Crisis over, apparently. Juventus came away from the Olimpico on Friday night with a 2-0 win against Lazio, their fifth on the bounce in Serie A, to move within four points of leaders Napoli. The Old Lady has woken up, finally.
With just one win in their opening six matches, Juve were slow out of the traps. Things weren’t looking good for the club or manager Max Allegri as the strength of their rivals meant that retention of the title they have had an iron grip on since 2012 looked like it was going to be an uphill struggle.
Perhaps there was an element of complacency at the start of the season, though having won four titles in a row an element of that was bound to creep in at some point. Unfortunately for them, they had their bout of self-satisfaction just as their rivals were becoming much stronger.
With the way the season has gone so far, as we near the halfway point it would appear that five clear challengers have emerged – namely Napoli, Inter, Roma, Juve and Fiorentina. In fact it is technically the closest title race at this stage of a campaign for over a decade.
The reality is that it is still going to be a major challenge for the champions but they will feel that they have avoided going “full Chelsea” by reversing their poor form early enough; their pride has been suitably wounded that they feel their competitive edge rushing through them once again, as their record of five wins in a row for the first time since October 2014 can attest to.
Combine that with the competitive pool at the top meaning that there has been no runaway leader thus far, it all means that there is a potential dogfight for the Scudetto on the horizon – one that Juve have recovered very well to be a part of.
Key to the Juventus rejuvenation has been striker Paulo Dybala. Allegri had initially struggled to get the best out of the €32 million striker but in recent weeks the Argentine forward has been virtually unplayable, having a hand in almost half of Juve’s goals this season (including a goal and an assist on Friday).
Dybala isn’t the only new striker to have found his feet either. Mario Mandžukić is displaying a level of competency not seen in the past few months and can now be considered as an alternative, rather than backup, to Álvaro Morata, and when Dybala is uttering sentences like “Mario and I are getting to know each other better” it sort of suggests that Morata has plenty of work to do if he wants to regain his place in that team.
Ultimately though, what separates this Juventus from the stuttering mess they were in the autumn is that Allegri now appears to understand what his best team is. The bedding-in period for the new signings is over and the loss of the holy trinity of Arturo Vidal, Andrea Pirlo and Carlos Tevez is not being felt as much anymore.
What this means for the players out on the pitch is that the confidence is back; Allegri has confidence in the eleven he picks and that filters through to the players who are able to raise their game and play with greater freedom as a result.
The referral of Allegri to his trusted 3-5-2 has improved the defensive stability of the team in general, while the midfield has benefitted enormously from the return of Claudio Marchisio. The fact that they have kept three clean sheets in a row (four if the 1-0 Champions League win against Manchester City is to be included) is a telling statistic.
A settled team that know each other’s way of playing and who don’t look they were thrown together at the last minute always look like getting favourable results.
Now that they have barged their way back into the mix, it looks as though finishing in the Champions League spots (at least) is there for the taking – Roma and Fiorentina, for all their strengths, are the most likely to slip back a bit as the season wears on and as such are the most likely to be overtaken.
The title itself might be a bit trickier – Napoli are having a brilliant campaign inspired by the outstanding form of Gonzalo Higuaín and Lorenzo Insigne, meanwhile Inter are still grinding out results to keep themselves in the race – but if any side can do it, it’s Juventus.
There’s a cold determination about this side when they get going. Sarri, Mancini, García and Sousa will be glad their teams had that head start otherwise the Bianconeri might have already handed out the psychological hammer blow they usually wield around this time of year to pull ahead and kill of any semblance of a title race.
It could come down to which side has the best mentality for the fight. Juventus, six points behind Inter at the top though they may be, know how to win a title.
As good as the frontrunners have been this season, they haven’t had Juve breathing down their necks thus far. Having the resurgent champions rampaging towards them at the top could play a massive psychological role in how they approach matches from here on in – they will surely know that the likelihood of Juventus slipping up again is low so they all have to keeping going with the same mentality they have shown all along.
Knowing that one or two slip ups could leave them playing catch-up again though, keeping that focus is easier said than done.
The game of musical chairs at the top of the Serie A table continues, but the kings have woken up – and they want their seat back.
Simon O’Keeffe, Pundit Arena