MILAN, May 6 (Reuters) - A small stadium, a dearth of big-name signings and a coach who had only four unhappy months’ experience of leading a top-flight team meant that few had high hopes for Juventus when the Serie A season started.
Thirty-seven unbeaten matches later, the scepticism has turned to admiration as Juventus celebrate their first scudetto since the Calciopoli match-fixing scandal which cost them the 2005 and 2006 titles.
The Juventus model is now being touted as they way forward for Italian football after a season which featured the usual mix of the good, the bad and the downright bizarre.
Having finished seventh in the previous two campaigns, Juventus decided to bank on their former player Antonio Conte as coach, a move which, despite his intense loyalty to the club, was not without risk.
Conte successfully brought Siena out of Serie B last season but his only previous stint as a coach in Serie A had been early in the 2009-10 season when a miserable four months with Atlanta ended with furious fan protests against his leadership.
There was also plenty to ponder in the signings, led by playmaker Andrea Pirlo, who arrived for what appeared to be a swansong after 10 seasons with AC Milan.
Montenegro forward Mirko Vucinic was lured from AS Roma for 15 million euros and Chile midfielder Arturo Vidal from Bayer Leverkusen, but it seemed a modest catch for a club which had wanted to lure either Sergio Aguero or Giuseppe Rossi.
But Conte quickly moulded his team into a formidable attacking unit.
Pirlo thrived as a deep-lying playmaker, stationed just in front of the defence, with Claudio Marchisio, another creative midfielder, and Vidal, who combines hard running with a fierce shot and incisive passing, just in front of him.
With Stephan Lichtenstein and Paolo De Ceglie charging up the flanks, Juventus had a wealth of attacking options, even if wayward finishing and a tendency to give away soft goals at home occasionally undid their good work.
Any fears that Pirlo was past his elegant best quickly proved unfounded while Vidal, who had preferred Juventus over Bayern Munich, proved to be an outstanding purchase.
The season also witnessed the resurgence of Gianluigi Buffon as a world-class goalkeeper while 37-year-old Alessandro Del Piero was used sparingly but to great effect as he scored crucial goals against Inter Milan and Lazio.
Del Piero was widely praised for accepting his role on the substitutes’ bench without kicking up a storm.
“Alex is a great champion and always will be,” said defender Giorgio Chiellini.
Perhaps the key factor in the campaign was the new Juventus Arena, built on the sight of the deeply unpopular and perennially half-empty Stadio delle Alpi.
The only Serie A club to own their own home, Juventus decided to break with the traditional Italian model of huge, municipally-owned stadiums which were often half-empty and decided instead to limit capacity to 41,000.
It paid off despite problems in finding a sponsor which means that the arena is still known simply as the Juventus stadium.
Juventus played to a near full house for every home game and, with the crowd only 7.5 metres from the pitch, created by far the most passionate and intimidating atmosphere in the league.
“The way our new stadium charges you up is insane, playing in it is fantastic,” said Conte.
“I couldn’t guess how many extra points the ground will be worth for us this season,” Marchisio said.
“But what I can definitely say is the feeling you get when you hear the fans constantly encourage. Seeing their faces close up gives you renewed energy and helps you go the extra mile.”
(Writing by Brian Homewood in Berne; Editing by Ed Osmond)