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Conte struggles to convince

Simone Pepe (Italian for pepper) has a salty sense of humour, and it has been reported that Juventus coach Antonio Conte told him to control his urge to quip one-liners as they might interfere with his, and the team's, concentration during training.

A figure of fun when Juve paid Udinese €10 million for him in 2010, the winger, who came through the ranks of his beloved Roma in the same youth side as Daniele de Rossi, has started all but one Serie A game for the bianconeri this season and has been a consistent and versatile performer for Conte.

It seems as though most pundits will not consider Juventus a serious contender for honours until Pepe is replaced. Juve moved heaven and earth in the summer to find another wide man, ending up with Hamburg's Dutch international Elijero Elia, who joined the side in late August just as Reto Ziegler, the Swiss international left-back, was loaned to Fenerbahce. That was only weeks after Ziegler had arrived from Sampdoria in what will not go down as one of Juve's most glorious of transfer market moves.

Elia, though, has taken longer than expected to settle and Pepe has started ahead of him, providing non-stop work on the left flank and the kind of wing play Conte requires in his trademark 4-2-4. Wide players are expected to cut inside and combine with midfielders and forwards for one-twos which may leave defenders wrong-footed and lead to numerical superiority in the last third.

Despite the criticism he may still draw from time to time, Pepe is not Juve's problem at the moment. But is there a problem? Apparently so, seeing how their 2-2 home draw with Genoa on Saturday has been viewed.

It's almost impossible, after all, to feel detached while covering Juventus. The pressure of millions of fans eager to see them return to former glories can produce a vast amount of wishful thinking, as seen when Conte, a former Juventus captain and icon, replaced Gigi Delneri.

Juve were now led by one of their own, someone who could teach the so-called Juventinità (Juventinism) to the recent signings, however cloudy it is. The same had been said when Ciro Ferrara replaced Claudio Ranieri late in the 2008-09 season, but at least Conte had led both Bari and Siena into Serie A before taking charge of Juve while it was Ferrara's first club manager's job.

Now, after Juve's fourth draw in the last five matches and yet another poor display against Genoa the weight of inflated expectation is biting those who had perhaps had done the least to build it up: Conte, and the players.

Pepe was mentioned at the beginning of this story because of his status as a hard-working and versatile athlete who is certainly no superstar, as the criticism has been reserved mostly for players who were supposed to be leaders or quality performers.

Giorgio Chiellini, for example, has been pushed out wide to be a reluctant left-back and has already made several mistakes which have cost Juve goals. Leonardo Bonucci, the ball-playing centre-back who had lost his place to Andrea Barzagli before replacing for Chiellini has shown a lack of strength. Milos Krasic, hailed by many as the Serie A's next sensation in 2010, just as Diego had been a year earlier, has crashed and burned as much for his own limitations as his favourite move, beating a defender to the byline, goes against Conte's philosophy.

Those problems do not seem to be terminal, though. Football everywhere, especially in Italy, is a place of instant gratification, quick condemnation and deferred absolution. An unbeaten side sitting just two points off the top, where Juve find themselves, can be criticised as if they still had to win a game, just three weeks after playing Milan off the park in a 2-0 triumph which, in truth, was only sealed with two late, bizarre goals.

Conte has gone beyond the boundaries of his own sphere of tactics by often moving to 4-3-3 when Arturo Vidal, another expensive acquisition for a fee which could rise to €15 million, is in the side. He started the past three matches in a 4-1-4-1 with Andrea Pirlo as the lone holding midfielder and Mirko Vucinic (or Alessandro Matri) the sole striker, both helped by the constant running and probing of the four proper midfielders, including wingers Pepe and Krasic, who can easily turn this into a 4-3-3 when they support Vucinic.

All of this seems to leave little room for Alex Del Piero, still reeling from chairman Andrea Agnelli's announcement that he will not get a new contract. Not such a surprise, as Del Piero himself had admitted the one-year contract signed in May was probably going to be his last one, but it came out of the blue and contributed to a tense atmosphere last Saturday at the Juventus Stadium, where most fans clearly took Del Piero's side with chants and banners.

It's not hard to imagine a similar atmosphere on Tuesday, when Juventus take on Fiorentina. Not a must-win game in an ideal world, but surely in the one we live in. With Milan and Inter showing signs of reawakening, the bianconeri need the points in order to stay near the top and stave off the anxiety.

Fiorentina, though, have their own problems. Coach Sinisa Mihajlovic seems to be losing the respect of more fans each week without doing anything in particular to deserve it, save for not being Cesare Prandelli, his predecessor. Viola fans, generally speaking, are concerned about the side's lack of structured play and Mihajlovic's insistence on playing Riccardo Montolivo - suspended for Tuesday's game - despite the former captain's refusal to sign a contract extension, which has made him persona non grata among supporters.

Alberto Gilardino's absence through injury (he's now back) has meant Santiago Silva was thrown in at the deep end before he had learned the system and the 30-year Argentinian has so far huffed and puffed but has been unable to find the net one single time.

That has increased the burden on Stevan Jovetic, whose contract was extended to 2016, and the other member of the attacking trio in Mihajlovic's 4-3-3, Alessio Cerci, who's finally won over the boo boys by scoring freely from his right-wing position. He has now been linked with Juventus, although at this time of the year all kinds of names can and will be carelessly thrown around ahead of the January window.

A traditional rivalry which may have added spice because of the intimate setting of the Juventus Stadium, Juventus versus Fiorentina would ordinarily give the impression of two ships passing quietly in the dark of the night, the bianconeri moving upwards while the Viola continue their unhappy descent from the Champions League two years ago.

Considering the undeserved criticism both have received in the past couple of weeks the scene could be described more accurately as two creaking boats colliding in the evening under the bright lights of suburban Turin.

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