Hyperbole is ever present when it comes to presenting football matches. And frankly, most times, the shrill media cries hyping up this or that fixture are nothing but attempts to capture the emotions and imaginations of the masses to lure as many as possible to choose to watch the game in question – or indeed read the preview – rather than indulge in the numerous other offers in a sea of entertainment.
But this time it’s different… Tuesday night in Turin, as Juventus host Chelsea in the Champions League, a truly spectacular match will unfold, I guarantee this without any form of hesitation. The importance of the match itself dictates it.
Of course I can’t promise that it will be a ‘beautiful’ match, even if that is a very distinct possibility too. It is beyond doubt, however, that this will be as intense an affair as you’re likely to witness this side of the New Year.
The two teams that were considered the clear favorites to go through from Group E by many have met unforeseen difficulties in the first four matches and now find themselves in a very tight three-way battle with Ukrainian “surprise package” Shakhtar. In fact, the “Miners” of Donetsk have arguably been the best of the three sides so far and as they also have a slightly more favorable schedule to come (facing Nordsjælland away and Juve at home), the tie in Turin could well be decisive in determining which of the two combatants will go through.
For the Bianconeri it is relatively simple; anything but a win will make advancing further in this tournament very difficult, as even in the event of a draw, they will have to win in Donetsk to qualify. Chelsea lead the Italians by one point and face Nordsjælland at home in the last match, but the Londoners will need to get at least one point or be left to pray that Juventus will get nothing from their tie against Shakhtar, who could well already be qualified by then.
The stakes are indeed high as the current holders of the trophy enter the Juventus Stadium to face the seven-times finalists who will be raring to prove that they are truly back as a European force to be reckoned with once more.
Juventus opted to field a very strong side against Lazio in Serie A on Saturday, with only Andrea Pirlo (already out due to card-accumulation) missing from what would be considered their strongest starting XI at the moment. The resulting 0-0 draw was disappointing but not due to a bad performance as such. The Bianconeri dominated the game throughout, denying Lazio a single shot on goal whilst creating quite a few chances in the opposite end.
However, the failure to convert these into goals re-opened a talking point that had been somewhat silenced after the Old Lady beat Nordsjælland and Pescara for a combined score line of 10-1 in her two preceding matches i. e., the lack of a ‘Top Striker’ in the team. While missed chances is obviously a concern for the club, it may be a slightly overestimated one, looking at the league stats where Juve lead Serie A in terms of goals scored.
In the Champions League though it’s a different story: Here, clinical finishing in key games is more important than over the course of a domestic season and one gets the feeling that picking the right front duo against Chelsea would go a long way towards a successful outcome. Not that there is a Cavani or Falcao amongst them to decide a game single footedly but, while Juve’s forwards are not the most prolific, they do contribute a lot to the system. A system that will need to be functioning perfectly Tuesday if Juve are to win the match.
As for the personnel, there’s really little doubt that coach Antonio Conte will rely on a team very similar to the one playing Lazio, with only (!) Pirlo coming back into the team and the ever-present conundrum of the strikers to be solved. Mirko Vucnic is back from injury, but did not feature at all against Lazio – which could mean that he’s still only fit for the bench.
Expect the 3-5-2 outlined below with trademark high pressing all over the pitch, relentless running from the wing-backs, Pirlo dictating the passes, and Bonucci, Marchisio and Vidal trying to penetrate the Chelsea lines from their respective positions.
Unlike Juventus, Chelsea rested a number of key players facing West Bromwich Albion in their Saturday fixture, seeing the likes of Ramires, Juan Mata, Oscar, Ashley Cole and Branislav Ivanovic all on the bench, with the first three of those being introduced during the match. Short term the strategy backfired as they lost 1-2 but we’ll have to wait until Tuesday to see if this was a wise move by Roberto di Matteo or not.
Overall, ‘The Blues’ have experienced mixed fortunes since they last faced the Bianconeri in London. While they immediately after that game went on to record an impressive six game winning streak, including a 4-0 away pounding of Nordsjælland, back-to-back loses to Shakhtar in Ukraine and Manchester United at Stamford Bridge in the EPL seems to have shaken the team somewhat – by their own lofty standards at least. Prior to the loss at WBA, a draw at Swansea and one at home against Liverpool sandwiched their home tie against Shakhtar in which a somewhat undeserved 3-2 win was sealed deep into stoppage time.
Recent wobbliness aside, though, Chelsea – like Juventus (and indeed Shakhtar!) – is a side rather unfamiliar to the concept of losing games. Roberto di Matteo’s dramatic change of the set-up, introducing the likes of Eden Hazard and Oscar along with Mata to transform last year’s tough-defending but thoroughly uninspiring side to a much more unpredictable, attacking team has been largely successful so far. All the while still keeping a solid defensive, even in lieu of their, shall we say; controversial but all the same very accomplished captain, John Terry (missing the match due to a knee injury). And even if the defence does seem a tad more vulnerable given those new-found offensive ways, The Blues still present a stern hurdle for any team trying to break them down.
It’s widely believed that Di Matteo will look to his aforementioned, extremely talented “three amigos” behind Fernando Torres, who, despite blowing more cold than hot recently is still a very competent striker when he’s fired up (as evidenced at the Euros this summer).
Behind the four of them, we’re likely to see John Obi Mikel and Ramires shoring up the midfield (with Lampard likely to be shuffled in, if required). Full backs should be manned by Cole and Ivanovic, unless the latter is drafted into central defence, pending the state of his colleagues. Needless to say, Petr Cech will be hard to pass between the sticks, although he still doesn’t look like the ‘keeper who once looked to threaten Gigi Buffon as the best goalie in the world.
Like every opponent facing Juventus (or Italy), Di Matteo’s Chelsea encounters the basic question of “who’s on Pirlo?”, as the Bearded Genius is rightly considered the heart-beat of both teams. At Stamford Bridge, Oscar did the job rather well (in addition to his two goals which were, for very different reasons, equally unbelievable). It was not a complete shut out though, and for good reason. An over-commitment to this task tends to open other corridors for both central midfielders and wing-backs to take advantage of and it is a delicate business handling the Maestro.
On the other hand, Juventus will likely have to deal with the combined threats of Mata, Hazard and Oscar, a trio that easily fits the “world class 3” category in a 4-2-3-1 set-up. While Juve contained Chelsea rather well in the first encounter in London, it’s worth noting that Lampard started ahead of a fatigued Mata in that game, making it perhaps slightly easier to dam the flood of flair and creativity.
Even given the often, maybe too often, mentioned impotence of the strikers of both teams, perhaps the most explosive battle of all will be the one on the flanks. How will Chelsea’s full-backs stand up to the charge of the Juve wing-backs, and how will their respective midfielders be able to assist and cover them? We shall see.
I stand by my promise that this will be a spectacular match. So far this season, Chelsea have looked more at ease when going on the attack, while Juventus have massively improved when it comes to getting the results needed via their trademark dominating displays, and we will see two teams battling for supremacy in trying to earn their result from the get-go. A sold-out Juventus Stadium will be cheering their Bianconeri heroes, but Chelsea will arrive knowing their worth and recent history in this competition.
Ladies and Gentlemen: A great game is afoot!
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