Parity’s been the name of the game thus far in the Serie A campaign, and this past weekend’s results are a perfect example, as none of the top five teams in the table won.
But through it all, one team has remained unscathed. Coming into the season, defending champions AC Milan and their archrivals Inter were considered the title favorites by odds makers and many a football blog. However, Inter still haven’t fully gotten it right after a slow start, and AC Milan have had a few too many lapses, like Sunday’s goalless home draw against Napoli, another expected contender that hasn’t fulfilled lofty expectations.
That’s opened the door for a wide-open title race, and it’s refreshing to see new blood like unfancied Udinese emerge as a contender and for Lazio to once again be in the title picture after not being a challenger for quite some time. But if you’re a Serie A purist, it’s the resurgence of current leaders Juventus that’s most grabbing your attention.
While everyone in Serie A has at least four defeats, Juventus have gone without defeat in their first 21 matches of the season. This past weekend did see them only draw at home (perhaps controversially) against a poor Siena side that sits just outside the relegation zone, but thanks to how things transpired everywhere else, they remain atop the table, a point ahead of AC Milan.
Juve rank a respectable sixth in the league in goals with 33, led by Alessandro Matri’s nine, but their success this season has been predicated on tight defense. Juve have allowed only 13 goals this season, which is by far the best total in the league, have posted clean sheets in 11 matches, and have allowed multiple goals in a game only twice, a 2-2 home draw with Genoa in October and a 3-3 draw at Napoli in November.
Pre-Calciopoli, Juve were far and away Serie A’s best side, winning back-to-back titles in 2001/02 and 2002/03 and doing so again in 2004/05 and 2005/06. Their run of dominance might have continued for quite a while, but it all came crashing down following that 2005/06 season. They won immediate promotion back to the top flight and finished third in their return season and second the following season, but the last two seasons were complete disappointments, as they ended both campaigns in seventh position. In the meantime, the balance of power has shifted to Milan, with Inter winning four consecutive titles (and being awarded the 2005/06 title that was stripped from Juve) and AC Milan claiming their first Scudetto in seven years last season.
But after striking out with the hires of Ciro Ferrara and Luigi Delneri, Juve look to have hit a home run with old boy Antonio Conte, a defender for the Bianconeri from 1991 until his retirement in 2004 and a big part of Juve’s vast successes in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Conte led Bari (in the 2008/09 season) and Siena (last season) to Serie A promotion, and it could be said that he could have – and perhaps should have – been hired after the sacking of Claudio Ranieri in 2009. But whatever mistake was made then has now been rectified, and early returns would seem to indicate that he’s well on his way to leading Juve back to the mountaintop.
Legendary names Gianluigi Buffon and Alessandro Del Piero were both teammates of Conte, and they’re both still in the side, but there isn’t a mass of stars on this team as was the case when the likes of a young Buffon, an in-his-prime Del Piero, Pavel Nedved, David Trezeguet, and Zinedine Zidane, and others world-class names helped Juventus be the best in Italy and one of the best in Europe. This isn’t to say that money hasn’t been spent, as Juve certainly splashed the cash last summer, but the makeup of this team is much different, with an emphasis on the ‘team‘ element.
Of course, there’s a long way yet until the end of the season, and as crazy as things have been in Serie A thus far, Juve could well tumble. But with the way they‘ve ground out result after result and kept their cool to this point, it’s difficult to see them falling back, and for the sake of Serie A, their return to prominence couldn‘t be a more welcome sight.