At Stamford Bridge on Wednesday night, Chelsea begin their defence of the Champions League trophy and will attempt to be the first side since Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan to repeat as winners of the European Cup and the first team in the Champions League era to repeat.
However, waiting for them in their first group stage match is The Old Lady, Juventus. Despite having not been in the Champions League since the 2009-2010 season, Juventus rose to win Serie A last season for the first time since their part in the Calciopoli scandal and subsequent relegation to Serie B.
Juventus next attempt is to get further than the first knockout round, which is where they fell in 2009-2010, with the first step towards that goal coming in the form of a matchup with the holders of the title.
Juventus is a very interesting proposition because of how their squad is constructed. Since the departures and aging of Pavel Nedved and Mauro Camoranesim Juventus has struggled to find consistency on the flanks, especially when they were under Claudio Ranieri who preferred two wide men. Enter Antonio Conte and Andrea Pirlo. Despite the former’s touchline ban, his fingerprints are all over this side, and he has consistently played to Juventus’ strength through the midfield. However, everything came together with the addition of Andrea Pirlo last season on a free from Milan. Not only did it seem to re-energize the Juventus side, but it also resurrected the talents of Pirlo, who was allowed to leave by Milan because they feared his age was catching up to him.
Make no mistake. This Juventus squad is very good and poses a great threat to a team, especially if the midfield does not play well.
First point, everything Juventus does starts with Andrea Pirlo, who at age 33 is having a renaissance in his career.
Milan released Pirlo after the 2010-11 season fearing that he was on the downside of his career and wanting to give more of a chance to the younger members of the squad. Milan’s loss was Juventus gain. Last season, from his regista position, Pirlo rediscovered the form that endeared him to Milan fans everywhere and allowed them to stuff it down Inter’s throats that they poached him from Inter. Pirlo took his league form straight into the Euro’s where his dictating of play took Italy to the Finals, where they were finally eclipsed by Spain.
If anyone needs a reminder of what Pirlo can do to an opponent, simply look up the Italy/England match from Euro’s and watch Pirlo at his best (though I’m sure very few of you reading this want to re-live that).
The question with Pirlo this season is, how much does he have left in the tank? He’s had an indifferent start to the season and questions are being asked if the Euro’s took a bit too much out of him. Regardless, he’s still the conductor of the orchestra, and he might simply be one of the greatest at that role of all time.
Not only is it Pirlo that makes Juventus’ midfield so dangerous, but it’s his two midfield partners that really help him out.
When Pirlo was at his best with Milan, two tremendous partners in the middle in Massimo Ambrosini/Clarence Seedorf and Gennaro Gattuso flanked him on either side. Conte, wisely, attempted to resurrect that great system by adding Kwadwo Asamoah and Juventus youth academy graduate Claudio Marchisio to that midfield with Pirlo. Asamoah has been compared to Michael Essien in his midfield ability, and Marchisio is very good all-around. Not only did those two come in, but this season, Juventus has added Arturo Vidal, who has the added dimension of being an extra deep playmaker but one with better ball-winning ability than Pirlo.
In fact, this season, Vidal’s arrival has pushed Asamoah into the wider areas, with Vidal working as a second pivot alongside Pirlo. Suffice it to say, that’s Juventus greatest strength area: the midfield.
Juventus also boast a more than capable strike force, and also boast one of the best young fantasista’s in Italy at this moment.
One of the strikers, Chelsea fans should all remember from his Roma days, and the group stage of the Champions League in 2008-2009. Mirko Vucinic made the switch from Roma and despite injuries, has regained enough of the form to still present a threat to any side.
The unknown to many is Alessandro Matri, who made his name at Cagliari before making the switch to Juventus. Matri managed 10 goals in his 30 appearances, though it could be argued that his number is low, primarily because he’s more suited to the Prima Punta role than either Vucinic or the third member of the striking trio, Fabio Quagliarella, who are both better suited for the Secondo Punta.
The final member is the fantasista who has emerged as a major threat, despite being smaller than Lionel Messi. Sebastian Giovinco has returned to Juventus after a season with Parma, who co-owned him until this year. Despite his 5’4 ½ height, he managed to score 15 goals in 36 appearances for Parma last year and emerged as Italy’s brightest creative force.
If there is one weakness in Juventus, it might be their defence, where players fall into two categories, Center Back or Wing Back.
Juventus have no “full backs” as classically defined; rather they employ two wing backs in the wide positions. It works for them because it allows them to get all their CBs on the pitch without having to shift their best central defender, Giorgio Chiellini, to left back, where his influenced waned at times last year.
However, Chiellini is also not the most reliable from a fitness standpoint, as he’s been known to spend many a day on the training table with strains and such. Without Chiellini, the defence looks much more ordinary where two of Martin Caceres, Andrea Barzagli, and Leonardo Bonucci must play. They can best be described as the young and inexperienced, the older and declining, and the not very fast. If there is one weakness, it is the center of defence.
However, this season, Conte and his stand-in man on the touchline, Massimo Carrera, have cleverly disguised that problem. Be prepared for 3-5-2.
So far to start the season, Juventus have been employing Chiellini, Bonucci, and Barzagli all three at center back. That has allowed them to used Paolo De Ceglie and Stephan Lichsteiner in much more favorable wing back roles, as neither are great defenders.
It’s had another knock-on effect with Pirlo being dropped deep enough to really playing as an inverted sweeper with Vidal played higher into the midfield as a second distributor. In addition, it means that they can use Simone Pepe and Emaneule Giaccherini as match-changers to widen play as needed.
Overall, it’s a real problem for our side because of the way we like to play. With both wide men coming inside, Wigan and Manchester City have shown that playing variations of 3-5-2 can stifle our ability to play for periods of time. Eventually, we will break it down, but it makes for very hard work of it when no fewer than 10 men will be clogging up the center for both sides.
The addition of Victor Moses does help with the width because he is willing to attack wider, but there’s still a penchant for us to want to play centrally. Against Juventus, it will be a much harder proposition, especially with the ability of that 3-5-2 and the personnel if we’re too attacking and leave gaps.