This week’s international break dimmed the spotlight on Juventus coach Andrea Pirlo — but not by much.
The 1-0 home defeat to lowly Benevento last Sunday only increased the pressure on the rookie boss, who was charged with securing the club’s tenth successive Scudetto at the start of the season, but who looks increasingly likely to fall short.
Having squandered their game in hand, Juve are ten points behind leaders Inter Milan and four back from third-placed AC Milan.
Antonio Conte’s Inter look poised to finally break the Bianconeri’s near-decade-long stranglehold on the title and the Italian press have gone into speculation overdrive on who could replace Pirlo if the axe falls.
Entrusting the club to their iconic former midfielder — a managerial novice when he replaced Maurizio Sarri last August — was seen by many pundits as a huge gamble but football chief Fabio Paratici still seemed to be backing Pirlo after Sunday’s loss.
‘Just as a defeat won’t change the project of a club, a victory won’t either,’ he said. ‘Once an approach has been decided on, we see it through.’
Vice-president Pavel Nedved has also this week been quoted as insisting the 41-year-old will still be in charge for the start of next season.
Given time, Pirlo could well develop into a winner like some of his illustrious predecessors, but the hierarchy will want to soon see some tangible signs of improvement if they are to keep the faith with ‘the project’.
That will surely mean qualifying for next season’s Champions League, although that is far from guaranteed with fifth-placed Napoli hot on their heels, just two points behind.
The way the Old Lady tumbled out of the competition to Porto at the last-16 stage was another bitter pill to swallow. The saving grace could come in the Coppa d’Italia final against Atalanta on May 19. That will pit Pirlo against one of those seen as a possible replacement — Gian Piero Gasperini — whose daredevil side have taken back-to-back third-placed Serie A finishes.
Other names being touted are Lazio’s Piacenza-born Simone Inzaghi, former Inter and Roma boss Luciano Spalletti and even Max Allegri, whose CV boasts five consecutive league titles as well as two Champions League final appearances leading the Turin giants.
In the meantime, former Manchester City boss Roberto Mancini has taken centre stage, with his Italy side embarking on their World Cup 2022 qualification campaign.
The Azzurri sealed a 2-0 win over Northern Ireland on Thursday evening in Parma and now face away tests against Bulgaria on Sunday and Lithuania next Wednesday.
Mancini, who has selected a big 38-man squad for these games and whose side are unbeaten in 23 after last night’s Group C clash (the country’s third-longest undefeated streak in history), should be confident of his side making it to Qatar.
Lazio’s Ciro Immobile, Napoli’s Lorenzo Insigne and Torino’s Andrea Belotti will be vying for places in attack, with PSG’s star midfielder Marco Verratti and Milan goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, linked this week with Chelsea, other key men.
In defence, those old Juventus war horses Leonardo Bonucci, 33, and Giorgio Chiellini, 36, are still in the squad and their battle-hardened know-how could be invaluable in getting the Azzurri off to a solid start.
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