PIRLO'S UNDENIABLE TROPHY PEDIGREE: WHY JUVENTUS CAN STILL WIN THE SERIE A
A quick glance at the Serie A table would suggest the end of an era may be near for Juventus.
The Bianconeri have won the Scudetto for the last nine seasons, but they currently sit eight points off the pace with more than half of the campaign gone.
Former Napoli and Chelsea boss Maurizio Sarri was sacked in the summer and was swiftly replaced by rookie manager Andrea Pirlo, leading to some suggestions that there could be a different Serie A champion in 2021.
This was embellished by the fact that the two Milan clubs seem to be on the way back up, and along with the always dangerous duo of Lazio and Atalanta, and a Napoli side who came agonisingly close to winning the Scudetto two seasons ago, there were plenty of challengers for Juventus’ crown.
Relatively speaking, that’s how it’s turned out, with Zlatan Ibrahimović inspiring the best Milan side for ten years to a sustained title challenge along with ever-improving Inter.
Stefano Pioli’s Milan went unbeaten for the first 15 league games of the season, but have lost three of their last seven in Serie A, including a loss to newly-promoted Spezia on Saturday.
The Rossoneri will need to eliminate those types of defeats if they’re to win the title for the first time since 2011, but the signing of Fikayo Tomori should reinforce the defence.
Many of their better players haven’t experienced a title race like this before, so in-form attackers Rafael Leão and Franck Kessié as well as youth product Gianluigi Donnarumma will need to show a strong mentality to recover from defeats like Saturday’s.
Any club managed by Conte, in this case Inter, is always walking a tightrope with his tendency to throw a tantrum at the board whenever things aren’t going his way.
However, Romelu Lukaku and Lautaro Martínez are already on a combined 27 league goals and fired them to the summit thanks to an impressive win over Lazio on Sunday.
We’ve already seen a couple of mini tantrums from Conte this season, but Inter have done what they haven’t in recent years and beat the teams they should beat on the whole – the only non-Champions League team they’ve lost to was Sampdoria at the start of January.
They seem to be coming into a bit of form again now, and after crashing out of the Champions League in the final group game once again to leave them with a sole focus, Inter are maybe the main candidates to be the ones to finally dethrone Juventus.
Roma are arguably the only other realistic challengers, although Atalanta look to have recovered well from the departure of Papu Gómez.
Lazio may be too reliant on top scorer Ciro Immobile despite a good run since the turn of the year, while fifth-placed Napoli will have gained plenty of confidence from the narrow win over Juventus at the weekend.
If they can get Victor Osimhen firing after his return from injury, Gennaro Gattuso’s men could well join the party.
So, the big question is: can Juventus recover from their latest setback at the weekend and make it ten in a row?
It’s clear that the Turin club are going to need a significant upturn in form as even two points per game from here only takes them to 76 points, which may not even be enough for a Champions League place, let alone the title.
Pirlo has shown that he can adapt his style of play for different opponents, and has learnt from mistakes impressively, but he may still have a lot of learning to do and that could all come too soon for a successful first season for the former playmaker.
They’re going to need a near-perfect end to the season, which they will be hoping to build momentum for in the coming weeks.
That should be fairly straight-forward as six of Juventus’ next eight league games see them meet sides currently in the bottom half.
Any slip-ups there and it may be game over, but there are positive signs with the imminent return to fitness of Paolo Dybala, the continued brilliance of Cristiano Ronaldo and the presence of other experienced trophy winners like Giorgio Chiellini and Álvaro Morata.
Dybala can be simply sensational on his day and Ronaldo is still one of the very best in the game, so Pirlo’s side certainly have the firepower.
The Champions League could prove an unwanted distraction, but the last-16 tie with Porto shouldn’t be too difficult an obstacle.
The reigning Primeira Liga champions dropped points again at the weekend and look like handing Sporting a first league title since 2002, so Juventus will be confident of progression in Europe.
Whatever happens, it is likely to come down to the final weeks of the season when Juventus host both Milan and Inter in the last three games. Those two matches could define what is sure to be a fascinating Serie A title race, something we haven’t been able to say too many times in the last decade.