Many feared Juventus and Shakthar would play for the draw but Conte had other plans. Juventus came, saw, and conquered Donetsk for their first victory in this year's Champions League away from home thus emerging as the group winner at the end of the first stage.
Well this was unexpected. C'mon, admit it, even after the comprehensive dismantling of Chelsea at the Juventus Stadium two weeks ago, most of us were at least a wee bit nervous about the clash in Ukraine. We all feared the cold weather, Shakthar's tricky play on the counter, and the one-mistake-and-done type of pressure the game brought. But after a long, hard-fought 90 minutes, we are through to the knockout stages of the most prestigious club competition in the world, going in next round's draw as a group winner. Domination.
Alright, the game itself didn't really feel like domination. It felt more like a back and forth nail-biter in which we just needed to score first. In his last game away from the sidelines, Conte certainly wasn't going to park the bus and play for the draw. That's just not our game under the charismatic leader.
Instead, he went for that valuable first goal, but cautiously. And eventually, with some luck, good defending, and constant pressure, the goal came. It was a bit of a mess, what with Giovinco claiming the goal although it was an own goal under Gio's pressure, but all that mattered was that we were ahead with 30 minutes to go and only a miracle would have had this Bianconero team beat by the end of the game.
It's impressive really. We needed to win two very tough games to continue playing in the toughest competition in Europe and we rose to the occasion and did it. These men have come a long way. From drawing too many games last year, to lacking a bit of grinta and passion to start this one, and don't even get me started on the striker thing. Nonetheless, we are now approaching the Christmas break of our second season under Conte with a Scudetto in hand, top of Serie A since day one this year, and now group winners in the Champions League. Could not have asked for more.
Many wondered if we were gonna stick with the 4-3-3 formation especially since Chiellini wasn't a sure choice to start the game until the last minute. Being the warrior he is, Kaiser Giorgio was on that field since the first minute, marking his return on the pitch and bringing along our well-tested 3-man defense back.
With Lichtsteiner and Asamoah on the flanks, we had fast, combative wing backs who were up to the task on both sides of the field. This was the key of the game since Shakthar's Willian loves attacking from out wide and so does the rest of the Ukranian attack. Lichtsteiner certainly won the battle on the night and he did it by doing what he's worse at - attacking. His very forward positioning and runs on the right forced Willian back deeper which gave our defense more time to prepare for his runs forward.
Vucinic and Giovinco returned in their usual striker roles looking a lot more comfortable with each other in the final third to cause Shakthar problems. They both had their good touch boots on early and did great to connect with our midfield in building attacks.
The game started with a good pace and a cautious but dangerous approach by both teams. The biggest chance for Juventus came on 30 minutes when Giovinco had a golden opportunity to help all Juventus fans exhale. After some lovely play by Vucinic to stay with the ball on the counter, Gio's shot was just wide and failed to beat Pyatov from close range.
In the second half, the play opened up a bit and both teams came close within the first 15 minutes. Giovinco finally wrecked enough havoc in Shakthar's defense to pressure Kucher into putting the ball in his own net. Shakthar pushed for an equalizer, but Juventus stayed strong and composed in the back to take the victory, qualification, and group-winning spot home.
Buffon: 6.5 - Has a lot more to do in the Champions League but luckily remained unbeaten on Wednesday. Had some good interventions, but also had some close calls; was caught cross-footed on a free kick and had some rushed punches. Solid overall though, led with his experience and will certainly be very grateful to our defense for the clean sheet.
Barzagli: 7 - Started off very energetic and vigilant. It was like he knew Shakthar would be dangerous from the very start and he was determined to lead the defense into its focused, unforgiving state early on. As the match progressed he continued to do his work though more quietly. A very good game for Andrea.
Bonucci: 7.5 - Two things jumped out at me: he's learning when to pick his long range passes and his timing of blocking potential goal-scoring shots has become impeccable. Also, his passing in defense is a lot more disciplined. It's great to watch him mature alongside such experienced players as Buffon, Barzagli, Chiellini, and Pirlo.
Chiellini: 7.5 - A physically dominant performance, just like what you'd expect from our strongest defender against a technical attacking line. Knew where he could make a difference and used it. One thing I didn't like though - he conceded a stupid foul at the edge of the area simply out of frustration. Shakthar almost scored from the resulting free kick. As a defender, you have to know to pick your spots to make a point to the referee.
Lichtsteiner: 7.5 - Ran an absolute shit ton AND made a difference on both ends of the fields. Often these two happen in a mutually-exclusive manner for him, but this time around he was a boss, everywhere. Had a couple great low crosses in the area, one which led to the winning goal. He even beat his defender on a couple occasions. I wanted him to be subbed off as he looked gassed after an hour in, but this guy can run with the Kenyans. Great game by 'Steiner!
Vidal: 6.5 - Picked up a yellow in the 7th minute which was harsh to say the least. That kind of threw him off but he still found ways to close down effectively throughout the game. At times seemed too nervous, like he wanted to contribute too much and was too eager. He'll need to learn that mistakes are part of the game and he needs to keep his cool and stay composed.
Pirlo: 7 - There was a period in the second half where Vucinic was tightly man marked very deep in Shakthar's half and il Professore immediately recognized it. He pushed up himself, switched his passing and play more on the wings, and eventually Lichtsteiner's cross led to the goal. He even scored from a shot just outside the area. This man is a football genius and I truly enjoy watching him outsmart his opponent night in and night out.
Pogba: 6.5 - A very quiet game by Pogba, similar to some of Marchisio's performances in that position - quiet with a lot of effort and a lot of running. Being on the right of Pirlo suits him better I think, since he can use his right foot more to play others in. Held his own though, and used his length and strength well.
Asamoah: 6.5 - With Willian being the more dangerous of the two wide attackers Shakthar utilizes so often, Asamoah stayed back more often and helped our defense form more of a 4-man defense in which Barzagli could help out on the right with Willian, Bonucci kept his sweeper role, Chiellini tracked Mkhitaryan/Eduardo, and Asamoah stayed in front of Teixeira. Offensively he was a lot more limited though, and contributed little.
Vucinic: 7 - I think I am unconscionably becoming a bit biased on Mirko. In Danny's poll for man of match I immediately hit Mirko only to see that I was one of two people that had voted for him at time out of about a hundred. Am I seeing things that aren't there? I really thought Mirko had a good game - he tracked the whole field putting in his share in defense, his first touch was great, and he was instrumental towards any good attack we had for most of the game, plus he made very few mistakes, if any. No? Guyz?
Giovinco: 7 - I'll give him good partial credit for the goal even though he didn't score it himself. He was at the right place at the right time and that's what matters. Couldn't stay in front of his man and protect the ball on passes to his feet though, and in Europe that is absolutely pivotal. He'll be important in games where he'll get some space, but against strong defenders he will struggle to make a difference. It's just what you get with his size, I guess.
Conte/Alessio: 7.5 - Call it luck, or lack of decisiveness by Shakthar, but Conte and Alessio pulled off a victory in Ukraine - something no team had done all season (in both the Ukrainian League and CL). I do wish Caceres came on around the 70th minute to rest either Lichtsteiner or Chiellini though. Great win for the duo nonetheless, and Alessio will be proud to end his tenure on the sidelines with such an important victory. That said, WELCOME BACK CONTE!