Conte's potential return hangs over Roma and Juve, two clubs submerged in uncertainty
Sunday's showdown between Roma and Juventus (2:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) will be played in an unusual atmosphere of uncertainty. In fact, we know only a couple of things for sure. The most obvious one is Juventus are champions. The other relates to Roma. On Friday, Claudio Ranieri confirmed he will leave at the end of the season. The veteran custodian has bought Roma time to identify the right successor to Eusebio Di Francesco and hopes to leave the club in the Champions League.
Everything else is up in the air. What direction either club wish to take in the summer is not exactly in standby, but clarification is needed on who'll be in what role. Roma are expected to appoint Torino's sporting director Gianluca Petrachi to replace Monchi. His longstanding friendship with Antonio Conte created the impression that the Giallorossi were laying the foundations for the serial winner to become their next coach.
Conte has kept a low profile in the past nine months while in legal dispute with Chelsea. But the past fortnight has marked a change in strategy. He has guested on a couple of TV shows, teasing unhappy fans that there is a "60 percent" chance he'll be working in Italy again next season. Reports of a determined effort on Roma's part to bring him to the Olimpico sent the Eternal City into delirium. When Conte was spotted -- catching a connecting flight -- at Fiumicino airport, the excitement only grew. Even Ranieri said, "I'd go pick him up at the airport."
Perhaps aware things were getting out of hand, Conte felt it necessary to address the speculation in a lengthy and self-promotional interview in La Gazzetta dello Sport.
"I fell in love with Rome as a regular visitor in my two years as Italy coach," he said. "You get a real feel at the Olimpico for the passion of a fan base that lives for football with a special intensity. They're crazy for Roma." Those words quickened heartbeats around the capital on Tuesday morning, and BPMs accelerated further as Conte continued: "One day, sooner or later, I will coach Roma," only to conclude: "But today there aren't the conditions."
Twenty-four hours later another blue-chip coach, Maurizio Sarri, addressed talk of interest from Roma, disclosing that he still plans to be Chelsea manager next year despite a transfer ban, the anticipated loss of Eden Hazard and a hostile crowd at Stamford Bridge.
Nothing compares, though, with the stir Conte caused this week. Two-thirds of his conversation with La Gazzetta seemed pointed in its focus on the magnificent job he did in inaugurating this cycle of dominance at Juventus. It had a palpable "remember me" feel to it and left the impression that -- at least on Conte's part -- relations with Juve have thawed since he walked out on his old club five years ago.
So you can perhaps imagine the reaction when, as the rest of Europe was gripped by Spurs' comeback against Ajax, La Stampa -- the Turin paper owned by the Agnelli family -- reported that Juventus and Massimiliano Allegri are close to breaking up. On the one hand, the story is at odds with the line the club put out immediately after Ajax eliminated them from the Champions League. Juventus president Andrea Agnelli insisted Allegri still had a year left on his contract while Allegri also reiterated his desire to stay.
It was a united front in a crisis and projected an image of a club that was unshaken and unwilling to let emotions get the better of them. And yet almost a month later, the speculation refuses to go away. A belief Juventus could and should be playing better football isn't limited to TV studios and sports desks. By the same token, if Allegri doesn't feel he has the full confidence of the people that matter at the club, then he will move on. Another formal meeting with Agnelli -- to follow the dinner they had in March -- is expected soon.
The shadow of Conte continues to loom large, although the person left most in its shade remains Inter Milan's Luciano Spalletti. A reunion with Beppe Marotta, his former general manager at Juventus, appears increasingly on the cards for Conte.
It is difficult to stay concentrated on the here and now when the present is so dominated by the future. The season isn't over yet. Roma need to beat Juventus this weekend and hope results elsewhere go their way in the next fortnight if they are to make the top four. Perhaps the Coppa Italia final will take it out of Atalanta. As for AC Milan, crisis is never far away, and Lucas Paqueta's season-ending suspension hardly helps their cause.
The mood around Serie A remains odd. In his news conference on Friday, Ranieri was asked: "Why do all Italian fans seem unhappy?" It was a bit of a generalisation. After all, not everyone is depressed. Atalanta and Torino couldn't be more delighted with the way the year has gone.
"I don't know," Ranieri said. "Maybe because they had different expectations for their teams. Everyone wants to win, and in the end there can be only one. Congratulations to Juventus." But their supporters aren't partying either. The Scudetto is no longer enough for the Old Lady. In some respects, the end of this Serie A season reads like the beginning of a Tolstoy novel.