■ Uefa Champions League final: Juventus v Real Madrid, Saturday at 10.45 in the UAE
Antonio Conte surveyed the landscape of European football and turned gloomy.
“It will be many, many years before an Italian club can win the Champions League,” he spat out, exasperated at the elimination of his Juventus from the Uefa Champions League at the last-eight stage.
Conte, who has just added a Premier League title with Chelsea to the three Italian leagues he won as manager of Juventus, said that four years ago, when he found the Champions League exasperating, felt his domestically dominant Juve were trapped beneath a glass ceiling, outsiders in the wealthy company of Bayern Munich, the Madrid clubs, Barcelona, the big-budget English clubs and Paris Saint-Germain.
On the spring night in 2013 when he made his grey forecast about the irrelevance of Serie A, he even compared 21st century Juventus to Ajax Amsterdam: Both had been in European Cup finals in the 1990s but were now stragglers.
Conte, for all his brilliance, is obliged now to acknowledge that this season’s Juventus, managed by his successor Max Allegri, have made a far bigger dent in that glass ceiling than he predicted.
On Saturday, Allegri will be on the touchline for his second Champions League final in three years, against Real Madrid. He talks of “a feeling of negativity when I arrived at Juventus.” Although Conte had won three Serie A crowns, Juve had dropped out of the Champions League at the group phase in 2013-14.
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Allegri’s Juve lost to Barcelona two years ago in the final in Berlin. They are significantly altered in terms of staff since. Five of the front six — Andrea Pirlo, Arturo Vidal, Paul Pogba, Carlos Tevez and Alvaro Morata — from the 3-1 loss to Barca have left the club, as has Patrice Evra.
By comparison, Real Madrid will line up with a similar look to the Real XI that finished the victorious 2014 final, with only Iker Casillas, Angel di Maria and Juve’s Sami Khedira no longer with the Spanish champions from that night.
Allegri’s renovated Juve have more obvious flair to it than the Berlin edition. There’s the dash of Dani Alves at right back, the zip of Alex Sandro at left back and the artistry of Paulo Dybala and Miralem Pjanic in attack and in midfield.
“Positive thinking breeds positive thinking,” Allegri said.
His Juventus are proactive, and they set about the later stages of this campaign with gusto, racing to a 3-0 first-leg lead against Barcelona in the quarter-final, a margin they preserved through the visit to Camp Nou. They were 4-0 up on aggregate in their semi-final against a free-scoring Monaco before conceding the only goal anybody has scored against Juve in their last eight-and-half-hours of European football.
Allegri is generally considered a more measured, less combative sort than Conte. He has still taken hard-headed decisions, and, like Conte at Chelsea, been tactically flexible and found new roles for players.
For instance, Pjanic’s deployment in a deeper midfield role than he had occupied at Roma, from whom Juve recruited the Bosnian last summer, or the use of Mario Mandzukic, a forward with obvious target-man qualities, as a left-sided attacker.
The coach has been patient, too. Dybala joined Juventus for a substantial fee, aged 21, in the summer of 2015 and became frustrated at starting on the bench. Allegri had wanted to ease him in. The process helped the Argentinian mature and his partnership with Gonzalo Higuain, signed for close to €90m from Napoli, has blossomed over the last nine months.
Saturday is a big night for Higuain, formerly of Real Madrid and a striker who has shattered a few glass ceilings of his own, from the one that pushed him behind Karim Benzema in Madrid’s hierarchy to the idea that his flow of goals tends to dry up in the later stages of European competitions.
Higuain struck twice in the away leg of the semi-final against Monaco.
“Since Berlin, we have all grown in confidence,” Allegri said.
The manager concedes the tag of favourites to Madrid. But that will not be a message he focuses on in his pre-match team-talk.
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