For the first time ever, the Juventus Stadium will be the stage of a Champions League game on Tuesday night, as the Bianconeri host Ukrainian double holders Shakhtar Donetsk.
The Old Lady faced Shakhtar only once before in her prestigious history: a 1976-77 UEFA Cup third round that ended in a 3-0 first-leg home victory for Juve which made the Pitmen‘s win 1-0 in Donetsk essentially vain. The stakes will be different this time around and expectations sky high, as the Old Lady and her well-drilled servants marked their return to this competition by coming back from a 0-2 deficit a fortnight ago, as they tied current cup holders Chelsea in a thrilling match at Stamford Bridge. The team also answered a lot of questions vis-à-vis their ability to compete on the toughest of stages.
While there is no doubt the Italian champions are expected to have the better of their Ukrainian counterparts, this game should by no means be considered a walkover. For starters, Shakhtar is one of a very few teams in Europe to be able to come into a game with as much confidence as Juve. For while the Bianconeri are currently unbeaten for 45 league games, the Eastern Europeans have a little something to say on the records front themselves, as they are currently on a staggering run of 19 (nineteen!) consecutive league victories. A stat to take into consideration right there.
There is a clear difference in quality between the Serie A and the Ukrainian Premier League of course, but such a run of wins speaks of a resilience not dealt with easily. And as the Juventus squad prepare for what will be their sixth game in just 17 days, there must be no rusty parts in this machine when facing this Eastern European powerhouse if the expected result is to be achieved.
The ‘Hello Goodbye’ 4-1 hammering of Roma on Saturday was Juve’s perfect way of preparing for this very important fixture, as the Giallorossi were effectively dispatched of faster than Lennon/McCartney would bang out a catchy chorus in the mid-60s. The early settling of the game showed in the second half, as the Bianconeri obviously took the foot off the gas for long spells, most likely with their minds already partially occupied with Shakhtar.
While it is not normally a great idea to lose focus during a match, it was both understandable and excusable in this case: the three possible points at stake Tuesday — which surely have entered the minds of the players — are of utmost importance. Being Danish, I’m allowed to say that I fully expect six points to enter the Juve bag in their upcoming mirror rounds versus FC Nordsjælland, and this means that if Juve obtain a European victory this week, there is a very good chance they would go into the final two difficult games (Shakhtar away, Chelsea at home) already on TEN points. Almost a dream scenario…
But before we get ahead of ourselves (yeah, my plural), there is that crucial match to be played.
Conte and Carrera have been doing a fair bit of squad rotation given the many games played recently, and bar a shaky first half against Genoa, the players called upon have performed admirably. Juve’s results speak for themselves: three wins and two draws in very difficult away games means that the squad has so far passed every test with flying colours.
Even so, the starting line-up should be something of a formality (Buffon + the B-B-C backline + the M-V-P midfield + the impressive wing-back pair that is Lichtsteiner and Asamoah), except for the strikers. Up front, Mirko Vucinic should start in a prima/seconda punta role which – in the space of six months – has turned from rather dubious (or at least, certainly not unanimous) to rather obvious. Mirko has truly delivered this year, if not necessarily in goals then certainly in performances, and barring any intricate tactical scheme he is about as assured to start as the nine aforementioned players.
The other spot up front is the tricky one. The only certainty seems to be that Bendtner will not start, as all of Sebastian Giovinco, Fabio Quagliarella and – most recently – Alessandro Matri have provided both the work and the goals asked of them. A very positive conundrum to solve for the coaching staff, and even more so as they will be very sure of whomever will be subbed on is both keen and on form.
| JUVENTUS (3-5-2)
Barzagli, Bonucci, Chiellini
Lichtsteiner, Vidal, Pirlo, Marchisio, Asamoah
|BENCH: Storari, Lúcio, Marrone, De Ceglie, Giaccherini, Quagliarella, Matri|
|Starting %:||Giovinco 40-30/30% Quagliarella/Matri|
|Injured:||Pepe (matchday #6)|
|Other:||Rubinho, Cáceres, Pogba, Isla, Bendtner, Iaquinta|
|At YC risk:||/|
As most will be aware, Shakhtar Donetsk are reigning Ukrainian league and cup champions. The Eastern Europeans are not foreign to UEFA competition either, as they have several Champions League runs to their credit (although with a mixed bag of results), as well as the honour of being the last-ever team to win the UEFA Cup before that tournament became the monstrosity now known as the Europa League.
The team, under the guidance of old Serie A veteran Mircea Lucescu (who coached Pisa, Brescia, Reggiana and Inter while in Italy, and also was the first to promote a certain Andrea Pirlo from the Rondinelle Primavera to the senior team), is built around a mix of Ukrainian and other Eastern European internationals along with a plethora of Brazilian players who are, to say the least, very capable. Add to that experienced Croatian captain Darijo Srna and on-fire (and wonderfully named) Armenian forward Henrik Mkhitaryan (13 goals in 10 league games domestically, 2 in 1 in the CL), and there’s every reason to cautious.
To qualify the 19 straight win streak in the league mentioned above, that does not include beating arch-rivals Dynamo Kyiv in the cup (as well as beating them in the league too, recently), nor their solid home win against FC Nordsjælland in the first round of the Champions League. In that game, the Ukrainians happily surrendered possession to the Danes only to strike twice with that man Mkhitaryan and seal the deal, leaving their opponents with little else to proud themselves in than statistics.
Herein, undoubtedly, lies the challenge for the home team. Shakhtar is an extremely solid side, capable of recovering from virtually every punch thrown, and while their players claim they’re gunning for victory in Turin (as would be natural for team as accustomed to winning), most of the Pitmen would probably be happy to undermine Juve enough to secure a point.
| SHAKHTAR (4-2-3-1)
Srna, Kucher, Rakitskiy, Raţ
Ilsinho, Mkhitaryan, Willian
|BENCH: Kanibolotskiy, Kryvtsov, Stepanenko, D.Costa, A.Teixeira, Devic, Eduardo|
|Starting %:||Ilsinho 60-40% D.Costa|
|Other:||N.Shevchenko, Shevchuk, Ordets, Chygrynskiy, Polyanskiy, Kobin, Gai, A.Patrick, Dentinho|
|At YC risk:||/|
In conclusion, Juventus face a tough challenge, but one that must be surmounted. Shakhtar are certainly no pushovers, but this is obviously a key game — both terms of mentality and drive — considering the make-up of this CL group.
If Juventus is indeed a force to be reckoned with, as even most pundits – much to their own unwitting surprise – have turned on a plate and begun to admit, now is the time to show it in earnest. In many ways and as under-the-radar as it might be (compared to more illustrious fixtures in the eyes of the world), this game could well turn out to be the most important for this Old Lady, at least in her initial attempts to show the world that she is more of a Lady Madonna than an Eleanor Rigby.
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