Pepe cautious on Juve title tilt

MILAN - In a modern game dominated by fancy new phrases like playmaker, snoods and men in the hole, Juventus have revived their Serie A fortunes thanks to the rediscovery of old-fashioned wingers.

Juve and Italy wideman Simone Pepe is not the most technically-gifted player but he can run all match long, has only occasionally been spotted wearing a neck warmer and usually gets up as soon as he is kicked.

His efforts on the left, combined with those of Serbia's Milos Krasic on the right, have helped Italy's most successful club to climb to second after limping in seventh last term.

With AC Milan six points clear at the top and Juve embarrassingly knocked out of the Europa League at the group stage, Pepe is not getting carried away and is keeping it simple - just like the best wingers always do.

"I'm not talking about the scudetto at this stage of the season," he told Reuters.

"Juve are a good side and if we continue like this, bit by bit, then we'll see in March if we have a chance of the title."

Sunday's 2-1 home victory over rivals Lazio, where Krasic grabbed a stoppage-time winner, was just the sort of game Juve would have surrendered last term when morale sank almost as low as 2006, the year they were demoted in a match-fixing scandal.

The big problem last season was the failed attempts of Ciro Ferrara and then Alberto Zaccheroni, who replaced him as coach, to integrate new Brazilian playmaker Diego in a system which cut out wingers.


Diego was packed off to VfL Wolfsburg in the close season and coach Luigi Del Neri arrived from Sampdoria intent on bringing back 4-4-2, which had worked so well in the past with players such as Pavel Nedved tearing down the Turin touchlines.

"Juve are showing we can consistently put in strong performances and improve gradually," added Pepe, who scored in the recent 3-1 triumph at Catania and 1-1 draw with Fiorentina.

"It's a great satisfaction if the team is getting better and so am I. This is important."

Juve boast Italy's young central defenders Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci while keeper Marco Storari is in fine form.

Usual number one Gianluigi Buffon has been warned by Del Neri that he faces a battle to regain the shirt once he recovers from back surgery in January, sparking speculation he may be sold.

As well as the Europa League disappointment, which many fans see as a blessing in disguise, Juve's main difficulty this term is finding the right balance with their strikers.

Fabio Quagliarella and Vincenzo Iaquinta impressed at Catania but their partnership is a work in progress while Amauri has struggled with injury and form for a year and Alessandro Del Piero plays sporadically at 36 years of age.

Media reports have therefore linked the twice European champions with a January bid for Catania striker Maxi Lopez.

"If he is in the plans of Juve and Juve take him we will be really happy," Pepe said of the former Barcelona front-man.

"But let's see what happens," he added in typical style.