Juventus' refusal to lose will be key in Coppa Italia final against Milan
It's been a hard year for Italian football, especially considering the country didn't qualify for the World Cup. Expressing exaggerated outrage after every defeat has also somewhat tarnished the reputation of Italian clubs in their attempt to show that calcio lives on.
However, the Coppa Italia final offers a chance to enjoy football again, pitting two giants and arguably the most successful Italian sides against one another. Both Milan and Juventus have articulated their desire for something like unity: competition is beautiful, but in the words of Roma president Jim Pallotta, "We're all in this together," so it's important to enjoy the spectacle, play for the win and then applaud the side that prevails.
With Juventus having all but claimed the Serie A title, many will hope they don't celebrate yet another double under Massimiliano Allegri, especially considering the champagne football played by their closest challengers, Napoli. Rich and powerful and accustomed to winning, Juve have their fans and their many haters, but few truly appreciate how the club, management and Allegri have created a unit that wins despite their deficiencies.
Asked about potential investments the club may make this summer, CEO Beppe Marotta explained that while they'll explore the market, "It's frankly difficult to find better players than the ones we already have."
Surely there's better than 37-year-old Andrea Barzagli or certain members of the midfield, at least on a technical level, but Juventus have never bought great technique alone. They look for men capable of greatness, on both a human and a footballing level, so that when the chips are down they have the desire within to rally together and fight, allowing them to collect the wins their technique may have never merited.
They were inferior to Tottenham in the Champions League in terms of play and yet won. They were inferior to Real Madrid in terms of technique yet they scored three in the Bernabeu. And they were all set for a defeat to Inter yet they never stopped looking to deliver the final blow.
When the Bianconeri looked on the verge of another capitulation against Bologna last weekend, it was Barzagli rallying the squad from the back, darting all over the pitch, covering ground and showing fight to inspire brilliance from his teammates. Juve have all but won their seventh Scudetto in a row because of their veterans who refuse to be defeated and they are spreading that message to the new recruits, those who arrived because of their ability to take that message on board and be inspired into performing miracles.
It wasn't long ago that Bayern Munich labelled Douglas Costa a "mercenary," with many doubting the player's professionalism and attitude, yet he has proved himself to be a perfect addition for Juve. Avoiding controversy, rallying around Paulo Dybala when the youngster was suffering, celebrating his teammates wildly, Costa is a celebrated member of the unit. "The greatest compliment I received was that I am worthy of Juventus," the Brazilian told La Gazzetta dello Sport.
Costa has become Juve's difference-maker, but we also must mention Federico Bernardeschi, one of the players who has absorbed the most this season in terms of what it means to play for Juventus.
While fitness problems have stopped Bernardeschi from fully expressing his sensational abilities on the ball, his change in attitude has proved telling. He arrived with arrogance and the desire to resolve sticky situations on the pitch on his own, yet with time he has developed a winning mentality that has left him obsessed. His performances on the pitch have matured, and even if he's on for only a few minutes, you see his desperation to provide for his teammates in hopes of securing the win. Allegri always said he stayed at Juve because he loves to teach players, and he's incredibly proud of the job he's done with Bernardeschi: "His hunger and desire to win must be an example for everyone. He's grown a lot mentally."
On Wednesday evening, Costa is likely to start but Bernardeschi may be introduced later on to ensure energy and decisive actions in the final third. Set to play a 4-3-2-1 formation, Juventus need to win the Coppa Italia trophy to consolidate their domestic domination. (Meanwhile, Gennaro Gattuso confessed that the trophy is as important as the World Cup to Milan.)
Allegri, for all that he has achieved and for the foundation that he has laid for future triumphs, deserves yet another celebration. But even if he loses to his former club, he can be proud of having created a side that simply never gives up and wins even when it's against all the odds. May the best team win.
Mina Rzouki covers Juventus and the Italian national team for ESPN FC. Follow her on Twitter: @Minarzouki.