It has come down to this. Tuesday night, Chelsea will make their trip to Turin for the crucial Champions League fixture against Juventus. The match will mark a period of 6 days that may be the defining moments of where the club will be heading this season. First is the trip to Turin. On Sunday is the visit of Manchester City. Consecutive defeats will not only take qualifying for the Champions League group stage out of our hands, but it would also result in Chelsea finding themselves 7 points adrift of City in the title race.
But let’s not get carried away with City just yet. First, Chelsea will have to break down a Juventus side that showed the resilience in matchday 1 to come back from at 2-0 defecit to steal a point. That was no fluke. However, since that time, Juventus have been the stingiest defence in Serie A, having conceded just 9 goals in 13 matches, but they’ve also been one of the best scoring teams with 29 goals this season.
However, despite those goal tallies, Juventus have a similar issue lately as Chelsea do with strikers misfiring. The combination of Mirko Vucinic, Nicklas Bendtner, Sebastian Giovinco, and Alessandro Matri haven’t been firing on all cylinders this season, with Giovinco leading that bunch with 5 goals in all competitions. In addition, Juventus have lost a bit of that air of invincibility when Inter broke their unbeaten streak in the league just weeks ago. If there was a time to face Juventus, now might be it as one or two small weaknesses have appeared.
The misfiring strikers is a real problem for Juventus.
Throw out the 6 goals that they put past a hapless Pescara squad and the 4 that they put by Nordsjaelland and you have a squad that has been eking out 2-1, 2-0, 1-0 victories en route to the top of Serie A.
The fact that Juventus have a total of 10 goals between the four strikers not named Fabio Quagliarella speaks volumes about the inability of their strikers to find the net. It’s almost a real shame because of the immense talent they have in midfield with the likes of Andrea Pirlo, Claudio Marchisio, and Arturo Vidal.
If they had anyone to finish, they’d be a different proposition. But they don’t, and because of that, it gives teams a mentality of “if you can stop the midfield, you can stop Juventus.”
Stopping the midfield is a harder proposition, though, with the ability of Vidal and Pirlo to cover for each other’s role.
The most interesting thing about Juventus is how reliant their system is that midfield pulling the strings. Shamefully, they haven’t found players to finish the chances that they create. What makes it so hard to play against Juventus is that Vidal acts as a second playmaker and is good enough to pull the strings on his own. I think Chelsea found out in the first leg that closing down Pirlo isn’t enough to stop the midfield because Vidal is just as capable of hurting you. It’s no surprise that Vidal is their leading scorer this season with 8 goals. Teams become so focused on stopping Pirlo that they forget to account for Vidal in the numbers, and he’s the one to hurt you. Only Inter and Andrea Stramaccioni have managed to find a way to stop both Pirlo and Vidal, consequently Inter are the only team to manage a win over them this season.
Stramaccioni was actually quite clever in how he defeated Juventus. It can be replicated.
In a sense, Stramaccioni pulled some of the old theories on counter-attacking football out of the library and found away to stop Juventus. It’s interesting because conventional logic says that you shouldn’t counterattack a team like Juventus will generally outnumber you in the midfield. The reasoning is that to generate enough numbers against their back three, you’ll leave spaces in the midfield for them to exploit.
Cleverly, Stramaccioni employed two out-and-out attacking players who do very little defensively (Diego Milito and Antonio Cassano) and deployed Rodrigo as the third man in attack, who also had the job of tracking Pirlo much as Oscar did for us.
The differences between what we tried to do and what Stramaccioni tried to do are two-fold. One, Stramaccioni sat incredibly deep, daring Juventus to have to break them down and trusting that his front 3 could create chances when placed in a 3 v 3 situation against their back line. Two, not only did Rodrigo track Pirlo, but Stramaccioni’s decision to play a back 3 himself meant that he had a spare man at the back. As Pirlo’s time and space was taken away, Juan, the extra center back, was charged with immediately closing down Vidal so that he had no space either.
In effect, the front three conjured their magic to the tune of three goals, and the Inter defence effectively cut off the Juventus attack by denying both playmakers room to breathe.
Roberto Di Matteo’s press conference and comments hint that he might have seen the same thing Stramaccioni saw.
While I don’t expect Chelsea to come out and play with a back 3, I do think that Di Matteo has seen the need to close down that midfield better. In the first meeting, Oscar did a fine job on Pirlo, but the space that Vidal was afforded was vast. I think he’s seen what Inter did in stopping both and knows that since we need a result, he’s going to have to do the same thing.
The question that I have is how he solves the problem of the three attackers. He can’t play the normal system as he did in the Champions League final where he played Ryan Bertrand and Ramires in the wide areas. Because of Juventus back three, if you’re going to counterattack, then you must have at least three players who are skilled enough to pull them apart. They’ll give you the space to do it as their wing backs advance, but the players have to have the creativity to do it.
Which leads to the final point: if you’re Di Matteo, who do you think is more of a threat, Daniel Sturridge or Fernando Torres?
And that will be the biggest determining factor if Di Matteo chooses the “Inter” strategy. One thing that Inter did well was Milito was ruthless in front of goal. Two goals from the Argentinian striker were enough to see off Juventus, and Chelsea must have that same ruthlessness if they are to play on the counter.
However, the two striking options in Sturridge and Torres provide a bit of a dilemma. Torres is terribly off-form and Sturridge has offered a threat, though not a threat that has resulted in goals. If you are to play on the counter, you must be able to finish efficiently, as Didier Drogba’s efforts showed in the Champions League final and in the semi-finals against Barcelona last season.
However, at the moment, neither of the strikers at Di Matteo’s disposal really inspires much confidence. Torres can’t find the goal if he tried, and Sturridge is still inexperienced at the top levels, meaning you wonder how he’ll respond if asked to be the focal point in a match that Chelsea cannot afford to lose.
All these questions will be answered at 19:45. All I will say is that I don’t want to have to rely on Shakhtar and Juventus not drawing the final match to get to the knockout rounds. Too many strange things can happen in this game.