MILAN — Alessandro Del Piero has given Juventus a lift in recent games, but his inspirational performances are a double-edged sword for club president Andrea Agnelli, who is coming under pressure to rethink his decision not to extend the 37-year-old’s contract.
Del Piero, in his 19th season at the club, has had such an impact off the bench in the last two games that fans are also debating whether coach Antonio Conte will finally hand him a starting place in tomorrow’s match against Napoli.
Juventus are unbeaten in Serie A this season, although a series of recent draws has left them trailing leaders AC Milan by four points with nine games each to play.
Milan, who have 63 points from 29 games, have shown few signs of slipping up although they may be vulnerable on Saturday as they face a difficult trip to Catania (1600hrs) only three days after a demanding Champions League match against Barcelona.
Seventh-placed Catania battled back for a 2-2 draw at Napoli one week ago and are hoping to qualify at the very least for the Europa League.
Del Piero has made only 16 Serie A appearances for Juventus this season, of which 13 have been as a substitute and most of those too late in the game to make any impact.
Conte gave Del Piero more of a chance against Inter Milan last Sunday, bringing on the playmaker in the 53rd minute with the score at 0-0.
Del Piero quickly changed the face of the game, scoring the second goal in Juventus’s 2-0 win. He also scored and played a key role in the 2-2 draw against AC Milan on March 20 which took Juve to the Italian Cup final.
Those performances had observers wondering why Conte has not made more use of Del Piero, especially in the potentially costly home draws against Siena, where he stayed on the bench, and Chievo, where he was brought on with only 12 minutes left.
The misfiring performances of preferred strikers Alessandro Matri and Mirko Vucinic have added to the mystery.
Del Piero, whose Juventus career included a season in Serie B in the wake of the “Calciopoli” scandal when the club was demoted, has won admiration for refusing to complain about his bit-part role and his future.
Defender Giorigio Chiellini added: “Alex (DelPiero) is a great champion and always will be, and we as players can just observe and accept his choice.
“I think that the end of the season will be the time for him and the club to sit down and talk and make a decision together.”
Napoli, joint fourth with 48 points, are battling to finish third which would earn them a place in next season’s Champions League qualifying tournament.
However, their draw against Catania, when they squandered a two-goal lead, has left them three points behind third-placed Lazio, who visit struggling Parma today.
Andrea Stramaccioni makes his debut as Inter Milan’s third coach of the season as the crisis-torn club, champions five seasons in a row from 2006 until 2010, host lowly Genoa tomorrow.
Inter’s defeat at Juventus last Sunday cost Claudio Ranieri his job, left them 10 points adrift of Lazio in third and facing, at best, the prospect of the Europa League next season. — Reuters