Throughout the wild and wacky group stage in this season's Champions League, we've seen a lot of things happen. There's been a lot of unpredictability up and down the entire field, but there's no denying that a lot of it has happened in Group E, where the most of our attention is centered.
At the midway point, Juventus had three points after three draws. Remember the freakout that ensued after Juve's draw in Denmark? Man, that was a lot of noise to listen to. It was doom and gloom. There were still three matches to be played, but hope and positivity was the last thing people wanted hear about — which was totally understandable.
Two games, two wins, and a couple of weeks later, things have drastically changed.
Juventus are in position — if things ended the way they are right now — to move onto the knockout stages for the first time in the Andrea Agnelli/Antonio Conte era. But the job isn't done yet. There's still 90 more minutes to go and a positive result between Juve and the knockout stages.
What's needed for Juventus to remain in the Champions League come 2013 is clear: A win will be fantastic, but all that's needed is a draw. Then again, this is Juventus, where winning is the only thing that matters. That's what I'm talking about!
Of the three spots in the knockout round that are still up for grabs, one of them is in Group E. Juventus can still win the group, or be sent to the Europa League. Translation: Things are still completely up in the air. Juve are obviously in a good spot considering they have a two-point cushion over Chelsea thanks to the absolutely wonderful result at Juventus Stadium two weeks ago, but nothing is set in stone. Until the final whistle is blown in Donetsk tomorrow night, there will be quite a few nails being chewed down to tiny proportions around these parts.
Juventus don't need a win to advance, which is a good thing just in case the game doesn't exactly go as we hope. Team that with how much of a complete mess Chelsea since their loss to Juve and subsequent firing of Roberto Di Matteo/hiring of Rafa Benitez, and things are in Juventus' favor. But then again, Juventus need to get at least a point in a place where not too many teams are able to. So don't book your tickets to Turin for a knockout stage game just yet, folks.
And, the disciplinary committee has spoken: No Luiz Adriano because he decided what sportsmanship is and subsequently got banned by UEFA. Well done, lad.
No Claudio Marchisio because of yellow card accumulation, which is huge seeing as he always seems to find a way to change the game in these big-time matchups. Obviously having Paul Pogba around eases the pain a little bit, but with Marchisio's awesomeness reigning supreme over the weekend and good form as of late will certainly be missed. Why? Because's it's not just goals and assists when it comes to Il Principino. He brings so much balance to the midfield and does even more that doesn't show up on the stat sheet.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
1. How awesome Willian's afro is. Don't deny it. You love it, too.
2. How Juventus deal with the elements. I'm no weather guy — nor do I attempt to play one during my day job — buta quick look at the forecast in Donetsk points to one conclusion: It's gonna be cold. I'm not talking about just kinda cold, I'm talking about below-freezing kind of cold.
3. The Paul Pogba Effect. Stepping in for Arturo Vidal is something that Pogba has done without much problem at all this season. Now he has the task of replacing a different kind of midfielder with different kind of responsibilities in Claudio Marchisio. The good things is this: Pogba is a bad, bad man. Oh, and he's good at this whole football thing.
4. The Mirko Vucinic Effect. For me personally, Mirko's Turin derby was very hit-and-miss. Yes, he had two assists and was effective in the second half. But, at the same time, there were a lot of things that the hated Bad Mirko usually does. That's been the trend for him lately — some good moments, sometimes even game-changing, but overall, he hasn't been consistent at all. It's certainly a crucial game and you know what that means — Big Game Mirko or no Big Game Mirko? He hasn't found the back of the end net much at all lately, and has just three goals in 17 games in all competitions. Yeah, about that....
5. How well a rested Arturo Vidal plays. There weren't wholesale changes lineup-wise on Saturday against Torino, but the biggest one that could pay off for Juventus was the fact that Vidal got the night off. His last appearance was, well, not very good to say the least. His performance against Shakhtar back in early October wasn't very good, either. Now, with his battery recharged and his tank full, the usual Vidal will show its face again. I'd sure like that.
6. The battle on the wings. Our old buddy Jorid isn't scared to tell you about how awesome he thinks Darijo Srna is — and I really have no reason to disagree with him on that one. The Shakhtar captain has been known to make a bombing run down the right flank once or twice (slight understatement) over the course of a game. And his partner on the opposite flank, Razvan Rat, isn't too shabby in his own right. That means Stephan Lichtsteiner — who should get the start on the right — and Kwadwo Asamoah will have quite the task to not only contribute offensively, but also control Shakhtar's fullbacks on the defensive end of things.
7. How Shakhtar approaches things. Will they go for the throat and the three points? Will they play things safe, try to just hold onto first place in the group, and get the draw? Juventus' scenario is pretty clear, but so is Shakhtar's. They're top of the group and anything other than a loss keeps them there, so if they come out and play for the tie, I'll be surprised. Shakhtar has the talent to score goals. They've proven it. And there's no reason to think they won't do anything other than play their game tomorrow night. Well, unless Juventus cause them not to, of course...
My starting XI (3-5-2): Buffon; Barzagli, Bonucci, Chiellini; Lichtsteiner, Vidal, Pirlo, Pogba, Asamoah; Vucinic, Giovinco
STARTING TIME: 8:45 P.M. IN EUROPE; 2:45 P.M. ON THE EAST COAST, 11:45 A.M. ON THE WEST COAST