Stakes could hardly be higher as group E leaders Shakhtar take on second placed Juventus in the decisive Champions League match in Donetsk on Wednesday. While the hosts are through to the knock-out stages no matter the result, they need a point to secure top spot. As for Juventus, a win, draw or loss will see them first, second or third in the group. Chelsea could in theory slip-up against FCN – but there’s really no reason to over-complicate matters…
So, for Juve, it’s relatively simple: Get at least point – like they have in their last 15 consecutive European games – and they’re through. The tricky part is, of course, that the Old Lady will be facing a fierce opponent in Shakhtar, who have been the most convincing side in group E by some margin, and possibly one of the best teams of the tournament as a whole so far.
While Chelsea will fear that this game will turn out a biscotto (literally, a “biscuit” – what Italians call a game not truly contested) given that a draw will see both teams qualified, there is little to suggest that either of the teams should be interested in giving up the game. While Shakhtar may be tempted to rest certain players, there is still that little matter of the players themselves wanting to shine on the biggest European stage – plus of course the advantage of finishing first in the group. Regardless of the teams fielded, facing the Miners on a cold winter’s night at the Donbass Arena is a frightening prospect for anyone under any circumstances, even a storied and experienced Old Lady.
As mentioned above, the Ukrainians (along with their Brazilian, Armenian, Croatian etc. teammates) have been playing extremely well in this tournament as well as anywhere else. It seems that after a few seasons of bedding in, the tangerine-clad Miners are now ready to challenge the big boys in earnest.
A very solid squad, coached by the experienced Romanian Mircea Lucescu, Shakhtar have taken another step up from the form the led them to the UEFA Cup trophy in 2009, and they now look like a serious Dark Horse for the finest title in Europe. The team is quick, versatile and stuffed with quality in every position. As evidenced by their stellar performances against both Chelsea and Juventus thus far, they are not a team to crumble under pressure, nor do they leave anything to desire neither tactically nor physically.
As for the game being inconsequential to them, it is fair to say that after the bad publicity surrounding the controversial Luiz Adriano goal in Copenhagen in the latest round (resulting in him being banned for “unsportsmanlike conduct” for the Juve game), the last thing Shakhtar need is to be accused of throwing a game or even playing it safe, especially with the British media hovering above the fixture with the interests of Chelsea on the agenda…
It is hardly necessary to point to Willian, Rat, Srna, Fernandinho, Mkhitaryan etc. as extremely talented players anymore, as they have proven to be on many occasions recently. Assuming Lucescu will field his strongest eleven in order to secure first place in the group, the only question would be which player the tactician chooses to play up front in lieu of Luiz Adriano.
Fresh from a comfortable 3-0 drubbing of intra-city rivals Torino, the Bianconeri should have restored whatever confidence may have been lost losing to Milan at the San Siro a week earlier. The fact is that so far, Juventus have dealt rather well with being back in Europe, as they still sit proudly atop the Serie A table, whilst having further Champions League qualification in their own hands.
Many, this author included, will insist, however, that the two points dropped in Copenhagen was the one real casualty of the tight schedule this fall, but even so, it’s hard not to rue the loss of those points in a tight group, standing on the threshold of a trip to Ukraine in December. But then again, such lessons must be learned by a squad having been out of the Champions League for a rather long while…
With everyone seemingly fit again and all bar the suspended Marchisio (to be replaced with Paul Pogba) available for selection it is not all that hard to predict the line-up Antonio Conte will go for, barring of course the eternal issue of the strikers. Mirko Vucinic and Fabio Quagliarella did well against Chelsea, but Sebastian Giovinco knocks on the door too, given his goals and fine performances recently. Indeed, it seems that the competition for the starting berths has been narrowed down to those three, as Matri and Bendtner for all their hard work still only have managed one goal between them this season.
Regardless of the result, this will be the final game for Juve without their beloved coach on the touchline, as Antonio Conte’s ban expires this week. Surely the Bianconeri will need no further motivation to do their utmost than the possibility of bringing the Mister a chance of breathing in the crystalline air of Champions League fixtures from close range after he returns?
The match promises to be a high-paced affair with both teams relentlessly pressing the ball, perhaps Shakhtar a bit less so, instead opting to go for devastating direct plays on the break. The Ukrainians are certainly capable of both approaches, and Lucescu will hope to once more be able to surprise and out-fox Conte as he did for the majority of the reverse fixture in Turin. Conversely, the Juve tactician should be the wiser after that experience and is guaranteed to have his team drilled and geared for the occasion.
A lot is at stake Wednesday night in Donetsk. A fixture that could have been “only” a duel for first place has become a do or die match for Juventus. In principle, the Bianconeri are inferior to no-one, but Reality called ahead of this game to express her concern over the sheer magnitude of the task – because Reality, like most of us, hates being cornered and especially so when it’s freezing. She did remind Juventini world wide that their squad is a very capable one as well, though…
The amount different perspectives and filters you can see this match from/through makes it almost impossible to call. Nevertheless, as much as the idea of a biscotto is a bit far fetched, the very fact that the draw would suit both parties might come into play should the game reach the latter stages still undecided. At any rate, it suffices to say that matches like this one is a test to be passed, and also a taste of what is still to come for Conte’s Juve – hopefully sooner rather than later!