Chelsea begin the defence of their Champions League crown tonight as they host Juventus, who return to the competition after a two year absence having won the Serie A title last season, going unbeaten in the process. After the Blues raced out of the blocks winning three league games on the bounce, they have been brought back down to Earth by a 4-1 drubbing at the hands of Falcao and Atletico Madrid in the European Super Cup, which was followed up by a labouring 0-0 at QPR last weekend.
The Bianconeri will certainly provide Roberto Di Matteo’s side with the most stern of tests of their European title credentials whilst Chelsea themselves will provide Juve with a thorough examination of just how good they are after enjoying a 42-game unbeaten streak in Serie A – and only defeat in the Coppa Italia final to Napoli in May prevented the Scudetto champions from going unbeaten in all competitions last season.
Juve, of course, are without head coach Antonio Conte, who is currently serving a ten-month touchline ban after being found guilty (or, rather, not being able to prove his innocence) of failing to report match-fixing in two games during his time as Siena head coach in 2010/11. The Calcioscommesse scandal has rocked Italian football, and Conte’s case is now heading to taly's Tribunal of Sports Arbitration this Friday as he attempts to clear his name of any wrongdoing and get his ban overturned.
This, though, is a different Juventus; only three of the players (Buffon, Chiellni and Marchisio) who were in the squad the last time these two sides met will feature tonight.
Not that Massimo Carerra, Conte’s assistant and acting head coach on matchdays, appears to be in need of any help. After beating Napoli 4-2 in the Suppercoppa Italiana, Juventus have won all three of their league games this season and sit on top of Serie A. The first real potential set back of their season came this weekend, after they found themselves 1-0 down at half-time to Genoa, after Ciro Immobile, a forward who came up through to youth system in Turin and has been sent to Genoa in a co-ownership deal, gave them the lead. However, Juve showed their mettle in the second half and came back to win 3-1 in impressive fashion.
Juve play a similar system to Napoli, who Chelsea struggled against last season – although eventually beat over two legs in one of the most enthralling contests of the competition – and it will be interesting to see if Di Matteo sets his team out any differently in order to negate the advantages of the 3-5-1-1 system. The main threat, as England found out to their misfortune, is Andrea Pirlo, and Chelsea will have to stop him from getting time and space on the ball to dictate the game if they want to win the match.
Juve are likely to revert to the usual back four of Gianluigi Buffon, Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellni that was impenetrable in Serie A last season, and was impressive for the Azzurri in the Euros this summer. Kwadwo Asamoah, a summer signing from Udinese who usually plays as a central midfielder, has been deployed as a left wing-back to great effect, scoring two goals and claiming two assists already this season; on the opposite side, Stephan Lichtsteiner, the Swiss international, has established himself as one of the most consistent and underrated defenders in Europe - he too has opened his goalscoring account for the season, and proves that Juventus have goal threats all over the pitch.
The usual midfield triumvirate of Claudio Marchisio, Arturo Vidal and Andrea Pirlo (M-V-P as they’re dubbed by Juve fans on twitter) will be the key to the game.
The usual midfield triumvirate of Claudio Marchisio, Arturo Vidal and Andrea Pirlo (M-V-P as they’re dubbed by Juve fans on twitter) will be the key to the game. This is a trio that boasts creativity, goals and (Pirlo aside) physicality. Marchisio and Vidal are tenacious and press high up the pitch, giving Pirlo the platform to control the game from the ‘quarterback’ position, and Chelsea will need to combat this if they want to be successful. John Obi Mikel seems to have traded in his previous role as a holding midfield for a more adventurous one, but he, along with Ramires, will need to match the energy of Vidal and Marchisio, whilst the old guard, Lampard and Pirlo, face off.
Juve’s failure to sign what most would regard as a ‘top striker’ – they brought in Nicklas Bendtner on loan from Arsenal – may have disappointed the Juventini faithful, but they will be encouraged that Mirko Vucinic, the mercurial Montenegrin, has started the season in fine fettle, scoring five goals for club and country already this campaign. Playing off him is Sebastian Giovinco,la formica atomica (the Atomic Ant) who has spent the past two seasons at Parma where he developed in to one of the most exciting attackers in Europe.
The stats are definitely in Chelsea’s favour. They’ve not lost any of their last 26 group stage matches at Stamford Bridge, and won all six of their home last season. Juventus, on the other hand, have lost their last six Champions League games away to English opposition – including a 1-0 defeat to Chelsea in the last 16 of the competition in 08/09 – and they shared a 2-2 draw at the Stadio Olimpico in the return leg. This, though, is a completely different Juventus; only three of the players (Buffon, Chiellni and Marchisio) who were in the squad the last time these two sides met will feature tonight.
Like Real Madrid v Manchester City last night, this match would be worthy of a semi-final or even a final. Let’s hope it lives up to the billing!
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