MILAN (Reuters) - After years of watching teams from other countries battle through the closing stages of the Champions League, Serie A can once again claim a place at Europe’s top table thanks to Juventus.
The Turin side’s 3-0 destruction of a waning Barcelona on Tuesday - where everyone shone, from 39-year-old goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon to precocious forward Paulo Dybala - showed they are as good as anything on offer in this season’s competition.
The victory left Juventus as firm favourites to advance to the semi-finals, unless Barcelona can pull off a repeat of their previous round’s comeback against Paris St Germain when they lost the first leg 4-0 but won the second 6-1.
After Inter Milan won the Champions League in 2010, Italy endured four successive seasons without managing to get a team beyond the quarter-finals - a far cry from the days when its clubs routinely dominated European competition.
With clubs unable to compete with the television revenue of their English counterparts, stadiums falling into disrepair and attendances slumping, Serie A fell into a downward spiral.
Juventus, who themselves spent a season in Serie B after being relegated in the wake of a match-fixing scandal, were quickest to react.
They demolished the over-sized, windswept Stadio Delle Alpi and replaced it with the compact, atmospheric Juventus stadium, becoming in the process the first Serie A club to own their own arena.
Its opening heralded a new era of domestic dominance with Juventus winning five successive Serie A titles from 2011/2012 onwards. Even so, they still seemed to be a long way from Europe’s elite.
After being comprehensively outplayed by Bayern Munich in their 2012/13 quarter-final, then-coach Antonio Conte warned that it would be a very long time before a Serie A club won the Champions League.
“Here in Italy, we have to work with what we have got and we need to have the humility to realise that things are not the same as they were in the past,” he said at the time. “But we are only interested in ... futile things, about gossip and creating controversies with referees.”
Conte left in 2014, having achieved domestic dominance, and was replaced by Massimiliano Allegri, who saw Europe as the one area he could outdo his predecessor.
Allegri replaced Conte’s hell-for-leather approach with a more controlled style that worked well in Europe, and in his first season led Juventus to the Champions League final, beating Real Madrid on the way.
Although they were ultimately outclassed by Barcelona 3-1 in Berlin, Juventus have continued building since.
They snapped up Gonzalo Higuain, Serie A’s most prolific marksman, when he fell out with Napoli at the end of last season, placing him alongside Dybala, 23, the most exciting player to come out of Argentina since Lionel Messi.
Another key signing was Bosnian midfielder Miralem Pjanic, whose ability to play long passes over opposing defences has given Juventus a new dimension.
“We’re still in the process of growing,” Allegri said after Tuesday’s memorable win.
”We’ve made important steps forward over the last few years. Juventus have respect for Europe and, above all, are respected in Europe. That is the greatest result of my three years here.”
Writing by Brian Homewood; editing by Mark Heinrich