Tuesday night will see the Old Lady of Italian football have a first date with some humble Danish “Wild Tigers” and, while confidence will be soaring following the 2-0 victory over Napoli on Saturday, three vital Champions League points are absolutely essential for Juventus. After two draws against Chelsea and vs. Shakhtar the Bianconeri can ill afford to slip up in Scandinavia.
In terms of stature in the footballing landscape, it’s hard to imagine two sides farther removed from each other than FC Nordsjælland (pronounced: “Norshelland”) and Juventus. Turin’s Vecchia Signora is a storied and hugely successful club, domestically as well as internationally, and a member of the absolute world elite (a historical fact that even the tumultuous events of the last six years have not altered).
FC Nordsjælland (or simply FCN, as they’re often called in Denmark) on the other hand, is a very new club indeed, the current name having only been in use since 2003 (they were previously known as Farum, a town in the northeast of the island of Zealand from which the Tigers hail). Indeed, the club never tasted Danish top-tier football before the 2002-03 season, and while they have stayed up ever since, it wasn’t until 2010 that FCN won their first trophy, the Danish Cup. Successfully defending their Landspokalturneringen (Yup, that’s how the cup’s called — Ed.) title the following season, the meteoric rise of the once unknown provincials was completed in 2012 when they won the Danish Superliga a mere twelve years after the club introduced professional football!
In many ways this match is a duel between opposites, for even though the common denominator is that both won their domestic championships last season, for the Danes this was a unique feat in the history of the club whereas for the Bianconeri, a Scudetto was more a case of “normality restored”. This fixture thus pits UEFA Champions League debutantes against seven-time finalists of said tournament; Italian pedigree against Danish pluckiness. There was only ever going to be one favourite going into this match.
But while there is every reason to think Juve can live up to the billing, this encounter is vital for their chances to proceed from the group stage, especially after their home draw against Shakhtar Donetsk. The Bianconeri quite simply NEED to get six points from the coming two games against FC Nordsjælland – and that kind of urgency comes with its own type of pressure, no matter the level of the opposition…
That FCN are reigning champions of the Danish league is still a bit of an enigma for many people domestically. Not so much because of the team itself — which plays an uncompromising and enjoyable brand of football under highly rated coach Kasper Hjulmand — but more so because FC Copenhagen (the dominant force of Danish football in recent years) failed to win the title, something which everyone agreed was there for the taking (and that in the very first season where a championship resulted in direct qualification for the UCL).
But one club’s loss is another club’s gain, and FCN are naturally relishing the chance to compete with Europe’s finest. The fact that they are there at all speaks volumes of how far you can go with a coherent vision, a settled game plan and inspirational coaches (any of that sound familiar, Juventini?). For while is was a surprise that the club performed that well last season, there was no doubt that the solid, possession-based and attacking system developed at FC Nordsjælland over the last few seasons had the potential to come good.
Like their (much) more illustrious counterparts Barcelona (and in many ways, Juventus too), the recent success of the Tigers is built first and foremost on a system or even a philosophy of football, which has been implemented and matured with great care. The club’s explicit values of “Team Spirit, Courage, Dedication and Joy” have resonated around the team, and coupled with some shrewd breeding and buying of the right types of individuals to function within it, the “vision” of FC Nordsjælland culminated last season.
The big question since then of course was whether or not this model could make it against the elite teams of Europe. The answer has, so far, been a rather emphatic “no”. For while the Danes have some European experience (including being only narrowly beat to the Europa league group stage by Sporting Lisbon two years in a row), the basic difference in level of experience – and not least, sheer quality – has so far shone through in their two previous UCL outings. For while FCN stayed true to their possession-based style and saw plenty of the ball, both in Donetsk and at home vs. Chelsea, the results speak for themselves: two defeats and a goal difference of 0-6.
The Tigers will of course hope that the first two results were down to inexperience, namely the team’s need to bed in and get used to the pace and the ferocity of the Champions League, but one has to wonder whether these results are not simply caused by the general chasm in quality between a good and talented group of individuals — most notably Okore, Mtiliga, Stokholm, Nordstrand, and of course young (even if he is mostly used as a sub still) Andreas Laudrup, son of former Barça, Real Madrid, and more importantly Juventus icon Michael — and the truly great and proven squads of their group opponents. It should also be noted that FCN parted with one of their best assets this summer, in shape of central defender Andreas Bjelland, whose absence has been clearly felt in the opening stages of this season, both in the league and in Europe.
It shall be interesting to see whether FC Nordsjælland intend to persevere with their traditional game plan against Juventus, or if the two defeats early on have forced coach Hjulmand to opt for a more cautious/cynical approach when facing the Italian Champions in Copenhagen (due to the limited capacity of the their home ground in Farum, Nordsjælland play their Champions League matches at Parken Stadium in the Danish capital).
| NORDSJÆLLAND (4-2-3-1)
Parkhurst, Okore, Runje, Mtiliga
Lorentzen, S.Christensen, John
|BENCH: Villadsen, A.Christiansen, Nordstrand, Gundelach, A.Laudrup, Ticinovic, Petry|
|Starting %:||S.Christensen 55-45% Nordstrand|
|Other:||D.Jensen, Kildentoft, K.Issah, Lawan, Sise|
|At YC risk:||/|
Two of the main concerns for Antonio Conte’s men this season was how they performed following international breaks, and in what way their form would be affected by playing in Europe’s elite competition all while attempting to sustain a successful Scudetto defence. There appears to be no problem with the latter, a combination of the squad having such incredible belief in its own ability – witness the ease with which substitutes Martín Cáceres and Paul Pogba slipped into the side against Napoli – but the former is quickly becoming a far more pressing issue.
Stretching back to Gigi Delneri’s ill-fated UEFA Europa League run, la vecchia Signora now holds the dubious record of having drawn 8 consecutive continental matches but that simply must end here, if Juve are to hold any hope of progressing beyond the Group Stage. As Chelsea and Shakhtar go head-to-head twice, Juve have a real opportunity to put six points on the board against what is undoubtedly the weakest side they will face this term. [Insert own joke about Zeman’s Roma here!]
Conte will most likely continue with the 3-5-2 formation that has served the side so well thus far and is perhaps unlikely to rotate too many players, so vital it is to win here. Pogba and Cáceres may well be given starts, in-keeping with mister Conte’s habit of rewarding those who perform well but, those two aside, we are most likely to see the strongest XI possible come kick-off time. This should include returning Gigi Buffon and Mirko Vucinic, but however not Kwadwo Asamoah (who picked up a slightly ankle knock Saturday) and Stephan Lichtsteiner (suffering from over-exertion) who are not part of the call-up list.
The game may also see some playing time for Eljero Elia… erm sorry, Nicklas Bendtner as he was in good goal scoring form for the national team last week and has been performing well in training according to the club propaganda machine. If that all sounds eerily familiar to you then don’t worry, you are not alone!
Of course it is a match riddled with all those footballing clichés about guarding against complacency, over-confidence and not underestimating the opposition in the quintessential ‘must-win game’. However, this is one match where supporters everywhere (even Danes who have inexplicably chosen this moment to leave their homeland and travel to North America… cough*LARS*cough) will want to tune in and see a convincing performance. One that simply says to the rest of Europe…
We are back…
We are serious…
WE ARE JUVENTUS!
| JUVENTUS (3-5-2)
Barzagli, Bonucci, Chiellini
Cáceres, Vidal, Pirlo, Marchisio, Giaccherini
|BENCH: Storari, Lúcio, Marrone, De Ceglie, Pogba, Matri, Bendtner|
|Starting %:||Giaccherini 60-40% De Ceglie, Vidal 55-45% Pogba, Giovinco 70-30% Bendtner|
|Injured:||Lichtsteiner (matchday #9), Asamoah (#9), Pepe (#9)|
|Other:||Rubinho, Padoin, Isla, Quagliarella, Iaquinta|
|At YC risk:||/|