How Juventus copied Bayern Munich to continue Serie A hegemony
With Sunday's win over Crotone in Turin, Juventus officially sealed their sixth consecutive Serie A title with a game to go.
It was not this weekend that the Turin giants really won the Scudetto, though. They did so before 2016-17 even started.
Having finished an astonishing 17 points clear of runners-up Roma in both 2014 and 2015, things went considerably less smoothly for Juventus last season. They earned just one win from their opening six fixtures and only on matchday 25 did they go top of the table for the first time. The Old Lady still finished nine points ahead of Napoli, but they were no longer untouchable.
And with Juve about to lose Alvaro Morata and Paul Pogba to Real Madrid and Manchester United respectively, Roma and Napoli will have fancied their chances of dethroning the Bianconeri at last this term.
Not on Giuseppe Marotta and Fabio Paratici's watch, however.
The general and sporting directors not only knew losing Morata and Pogba was inevitable, but they also knew the solution to instantly solve the problem. That solution was taking a page out of Bayern Munich's playbook.
The Bundesliga giants are renowned for their tendency to stockpile the German top flight's best players and are not afraid to go shopping at their domestic rivals, robbing Borussia Dortmund of Mario Gotze, Robert Lewandowski and Mats Hummels in recent years. That policy not only serves to strengthen their own squad, but also helps weaken their title challengers.
Ahead of the 2016-17 season, Juventus employed the exact same strategy.
With Pogba destined to return to United, Marotta and Paratici looked around them in Serie A and realised Roma star Miralem Pjanic was the ideal replacement. The Bosnia-Herzegovina international had enjoyed a stellar 2015-16 campaign in which he scored 10 times and seemed ready for the next step in his career.
Juventus did not hesitate and triggered the midfielder's EUR32million release clause, robbing one of their main rivals of arguably their star man and driving creative force in midfield.
The next task for the Juventus board of directors was finding a suitable replacement for Morata following his return to Madrid. Again, they did not overcomplicate matters and simply looked at the best option available domestically. That option was Gonzalo Higuain.
The Argentinian had netted a Serie A record 36 goals in 2015-16 to fire Napoli to second, but was not convinced the Stadio San Paolo was the right place to win silverware. Juventus quickly made their move and shelled out EUR90m to get their man.
Another problem solved, another rival crippled.
From there on, it was smooth sailing for Juventus on their way to yet another title. They went top of the table for the first time on matchday three, briefly dropped to second place after a surprise defeat at the hands of Inter, but returned to the summit again a week later and never looked back.
There were minor hiccups in the first half of the season against AC Milan and Genoa, but it mattered little as Roma and Napoli were simply unable to challenge Massimiliano Allegri's men, dropping points against inferior opposition too often to pose a serious threat.
And as if to prove the ingenuity of Juventus' transfer policy, it was Higuain who netted the winner when they took on Napoli in October. The 29-year-old might have been less prolific than last term, but his 24 Serie A goals so far is the best return for a Juventus striker since Omar Sivori's 25 strikes in 1960-61. There might have been some criticism at the start of the season, but Higuain's figures speak for themselves.
Pjanic, too, quickly won over the Juventus fans to help them forget about the departed Pogba. While the Frenchman struggled in Manchester, his successor quickly became a key figure alongside Sami Khedira. The 27-year-old has been less of a goal threat than during his last season at the Stadio Olimpico due to his deeper role in Turin, but has still contributed five goals and 10 assists.
Meanwhile, the core of the team that dominated Serie A for the previous five seasons once more showed just why Juventus have been so successful. Gianluigi Buffon might be 39, but the Italy international continues to be one of the best goalkeepers in the world.
In defence, Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli are still held in high regard across the continent, while the constant comparisons between Paulo Dybala and Lionel Messi are not without merit.
That is not to say Juventus will rest on their laurels in the off-season, though, even if they do add a long-awaited third European crown by defeating Real Madrid in the Champions League final - a triumph which could mark the third leg of a remarkable treble, with the Coppa Italia final having been secured against Lazio on Wednesday.
This title saw them become the first team to win six Scudetti in a row, but they will be hungry for more in the years to come. The Turin side will likely look to add to their ranks again ahead of next season - and it is equally likely they will once more turn to their rivals.
Juventus are continually being linked with a move for Milan goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma as they prepare for life after Buffon, with the 18-year-old hesitant to commit his future at San Siro. His team-mate Mattia De Sciglio is another who has reportedly attracted the interest of the champions, with Juve keen to sign another wing-back to replace Stephan Lichtsteiner and Dani Alves down the right for the long term.
They have already secured the services of Mattia Caldara from Atalanta from June 2018 to strengthen their defence, but they could very well make a move for another centre-back, with Lazio's Stefan de Vrij recently linked with the club.
None of Juve's rivals will be happy to see one of their stars make the move to Turin, but the champions' unrivalled financial power often leaves them helpless once the Bianconeri come knocking - something Napoli and Roma can testify to.
With that power in the transfer market, Juventus' hegemony could very well be extended far beyond this campaign.