The Coppa Italia final, which Juventus won Wednesday after beating Lazio 2-1 after extra-time, was not going to be played this week. It was originally scheduled for June 7; but Juventus could not make that date as the Champions League final, in which it will face Barcelona to be crowned Europe’s best, is on June 6. Even last week, before Juventus knocked European champion Real Madrid out of the tournament in the semifinal, no one thought of changing the date.
Juventus may have won four straight Serie A Scudetti, but its success this season–and this is its first league and domestic cup double in 20 years–has taken many by surprise. The reason dates back to July 15, six weeks before season began, when coach Antonio Conte surprisingly resigned. Just 24 hours later, sports director Beppe Marotta sat next to the new coach at a press conference: it was Max Allegri, the former AC Milan coach who had been in talks to be the national coach of Kazakhstan.
Juventus fans were not happy; they had seen transfer target Juan Iturbe turn down their club to join Roma and new signing Alvaro Morata ruled out for seven weeks with an injury (one knock on Allegri’s Milan was how many players were injured).
In Allegri's first match, Juve lost a friendly to amateur side Lucento, conceding a goal from a corner (again, an Achilles heel of his Milan sides).
#AllegriOut trended on Twitter and the coach’s first job was to insist that he had not fallen out with Andrea Pirlo when they were at Milan together. Pirlo missed the first five matches of the season with an injury.
By then, Allegi was slowly turning things around. Juventus won all five Pirlo-less matches without conceding a goal. Allegri's critics claimed that he was riding the wave of Conte’s fine work; after all, it was the same 3-5-2 system that had worked for the previous three years. In November, Juventus beat Olympiakos 3-2 in the Champions League, playing with a 4-3-1-2 formation for the first time (in the same game, when Olympiakos took the lead, Juventus fans shouted, “Allegri sei un coglione!’, ‘Allegri, you’re an a**hole!’ at the coach). The next match changed everything: on November 9, Juventus stuck with the back four and beat Parma 7-0. Morata scored two late goals, and Allegri’s team was taking shape.
Since then, Juventus has clinched the title with a defense that has conceded 21 goals (so far) and has not lost at home all season. It also won its first Coppa Italia since 1995 (and a record 10th in its history). Under Conte, Juventus only played with three at the back. Allegri has made it more flexible, switching between three and four at the back depending on the game and its state (it was a three-man defense against Lazio Wednesday).
For all the domestic dominance, Conte underachieved in the Champions League, reaching one quarterfinal but failing to get out of the group stage last season. His side, in Europe at least, was too predictable.
“To reduce this gap [in finances between English clubs and Barcelona and Real Madrid], we need to use our ingenuity,” Allegri told The Guardian last month. “We need to go out and find talented young players, we need to have a solid core of Italian players on which to build–as Juventus does–and then we need foreigners who can provide a really high technical quality to the group.”
This is where Marotta comes in. Every great Italian team has had an important sports director: Inter Milan (1960s) had Italo Allodi; Maradona’s Napoli and Lippi’s Juventus had Luciano Moggi; and Berlusconi’s Milan had Adriano Galliani. Marotta may be in that company soon, despite a mixed first summer of recruitment back in the summer of 2010, which included Milos Krasic (flop) and Jorge Martinez (flop) along with Andrea Barzagli (hit) and Leonardo Bonucci (hit).
It was Marotta who went against public opinion and picked Allegri. He was the one who persuaded Pirlo to swap Milan for Juventus; who signed Arturo Vidal, Carlos Tevez and Paul Pogba for a combined €25m; and has young players to call on like Stefano Sturaro and Kingsley Coman while other youngsters out on loan, like Domenco Berardi, Daniele Rugani, and Simone Zaza point to a bright future.
Marotta signed eight of Juventus’s starting XI for just over €70 million, or about the same price as James Rodriguez.
Then there’s Alessandro Matri, who scored the match-winner in the Coppa Italia final. Juventus sold him to AC Milan in 2013, but brought him back on loan in February. His first goal was in the Coppa semifinal against Fiorentina, and he came off the bench Wednesday to score the winner, minutes after a Filip Djordjevic shot had struck both Juve posts and bounced to safety. Taking off his shirt to celebrate was not Matri’s smartest move, but in a stroke, another Marotta deal had paid dividends.
This has already been a momentous campaign for Juventus. Allegri will no doubt play things down and focus on the Barcelona game on June 6. The Spanish champion may just have preferred to play Real Madrid in Berlin. Juventus will be the underdog, but Allegri will like it that way. He has already proved people wrong this season. He’s just another 90 minutes from securing his place in history.