Saturday 14 December 2019

Allegri in lead role as Juve take top billing

With his Napoli counterpart Maurizio Sarri in the background, Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri barks out the orders during Saturday’s showdown Photo: Getty
With his Napoli counterpart Maurizio Sarri in the background, Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri barks out the orders during Saturday’s showdown Photo: Getty

Ian Hawkey

In one technical area, a chap in a weatherproof jacket, tracksuit and trainers, the day's third packet of cigarettes in his pocket, and under official warning there must be no more foul-mouthing of his peers.

In the other, the man who a former employer used to flatter for his "film-star" features, in an elegant suit, crisp white shirt, dark tie and tailored topcoat; the man his friends call Max.

Hazard a guess which of this pair of leading Serie A coaches once had a career, with postings across the financial centres of Europe, at a well-established investment bank.

Appearances can deceive: The ex-banker is Maurizio Sarri, the 57-year-old, chain-smoking, sartorially unconcerned managerial revelation of Italy's top division, where his Napoli side, until late on Saturday, held the summit, yielding it only in the 88th minute of a taut duel.

The new leader is the urbane, dapper Massimiliano 'Max' Allegri, of Juventus and very much on the radar of other clubs with aspirations to climb quickly up leagues they used to survey from the highest perch.

Thanks to his team's 1-0 over Napoli in Turin, Allegri - admired at Chelsea, missed at AC Milan and jealously valued at Juve - turned from the smooth stalker in a riveting title-race into the favourite to pick up his third scudetto as a coach.

While much of Italy now regards Juve as the killjoys of Napoli's stirring, romantic reach for the top, Allegri's achievement in recovering what had been a shambles of a campaign adds, every week, to his cachet.

"We were 12th in the table only three months ago," Allegri reminded anybody who might have missed how steep a gradient Juve have climbed since they lost to Sassuolo at the end of October.

Then, they had 12 points from 10 games. No club has ever finished top from such a low start.

Simone Zaza's spectacular, if lightly deflected, goal two minutes from time, extended Juve's run of successive league victories to 15 and put a bold full-stop to a sequence of eight Napoli wins.

Sarri, who gave up bonds and gilts only after he turned 30, and first worked in Serie A just 18 months ago with Empoli, said: "Anybody who had been watching the first 88 minutes would not have predicted the outcome."

Not much argument there, and no temper, thankfully, from Sarri, who last month was fined for uttering abusive, homophobic insults during a touchline spat with Internazionale coach Roberto Mancini.

The trouble for Napoli, and the other 18 clubs in a Serie A held for the last four seasons by Juventus, is that Juve are experts at gaining points from matches which for 80-odd minutes look tight.

They had the habit under Allegri's, predecessor, Antonio Conte. And, after Allegri was taken on in the summer of 2014, he maintained the robust, determined character of modern Juventus, as well as piercing a glass ceiling in the Champions League.

Allegri guided Juventus to the final, where they lost 2-1 to Barcelona in June. The tougher task was to reshape Juve after senior players like Carlos Tevez, Andrea Pirlo and Arturo Vidal left.

Of Allegri, much would be learned though the transition.

He already had a fame as an astute man-manager, approachable, patient, because of his work with Milan, where Silvio Berlusconi appointed him with some beaming remarks about his photogenic looks and set him the puzzle of fitting together assorted mavericks - Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Antonio Cassano, Robinho and Kevin-Prince Boateng were there and then Mario Balotelli turned up.


Berlusconi waved off Allegri after he had followed up Milan's 2011 scudetto with silver and bronze behind Conte's Juve. Milan have finished eighth and 10th since Allegri's departure.

Plunging down the table with Juve's defending champions last autumn represented an even more startling decline, and Allegri was in charge of it.

His decisions were being questioned. He seemed reluctant to look in the most obvious place for his next Tevez - to give £25m-plus young striker Paulo Dybala a senior role.

The longer view, with Juventus top, is that Dybala, now 22 and the club's leading scorer this season with 13 goals, was being eased in, to be all the more productive once Juve moved from crisis to what may be another coronation.

Ahead of the Napoli game, Allegri talked up the psychological advantage of Juve's experience in closing in on the main prize; Napoli lack that.

His plans to contain Sarri's free-scoring front players, particularly Gonzalo Higuain, had been compromised by injuries to totemic defenders Giorgio Chiellini, and, for most of the second half, Leo Bonucci. Juve still kept a clean sheet.

Zaza then joined a long line of substitutes Allegri has brought on to telling effect. The striker invigorated Juve's attack even before his venomous long-distance shot removed Napoli from first place. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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