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The emergence of the Juventus juggernaut

Reliving the unexpected season that started it all.

Juventus FC v Parma FC - Serie A Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images

It’s hard to think of Juventus as an underdog these days.

Maybe in European competition they’re still in that 1A category that isn’t quite favored over all comers, but when it comes to domestic competition, it’s unusual to think of Juve as anything other than prohibitive favorites. They’ve got the most money, they’ve got the deepest and most talented roster, they have the most modern stadium. Regardless of how many times Gab Marcotti tries to pick someone else on ESPNFC at the beginning of every season, by season’s end the result has seemed almost inevitable — at least for the past eight seasons.

Of course, it wasn’t always this way.

The devout Juventino or Juventina remembers just how bad things looked not all that long ago, when Juve were trying to rise from the ashes of calciopoli. Immediate promotions and Champions League qualifications papered over just how much damage that scandal — combined with the financial issues all of Italy’s teams suffered in the global financial collapse of 2008 — truly dealt to the club. A string of bad decisions by club management didn’t help matters. We know now that the road to recovery had begun in 2010, when Andrea Agnelli replaced Jean-Claude Blanc as president and Giuseppe Marotta was brought in as sporting director. But at the time it sure didn’t seem like it. the 2010-11 season under manager Luigi Delneri was terrible. Juve was knocked out of the Europa League in the group stage and collapsed in the second half of the season, finishing seventh for the second consecutive year, this time out of Europe entirely.

It was rock bottom. With Massimiliano Allegri’s Milan reigning over calcio, the rise of new forces in the league like Napoli, and even the likes of Udinese touching the upper reaches of the table, very few people foresaw what would happen in 2011-12. For Underdog Week here at SB Nation, we’ll look back on that unlikely campaign — the last time Juve were truly an underdog in Italian football.

Delneri was fired promptly after the 2010-11 season was over, and the search to replace him quickly focused on Antonio Conte. At the time, it was easy to dismiss or even ridicule the hire. Conte was certainly a fan favorite, and could bring a sense of Juventinita that few could provide, but in 2011 most analysts thought that all he’d bring. He’d led two clubs to promotion to Serie A, but had flopped in his only stint in the top flight with Atalanta, clashing with fans and earning a sack after only four months on the job.

He was inheriting a team that had some glaring holes. The right back position was a bottomless pit, and left-back wasn’t much better. Leonardo Bonucci, a marquee signing for the defense the year before, had endured a terrible season debut season and had become a scapegoat for the team’s overall failure. Alessandro Del Piero was beginning to show his age, having scored only 11 times in all competitions the year before. The club had exercised their right to buy Alessandro Matri, who had scored 20 goals between Cagliari and Juve the year before, and Mirko Vucinic had come over from Roma, but Fabio Quagliarella was still recovering from a torn ACL, leaving no clear go-to goalscorer. Beyond Claudio Marchisio, it was anyone’s guess who would play in midfield.

Fortunately, Conte was about to get some help.

The legend of Beppe Marotta as an executive is properly traced to the winter window in 2011, when he plucked Andrea Barzagli from Wolfsburg for €300,000. But the summer window was when it truly manifested itself. Three moves in particular contributed to the team’s eventual success. The first was Stephan Lichtsteiner, brought at a cost of €10 million from Lazio. He took over at right back, pushing the evil Marco Motta out of the starting lineup and solidifying the position overnight. Next, he stole Arturo Vidal out from under the nose of Bayern Munich, spending €10.5 million and giving the team its midfield engine for the next four years.

But the biggest and most remembered signing didn’t cost Juventus a penny.

Andrea Pirlo had been a legend at Milan for 10 years, but hadn’t been as much of a factor in their title win the previous year. Milan’s front office thought his career was over. They didn’t offer him a contract. Marotta moved in and signed him to a three-year deal. He would prove the Rossoneri very wrong indeed, and combined with Marchisio and Vidal would quickly form one of the best midfields in the world.

Beyond players, there was one more new thing that contributed to that unforgettable year.

The Stadio delle Alpi was one of the newest stadiums in Italy. It had been built for World Cup 1990, but it had never been successful. The running track — which ironically was never used for an official athletics competition — made sight lines terrible, and the stadium rarely ever came close to capacity. In 2006 Juventus bought it from the city of Turin, and began preparations to replace it with a modern ground.

The result was what we now know as that Allianz Stadium. It was smaller than its predecessor—indeed, small enough that it will never be a contender to host a Champions League final—but it marked a sea change in Italian stadia. The closest stands were mere feet from the action, the sight lines were excellent, and the total package of the place instantly turned it into one of the biggest home field advantages in the league.

FC Juventus v Notts County - Pre Season Friendly Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images

The new stadium was inaugurated with a friendly against Notts County, the English team who inspired Juve’s iconic black-and-white striped kit. All was ready to start the new season.

Well, almost. The Collective Bargaining Agreement between the league and the players’ union had expired the year before, and a new one hadn’t been agreed to. An agreement was struck on Sept. 3, but with an international break scheduled right after the opening round, it wasn’t until the following weekend that the games began.

Juve started the season on Sept. 11 with the game that was originally second on their schedule — a home match against Parma. Sixteen minutes in, Pirlo carried the ball forward, turned a defender around, and lofted a perfect pass to Lichtsteiner, who had beaten the offside trap and was completely alone in front of the keeper. One touch controlled, and he side-footed it into the net, scoring the first competitive goal in the history of the new stadium. Even in highlights you can hear just how intense the noise was from the crowd.

The game ended 4-1. Pirlo had registered two assists, and by the end both Vidal and Marchisio had scored circus goals. Most striking is the intensity and passion in the team’s play. It’s a hallmark of Conte’s teams now, but even then, in mere months, it had already begun to come out in Juventus. Case in point was Gianluigi Buffon, who could be heard screaming in frustration after Sebastian Giovinco scored a garbage time penalty for Parma’s consolation goal.

Juve won their next game and then notched a pair of draws before welcoming the champions to their new home. Juve had the upper hand for most of the game, and finally got to reap the rewards when Marchisio scored in the 87th minute and again in stoppage time.

The early parts of the season were fun indeed, but there were some hiccups. With the exception of a four-game winning streak in October and November it seemed like Juve couldn’t find a groove, alternating wins with draws for much of the first half of the season. And off the field the fans were dealt a major blow when the team announced that club icon Del Piero would not be re-signed when his contract expired at the end of the year. Del Piero became more and more of a bit player under Conte, deployed as a sub while younger strikers like Vucinic and Matri assumed the starting roles.

Juventus forward Mirko Vucinic (L) celeb ALBERTO LINGRIA/AFP via Getty Images

Despite their inability to string together wins, Juve avoided defeat through the first part of the year and held first place through the Christmas break. They won three of four after play resumed in the new year, culminating with an exciting 2-1 win over Udinese in the snow in Turin.

But then Juve started to struggle. Conte had begun experimenting with the 3-5-2 setup that would eventually become his trademark and give birth to the famed BBC defense, but there were kinks to iron out. From the beginning of February to the middle of March, Juve drew six matches out of seven. That stretch included the infamous “ghost goal” game against Milan. when officials didn’t spot the fact that a shot from Sulley Muntari had crossed the goal line. It would have given Milan, who were then top of the league, a 2-0 lead, but without it Juve eventually snared a second-half equalizer to keep pace. Milan fans have never stopped moaning about it.

The stretch reached its nadir with a drab scoreless draw against Genoa, but Juve were still unbeaten through three quarters of a season. Milan had been in first place for nearly a month at that point, and this was the pre-downfall Milan that still had Thiago Silva leading the defense, Zlatan Ibrahimovic in his prime, and Alessandro Nesta and Clarence Seedorf still making contributions. It excellent year, but most analysts still probably had their money on Milan taking home a second consecutive title.

But then, everything clicked together.

Though Conte had temporarily shelved the 3-5-2 formation as the team endured its rocky patch, he hadn’t given up on it, and on St. Patrick’s Day it had its coming out party. Juve went to Florence and walloped Fiorentina 5-0. That triggered the kind of winning streak the team hadn’t managed all year. The next match was a 2-0 home win at Inter, followed by a 3-0 win over Napoli, whose rise had paralleled Juve’s fall in previous seasons.

The next week, Milan took an early lead over Fiorentina at the San Siro, but Stevan Jovetic tied the game in the second half. The game looked headed for a draw, but in the last minute of normal time, Milan defender Philippe Mexes tried to head a ball back to a teammate without knowing that there was an opponent in the way. The ball fell at the feet of Amauri, the Juventus washout who had been dumped on the Viola in January without ever playing a game for Conte. The Brazilian-born striker played a one-two with Jovetic and beat Christian Abbiati from 10 yards. It would be his only goal of the season, and when Juve went to Palermo and conquered their long-standing bogey team later in the day to take a one-point lead in the standings, Amauri had made the unlikeliest of contributions to Juve’s title run.

The next week, Del Piero wrote one last page to his legend at Juve, coming on as a sub against Lazio — his 700th appearance for the club — and hitting a fantastic free kick to give Juve a late 2-1 lead to preserve their spot at the top. The next week they welcomed Roma to Turin and flattened them 4-0, taking advantage of a Milan draw to extend their lead to three points. The next week, Marco Boriello, who had been brought in from Roma in January to beef up the attacking options, scored with 11 minutes left to secure a 1-0 road win against Cesena and maintain their distance. Boriello got in on the act the next week as well, when Juve rolled to another 4-0 scoreline at Novara.

It was an eight-game winning streak, but Juve very nearly let Milan back into the race the next week when a last minute mis-kick by, of all people, Buffon, gifted Lecce a late equalizer. Milan cut Juve’s lead at the top to one point with two games remaining.

The two teams played simultaneously on May 6. Juventus were set to play Cagliari, but with the Stadio Sant’Elia facing multiple safety issues, the Sardinian club was forced to play the game on neutral ground in Trieste. Milan entered the San Siro as the away team in the year’s second Derby della Madonnina. After everything that had happened the last five years, the idea that an Inter win had the potential to help seal Juve’s first title since calciopoli was the height of irony.

Juve wasted no time, taking a sixth-minute lead through Vucinic. In Milan, Inter struck first through Diego Milito, but Ibrahimovic scored on either side of halftime to keep Milan’s hopes alive. But Milito tied the game with a penalty, then buried a second spot-kick with 10 minutes left after a handball by Nesta. Maicon finished the 4-2 Inter win with a long-range screamer.

By that point, Juve had buttressed their early goal by forcing an own goal by Michele Canini. The final whistle had already sounded in Trieste, and the players waited for word from Milan. When it came, the celebrations followed.

The final game of the season, against Atalanta at the J Stadium, was a full-on party. Wearing their pink alternates, Juve were led out by Alessandro Del Piero for the final time in a Serie A match. The captain didn’t disappoint the fans. Left alone just outside the penalty arc in the 27th minute, he took a pullback from Emanuele Giaccherini and let loose one last bit of magic, bending it across two defenders and unsighting the keeper in the process. An emotional roar came loose from the stands. In the 57th minute, Simone Pepe came up to touchline, and the No. 10 came up on the board. Del Piero walked off the field in front of the home fans for the final time. He bowed to each stand, and shook hands with every player on the field before coming to the sideline. Alex initially took his place on the bench, but after nearly five minutes of sustained cheering was coaxed out of the bench area for a lap around the stadium, collecting scarves thrown to him by emotional supporters as they saw him go by one last time.

Juventus’ forward Alessandro Del Piero ( GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP/GettyImages

Later that day, Del Piero emerged from the locker room one final time, the last player introduced during the trophy ceremony, and held the Serie A trophy over his head one last time.

Juve finally lost their first competitive game under Conte a week later, falling 2-0 to Napoli in the Coppa Italia final. But that game was a relative afterthought after the feat the team had accomplished.

They had become only the third team to go through a Serie A season unbeaten, and the only team that had done so in a 38-game season. More significantly, they had done it with a team that, on paper at least, had had absolutely no business doing so. It wasn’t a Leicester City-level upset — Juve were still Juve — but going into the season most people would have told you that merely making it back into Europe would have been a successful season.

The best way to see just how much more Milan had on paper than Juve going into the year could be seen in the goalscoring numbers. Milan scored six more goals than Juve did that season. Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored 28 Serie A. Juve’s leading scorer was Matri, who clocked in at 10. The next leading scorers were Vucinic and Marchisio. Juve’s lack of punch from the front proved to be a problem until 2013, when Carlos Tevez arrived from Manchester City.

Two things tipped the scales. The first was a superlative defense, which allowed only 20 goals in league play and 21 clean sheets. The other was Andrea Pirlo. Far from the spent force Milan thought he was, he had one of the best seasons of his entire career. He led the league with 13 assists and inspired the midfield to some dominant performances late in the year. He undoubtedly made Marchisio a better player.

As the 2012-13 season dawned, the big question would be whether or not Juventus could keep up their form. Juve came out of the gates with nine wins and a draw before Inter became the first team to beat them at the new stadium at the beginning of November. By that point, the underdog label was, for domestic competition at least, shelved for good.