Juventus as powerful as ever in wrapping up fifth straight Scudetto
In the end, Juventus won the title sul divano. On the sofa. Sunday's dramatic late win in Florence, where the Old Lady hadn't won in the league in four years, meant she could sit back and enjoy Monday's bank holiday games at the club's Vinovo training ground knowing that if Napoli didn't win in Rome, a fifth Scudetto in a row would be hers.
Alvaro Morata, the supersub and match winner against Fiorentina, got the cigars out. Simone Zaza lit one up. The club put the champagne on ice. Already showered after the morning's training session, another spritz was in order after Radja Nainggolan's 89th-minute goal at the Stadio Olimpico condemned Napoli to defeat.
There was an irony of sorts that it was Nainggolan. Back in August, he had tweeted: "Ooooppppsssssss!!!!" after his Roma side beat Juventus at the Olimpico. The champions had lost their opening two league games for the first time since 1912. No one had ever won the title after such an ill-fated start. On Monday, Juventus improbably reclaimed it with three games to spare. They know what it looks like: Yet another stroll to glory and, it's true, a glance at the table does reveal them to be 12 points clear.
But flick back through the cuttings of La Gazzetta dello Sport and particularly their reaction to Juventus' 2-1 defeat to Sassuolo on Oct. 28 and it offers a sobering reminder, as the champagne gets poured, of just how much Juventus were up against it. "Ciao Scudetto," the pink paper declared. "No leaders, not enough goals. And [Mario] Mandzukic ... ." It was apparently all over for them. They were 12th in the table and 11 points behind Roma at the beginning of November. Comparisons were being made with Chelsea. Which title defence was worse?
Without Carlos Tevez, Andrea Pirlo and Arturo Vidal, Juventus had supposedly lost their aura. One injury after another decimated the squad. Paul Pogba seemed to be playing with the weight of the world on his shoulders. He had even taken to writing "+5" in black marker next to the No. 10 on his shirt as a psychological ploy to make him think he was back playing with his old No. 6 again. Juventus' €32 million summer signing Paulo Dybala was, to the frustration of everyone, being left on the bench.
In a season in which we have had a record-equalling 17 coaching changes in Serie A, Max Allegri could be forgiven for fearing for his job little more than six months after going so close to leading Juventus to the treble. Just a few days before the loss to Sassuolo, president Andrea Agnelli insisted that their place in the table, 14th, was "unacceptable". He argued that transition was not an adequate excuse.
The loss to Sassuolo, which was pretty much inevitable after one of Juventus' most experienced players, Giorgio Chiellini, got sent off five minutes before half-time, left them 11 points behind league leaders Roma. In hindsight, the aftermath of that game was the turning point for Juventus. Their captain, Gianluigi Buffon, faced the cameras and laid bare how wounded he felt. "It hurts my soul," he said. This was a j'accuse, the "j" in question standing for Juve. The team had to examine their conscience. Juventus deserved to be where they were and had no one else to blame other than themselves.
"Talking about the referee all the time is what losers do," he explained. "We need greater humility." Buffon was applauded by the Sky Italia studio as he handed back his earpiece. It was a Churchillian address and served to make his teammates realise the gravity of the situation and shake them to their senses. The club, meanwhile, showed its strength by not panicking. No rash decisions were made. They resisted any temptation to sack Allegri and for that reason alone Agnelli, vice-president Pavel Nedved and general manager Beppe Marotta deserve immense credit.
Allegri also gave a masterclass in the handling of a transition and crisis management. He stayed calm, never allowing himself or the team to be influenced by the sense of alarm and hysteria around them. On Monday, he released a screen grab of a series of tweets from that period. One read: "Serie A is not the final of the 100m. It's a marathon and we need patience to find the right rhythm." His approach was to never look beyond the next game and to take things one step at a time and see where Juventus were in March.
People forget just how tense those days were in Turin. A ritiro was called: The players lived at the training ground and even let the ultras in to listen to what they had to say. But from all this turmoil a historic comeback was born. It started in the very next game, the Turin derby, which was won in the 93rd minute by Juan Cuadrado sliding in at the far post and scoring with his culo, or backside. Culo, incidentally, also means luck, and Juventus needed some.
The Old Lady then won her next 15 league games to establish a new club record. Again, it sounds like a cakewalk, but to describe it as such would be a disservice to Juventus. One of the most memorable moments of the season was seeing Allegri get so worked up on the touchline that he ripped off his overcoat and threw it to the ground as Juve switched off and almost allowed Carpi back into the game. Leonardo Bonucci scored a stoppage-time own-goal, then Lorenzo Lollo missed a gilt-edged chance to equalise.
When the first half of the season drew to a close on Jan. 10, Juventus still only had 39 points. No one had ever won the Scudetto from that position. Napoli were crowned winter champions for the first time since 1990, and if you think that title is insignificant, think again: Its past 12 winners have all gone on to win the league. Gonzalo Higuain was on course to have the most prolific season in Serie A history. He went into the top-of-the-table clash with Juventus on Feb. 13 with 25 league goals, and 10 in his previous nine appearances.
Napoli probably would have got something out of that game if it weren't for Bonucci getting his big toe to a cross before Higuain could head it in from point-blank range. Instead, just as both teams appeared to settle for a draw, Zaza came off the bench and won the game in the 88th minute. That was round 25 of a 38-round season. It was the first time Juventus were top, and once they were in pole, there was a sense that they wouldn't look back. Unlike the competition, they know what it takes to be out in front. The others can't handle the pressure.
Even so, the consistency Juventus have displayed when the stakes were so high and the margins for error so thin is incredible. They have won 24 of their last 25 games and taken 70 of 72 points available. Alex Sandro told Globoesporte: "When you get here, it's like they implant you with a winning chip." There have been some exceptional performances, both individual and collective, along the way.
Buffon broke a 22-year record, going 16 hours and 13 minutes without conceding. Pogba has proved himself worthy of the No. 10 shirt. Sunday's assist was his 11th of the season. Dybala has surpassed all expectations, scoring 20 goals in all competitions. From top to bottom, the club has underlined how well it is run.
Of the five Scudetti in this cycle, matching a feat Juventus last achieved in 1935, this is without doubt the most impressive. It outdoes even the undefeated season in 2011-12, and the year they broke the 100-point barrier two seasons later, because to come back from where they were in November is nothing short of incredible.
The team has proved a lot. Last year, Juventus showed they can win without Conte. This year, they showed they can do it without Pirlo, Tevez and Vidal, as well. The team has a great future. Daniele Rugani, Alex Sandro, Stefano Sturaro, Mario Lemina, Pogba, Morata, Zaza and Dybala are all '90s children.
Rather than the end of a cycle, this season has been the first of a new one. There is a lot to look forward to. The players can see that, and it's one of the reasons why the club is confident that Pogba will stay. Runners-up in the Champions League last season and unlucky to bow out to Bayern this year -- there aren't many teams stronger than Juve. Their ever-increasing financial strength also means they are in a position to resist even the most indecent proposals.
A decade after Calciopoli, who would have thought it? The Old Lady is arguably more powerful than ever.
James covers the Italian Serie A and European football for ESPN FC Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.