Wednesday 25 April 2018

James Lawton: Allegri disregards lessons of history as Juve seek to restore old lustre

'Allegri, quirky but passionate, was sure-footed operating on the foundations he found.' Photo: Reuters
'Allegri, quirky but passionate, was sure-footed operating on the foundations he found.' Photo: Reuters
James Lawton

James Lawton

If it should happen that the 'Old Lady' of Juventus sings in Cardiff tonight, do not mistake it for an aria celebrating a great new age of Italian football. It will be more a hymn of thanks that one of the most formidable cultures in world football is still in touch with at least some of the best of its past.

But then it will be no less heartfelt for that. Ever since Jose Mourinho's Inter Milan became the nation's last champions of Europe seven years ago - without a single Italian in the starting line-up - the fear grew that the Italians had lost the art of playing winning football.

Juve plainly have the potential to repair some of that grievous damage to national morale when they seek to prevent Cristiano Ronaldo's Real Madrid from becoming the first team to successfully defend the Champions League title.

If they pull it off, with an ageing but so brilliantly chiselled defence it might have been mined in the days of the great Paolo Maldini and Franco Baresi, the cry of communal joy will reach down from Juve's citadel in Turin to the southern tip of Sicily without the merest nod to tribal loyalties. It will declare, "Possiamo Ancora Farlo! - We can still do it!"

It would mean they can still play the football which makes them, with Germany, second only to Brazil in the winning of World Cups - and to Spain in the matter of European club titles. It would mean they can still hold up their heads in the highest company.

That ambition had declined perilously before being revived largely by the superb work of 49-year-old Massimiliano Allegri in carrying Juventus to their second Champions League final in three years. While his brilliant predecessor Antonio Conte went off to fire some life into a national team painfully short of old talent levels - and then win the Premier League at his first attempt - Allegri (above), quirky but passionate, was sure-footed operating on the foundations he found.

Between them Allegri and Conte could hardly have done more to underpin an impression created by the successful years of three-time Champions League winner Carlo Ancelotti and dear, eccentric Claudio Ranieri's improbable swoop on the Premier League title. It is the idea that despite the plainly visible decline of Serie A football, the dilapidation of many stadiums and the disillusionment of such big-time patrons as former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and the fabulously wealthy Massimo Moratti, Italy is still in possession of some of the finest football minds.

Certainly, it is hard to conceive of a more formidable brains trust than one that might be formed now by Conte, Allegri and an Ancelotti who many feel may well have been taking his Bayern side to Cardiff to oppose Juventus but for some outrageous refereeing in the quarter-final against Real.

As it is Juve, with their native son defence containing such titans as Leonardo Bonucci, arguably the best defender of his day, Giorgio Chiellini and national hero, 39-year-old goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, and the scoring brilliance of Argentina's Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain, are clearly capable of restoring some of the old lustre to the Serie A brand.

This suffered heavy damage among proud Italians when Berlusconi, for whom AC Milan were not so much an investment as an ego-massaging plaything, and Moratti gave up the fight, allowing the Milan clubs to pass into Chinese ownership. When Moratti sold Inter, he said the club had become less a joy and more a millstone, one that had cost him the upside of a billion euros.

Italian football aficionados feared that their beloved 'calcio' had become a marketing tool for a tiger economy rather than the heartbeat of daily life. All this, though, is on hold in the countdown to Juventus's challenge to Real. One toast is to the Fiat family Agnelli, who have maintained support for the "Old Lady," saying she is more than a football club but a way of life.

History is not much of an encouragement tonight. Juve having lost six of their previous eight finals. Their first win was over Liverpool in 1985, when the glory was lost irretrievably in the deaths of their supporters in the crowd trouble in the Brussels stadium. Eleven years later, they beat Ajax in Rome but much less gloriously than they had hoped, winning on penalties.

Allegri, predictably, discounts the weight of precedent, saying, "Football is not about history it is about the moment, the day, how you take hold of it and make it for yourselves. If you want to talk about history, well, why not say there is only one final every year and we have been to eight of them, two in the last three years. I believe in my team, they are very strong in their mentality."

In 2011, Allegri won the Serie A scudetto for Milan. That didn't make him any more popular when he arrived at Juventus three years ago after Conte, disappointed by his transfer budget after three title wins, bolted for the national job.

But that was before Allegri stole Dybala, who so devastated Barcelona in the quarter-finals, from Palermo for €32m and made the point so forcibly that news of the death of Italian football might just have been a little premature.

Irish Independent

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport