MILAN: A first Champions League appearance in 19 years followed Juventus’s first league and Cup double in two decades, but as 2015 draws to a close the undisputed kings of Italian football are facing a Serie A backlash.
The Old Lady of Turin secured a treble of trophies by the end of last summer with a 31st league title, a 10th Italian Cup and their seventh Italian Super Cup after a 2-0 win over Lazio in Shanghai.
Juve’s bid for a first European crown since 1996, however, was halted in spectacular fashion as Barcelona handed Massimiliano Allegri’s men a footballing masterclass on their way to a 3-1 victory in Berlin.
Albeit humbling, Juve’s presence in the final was a potent symbol of their return to Europe’s elite after 20 years of seeing AC Milan (two), Real Madrid (four), Manchester United (two), Bayern Munich (two) and Barcelona (four) claim multiple trophies since their own 1996 success over Ajax.
After Juventus were humbled 4-0 on aggregate in the 2013 quarterfinals by eventual winners Bayern Munich, former coach Antonio Conte complained it would take the Turin club 20 years to reach the latter stages because of their financial impotence in the face of far richer opponents.
In his first season in charge, Allegri turned that idea on its head.
The 48-year-old replaced Conte’s obsession with crushing their Serie A rivals with a strategy that balanced the team’s commitments over three competitions to see the Turin giants into the 2015 finals.
In the end, Barcelona were a class above the Italians. Indeed, only the superb goalkeeping of Gianluigi Buffon prevented a more embarrassing scoreline.
After what was a teary Andrea Pirlo’s last game in a Bianconeri shirt, Buffon admitted: “Barcelona are the best team in the world… it’s a fair result, but we showed we could compete, both as team and as individual players.”
Buffon was also a rock for Italy as Conte, who led Juventus to three of their past four league titles, steered the Azzurri into the Euro 2016 finals with a game to spare.
Having exited the World Cup at the first round for the second consecutive time under former coach Cesare Prandelli, a rejuvenated Italy squad is hoping to make amends in France next summer when they face Group E rivals Belgium, Sweden and the Republic of Ireland.
As things stand, there may be no place for the man who fired Italy into the Euro 2012 final against defending champions Spain with a semifinals brace against Germany: AC Milan star Mario Balotelli.
The on-loan Liverpool striker is on his way back from a recent hernia operation and has little time to show Conte, who lately has favoured Southampton striker Graziano Pelle and Sampdoria’s Eder, what he can contribute to Italy’s campaign.
Balotelli said after seeing the Euro 2016 draw: “Can’t wait.”
To which Conte replied: “Can’t wait for what? To see the championships on television or to play there?”
If Balotelli can help improve an ailing AC Milan, it would certainly boost his bid and Conte said: “It’s up to him… to show it. But he has to show a lot, a lot, a lot. I haven’t ruled anyone out.”
Before the year’s final round of fixtures, Balotelli’s former club Inter Milan sit top with a four-point lead over Fiorentina and Napoli, with Juventus (six points) and Roma (seven) just behind in what is shaping up to be the most intriguing title fight in years.
Juventus last won five successive titles in the 1930s with a team that formed the nucleus of Italy’s historic 1934 World Cup-winning squad.
Aiming for another treble this season looks more difficult for Allegri’s men after Juve drew Bayern Munich as their last 16 opponents in the Champions League.