Swap strop: Juventus wobble as Inter pull deal, Roma close gap and Conte shuts up
Just when it seemed Juventus were serenely sailing along, a series of threatening waves has rocked the champions' boat.
After the double champions made it 12 straight wins with a 4-2 victory over Sampdoria – leaving them eight points clear of AS Roma and 12 clear of third-placed Napoli – the Italian media all but wrote off the title as the Old Lady’s for a third consecutive year.
Even so, there was time for a bit of winter-window shopping. Planning for the likely departure of either Arturo Vidal or Paul Pogba in the summer, Juve targeted Fredy Guarin from old rivals Inter in a swap deal with Mirko Vucinic going in the opposite direction.
And so last Monday morning, Vucinic cleared his dressing-room locker, bade his farewells and was off to Milan in a shot. However, both parties must have expected a hostile fan reaction, considering the animosity that has always simmered and frequently boiled over between the two northern clubs.
Much as the Juve fans had blocked Dejan Stankovic’s switch from Inter to Turin in 2008, so their counterparts in Milan took to the streets in front of the Inter headquarters to protest this mooted move – having first bombarded Inter’s official Twitter page to vent their anger.
By Tuesday, the move was dead in the water, Inter's new owner Erik Thohir citing “technical and financial issues”. Vucinic was left high and dry, his agent reportedly setting in process negotiations with Arsenal, while Guarin threatened not to train with the team again; in the end, like Vucinic, he didn't figure in this weekend's matchday squads.
The embarrassment is most acute among the Juventus hierarchy, who had all but handed Guarin a shirt number while thinning out their overstaffed attack, in which Vucinic had become surplus to requirements and was eager to move on.
Meet the press (or don't)
The fact that the U-turn occurred on the eve of the Italian Cup quarter-final at Roma did little to calm Bianconeri nerves. Conte, already on edge over some supposed misquoting of his comments before the Sampdoria match, cancelled his pre-match press conference – although many suspected he was avoiding a grilling over the Vucinic-Guarin affair.
His opposite number Rudi Garcia happily met the press and was his usual urbane self. Playing down any notion of revenge for the recent 3-0 defeat at Juventus, the Frenchman spoke of the Cup's importance and promised to respect it by fielding his strongest side.
Conte's absence meant he couldn't explain his own, somewhat different selection policy. Despite the commanding league lead and long wait for European action, Juventus left Pogba, Carlos Tevez and Fernando Llorente on the bench, while Roma rested only Miralem Pjanic.
The Giallorossi’s 1-0 victory extended Juve's wait for glory in a competition they haven't won since 1995, but it also buoyed the belief of their nearest rivals that they could yet compete in the title race.
After defeat, recriminations
The rumblings of discontent continued through the rest of the week. An irked Conte again shunned the press before Juve’s return to the capital to face Lazio in the league, while the club's sporting director general Beppe Marotta was still demanding an explanation from Thohir.
Now that Thohir – usually based in Indonesia – is back in Italy, the Vucinic-Guarin switch could yet be resurrected, with Juve considering Southampton's out-of-favour Paolo Osvaldo as a replacement for the Montenegrin. But you won't get Conte to comment on it: the coach has announced a pre-game media blackout for the rest of the season.
The reason given is not to do with transfers or even the media itself, but a protest against Gianluigi Buffon’s red card at Lazio. The goalkeeper's last-man foul on Miroslav Klose resulted in Andrea Candreva opening the scoring from the penalty spot.
Despite Llorente’s equaliser for the 10 men, the 1-1 result ended the winning run in the league – but it could have been a lot worse, as Klose and Keita Baldè Diao hit the woodwork. Saturday evening's nine-point gap became six when Roma’s 3-1 win at Hellas Verona made it the first weekend since October 20 that the Romans had bettered the champions' result.
A few title forecasts may have to be revised but Conte has always been well aware that nothing is won in January. As his parting words to the press in Rome confirmed: “I never take anything for granted in football.”