open space. From that moment there was a five-man back-line protected by three in midfield, with Carlos Tevez and Fernando Llorente taking it in turns to pressure De Rossi and Mehdi Benatia as they brought the ball out of defence.
It took Juventus 15 minutes to offer any real threat but when they did it was Tevez's power and Atruro Vidal's speed off the mark that opened up the opposition for the latter to score from close range. Then it was straight back into their defensive shell as Roma played intricate passes 30 yards from goal but rarely threatened Buffon.
Garcia needed to find a way to open up Juve’s blanket defence - but with Totti looking well off the pace after his lengthy lay-off and Pjanic unable to continue there was little creativity from the wide players Ljajic or Gervinho, who were starved of space to work in.
Conte, as he has done so often on the domestic front, called on his players to inflict a further psychological blow early in the second half. They duly obliged by doubling the scoreline in the most elementary fashion: a deep free-kick from Andrea Pirlo was offset by his team-mates racing to the near post and Leonardo Bonucci was left free at the back post to slot home unmarked.
There was no doubt that Roma’s forma mentis when they arrive in Turin played a part in their downfall. They had conceded first in their last 10 visits to Juventus, during which they had only won once, and they were facing what is by far the most dominant force in the Italian game.
Conte has a settled side that has bought wholly into his ethos, and he can call players like Marko Vucinic, Claudio Marchisio and Fabio Quagliarella off the bench. Going hand in hand with the on-field success is a club that is pointing the way forward with €120m well spent on the 41,000-capacity Juventus Stadium where the rest of Serie A lags well behind in cavernous stadiums that do not fit the needs of modern football.
Roma are attempting to follow the Juventus model in leaving the 80,000-seater Olympic Stadium, which always feels half-empty, although they continue to be mired in red tape in building their own 50,000-capacity ‘fortress’. On the field, they are already taking positive steps, even if Sunday’s defeat highlighted how far they have to go to match the Old Lady’s perfection.