Juventus confirms return to top with 2nd title
MILAN (AP) -Juventus confirmed its return to the top of Italian football with its second successive scudetto on Sunday.
While Juventus impressed last campaign under new manager Antonio Conte - storming unbeaten to its first title since the 2006 match-fixing scandal and relegation to Serie B - this season it has continued to go from strength to strength.
Conte and his united team have often referred to last year's achievements as a "miracle''. However, this season Juventus has dominated from the start, sealing the title with three matches remaining, and is firmly on course to better last season's number of points and goals.
"It has been a tough year, a tiring one and we've been top of the table from the first round,'' Conte said. "That is a rare but wonderful achievement.
"In two years we went above and beyond expectations, which is thanks to everyone, from President Andrea Agnelli to director Beppe Marotta and the team. I trust my players and often ask them for their opinions.''
Although Juventus' way to the title has been undoubtedly smoothed by Napoli's inconsistency and AC Milan's squad changes, it is nevertheless an impressive achievement and a far cry from where the team was before Conte's arrival in the summer of 2011, with Juventus having finished seventh in the two previous seasons.
"When I arrived many predicted we'd qualify for the Europa League by this stage,'' Conte said. "Everything that has happened in these two years is down to the planning done by me and the club. We left absolutely nothing to chance.''
Juventus started this season in the same vein it had ended the last campaign and a streak of nine victories was interrupted only by a draw at Fiorentina.
What made the start even more impressive was that it was achieved without Conte in the dugout as the manager served a four-month ban for failing to report match-fixing when he coached Siena two seasons ago.
Juventus saw its unbeaten record stopped at 49 games, with a surprise 3-1 defeat at home to Inter Milan but bounced straight back with a 6-1 humiliation of Pescara.
Although it lost 1-0 to AC Milan after a controversial penalty, Juventus ended the year eight points clear at the top of the table.
Juventus had a blip in January, as it won just one of four games, but still maintained a healthy lead of six points as its closest challengers failed to take advantage.
Since then it has lost just one game - at Roma - and drawn another - at Napoli. Juventus has won its other 11, including Sunday's 1-0 win over Palermo.
What makes Juve's achievement all the more impressive is that it has kept up its form domestically at the same time as dealing with the demands of the Champions League.
It was Juventus' first time in the Champions League for three years. In 2009-10 it failed to get out of the group stage and there were fears the club was still not ready to join Europe's elite when it swiftly went 2-0 down to Chelsea in the first half of its first match this campaign.
However, Juventus stormed back to secure a 2-2 draw. Moreover, it beat European champion Chelsea 3-0 in Turin on its way to topping the group.
Juve's Champions League dreams were painfully ended with a 4-0 aggregate defeat by Bayern Munich in the quarterfinals.
Bayern proved itself to be an even better side than perhaps thought when it went on to reach its second successive final with a 7-0 aggregate win over Barcelona.
Juventus playmaker Andrea Pirlo - who won the competition with AC Milan - believes next year could be the Italian side's time.
"Europe was a dream this season and a novelty for many of the Juve players,'' Pirlo said. "We did pretty well and can be satisfied. It is a dream to win the Champions League with Juventus, hopefully even from next season.
"This year's title is the scudetto of consistency, as the squad did something extraordinary last year and it is never easy to confirm yourself at that level.''
Juventus' chances of taking that extra step depends very much on who it signs in the offseason. Athletic Bilbao striker Fernando Llorente will join on a free transfer after a pre-contract agreement in January and will add much-needed firepower up front.
This season Juventus has again lacked a world-class striker, with many of its goals coming from midfielder Arturo Vidal.
The continued development of Paul Pogba will also have an effect. The 20-year-old player has been a revelation since moving from Manchester United last year.
What is likely to affect Juve's chances even more, however, is whether Conte decides to remain.
The Juve coach has hinted he may leave.
"At the end of every season it's right to sit down and confront our viewpoints,'' Conte said. "We will evaluate every situation to understand what we can do out of respect for the fans, the club, the players and for me.
"Conte the man wants to stay 100 per cent at Juventus. Then there is Conte the professional who, out of respect for the fans, the club and himself, has to get a clear idea of the whole situation. The professional needs to look at himself and understand, seeing as we have come from two extraordinary years, how to keep raising that bar.''
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