Juventus make welcome return to the Champions League but face stern test against Chelsea
It hasn’t been the easiest of journeys but finally they are back. When the Champions League anthem is played over the Stamford Bridge PA system on Wednesday evening, the eleven men wearing the famous black and white stripes of Juventus will be the first to do so in almost three years.
Indeed, the last time the Turin side played a fixture in Europe’s elite competition was a 4-1 humbling at the hands of Bayern Munich in December of 2010. That loss saw them fail to progress from the group stage, and having been eliminated by Chelsea in the Second Round the previous season, the grand Old Lady of Italian football will be looking to give a better account of herself than anytime in recent history.
Until last the incredible unbeaten run to the league title last season, fans of the Turin club have had very little to celebrate since the aftermath of Calciopoli ripped the heart out of what was then one of the most formidable line ups in all of Europe. Recent events have also seen Antonio Conte been banned for ten months for his failure to report an allegedly fixed match from his time in charge of Siena, a charge he vehemently denies and is currently appealing against.
He will not be on the bench in this or any other Champions League tie this season should the original punishment stand but, while Conte has an omnipotent presence on the side-lines, Massimo Carrera has proved an able deputy. He is acting as little more than a match day mouthpiece for as Conte is still permitted to take charge of training and other team matters. The suspension has thus far had little effect as Juventus have started the season with three wins in their opening three league games of the season.
A number of new signings have arrived – notably Kwadwo Asamoah and Sebastian Giovinco – as the club looks to continue the impressive form shown last season. Yet they must also overcome the acrimonious departure of iconic Captain Alessandro Del Piero who appears to have fallen out with President Andrea Agnelli.
Gigi Buffon is now the only link to the pre-Calciopoli era and it is he who now dons the armband, the new leader of a side determined to reaffirm itself among the very best. The goalkeeper spoke for everyone connected with the club as he looked ahead to this first fixture this week, telling Sky Italia:
“I missed it and so did my teammates, but these two years out were good for us because now we’ll fight for every last drop of sweat in each game. For so many Tuesday and Wednesday nights I was forced to watch this tournament from my couch. I have a nice television, but being on the field is another matter…”
That fierce determination runs right through Conte’s side and will be essential if they are to enjoy anything resembling success now they are back at the top table of European football. Much of the talk around the club has centred on their inability to attract a big name striker over the summer, but even without one this is team able to compete with the very best, including the reigning Champions League winners Chelsea.
Juventus need look no further than last month’s European Super Cup for how to frustrate and negate Roberto Di Matteo’s side. From that fixture they will have looked on with great interest and seen Atletico Madrid press, harry and outfight Chelsea in Monaco, running out 4-1 winners on the night. While debate continues about the potency of the Juve attack, there is little doubt that midfield is the ultimate strength of this side, offering a quality and depth only rivalled by Barcelona, fully capable of replicating the suffocating style that the Spanish side utilised.
Harnessing the playmaking talent and effortless grace of Andrea Pirlo alongside the likes of Asamoah, Arturo Vidal and future Captain Claudio Marchisio, the midfield not only forms the basis of Conte’s superb blend of pressing and possession based football, it also gives them a versatility which allows the Coach to alternate between a 3-5-2 and an orthodox 4-3-3. The players switch seamlessly between the two and it is hard to judge which will be used on Wednesday, although so far this season the three man defence has been deployed in every game.
Should he be gifted the freedom afforded to Gabi in the SuperCup, Pirlo will pick Chelsea apart – as he has to countless opponents over the years – and the Premier League side’s defence looked lost against the Spanish club, who attacked in numbers from midfield as Vidal and Marchisio also surely will. Behind them, Buffon has continued the supreme form he has enjoyed over the past twelve months and a backline able to call upon the likes of Stephan Lichtsteiner, Leonardo Bonucci, Andrea Barzagli and the combative Giorgio Chiellini has been able to negate many formidable opponents under Conte’s guidance.
Superlatives have reigned down up this team long before the title was secured, their style and quality winning over fans and critics alike but the return to European action will provide a real indication of where they stand today. It is hard to argue with Gianluca Vialli – who played for both teams and won this competition with the Italian side back in 1996 – when he called the tie “a game between two sides who have points to prove.” Yet it seems, given their recent chequered history, Juventus have more to prove than most.
Adam Digby is the Italian Football Correspondent for ESPN, the co-founder of JuventiKnows.com and host of the “Il Verdetto del Campo” podcast.
Picture: Getty ImagesTagged in: Antonio Conte, Calciopoli, chelsea, football, Italian football, Juventus, UEFA Champions League
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