July 20, 2011

What a difference a year makes. Midfielder Felipe Melo looks set to be heading for the exit at Juventus after being left out of the Italian club's 27-man traveling party heading to the U.S. this week, and fans are aghast at the increasing likelihood of his departure. Speaking on Tuesday from the club's training ground -- where he worked alongside a number of other outcasts such as Momo Sissoko and Fabio Grosso -- Melo told Brazilian reporters:

"I've received an offer from Europe that will vastly improve my salary. We're finalizing the details and over the next few days everything ought to be completed. I was not cut from the Juventus squad. Quite simply, in agreement with the directors, we decided it was inconvenient that I should only play in Serie A, considering my salary and a contract that runs to 2014."

He also dismissed rumors of a return to his homeland, admitting a move to São Paulo collapsed but with Galatasary, PSG and Borussia Dortmund all circling, Juventus supporters struggle to see the logic behind selling a man who was arguably Juve's best player last season. Ironically, most of those same fans would have chosen Melo as one of the first players they wanted to see leave the club last summer.

Melo's play in 2009-10 was simply woeful. He became increasingly erratic and his poor disciplinary record grew with yellow and red cards amassed at an alarming rate. The whole situation was compounded by his attitude to the fans, Melo being openly critical of Juventus supporters in the press and insulting them in the stands on two separate occasions.

His unimpressive displays continued during the 2010 World Cup for Brazil where he seemed a lost cause. The quarterfinal against the Netherlands was effectively a microcosm of his entire career. Melo started the game impressively, dominating midfield, showing great vision to release Robinho with an outstanding pass to open the scoring. Then as Brazil was pressured by the Dutch and eventually lost control of the match, Melo crumbled in a fashion which was all too familiar to those who had closely followed his debut season in Turin.

First, Melo showed a complete lack of awareness as he helped Wesley Sneijder's deep cross past his own goalkeeper to cancel Brazil's lead. Then came another complete meltdown as he tangled with Arjen Robben, fouling the Dutch winger before stamping on his leg as he lay on the floor, leading to a red card and the end of Brazil's hopes. Never one to simply make a mistake and walk away, Melo made matters worse when asked about the incident in the postgame interviews, telling stunned reporters:

"Robben kept playing up. If I meant to hurt him, he would have left the pitch. I have enough strength to break his leg."

Brazil fans placed the blame for their exit on Melo and coach Dunga. But while the coach quit and vanished, the Juve man was left as public enemy No 1. Compatriot Ronaldo advised him "not to take a vacation in Brazil" via his Twitter page, and many across the Internet mocked him, some comparing him to cult icon Chuck Norris, others portraying him as a character in the video game Mortal Kombat.

Perhaps only three men held a different view. From the day they arrived at Juventus in May 2010, new president Andrea Agnelli, general manager Beppe Marotta and then-manager Gigi Delneri publicly backed the player on numerous occasions. Melo had cost €25 million ($33M) from Fiorentina just 12 months previously -- when Juve held off competition from Arsenal -- and the new regime were determined to see a return on that significant investment.

The coach in particular made a number of declarations, notably saying that "Melo is a leader, I have no complaints about him. He jokes in the dressing room and he is doing really well." Many scoffed, but most could see the logic behind the move; to restore the player's confidence and make him feel both wanted and important.

This tied in with the comments made by former Brazil coach Dunga who said "He's a lad who needs to be made to understand. It's right to speak to him a lot." Melo clearly is a player who needs to feel loved by those around him. Delneri showed great managerial skill in handling him the right way when most had given up on him, including the Brazilian national team where his "guilt by association" with the Dunga-era sees him still on the outside looking in despite a remarkable return to form.

Following some simply outstanding displays most fans and pundits saw him for what he truly was, a vital piece in allowing Delneri's team to function properly. Again Dunga, a man who knows more than most about Brazilian mediani playing in Serie A, was seemingly proven right again after his comments to La Stampa last winter;

"Melo will be the real great signing of this new Juventus. If he feels confident, he becomes super. Last year it wasn't like this: You saw only 60 percent of his potential."

Behind this transformation were some simple adjustments that saw improvements in many other aspects of his game. Delneri, with a combination of steely resolve and fatherly love, rebuilt Melo into the tough, dominating player he'd been at Fiorentina. However, Delneri has since been sacked, with Antonio Conte arriving this summer to replace him. The Bianconeri idol brings with him his own ideas and style. Conte's a man who never accepted anything but the best as a player and one who knows a thing or two about the players needed in order to create a successful midfield.

Not long after his arrival, whispers of a Melo exit began and the fan reaction was stunned disbelief -- a club struggling like Juventus is simply not in a position to sell its best players. Yet those same supporters are the ones willing to put enormous belief in a largely untested coach and here is the first time that devotion will be put to the test.

As a much-loved former player, Conte is making decisions that would see other coaches being undoubtedly condemned. A year after Delneri was declaring him a leader, Conte is putting Melo up for sale. There has been no public criticism, no argument nor specific problem. The only reason for the decision is a technical choice.

The new coach clearly sees a team playing much as Cesare Prandelli's Italy has in recent matches, with a midfield comfortable in possession and one with no room for an old fashioned destroyer like the Brazilian, hence the heightened interest in Bayer Leverkusen's Arturo Vidal.

Felipe Melo may have proved to be one of the best defensive midfielders in Serie A last season, but now he has a coach with no use for one. What a difference a year makes.

Adam Digby is a Turin-based freelance writer covering Italian soccer. He can also be followed on Twitter at @adz77.

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