Udine. The borderlands of Serie A. Up in Italy’s far north west, close to the Slovenian frontier, some unforgettable memories have been created for Juventus fans. May 5, 2002 is one of them.
More than two decades later, arguably the most dramatic moment in the league’s history this century is still talked about as if it happened yesterday.
Then, a win away to Udinese allowed Juventus to overtake Inter Milan on the final day of the season and claim the championship at the death. Midfielder Antonio Conte, soaked in Champagne, even had to be pulled back into the dressing room, a hand placed over his mouth, as he euphorically shouted down the TV camera’s lens: “This is for the pain of two years ago. This is for Perugia. And I know there’ll be someone watching who was in Perugia that day.”
That person was Marco Materazzi, the Inter centre-back whose team had just collapsed against Lazio in Rome, blowing a first title since 1989.
For Conte, it was just deserts. Materazzi, the loudmouth whose trash talk four years later provoked Zinedine Zidane into a headbutt during the World Cup final had been a Perugia player when Juventus lost the Scudetto at the Renato Curi on the last day in 2000. He liked to bring it up and taunt Juventus. Now it was Conte’s turn to let the schadenfreude wash over him like the bubbly poured onto his head.
Anger, channelled correctly, can be a powerful thing.
And, with Juventus back in town on Sunday, Federico Chiesa seemed to shush the haters amid the exhilaration of scoring the fastest goal of the Serie A weekend. But, he later clarified, the index finger raised to his lips was actually a No 1, and aimed at Juventus’ backup goalkeepers Carlo Pinsoglio and Mattia Perin. “I wanted to do a knee-slide,” Chiesa said. “It’s a while since I did one.” What with last year’s anterior cruciate ligament knee surgery and all.
When Dusan Vlahovic doubled Juventus’ lead from the penalty spot, he stood on the advertising board like a Spartan warrior from the movie 300, and slapped the hands of the travelling ultras as if they were there to raze Udine to the ground.
As cool as Dušan 🥶
That’s a 5️⃣th ⚪️⚫️ goal in August in 5️⃣ games for our Serbian striker 🇷🇸💪 pic.twitter.com/boohuhktL6
— JuventusFC 🇬🇧🇺🇸 (@juventusfcen) August 21, 2023
Juventus were 3-0 up at half-time for the first time on the opening day of a season since 2001, their final goal the pick of the bunch as Chiesa caused Udinese’s defence to sag by darting to the byline, a back-heel finding a free Andrea Cambiaso to curl in a cross for Adrien Rabiot to head home at the far post.
“It’s not revenge for what happened last year,” Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri claimed. It isn’t vengeance for the “absurd situation” in which Juventus were docked 15 points by the FIGC, Italy’s football federation, as part of the Prisma scandal, had the penalty suspended and the points restored only to then be given a 10-point punishment, which left the players and coaching staff wondering whether there was any meaning to their work anymore.
🅰️ndrea ➕ 🅰️drien 🥅
— JuventusFC 🇬🇧🇺🇸 (@juventusfcen) August 21, 2023
The sanction pushed Juventus outside of the Champions League places, and they were then made to wait until the end of July for the outcome of European football governing body UEFA’s investigation into their affairs, which concluded in a one-year ban from its three club competitions.
“Apart from the two years when I was out of work (after a first spell managing Juventus), the last time I wasn’t in the Champions League was in 2010,” a miffed Allegri said. “It was a source of pride. I don’t know if not being in Europe this season will be an advantage or not for us. All I know is it isn’t nice to miss out on the Champions League, particularly when we qualified for it on the pitch.”
Juventus would have finished third without that points penalty. They were second until things got really Kafka-esque as the updates on the judicial process were often published minutes before kick-off in one of their matches, as was the case when the players folded 4-1 away to Empoli at the end of May.
Sunday had a payback feel to it. A “hell hath no fury like an Old Lady scorned” feel to it.
To paraphrase Conte, it was more “this is for Prisma”, a scandal out of the players’ control, than “this is for Perugia.”
The home side didn’t know what hit them. “We were very submissive, very timid,” their coach Andrea Sottil complained.
That is unusual. Udinese are no pushovers. They are one of the league’s most physical teams with a towering sentinel in Wallace in front of the defence and a lightning-fast ex-KFC employee called Beto in attack. And yet Juventus ran them over in the first half.
Other teams stood out on Serie A 2023-24’s opening weekend — Fiorentina put in arguably the finest performance of all and, paradoxically, look better for losing a European final last season, as do Inter Milan — but no one played with Juventus’ ferocity.
More surprising than their mentality was the methodology. Last season, #AllegriOut trended regularly on the platform formerly known as Twitter. “I missed it,” Allegri joked. The hashtag. Not the platform.
His tactics were seen as passé and unbecoming of a big club, more Juve Stabia than Juventus, as they sat deep, played long ball and relied on set pieces for goals, scoring only 35 times from open play. Vlahovic, when fit, would wait weeks for a chance.
Rather than adapt, Allegri seemed to double-down and came across as a footballing antiquarian, a keeper of traditions at risk of extinction.
A change was not expected for this season but Juventus pressed Udinese high and their style of football excited the players who seemed exasperated by Allegri’s tactics last year.
“This is modern football,” Chiesa said. “We have to press high, put our opponents under pressure and offer something instead of always sitting back. We showed that today.”
Throughout pre-season, the dynamics of Juventus’ left flank were the first sign of an evolution in the team’s brand of football. Cambiaso, signed last summer from Genoa but then immediately sent on a season’s loan to Bologna, has acted like one of those updates you are asked to consent to on the iPhone or MacBook.
The 23-year-old wing-back, who started his career in Italy’s bottom tier and overcame a Chiesa-esque knee blowout not so long ago, is Juventus’ tactical novelty in as much as he tucks inside and plays as a hybrid midfield player in the left half-space when in possession. “As a kid, I played as a 10,” Cambiaso had said at his unveiling. “Then I moved out wide. Joao Cancelo was one of the players I looked up to.”
The mechanism works because the left-sided centre-back in Juventus’ all-Brazilian back three is a reinvented Alex Sandro. For years he played for the club where Cambiaso does now and so, when Cambiaso shuffles into midfield, Sandro knows where to be to cover for him. Chiesa, meanwhile, drifts from his role as a second striker over to Cambiaso’s flank and, with the help of the midfielder on that side, Juventus create overloads, showing the kind of fluid unpredictability some of Europe’s most avant-garde teams boast.
The athleticism of Rabiot and a full-throttle Chiesa and Cambiaso interchanging down that side confused Udinese and caused them to cramp them up. This StatsBomb graphic neatly demonstrates how ‘mancino’ — lefty — Juventus were in the first half.
Tim Weah, over on the right, was far less impactful than he had been in pre-season and went off with an ankle knock at half-time.
“We’re never at a standstill,” Chiesa said. “We’re always on the move. That’s what the mister (coach) wants from us. We’ve been trying a few new things with Francesco Magnanelli joining the coaching staff.”
A talismanic figure at Sassuolo, for whom he played at every level, Magnanelli retired as a player in 2022 and has spent the last year doing his UEFA A licence at Coverciano, Italy’s Ivy League coaching school. His thesis received a commendation from the adjudicators and the former midfielder is now turning theory into practice. Magnanelli brings a wealth of experience as someone who has worked under Maurizio Sarri, Allegri, Stefano Pioli, Eusebio Di Francesco and, more recently, Roberto De Zerbi.
For all the Magnanelli mania running through the tactics fraternity, this isn’t the first time a change to Allegri’s coaching staff has been fetishised in the afterglow of a fine performance.
Only a year ago, another Sassuolo alumnus and De Zerbi acolyte, Paolo Bianco, was drafted in. But Bianco was bianconero for nine months and no more. Cult hero Simone Padoin, the former utility player and lucky charm of Allegri’s first spell in Turin, is also on staff but with less of the fanfare unless we count the old chant of, “Who gives a toss about Ronaldo when we’ve got Padoin”, which still gets occasionally dusted off.
Nevertheless, it was interesting to hear Chiesa namecheck Magnanelli. By the same token, it was unusual to hear him be cautious about Juventus challenging for the Scudetto. “Our goal this year is to get back into the Champions League, and then we’ll see,” Chiesa said.
This seems to be the party line and contrasts starkly with the eve of last season, when Allegri went public with his title ambitions. Juventus then won only two of their first six games, lost to newly-promoted Monza and suffered defeat in all but one of their six Champions League group matches, a humbling experience if ever there was one.
Their UEFA ban is forcing Juventus to cut back on costs, but not necessarily ambition. Less revenue makes it imperative to bring the wage bill down. Angel Di Maria is now at Benfica. His Argentina team-mate Leandro Paredes is a Roma player after last season’s loan from Paris Saint-Germain. Juan Cuadrado moved to Inter, Leonardo Bonucci is on the margins at age 36. Money from Tottenham for Dejan Kulusevski has come in.
New sporting director Cristiano Giuntoli, the man credited with assembling Napoli’s 2022-23 Scudetto-winning team, has done well to extract €20million from Monaco for Denis Zakaria and maybe less well to give away a talent as promising as Nicolo Rovella to Lazio for €17m.
Others will follow, although a change up front seems difficult now Vlahovic is acting like Paulo Dybala in 2019, when he dug his heels in and refused to go when Juventus offered him to Manchester United in exchange for Romelu Lukaku. Every Instagram post by the Serbian these days is a public display of affection and the fans care little for the accounting benefit of the swap, chanting “Dusan, Dusan, Dusan” and “We don’t want Lukaku“.
It’s best to wait and see what happens, not only in the remaining week of the window but on the pitch as well.
You could write one of those ‘This is going be their year’ pieces about six clubs on the back of this weekend in Serie A and it isn’t the first time in recent memory that Juventus have looked at the cutting edge on the first day of a season only to then go blunt in the league.
Still, cause for optimism isn’t lacking.
The Conte-like fury with which they played in Udine is repeatable in a year when Allegri can focus on the one-game-a-week rhythm of a domestic-only season.
Juventus are not to be messed with. Not after last season.
(Photo: Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images)