Allegri Leads Acclaim for Italy's Revival in Europe

Published: 02nd March 2015 08:43 AM  |   Last Updated: 02nd March 2015 08:43 AM   |  A+A-

Massimiliano Allegri_AP

Massimiliano Allegri, coach of Juventus, wanted to pay some compliments as he spoke ahead of tonight's top-of-the-table Serie A meeting with Roma. "Well done," he said, "to all the Italian clubs who came through in the European competitions last week. That's a good thing for Italy's football, which we tend to hear being put down and generally underestimated compared with other leagues."

Coming from the manager of a club perched nine points clear of his nearest chaser, Roma, that might have sounded patronising. Coming from an employee of Juventus, it risked being viewed from almost every other part of the Italian peninsula as part of some sort of elaborate plot. But Allegri does not suffer from tunnel-vision, nor excessive Machiavellianism. He was simply, sincerely pointing out that at the end of a month in which every major European football nation has trembled at the size of the Premier League's latest television deal, it was worth celebrating the virtues of teams who thrived abroad even when their domestic matches are valued at a lot less than pounds 10?million each.

Judge a league by its weakest link, and Italy's top-flight is in a very bad way: bottom-of-the-table Parma have postponed their last two matches because of a debt crisis so pressing they cannot pay players, matchday staff or even utility bills. Judge Serie A on the fortunes of San Siro's fabled tenants and you find a pair of monuments to decadence, as Inter Milan and AC Milan both grapple desperately to stay in the top half of the division.

But judge Serie A on its competence in continental competitions and it is entitled to a moment of smugness. Five times as many Italian clubs as English ones have just made it into the last 16 of the Europa League, while Juventus will take something into the second leg of their Champions League tie no English club can: they have a lead, after beating Borussia Dortmund 2-1. That counts as a stack of positives for a league whose presence in the later rounds of European club tournaments had been steadily diminishing over the last four and half years.

Frailties in Europe were among the factors that led Antonio Conte, the coach who had guided Juventus to three successive scudetti - league titles - by last May to depart dramatically in pre-season, preferring the challenge of coaching the Italy national squad. "It will be long time before an Italian club makes it again to a Champions League final," Conte said more than once in his time in charge.

When he left, Roma, Napoli and the Milan clubs -who in July still fancied themselves genuine contenders - liked to imagine the Juve machine had lost a key component, and would stall. Juve did not replace like with like, either.

Conte, a former Juventus midfielder, stamped the team with his intensity, his ruggedness. Allegri, sacked by AC Milan 13 months ago, comes across as more urbane, less dogmatic.

"Juventus seem a bit more human this season," remarked Daniele de Rossi, the Roma player, yesterday, still hopeful his club might turn the title procession back into a real race. Yet if De Rossi meant Allegri's Juve were potentially more vulnerable than Conte's, he was interpreting signals not detectable in the league table. Allegri's Juve go to Rome tonight with that nine-point lead over their closest rivals; they were seven clear of the same chasers at the same stage last season; in 2012-13, their lead over Napoli, the nearest pursuers, stood five points behind after 24 games.

What has improved? Paul Pogba, the France midfielder who left Manchester United for Juventus as a teenager and, at 21, excels at more and more areas of his game, though Juve may miss the dynamic all-rounder with injury tonight. A couple of new signings have fitted in smoothly, such as Alvaro Morata, the Spain striker bought from Real Madrid. The veteran left-back signed from the Premier League in the summer has also proved a shrewd recruit. Certainly, Patrice Evra's experience at Juve has been happier than Ashley Cole's at Roma. The Frenchman is an established starter. The Englishman must anticipate watching Evra patrol his flank from the Roma bench this evening.

Then there's Carlos Tevez, a strong candidate for Serie A player of the year. Three years after making himself notorious - marginalised at Manchester City, threatening to sue them, muttering out loud about retiring - Tevez is approaching a state of grace comparable with his best Premier League days. Tevez struck his 20th goal of the season against Dortmund, immediately rustled out from an inside pocket of his shorts an infant's dummy and popped it into his mouth, one of his favourite celebration rituals. A day earlier, Tevez, who turned 31 last month, had been telling interviewers how much he has matured, learned from "mistakes I then paid for" at City, and how Turin had "become a second home," over the year and half he has been with Juventus.

Allegri had altered certain aspects of Juventus' game, Tevez added to El Pais, and given him more freedom: "Conte liked the strikers to play close together. Allegri he wants you to be comfortable playing the way you want to play when we have the ball. When we have won a match, he lets us relax a bit. With Conte, it was always, 'let's focus straight away on the next game'." Allegri said he wants this next game, Serie A's second against first, to be "an advert for Italian football," and, he hopes, to pass off with fewer yellow cards than the seven shared out when Juve beat Roma 3-2 in October, and not so many sending-offs. That night there was a red card for each side, plus the dismissing of Rudi Garcia, the Roma coach. "What got overshadowed with all that," pleaded Allegri, "was that it was a really great game of football."


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