The last time Juventus opened a campaign against Sampdoria at Marassi was on September 12, 1982. Giovanni Trapattoni’s side had retained the Scudetto the previous season and over the summer the strongest team in Serie A gave the impression that they’d become even stronger. Six members of Italy’s World Cup winning squad were Juventus players. Five of them had started the final.
Among them was the competition’s top scorer, Paolo Rossi. And as if that wasn’t enough over the course of the tournament owner Gianni Agnelli wrote president Giampiero Boniperti a pair of cheques. They were written out to Saint-Etienne and Widzew Lodz. One was for France’s best player, Michel Platini. The other was for the star of Poland’s run to the semi-finals, Zibi Boniek.
The thinking was that no one could stop this Juventus. They were, as they say in Italy, a corazzata, a dreadnought capable of blowing anyone and anything out of the water. But as Juventus moored up in the port of Genoa that autumn afternoon, they were unexpectedly sunk.
In the 68th minute Sampdoria full-back Mauro Ferroni charged up the field, flashed a shot across Dino Zoff’s goal and found the corner. It was the only goal of the game. Maybe it wouldn’t be plain sailing for Juventus, after all. At the end of the season, Roma were crowned champions.
As you can imagine, there was an understandable feeling of deja vu in the build-up to Saturday’s game. Maybe history would repeat itself. Like Trap’s Juventus, Antonio Conte’s team went into this season not just as 'favoriti', but 'strafavoriti' - overwhelming favourites.
This was the side who were undefeated champions in Serie A the season before last and winners by nine points only a matter of months ago, who had since added the long awaited “top player” Carlos Tevez - not to mention Fernando Llorente and Angelo Ogbonna - to their ranks. Many were left of the opinion that, even though the competition had got stronger in the meantime, the Old Lady had done enough to keep herself way ahead of the rest.
Throughout the summer, Conte has been contemptuous of this view. His reaction to it has been: “As if it were really that simple.” It’s not. And nothing has got his back up more than the insinuation that, time and again, Juventus have spent big under his management.
Argue as much, even in the context of complimenting Juventus as “a terrific club, fabulous” as Bayern Munich coach Pep Guardiola rather innocently did a month ago, and you risk incurring his wrath.
“Guardiola is stuck in his time at Brescia,” Conte sarcastically remarked to La Gazzetta dello Sport. “He’s gone to a club [in Bayern] with not much money, hasn’t he? Since I arrived, the gap between money spent on signings and money received from sales has been contained.”
Conte also hit out at the former Napoli coach Walter Mazzarri, now at Inter.
“In the year of our first Scudetto, eight starting players had come from two seventh place finishes,” he explained, “Arturo Vidal was signed for €9m, Napoli paid €18m for Gökhan Inler… I don’t like hearing nonsense that we spend a lot of money.”
Inevitably - and not for the first time - comparisons with José Mourinho’s combative attitude were made. To an extent, Conte was justified to take issue. So much of Juventus’ business has been done on the cheap. Think of Andrea Pirlo, Paul Pogba and Llorente all arriving for free, Andrea Barzagli for €300,000, and Tevez, like Vidal, for an initial fee of €9m. And Juventus haven’t spent more than €15.5m on a player while he’s been at the club either (Alessandro Matri).
Exclude this summer, though, and Juventus’ net spend over the last three years (€136m) has still exceeded Bayern’s (€116m). Now it must be said, the two clubs were in very different places over that period. Juventus were and still are, in Conte’s words, “playing catch up” with Europe’s big clubs. Bayern, by contrast, have been to three of the last four Champions League finals and won one of them.
To give Conte his due, he is right about this summer. The outlays of Napoli in particular, but also Roma and even austere Inter have surpassed their own. Fiorentina have more or less matched Juventus’ too. But in this context they’re the ones playing catch up, hoping that Béla Guttman’s famous comment that “the third season is fatal” applies to Conte’s Juventus.
Conte is aware of his. He acknowledged in pre-season that after two years of success, there’s the possibility the players won’t be as hungry as they were in the past. Subconsciously they might be self-satisfied or, worse, no longer respond to his methods. The new signings might not have the desired effect either in taking the team to the next level or freshening up an environment that risks going stale.
In summary, no one should take winning a third consecutive Scudetto for granted. Juventus have only done it once in their history and that was back in the `30s when they dominated for five years in a row. It was beyond Conte as a player, despite the great coaches he worked under in Giovanni Trapattoni and Marcello Lippi.
Then there was this rather inauspicious start against Samp.
Over the course of last season, they established a reputation as Juventus’ bogey team. The champions managed to beat every side in Serie A last season apart from one. Any guesses as to who avoided defeat? That’s right, you got it, Samp. They claimed victory over Juventus twice, even coming back from behind with 10 men to win 2-1 in Turin.
So, there were doubts ahead of Saturday’s season opener. Well, yes and no. Conte, as we’ve heard, raised a number of them on his own accord; first to downplay expectation among journalists and second to keep his players on their toes. From a motivational standpoint, confronting these fears head on, making his team aware of them and, as captain Gigi Buffon put it, even “a little afraid of not winning,” seems to have worked a treat.
Juventus’ 4-0 steamrollering of Coppa Italia holders Lazio in the Italian Super Cup a week or so ago left anyone concerned that the players might not have the same desire as in recent years wondering what they’d been worrying about.
Against Samp, the victory was less emphatic but it was a champions’ performance regardless. From start to finish, Juventus controlled the game with laudable assurance. They ended the night in Genova with 69 per cent possession, a stat that wasn’t inflated even by Samp substitute Paolo Castellini’s red card, as that came in the 90th minute. Still, for all their dominance, only one goal was the difference.
It was scored by Carlito Tevez on his Serie A debut. He had been signed precisely with games like these in mind. Samp were, in essence, playing five-at-the-back. They were “closed like a hedgehog,” wrote Luigi Garlando in La Gazzetta dello Sport. Taking such an approach when faced with this Juventus is like “suicide,” he added, or “waiting in the corner of the ring for Mike Tyson at his best.”
And yet, as anyone who’s followed Juventus over the last two years are aware, there have been times when, try as they might and despite creating chance after chance, they just couldn’t land the knock-out blow and drew instead. Not anymore, perhaps.
Just before the hour-mark, Mirko Vucinic played a pass inside from the left to Arturo Vidal. Team-mate Paul Pogba ran past him into the box and, in a split second of hitting and breaking the line of Samp’s defence, he received the ball, which he then played across goal for Tevez to sweep into an empty net.
It was a wonderful team goal, a moment of real quality worthy of winning the match, the assistant and the goalscorer both of course once of Manchester United.
Tevez’s former manager at City, Samp legend Roberto Mancini, happened to be in the stands on Saturday night, as ever a picture of elegance with a pullover draped around his shoulders. When told of his presence, Tevez looked surprised. “I didn’t know he was here. But I’m happy. We left on good terms.”
One person who was very happy with him was Conte. “Tevez is commendable,” he said. “He’s a champion from all points of view, I’d heard many things about this player,” he said, “but I’ve found he’s a true champion.”
His work-rate when Juve didn’t have the ball, the pressing and closing down opponents, had Conte enthralled. “He’s possessed.” That particular aspect of the Apache’s game was why many thought he’d be perfect for Juventus’ style of play.
Wearing Michel Platini and Alessandro Del Piero’s number 10 shirt, Tevez now has two in two competitive games for his new club. Of Juventus’ great forwards, only Roberto Baggio, who got eight goals in his first nine games for the club, managed the same feat.
For someone who spent much of his time on strike at City on the fairways of Argentina, the chance to spend a rest day playing golf with Ryder Cup winner and Juventus fan Edoardo Molinari, was right up Carlito’s way. It was a fine reward for Tevez. And after Saturday’s performance, he’d earned it.