Pitchside Europe

Emblematic Coppa clash could define incredible season

Prior to Juventus claiming their 10th Scudetto on May 4, 1958, the young and precocious Umberto Agnelli, father of the club’s current president Andrea, made the league a proposal. In the event Juventus achieved what at the time was a unique feat in the Italian game then why not award them a gold star in recognition of their accomplishment to be made displayable on their shirts. A vote was held. The league announced itself in favour. And so a tradition began.

Since then two other clubs have earned the right to decorate their stripes with a gold star: Inter in 1966 and Milan in 1979. Juventus received a second in 1982 and laid claim to a disputed third in 2012, though they weren’t allowed to exhibit on their jerseys, as it counted the two titles revoked by the Calciopoli tribunal. Instead Andrea Agnelli blacked out the other two stars and had the phrase: ‘30 on the pitch’ written beneath the club crest.

Should Juventus win the Scudetto this season, which they’re on course to do, then they’ll make it 30 notwithstanding the Calciopoli verdict. Deciding whether to show it or not would make for an interesting debate were they to finish on top again in May. If Juventus did it would mean that, by placing a third star on their shirts now and not 18 months ago, they recognised the Calciopoli verdict, which they don’t under Agnelli. But I digress.

The reason why I bring up the history of the star is that as yet no one has brought the honor on themselves of adorning their shirts with a silver one: the recognition due a club for winning the Coppa Italia 10 times. Two have nine a piece. And they are? Juventus and Roma who meet in the quarter-final at the Olimpico this evening. Around 60,000 fans are expected to attend. It is the match-up that has defined this season in Serie A: first against second, the crown versus the pretender to the throne, Antonio Conte against Rudi Garcia, Andrea Pirlo versus Francesco Totti.

It is worth pausing for a moment to consider what a remarkable season both teams are experiencing. Champions League exit aside, Juventus’ is one for the ages. Top of Serie A by eight points, their total of 55 is the highest any team has ever had at this stage of a campaign, higher even than Fabio Capello’s Juventus in 2005-06 prior, that is, to the revisions made by the Calciopoli tribunal. They have scored 50 goals, a feat no one has managed in the first half of the season since 1961, finding the net three times or more in each of their last six matches.

Since the defeat to Fiorentina in late October, a real turning point in their season, Juventus have been perfect. The 12 league wins in a row broke an 82-year club record. Extend it by another six and they will establish a new one in Serie A, surpassing that established by Inter under Roberto Mancini in 2006-07. To give you a further indication of just how stratospheric Juventus’ season has been, Roma’s own points total of 47 would be enough for them to be alone at the top of the league at this stage in each of the last five seasons. That’s ahead of Mourinho’s Inter in 2009 and 2010, Max Allegri’s Milan in 2011 and Conte’s Juve in 2012 and 2013.

Staggering, isn’t it? It speaks of how extraordinary Roma have been too. Opening the season with a Serie A record 10 straight wins, they faded a little through November as injuries to Francesco Totti and Gervinho deprived them of a sense of invention and unpredictability. Yet their backline, the best across Europe’s top 5 leagues with only 10 goals conceded and 14 clean sheets in 21 games in all competitions, kept them in games they might otherwise have lost. As it turns out Roma have only been beaten once. And by who else but Juventus at the beginning of the New Year.

That game in Turin was a tactical masterclass from Conte. He recognised that Roma are at their most dangerous on the counter-attack. Press them high, leave space in behind and they’ll punish you. So, even though Juventus were at home, he had his team sit back, allow Roma to have possession, soak up the pressure and then use their own weapon, the counter, against them. It worked. Though Juventus had only 41% of the ball and played 174 fewer passes, they had more shots on target [5] and won 3-0. It was arguably their most mature performance under Conte. Surprised by how their opponents played, Roma will now know what to expect.

The interest ahead of tonight’s game lies in whether Juventus adopt the same strategy away from home and if so what counter-measures Garcia has prepared. Without European competition to worry about, it’s anticipated he will be name a full strength side. Roma bounced back well after their defeat in Turin and have rekindled the enthusiasm around the team just when it looked like Juventus might have snuffed out their fire. The signing of Radja Nainggolan followed this week by that of Michel Bastos only add to the impression that Roma are moving on and up.

Conte, by contrast, is expected to rest several members of his starting XI ahead of Saturday evening’s match against Lazio and then the visit of Inter to the Juventus Stadium the following weekend. Going three-in-a-row for the first time in the league since the 1930s is their priority, but the other competitions, the Coppa Italia and the Europa League follow closely behind.

Conte does take the Coppa seriously. Remember he got to the final in his first season only to lose to Napoli. And the competition appears to have a renewed significance at the moment. For Milan, it represents the only path into Europe. For Fiorentina, a chance at silverware for the first time since 2001. For Juventus and Roma, a prestigious silver star, the pursuit of which will come to an end for one tonight and continue for the other.

Garcia claims he isn’t out for revenge for the 3-0 defeat earlier this month, nor does he consider it the most important game of the season. Just “the most important game of the week.” That it most certainly is.

James Horncastle will be blogging for us on all matters Serie A throughout the season. He contributes to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, The Blizzard and Champions magazine amongst others.

Follow @JamesHorncastle