With time running out in the Turin derby on October 31, Paul Pogba picked out Alex Sandro and the Brazilian in turn fired the ball low across the face of goal. Juan Cuadrado bundled the ball home, not only to seal all three points for Juventus, but to also provide the turning point in the 2015-16 Serie A season. Max Allegri’s men never looked back from that 2-1 victory over their city rivals, embarking on a record-breaking run that saw them take an astonishing 76 from the next 78 points.
Merely glancing at the current Serie A table indicates business as usual, with the Bianconeri eventually crowned champions courtesy of a twelve point lead over second place Napoli. They may have won the last five consecutive Serie A titles, but this season has unfolded in an entirely different way to the previous four campaigns.
A 1-0 defeat to Sassuolo in the round before that Halloween clash meant that Juve had taken just 15 points from their first 11 games, the Old Lady having already suffered defeats to Udinese, Roma and Napoli along with draws against Chievo Verona and newly promoted Frosinone. By this time, fourth-placed Napoli had seven more points than the reigning Champions, and the Partenopei would continue to improve under new coach Maurizio Sarri.
It wasn’t until a crucial game at Juventus stadium on February 13 that the Bianconeri would deliver a hammer blow to Napoli’s title hopes. An 88th minute Simone Zaza goal and a crucial Leonardo Bonucci interception on Gonzalo Higuaín was enough to take all three points and move into first position by one point, a lead which they would never relinquish.
“I hope it’s a decisive goal as far as the title race is concerned,” said goalscorer Zaza after that match. “The good thing is it’s now in our hands.” After such a poor start to the campaign, Juventus should’ve never been allowed into the race as, despite Napoli, Internazionale, Fiorentina and AS Roma all enjoying spells at the top of the league, none could sustain their form long enough to preserve their advantage over Juventus.
Napoli – with help from their 32-goal Capocannoniere Higuaín – have mounted the most credible challenge this season, only to collapse after that loss to the eventual champions. Indeed, the Partenopei arrived at Juventus Stadium having lost just twice in their previous 30 matches in all competitions. They would subsequently fail to win in any of their next four outings, handing the Bianconeri an insurmountable advantage, whilst also crashing out of Europe.
Unlike many of Serie A’s established powers, Napoli are a remarkably well-run club, turning a profit in each of the last eight seasons and adhering to the sound financial planning of owner Aurelio De Laurentiis. What they appear to lack is the mental resolve displayed by Juventus – something found in all title-winning teams but clearly absent in Sarri and his players, ultimately hindering this clearly talented squad.
With one round left to play, Napoli could still yet lose out on second. Roma, unbeaten since a 1-0 defeat to Juventus on January 24, have seen an upturn in fortunes thanks to new boss Luciano Spalletti, who took over from Rudi Garcia on January 13. Successfully smoothing over a rift with captain Francesco Totti, the coach has brought the best from the veteran who has scored four goals and provided one assist in his last five substitute appearances. “You have to buy the best players,” Spalletti replied when asked about bridging the gap to Juventus. “The squad definitely did a great job, but we have to calmly look at what needs to be improved at the end of the season.”
While Roma and Napoli – who have just four Scudetti between them and no title since Roma’s in 2001 – have improved, the two Milan-based clubs have lagged behind. Both have captured not only domestic but continental trophies in the past decade, yet a failure to modernise leaves these former giants floundering.
Hopes were high for AC Milan after they spent a total of €106.25 million to bring in Sevilla forward Carlos Bacca, along with Alessio Romagnoli and Andrea Bertolacci from Roma. Any optimism in their hopes of improvement proved to be unfounded, however, with their hopes of even securing a Europa League place fading quickly.
After a run of six games without a win, Milan sacked coach Siniša Mihajlović and replaced him with former player Cristian Brocchi, who had previously been in charge of the youth team. The Serbian was the first outsider appointed by the club since Allegri was fired in 2014. Brocchi’s promotion to the first-team job followed the same worn-out approach that has already seen Clarence Seedorf and Pippo Inzaghi unsurprisingly fail to make an impact on the bench.
With defeat to already relegated Hellas Verona and a rescued point after conceding 3 goals at home to Frosinone, it is unlikely that the new boss will stay beyond the summer. But the problem for clubs like Milan lies deeper than current results. Since Juventus opened their new stadium in 2011, the Bianconeri have achieved record financial growth, with this report from Deloitte showing that revenues have risen from €154 million in 2011 to €324 million in 2015. The last year saw a 25% increase in matchday revenue, as their new arena – fully owned by the club – aids their continued improvement on the field.
The outdated San Siro brings in less than half of the matchday revenue of the Juventus Stadium, but after plans to build a new home were inexplicably scrapped by club president Silvio Berlusconi in September 2015, it now seems unlikely that this situation will change in the near future. That appears to leave them locked in this endless cycle, hoping former players can suddenly become the next Arrigo Sacchi and lead an incoherent squad to a top-three finish, a dream of a Champions League return that looks increasingly unlikely with each passing season.
Inter have not fared much better. As Juventus have risen, the Nerazzurri have simultaneously fallen, unable to qualify for the Champions League since their second-place finish in 2011-12. An early run of last-minute goals produced good results – and even saw the club sitting briefly atop the table – but once again, Roberto Mancini’s side will not play top-level European football.
Sharing the same outdated stadium facilities as Milan, a lack of matchday revenue is most certainly a contributory factor but – despite foreign investment from an Indonesian consortium in 2013 – Inter remain in a catch-22 situation. They are unable to raise the necessary funds to regularly compete in the Champions League, a fact undoubtedly due to the lack of revenue and sponsorship opportunities generated by qualifying for that very same competition.
Roma is likely to provide the most credible threat to Juventus next year, but there are other Italian clubs who have been quietly making progress. Sixth-placed Sassuolo have leapfrogged Milan in the table and may well see European football next term. Unlikely as it may seem, their model, although small in scale, is better set-up to achieve success than the Milanese clubs. After playing top-flight football for the first time ever in 2013-14, Sassuolo have continued to improve and their Mapei stadium is one of only four on the peninsula that is fully owned by the club.
That allows the Neroverdi to reap huge financial benefits and move towards sustainability, able to refuse bids for young stars such as Domenico Berardi and Nicola Sansone. Under promising young coach Eusebio Di Francesco, the team from Reggio Emilia finished 17th and 12th in their first two seasons, making this campaign their most successful ever. The squad looks likely to clinch a Europa League berth (assuming Milan don’t beat Juventus in the Coppa Italia final) as they continue to force their way into the upper echelon of Serie A.
Slowly emerging from the shadow of nearby rivals Fiorentina, Empoli have also overachieved during the current campaign, despite the loss of key players Mirko Valdifiori and Elseid Hysaj, who followed former Empoli coach Sarri to Napoli in the summer. That the likes of Vincenzo Montella, Antonio Di Natale and Daniele Rugani are among a lengthy list of impressive names to begin their careers at the Tuscan club is testament to their impressive youth system.
This setup has been evident again this term. Empoli’s impressive mid-table finish is down to new boss Marco Giampaolo getting the best from academy graduates such as Riccardo Saponara and Lorenzo Tonelli. They too have plans in place to revitalise their Castellani stadium and will take over its ownership from the Council in the near future.
Pleading that the new boss continues to build upon his impressive start rather than following Sarri in leaving Empoli, fans displayed a banner during the recent match with Bologna that simply read, “Stay with us.” Along with Sassuolo, the small-town Tuscan team have proved their example is one for the bigger clubs to follow. Empoli’s constant production of quality youth players has allowed them to compete in the face of significant adversity this summer, while Sassuolo are set to finish above Milan, who spent over €100million in the close season.
These are the lessons that must be learned by the bigger teams if they wish to compete with Juventus as the 2015-16 season has provided a huge wake-up call to the rest of Serie A. How and if the clubs use this experience to move forward – rejuvenating their outdated business models in order to contend – remains to be seen.