Ladies and Gentlemen, there are many ways to introduce this fixture (and Lord knows most of them have been tested!), but as it turns out, the only obvious and correct one is this rather pregnant line. On Wednesday evening…
Juventus will play in the Champions League again!!
It. Says. All.
Elaborating somewhat on the self-explanatory buzz created by that particularly warmly welcomed fact alone, the Bianconeri’s much anticipated comeback to the top tier of European football is made all the more poignant as they face current champions Chelsea (at Stamford Bridge, no less). For while this will in all probability be labelled as the toughest game in the group stage, it comes with the nice added effect that any positives resulting from it will be cherished.
Indeed, wearing the rather uncommon cap of the outsider (though not so uncommon if one considers the last half-decade), Juventus bear no heavy expectation on their shoulders. Nevertheless, while realising that this is obviously a very difficult contest, many Juve supporters will still harbour hopes that there is actually a fair chance the Old Lady might bring something home from this match.
Why? Well, even allowing for the traditional (and very wise) caveats about Juve having to get used to the pace and ferocity of the CL again (after a couple of years on the outside looking in), the sheer excitement of being back where she belongs is sure to spur the Old Lady on. Add to that a very impressive domestic form (42 league games unbeaten, and counting) as well as the desire of head coach Antonio Conte (even if “by proxy”, via Massimo Carrera) to make an indelible mark on Europe following the (ongoing) Calcioscommesse debacle, and it’s hard to see Juventus not being absolutely fired up for this game.
Whether all of that will be enough after the CL Anthem fades into the London sky and the ball starts rolling, of course remains to be seen. But few will dispute that a very tasty match indeed is at hand!
After Roberto Di Matteo to stunning effect managed to steady the Chelsea ship after a crash-and-burn attempt by André Villas Boas to shake up the reigning order on the Bridge, it seems that the club still insists on renewing their style, bringing in an abundance of attacking, ball-playing talent in shape of Eden Hazard, Victor Moses, Oscar, and Marko Marin over the summer. So far, especially Hazard has been lighting up the Premier League with his immense pace, technique and skill, leading his new side to the summit of the table after recording three wins and a draw in the first four games of the tournament.
That the Blues – despite their domestic form – are far from impenetrable however, was made very obvious earlier this month when they received a 4-1 European Super Cup drubbing at the hands of Atletico Madrid. The match, which may generously be described as a rather naïve display by the Londoners, highlighted the key issue of the balance between defensive organisation and more free-flowing football. In fact, it describes the very dilemma Di Matteo (as is customary for CFC managers) finds himself in: “should I be pleasing the fans/owner with vibrant & audacious plays, or be getting the desired results the tried and tested way?”
Considering the former Lazio player’s Italian pedigree, and the importance of getting a result from the first outing in this prestigious tournament, one would expect Di Matteo to go for the latter option, relying on Hazard, Mata, Torres & Co. to pose enough of a threat on the break to warrant a very concentrated effort in the defensive department. The defence might still be an area of concern for CFC too though, for while the back-line generally (especially when John Terry is “on”) shows an admirable assuredness, this is nonetheless very dependent on each player performing to his absolute best, as personal faults in crucial situations have haunted the team over the last few years.
Expect the Blues to line up in their usual 4-2-3-1, not changing too much of the starting XI from the 0-0 draw against Queens Park Rangers on Saturday, apart from the likely reintegration of Juan Mata for Ryan Bertrand and perhaps playing Gary Cahill in central defence. There might be a tactical “twist” of sorts at some point, with Chelsea switching to 4-3-3 (as they did towards the end of the QPR match) to get better penetration through the center.
| CHELSEA (4-2-3-1)
A.Cole, Terry, D.Luiz, Ivanovic
Ramires, Mata, Hazard
|BENCH: Turnbull, G.Cahill, Bertrand, Romeu, Oscar, Sturridge, V.Moses|
|Starting %:||D.Luiz 55-45% G.Cahill|
|Other:||Hilário, P.Ferreira, Azpilicueta, Malouda|
|At YC risk:||/|
For every Bianconero – be it player, supporter or manager – this game is truly special as it signifies, after years of tumult, the re-emergence of Juventus as a top club to be reckoned with. As already stated this is not a game Juve are necessarily expected to win, but it is a game from which most fans will be hoping (and even expecting) to see proof that this well-oiled, high-soaring Juventus side is able to remain in flight when facing the toughest competition possible. It is – simply put – the best possible test Antonio Conte could have asked for so early in the competition. It will confirm whether the Black & White have (and this seemed unbelievable just one year ago) reached a level making them able to confront Europe’s elite on equal terms, or whether Conte will have to continue to put his maxim “LAVORO, LAVORO, LAVORO” into application (not that we expect otherwise).
Tactically, little suggests that the tried and tested 3-5-2 should be abandoned. It will be interesting to see how this module copes in Europe, but on the face of it there is no reason to suppose that Conte’s “pressing-and-possession” philosophy should not translate well onto the biggest of stages.
It might be a bit of a gamble though. For while Napoli (to some success) used a wing-back reliant 3-5-1-1-cum-3-4-3 formation – and yes, I’ve had that confirmed as an accurate description by Zonal Marking’s Michael Cox, so back off! – against Chelsea last year (before they crumbled at Stamford Bridge), the almost exclusively counter-attacking style of Walter Mazzarri’s men is quite different to the more expansive version employed by Juve. However, especially in as tough an away game as the Bianconeri are facing Wednesday, we might see Conte adopt a slightly more cautious approach.
As was clearly evidenced against Genoa at the weekend, this Juve squad has added quite a bit of depth to it: a large number of reserves stepped in against il Grifone, putting out levels of performance ranging from the good (Cáceres, De Ceglie) to the very good (Giaccherini; let’s pretend we did not see Matri). But it is still early days, and for that reason it would be very surprising not to see Juve’s “usual suspects” named against Chelsea too: the astounding Kwadwo Asamoah on the left, Swiss Express Stephan Lichtsteiner on the right, M-V-P (Marchisio, Vidal, Pirlo) in the middle, and Sebastian Giovinco and Mirko Vucinic (who was very impressive when he came on on Sunday, netting a goal and two assists) up top.
As for the back three, Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini did not have a very good outing at the Luigi Ferraris, individually or collectively. In fact, they looked vulnerable and rather slow. However, Chiellini has not played much since the Euros, and it might actually have been a good thing having the three of them reminded of how they should not be playing against a fast-breaking team. Presumably they will gel again and adjust to the even higher line, Conte seems to want them to play this season. So, despite the shakiness there seems to be little point in breaking up that unit at such a crucial point as this. Anyway, Conte’s (in)famous bat of nails should make sure we’re not in for a horror show repeat of Sunday’s first half…
| JUVENTUS (3-5-2)
Barzagli, Bonucci, Chiellini
Lichtsteiner, Vidal, Pirlo, Marchisio, Asamoah
|BENCH: Storari, Lúcio, Cáceres, Marrone, Giaccherini, Quagliarella, Bendtner|
|Injured:||Pepe (matchday #6), Padoin (#7)|
|Other:||Rubinho, De Ceglie, Pogba, Isla, Matri, Iaquinta|
|At YC risk:||/|
All in all we are looking at a very even competition here. On paper, Juve does not look markedly inferior to the Brits. However, factoring in the vast difference in experience at CL level, recent records of Italian teams against English opposition plus the home advantage of Chelsea, the Blues will be considered favourites to win this tie.
As mentioned earlier though, a lot will depend on the way both teams decide to actually play their respective formations. In theory, Chelsea would patiently let Juve come at them and strike back with pace on the counter, but will they do so at the Bridge with all the world watching? (Probably; yes).
Conversely, Juventus usually play a game of domination and possession, but will they dare to do so in full in London, where a draw would be a great result? (Less likely, perhaps).
In conclusion: this game has the potential to go either way, both in terms of result and quality. It will very much depend on the tactical set-ups of each manager, on the ability of Juve to cope with especially Hazard and Mata, as well as Chelsea’s plans for stifling a well-drilled and surprisingly multi-facetted Old Lady.
We shall see, of course, how it all pans out. At any rate, for Juventini, this game is guaranteed to awaken slumbering memories of past performances on the European stage. Here’s to it being the good ones!
Vincere è l’unica cosa che… CONTE!