Max Allegri will keep on counting down the points. There are 57 left to play for in Juventus’s Serie A campaign, which reached its halfway point on Sunday with a scoreline seldom associated with a club famed for its gritty resistance or with Allegri as a coach.
It finished 3-3 at home to Atalanta, the lead changing hands three times. It was the second time in as many games that Juve had been involved a six-goal spectacular, this one more gripping for being better contested than the 5-1 defeat to league leaders Napoli.
But in between those two matches, the agenda has been utterly re-set for the "Old Lady" – the club with the most scudetti in Italian history. Juventus went into the home game against Atalanta 15 points worse off than they had been on the Friday morning, thanks to the severe deduction imposed by Italy’s football authorities after an investigation into Juve’s accounting practices.
Found to have falsified figures, and artificially inflated the asset-value of players in past transfers, Juventus have been plunged from third place in the table to 10th at a stroke.
They will appeal against the punishment, but also face more difficulties ahead, with a possible criminal trial of the club and the executives who were in positions of responsibility when the accounts were allegedly being manipulated. Uefa, European football’s governing body, are also reviewing the financial submissions made to them by Juventus to meet their Financial Fair Play standards.
Some Juventus supporters protested against the points deduction by cancelling television subscriptions, a way of targeting the Italian league. Those who made that firm statement of principle, and so missed out on watching a vibrant contest with Atalanta, would learn second-hand that a defiant spirit – as demanded by Allegri and club captain Leo Bonucci – is in evidence.
But there is a nervousness, too. Allegri identified it in his goalkeeper, Wojciech Szczesny, within four minutes of kick off against fifth-placed, in-form Atalanta. The Poland international, who had a largely outstanding World Cup and had kept seven consecutive clean sheets in the league up until the trip to Naples, made a bad error, palming Ademola Lookman’s angled shot into his own net.
“Two days like we have had would have killed any other team,” said Allegri. “It has been surreal for everybody. We made a slow start, the stadium was very quiet. And we have feelings. We are human beings. Szczesny doesn’t tend to make mistakes like that one. It was down to all the tension.”
Manuel Locatelli, the midfielder, added: “Obviously the situation [the points deduction] impacts on us, there’s no point in disguising that. But it also unites us. We simply have to give everything in every game.”
Up in the VIP seats, a new set of board members were watching, the long-serving former president Andrea Agnelli having stepped down in November in anticipation of the investigations. Agnelli now faces, pending appeal, a two-year ban from holding office in Italian football, one of a series of individual sanctions against the club’s former executives.
Those now charged with steering the club through a turbulent 2023 were encouraged by the comeback from 1-0 down, with Angel Di Maria outstanding, and perhaps startled by the apparent transformation of the dogged, often stodgy Juventus who ground out five 1-0 victories in a run of eight wins on the trot between mid-October and mid-January.
The downside is that the brittleness that afflicted Juve in their disastrous Champions League group stage – five defeats and a single win – was there on show against Atalanta. At 2-1 up, they conceded, after carelessness in possession by Danilo. They went 3-2 down when Lookman erased the height advantage Alex Sandro holds over him to leap up and head in his second goal. In the space of barely 50 minutes, Atalanta had scored as many times at the Juventus Stadium as the previous nine visitors in Serie A had managed all season.
The way Allegri looks at it, restoring the home fortress – with defender Bonucci on his way back from injury and midfielder Paul Pogba nearing the moment he can finally make his second Juve debut having arrived with a stubborn injury from Manchester United last summer – is crucial to clawing back the missing 15 points. The gap up to the top four, in which Juve have finished every season since 2011, nine times as champions, now stretches to 14 points.
But for Danilo’s arrowed free-kick, that gap would have stood at the full 15 points Juve have just had confiscated. Allegri, usually understated on the touchline when his team score, celebrated the equaliser wildly. “I try to be detached,” he explained, “but I am human as well.”