The Champions League group stage draw has come and gone, and now it’s time to start thinking about the new European campaign in earnest.
As has been the case the last few years, the group stage draw for Juventus in the 2019-20 edition of the competition is decidedly middle-of-the-road. Things could have been a lot better, but they also could have been a whole hell of a lot worse. In drawing Atletico Madrid, Bayer Leverkusen and Lokomotiv Moscow, Juve are in a good position to return to the knockout rounds come the turn of the year.
And progression is the name of the game in the group stage. Yes, winning the group carries some prestige and certainly a morale boost — especially with a fellow regular in the deeper knockout stages like Atleti as opponents — but in practical, competitive terms, winning the group has begun to mean less than it has in the past. This is because of the group stage draw rules that were implemented in 2015, which put the title holders, Europa League holders, and champions of the top six leagues into Pot 1 rather than seeding teams solely by UEFA coefficient. This has generally spread the continent’s best teams out and made for less predictable group finishes than were common under the old system and, subsequently, a greater chance for big clubs to meet early in the knockout rounds. While the goal is to obviously win everything you can, simply getting out of the group could still see a team well on their way to success — just look at current holders Liverpool, who scraped into the knockout rounds as runners up of Group C last year before running through to the title.
With all that in mind, let’s take a closer look at a group that Juve can—and should—certainly get through by December, and where the biggest pitfalls may lie.
Fun fact: Juventus have played at least one Champions League game in the city of Madrid in four of the last six years, and have played one of the Madrid teams in five of the last six.
This will be the third time in seven years that Juve have faced Atleti in Europe’s premier club competition. Their last meeting, of course, produced one of the greatest comebacks in Juve’s European history when, after a dismal 2-0 loss in Spain, Massimiliano Allegri put on his Miracle Max hat one last time and engineered the perfect second leg, laying a 3-0 scoreline on one of Europe’s great defenses to win the tie.
The shine on that moment was eroded the next month when Ajax ushered the Bianconeri out of the competition in rather comprehensive fashion, but the teams that will meet over the next few months will look a good deal different than the ones that met in February and March.
The changes to Juve, of course, we already know, but Diego Simeone is adjusting to more turnover than usual at the Wanda Metropolitano, and in significant places. That defensive lineup that had become the stuff of legend has broken up and scattered. Felipe Luiz, Juanfran, and the team’s talisman, Diego Godin, all left this summer as free agents, while Lucas Hernandez was the subject of a big-money move to Bayern Munich. Young midfielder Rodri left in a similar move to Manchester City, while Antoine Griezmann finally moved to Barcelona for even more.
That doesn’t mean the team has been defanged. Simeone’s system remains in place, although it remains to be seen how long it will take for their new defensive lineup, now built around holdover center back Jose Gimenez, to gel. The midfield will withstand the loss of Rodri just fine with stalwarts Koke, Saul Niguez, and Thomas Partey ready to do their parts. Griezmann has been more than replaced by Portuguese wunderkind Joao Felix, whose skill was clearly visible when he scored two excellent goals against Juve in a preseason friendly in Sweden earlier this month. And of course, they have the incredible Jan Oblak — the game’s best goalkeeper — as an insurance policy. They’ve already won their first two games in league play.
Simeone has long relied on strong defense and devastating counters in European play. They are more than capable of playing with the ball — as they do many a game in La Liga, where they are clearly superior to all but Barcelona and Real Madrid—but in most continental clashes the Argentine prefers to see his team play on the break. That could cause some problems against Maurizio Sarri’s passing-based system, especially in the opening match of the group, when the system will still be relatively new and the chance for a wayward pass will be higher. Those problems could be enhanced given the inexperience of players like Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci in playing a high defensive line. Juve’s mainstay defensive backs are also both on the wrong side of 30 and don’t have a whole ton of recovery speed, which will make players like Matthijs De Ligt hugely important.
Despite their 2-1 loss in their preseason matchup, Juve looked very good. It was their lack of solid finishing as well as a couple of excellent saves by Oblak that kept them from scoring more. That meeting might not mean too much given its circumstances, but these are two very evenly matched teams, and the games between them will come down to who has the better match day of. Winning this group will come down to the head-to-head matches, provided both teams take care of business against the lower seeds.
There’s not a lot of history between Juve and Bayer Leverkusen. The Bianconeri do have a special place in the German side’s history, though. The only time they ever played each other, in the 2001-02 tournament, Bayer had their best-ever European performance, finishing as runners-up to Real Madrid. That season they met Juve in the second group stage (that was still a thing back then) and split their two meetings, with Juve winning 4-0 at home but falling 3-1 in Germany.
A year ago, Leverkusen finished fourth in the Bundesliga, edging out Borussia Monchengladbach and Wolfsburg, and made the round of 32 in the Europa League, bowing out to Russian club Krasnodar.
This is a competitive team, but one that a properly-functioning Juve team should be able to handle. They return their two top scorers from last year, Kevin Volland and 20-year-old Kai Havertz, who broke out last year with 20 goals in all competitions. But their main creative engine, Julian Brandt, left over the summer for Borussia Dortmund, leaving a hole to fill.
Havertz is certainly shifty enough to become that man, but the Champions League will be a big step up from what he faced in the Europa League a year ago. If he can prove himself, he could become the next young German talent to attract the interest of Bayern Munich or Dortmund.
The defense is led by the occasional Germany internationals Sven Bender and Jonathan Tah, with left back Wendell a threat on the flank. Captain Lars Bender has recently transitioned to cover the right-back spot, while the Chilean Charles Aranguiz serves as the anchor in midfield and main set-piece taker.
Bayer is managed by Peter Bosz. The Dutch coach took Ajax to the Europa League final in 2017 — falling to Manchester United — before moving on to Borussia Dortmund. He fell flat on his face in Westphalia, failing to register a win in the Champions League and getting sacked in early December. He replaced Heiko Herrlich halfway through last season, and brought the team from ninth to fourth. He’s tactically flexible, using three- and four-man defenses as the situation arises. Leverkusen’s two Bundesliga games this year (both wins) have seen him deploy a 3-4-3 and a 4-1-4-1 formation, respectively. He prefers passing through an opposing defense to hitting the wings and crossing, though his squad also excels at set pieces, something that caused Juve some issues last year.
If Juve manage to keep the ball, though, they should be in a good position to win. Leverkusen allows a good amount of chances, and have had problems in the past with skillful dribblers. Douglas Costa, Federico Bernardeschi, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Paulo Dybala could all take advantage of that weakness.
Juve are certainly the better team here on paper. When firing on all cylinders they should be able to overpower this Bayer side, but if they lose focus, the Germans can jump them for a result.
The runners-up in the Russian Premier League last season, Lokomotiv are entering their second consecutive Champions League campaign. They finished last in Group D a year ago, losing five of six games, although they did manage to pick up a victory against Galatasaray. They’ve never played Juve in a competitive match.
There are some notable names on this Russian side. Captain Vedran Corluka was a mainstay in the Croatia team that made the World Cup final last summer, and a sharp-eyed Juventino will recognize German defender Benedickt Howedes, who spent an injury-plagued season in black and white stripes two seasons ago. Their forward line also boasts Eder — the Portuguese one, not the Brazilian-turned-Italian — whose claim to fame is the goal that gave Portugal the European title in 2016.
He’s not a regular starter, however, and the attack is usually led by a trio of Russians: Fedor Smolov and the twin brothers Anton and Aleksey Miranchuck. The latter leads the team in goals so far in the Russian league, along with Polish holding midfielder Grzegorz Krychowiak.
Manager Yury Semin prefers a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Smolov leading the line and the Miranchuck brothers tucking in behind. Howedes and Brazilian Murilo Cerqueira have cycled as the partner of Corluka. Krychowiak and Dimitri Barinov form up as the double pivot in midfield.
In domestic competition they’re one of the best attacks in the league, scoring 12 goals in seven games so far, but Juventus is a step above anything they’ll see at home. They’ve also shown a marked difficulty defending up the wings thus far, something that Juve’s stable of excellent wingers can exploit with ease.
The travel will be a pain, but Juve are the decidedly superior team here, and a pair of wins is the baseline expectation for this matchup.