MILAN (Reuters) - Juventus’ seventh successive Serie A title was not as emphatic as some of their previous campaigns and it took a mixture of luck, cunning and sheer bloody-mindedness to see them through as they were pushed all the way by a gallant Napoli.
There was plenty of suffering along the way but they always seemed to muddle through — whether it was with a contentious penalty at bottom club Benevento, a stoppage-time winner at Lazio or two goals in the last five minutes to beat Inter Milan.
“We know how to suffer. We made life more complicated for ourselves and then we managed to turn it around,” said defender Andrea Barzagli after Juve’s 3-1 win at home to Bologna last week.
The first key moment in Juve’s season came after a 3-2 defeat at Sampdoria in November when coach Massimiliano Allegri changed the 4-2-3-1 formation for a 4-3-3 to strengthen his side defensively.
Blaise Matuidi, signed during the close season from Paris St Germain and used irregularly up to that point, was given a key role in plugging the holes which left the team looking unusually vulnerable.
The Frenchman’s combination of expert tackling, commitment, boundless energy and tactical awareness transformed the team as they won 14 and drew two of their next 16 league games, conceding one goal in the process.
That run included a defensive masterclass in a 1-0 win at Napoli and the smash-and-grab-raid at Lazio where Paulo Dybala snatched a stoppage-time winner.
Hours later, Napoli, who had won their last 10 games, lost 4-2 at AS Roma and Juventus were top where they have remained for the rest of the season.
But Juve also enjoyed plenty of lucky breaks, such as a Fiorentina penalty controversially revoked by VAR with Jordan Veretout waiting to take the kick or the even more contentious penalty in their favour at Benevento
With the score at 2-2, Gonzalo Higuain’s legs crumpled without any clear contact being made, yet the referee awarded a penalty which was converted by Paulo Dybala. Juve went on to win 4-2.
All this time, Napoli — widely regarded as the more eye-catching of the two rivals — managed to keep pace and, three weeks ago, re-ignited the title race with a last-gasp 1-0 win away to Juve.
But in the end, it was Napoli who cracked as Juve pulled through with that familiar combination of determination and good fortune.
Trailing 2-1 to an Inter Milan side reduced to 10 men after 15 minutes, the footballing gods smiled on Juve when midfielder Miralem Pjanic, already booked, escaped a second caution for a flying bodycheck.
Inter missed chances to add a third, then coach Luciano Spalletti bafflingly pulled off their captain and topscorer Mauro Icardi.
There was an air of inevitability over what was to happen next as Juve scored twice in the last five minutes to win 3-2. The following day, Napoli self-destructed in a 3-0 defeat at Fiorentina, leaving their hopes in tatters.
Allegri seems to have grown somewhat weary of the plaudits heaped on Napoli and the criticism aimed at his side.
“If we win the title, it will have been an extraordinary season for Juventus. We should enjoy our achievements,” he said earlier this week.
“People point out our defects and that can only help the team to improve. If all we got was compliments, we’d never see what could be done better.”
“Napoli have still had an excellent season and they are very enjoyable to watch,” he added.
“They’ve improved, as they won several games that they wouldn’t have won last year. They just happened to be up against a Juventus side that achieved remarkable results.”
Writing by Brian Homewood in Bern; Editing by Toby Davis