"Serie A does not exist," said Juventus coach Antonio Conte as he demanded focus from his players in their quarter-final decider against Olympique Lyonnais.
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Juventus are closing in on their third straight Italian title but for now "Serie A does not exist", Antonio Conte said, as he rallied his troops for their UEFA Europa League quarter-final decider with Olympique Lyonnais.
The Bianconeri are in pole position to advance after defender Leonardo Bonucci struck five minutes from time at Stade de Gerland last week, earning the visitors a 1-0 first-leg advantage. Completing the job on Thursday would represent a significant feat for Conte, a coach well acquainted with the history of this competition. "We are focused on this game because it would be prestigious for Juve to reach the semi-finals," he said. "Let's not forget it's been seven years since an Italian side did that."
The demands of chasing glory on two fronts are not something that concern the Italian tactician, who bestowed lavish praise on gifted midfielder Paul Pogba – a revelation since joining from Manchester United FC in 2012. "He's improved physically, technically and tactically. He has taken giant steps since coming here, but there's still room for improvement," the 44-year-old explained. "He must not settle for where he is now because he can grow even more.
"It's not about rotating, it's about trying to field the strongest team to go through. I've got to weigh up the game and pick the players who I think will serve us well," added Conte, who will make a late decision on the fitness of Carlos Tévez. "We know better than anyone else the mental and physical condition of our players. We're paid to make these decisions."
Sharing his mentor's diplomatic countenance, Martín Cáceres is also focused on the task at hand. "We are taking each game as it comes and we're delighted to be in the Europa League," said the Uruguay defender. "This game against a great Lyon team is the most important for us. Then we can look at the league."
Lyon have been victorious on four of their eight trips to Italy and Rémi Garde sounded optimistic that his team can become the first French side to win at Juve, saying: "We believe in it, we believe in it a lot. It certainly would be an upset if we went through, because we would have done something many people doubted before the tie. If we show the same spirit as we did last week, we can put ourselves in a position to create an upset."
The Ligue 1 outfit – the first French club to get to this stage since the advent of the UEFA Europa League in 2009/10 – have lost four of their five European quarter-finals, and Garde is clear about what must be done to improve that record. "We need to have great focus, great determination and great unity because there is a big difference in terms of individuals, so we need a very strong team performance to compensate," he said. "Defending or attacking, we need to get it right.
"Our fans have a big role to play, as this is going to be a difficult game for us against a big club and a great team, but I am going to tell my team they must not have any regrets at the end," the Lyon coach added. "It's quite simple: we're a goal behind so we know we have to score. We also need to keep a clean sheet for sure, and that will be complicated as they have a team, and forwards, who can score at any time."