How Juventus returned to the pinnacle of European soccer

With Gigi Buffon winning everything in his career except the Champions League, Craig Forrest looks for him to take down Cristiano Ronaldo in a matchup of the brightest stars.

Giorgio Chiellini could sense it. As he ran off to celebrate his brace, the defender knew the match against Arezzo was a foregone conclusion. Juventus was set for promotion to Serie A after a gut-wrenching relegation to Serie B just months prior.

The 5-1 demolition of Arezzo on May 19, 2007, confirmed the Bianconeri’s spot in Serie A for the 2007-08 campaign. Gianluigi Buffon and Claudio Marchisio started in that game along with Chiellini. Current Juve board member Pavel Nedved was also in the lineup that afternoon.

Now, 10 years later, Nedved will be watching his former teammates in Saturday’s Champions League final against Real Madrid in Cardiff. Unlike in 2015 against Barcelona, this Juventus side is considered to be the favourite by many pundits and fans.

“Two years ago, when we reached the final against Barcelona, it was unexpected,” said Buffon ahead of the first leg of the semifinal against Monaco. “But this season it would be a logical conclusion to the work we’ve done, and it’s important to keep this in mind.”

The work put in by Juventus from top to bottom is admirable. Sporting director Giuseppe Marotta deserves the most credit. Often criticized for failing to complete marquee deals early in his tenure, Marotta is now arguably one of the top transfer gurus in Europe.

Andrea Pirlo arrived on a free transfer. Paul Pogba was also signed for free, although the Turin club had to pay £800,000 in training compensation. Andrea Barzagli cost around $450,000. Carlos Tevez was bought for half of what Manchester City paid to acquire him from Manchester United. Arturo Vidal joined as a relative unknown for $15 million and became one of the most complete midfielders in the world.

Vidal was sold shortly after the final in 2015 to Bayern Munich for a reported $48 million. Pirlo joined New York City FC and Tevez returned to Boca Juniors as well. Paulo Dybala, Sami Khedira, Dani Alves, Mario Lemina and Juan Cuadrado were all brought in as replacements. Khedira and Alves were signed for – you guessed it – free.

A perfect example of Marotta’s expertise in the transfer market was his purchase of Alex Sandro. His former Porto teammate, Danilo, was drawing rave reviews for his performances while Sandro, on the other hand, was seldom mentioned. Danilo ended up joining Real Madrid for $46 million. He’s now primarily a bench player for Los Blancos, while Sandro – who was signed for $7 million less – has become one of the top full-backs in the world.

There are too many deals to mention here, but it’s clear that Marotta has a tremendous track record. The 60-year-old always has one eye on the future, which is the reason that when Juventus does lose a player, the club always finds a suitable successor.

When Pogba was sold for a world-record fee to Manchester United, he immediately bought Miralem Pjanic from Roma. Alvaro Morata, who scored 27 goals in 93 matches for Juve, was replaced by Gonzalo Higuain for an Italian-record fee.

Despite all of its recent success, former coach Antonio Conte should be praised for instilling a winning mentality at Juve in his three seasons with the team. Achieving three straight Scudetti is a testament to that.

Conte is also indirectly responsible for the deep squad Juve currently has at its disposal. A few months after the Turin-based club was knocked out of the Champions League group stage in the 2013-14 season, Conte claimed that a lack of spending in the transfer market was hindering the team in Europe.

“When you have 10 euros in your pocket you can’t eat in a restaurant where the meal will cost you 100,” he said.

Three years later, Juve spent $135 million for Higuain this past summer. The revenues generated from the Juventus Stadium has certainly given the club a distinct advantage over the rest of the country, but credit the board for thinking ahead of the rest of Serie A.

Revenues from the Champions League, Serie A and the stadium have led to Juventus building its deepest squad in years, which has clear benefits. When injuries affected Marchisio, Khedira, Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and a few others this season, the team still breezed through without those key players.

It also gives Massimiliano Allegri options, and it’s helped him grow as a manager. Allegri was an outcast at AC Milan, but ever since he left, Milan has not returned to the Champions League.

Some Juve fans were skeptical as well. When Allegri was introduced as Juve’s coach in 2014, some fans spat and threw eggs at his car.

Allegri was not perfect in his first couple of seasons with Juve. His decision to push for a winner against Barcelona in the 2015 Champions League final, even though the team lacked the firepower compared to Barca, was tactical suicide. Los Cules eventually scored twice on the counter and lifted the trophy in Berlin.

The following season, Juve had a 2-0 lead in their round-of-16 second-leg tie at the Allianz Arena versus Bayern. Surely with the Barcelona game still haunting his mind, Allegri decided to sit back and absorb pressure from Pep Guardiola’s side, even though the counter-press was working to a tee. Bayern eventually scored two late goals and won 4-2 after extra time.

Now Allegri has been able to balance conservatism and fluidity. He’s even altered formations and tactics over the past few months. Juve predominantly played with a 3-5-2 system, but due to some of the more recent signings, Allegri now prefers a 4-2-3-1. This is especially advantageous because the starting 11 can easily switch from a 3-4-3 when defending, to a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 when attacking.

Allegri warrants plaudits for implementing more tactical knowledge within this squad. Conte was essentially married to the 3-5-2 and that predictability hurt Juventus in the Champions League.

It’s been an incredible journey to become an arguable favourite in the Champions League final. Players are more experienced, they are smarter and the determination is there, but this will be a tricky match.

Real Madrid has scored in a European record 64 consecutive games in all competitions. On the flip side, Juve has posted eight clean sheets in 11 Champions League matches this season. The Bianconeri are also loaded with attacking quality, which is not receiving as much attention as their backline. They racked up 21 goals and were held scoreless on one occasion; the second leg of the quarter-finals versus Barcelona.

Regardless, this is Juve’s best chance to win the Champions League since 2003. It’s probably the final opportunity Buffon has to complete an illustrious trophy cabinet as well. The Italian goalkeeper would join the likes of Gerd Muller, Paolo Rossi and, coincidentally, Zinedine Zidane who have won both the European Cup and the World Cup. Buffon got the better of Zidane’s France in 2006. He could do the same on Saturday.

This is also a big opportunity for Higuain. The forward has developed a reputation of being a choke-artist in major finals due to his disappointing finishing for Argentina. A goal on Saturday could put an end to those discussions.

On top of everything else, Juventus could become the eighth European club to complete a treble. Not even Real Madrid has accomplished this feat.

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