When I interviewed Leonardo Bonucci after Juventus's 2-0 victory against Celtic FC on Wednesday, the Bianconeri centre-back was quick to thank the two forwards – and goalscorers – for their defensive contributions when questioned about the team's five successive European clean sheets.
"We defend with 11 men and we attack with 11," he said. A footballer's cliche? I confess, that was my first thought while holding my UEFA.com microphone in front of the Italian international. A deeper analysis though, and considering the work ethic Antonio Conte demands of all his players, convinced me I was wrong.
In Gianluigi Buffon, Juventus have one of the best goalkeepers in the world, if not the best. Bonucci, Andrea Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini form a fantastic wall ahead of their international team-mate. Is that enough to explain why Juve have not conceded in the UEFA Champions League since a wonderful free-kick by FC Nordsjælland's Mikkel Beckmann on matchday three? I don't think so. In the two games against Celtic, Chiellini was unavailable but Buffon nonetheless continued his streak.
Juve do not have a talisman in the mould of Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi in attack and the same must be said of their defence. Fifteen different players have scored in Serie A for the Turin club this season, yet how crucial is the collective effort in not conceding? How vital the willingness of full-backs and midfielders to always make that extra run to help press the opposition?
''There is a great harmony in this group,'' Barzagli said on the eve of the Celtic return leg. ''The midfielders and attackers give us defenders a lot of help, allowing us to keep a high line. It's much easier for any defensive line when you are not forced to defend deep. We are a compact team that works hard together – this is our secret.''
"I'll be honest, I do not like [Juventus] because I'm afraid of them," Real Madrid CF coach José Mourinho said in a recent interview. "And I say that Conte's team can win the Champions League. It is a collective – an extremely compact, solid, almost unsinkable ship. It does not matter if there is no [Karim] Benzema or [Gonzalo] Higuaín in a team structured like that."
Will this cooperative spirit be enough as the going gets tougher in the later stages of the competition? "Should we meet one of the great European teams next then we certainly won't be beaten before the tie begins," said Conte on Wednesday night. It is difficult to disagree.
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