Antonio Conte says there is no hiding from the importance of Wednesday night’s “win or bust” Champions League meeting FC Copenhagen at Juventus Stadium.
The blistering form of runaway leaders Real Madrid means all three remaining Group B teams can harbour hopes of making it through to the knockout stages of Europe’s most prestigious club competition, leaving the remaining qualification spot all to play for in a tense final two matchdays.
And despite his team being widely tipped to kick-start their European campaign with a crucial three points tomorrow, Conte was quick to warn of the pitfalls of underestimating the defending Danish champions, whose recent revival has seen them climb to third place in the Super Liga and also threaten to upset the status quo in Europe after a surprise 1-0 win over Galatasaray on matchday four.
But the 44-year-old boss, whose men prop up the group, remains fully confident in the Bianconeri's abilities to handle the “pressure” and “responsibility” of tomorrow’s game and subsequently take the last 16 qualification race right down to the wire.
Speaking to the media in Vinovo, Conte began: “Tomorrow’s match is extremely difficult and a crucial one at that. We need to win at all costs if we want to continue our journey in this year’s Champions League.
“Having said that, I’m perfectly relaxed because I’ve got a group of lads who are used to playing these win-or-bust games for almost two and a half years now - ones that involve great pressure and responsibility. Tomorrow is one of these, but Juventus know how to deal with such games.”
A fundamental boost for the Bianconeri tomorrow will be the atmosphere created by the club’s loyal faithful, particularly the most vociferous sections of supporters situated behind both goals.
And Conte is adamant they will be out in force to help the team in one of their most “decisive” moments of the season.
“I’ve always said our fans are crucial. Those in the north and south stands are the beating heart of Juventus Stadium and have helped us reach incredible successes over the past two years. I don’t think there’s any chance of them abandoning us in a decisive game like tomorrow’s. We’ll need everyone to get behind us in our quest for victory.”
Juventus approach the encounter riding on the crest of a wave after extending their Serie A winning streak to five consecutive successes following Sunday’s commanding 2-0 triumph in Livorno.
This imperious league run, coupled with Roma’s goalless draw with Cagliari at the Stadio Olimpico last night, restored the reigning champions to the top of the pile for the first time since May.
Yet Conte claims his team’s professionalism means there will be no dangers of a lack of focus when they seek to prolong their European adventure by taking all three points tomorrow night.
“We always treat the two competitions differently and returning to the top of the league won’t change anything. We need to focus on ourselves and look to improve and maintain the characteristics which have enabled us to lead the light in previous years.”
The purple patch currently being enjoyed by Fernando Llorente – who scored his third goal in as many games against Livorno on Sunday – looks set to guarantee a fourth consecutive start for the Pamplona-born forward alongside Carlos Tevez.
Paying tribute to the summer signing’s progress, Conte said: “Fernando’s done very well. I found myself in a similar situation when I had just joined Juventus, everything seemed dark and I didn’t think I was in the right place. He came here as a world champion and a successful player, but has had the patience to take our workload on board and apply himself. He’s a complete, modern player, not your typical centre-forward who lurks in the box, but one who provides assists.
“There’s still plenty of room for improvement, though, and if he continues in this vein then he should certainly go to the World Cup. He’s looking good up front with Tevez, they’ve now earned the starting berths, but I’m not going to forget those who have helped us enjoy plenty of success over the past two years.”
The predicted return of suspended duo Leonardo Bonucci and Angelo Ogbonna is expected to ease the Bianconeri’s recent defensive worries, but, whilst conceding the game will come too early for Andrea Barzagli, Conte elected to keep his cards close to his chest when quizzed on tomorrow’s possible starting line-up.
“Barzagli spent all of last week recovering from the injury he sustained whilst on international duty. He rejoined the group for a bit yesterday, but won’t feature tomorrow. We have other players who are available and can do just as well, such as Caceres, so we’ll give Andrea the right time to train properly and bring him back in for Udinese.”