The last piece of the puzzle that is the 2020-21 season has fallen into place.
On Thursday, UEFA held the draw for the group stage of the ‘20-21 UEFA Champions League season, slotting the final fixtures into the list for the calendar year.
A good draw is always a help in continental competition, and that was doubly true this year given the transitory nature of the season for Juventus and the fact that new coach Andrea Pirlo is about to take his first jump into very deep pond.
The good news is that the draw was quite kind to the Bianconeri this year. Juve will join Barcelona, Dynamo Kyiv, and Ferencvaros in Group G — an eminently navigable group that, barring a monumental turn for the worse — should see the team advance to the knockout rounds in February. Indeed, there is even an opportunity to win the group, should the team come together by the time the head-to-heads with Barca arrive.
As we’ve done for the last few years, we’ll use this space to take a closer look at Juve’s group stage opponents and check out how they’ll stack up over the next three months. Let’s get started.
In the two years since Cristiano Ronaldo came to Turin, Juventus have been part of five Champions League draws. In all but one, including both group stage draws, they’ve been in the same pot and therefore ineligible to be drawn together. Now, the first time they’ve been in separate pots since that move, they’re drawn into the same group, renewing the Ronaldo/Messi rivalry for the first time since the former left Spain.
I’m not one for conspiracy theories, but I definitely think the fix was in here.
The hubbub over the renewed rivalry between the two aliens will dominate the coverage of this matchup, but there’s a lot more to the matchup between the group’s two heavies. Both are teams in transition, trying to retool on the fly after extended periods of success. Juve arguably have the better situation of the two, as the Catalan outfit is in utter chaos behind the scenes. President Josep Bartomeu has thrown the team into disarray with some unwise financial moves over the last few years, sapping the team of its overall quality and leading to the lowest moment the team has had in more than a decade when they were annihilated by Bayern Munich in the quarterfinal of the restarted 2019-20 Champions League. That was followed Messi turning in a transfer request. The saga was given blanket coverage, but ended with the Argentine staying where he was, either outfought by Barca from a legal perspective or simply having made his point about Bartomeu, who will be replaced as president after new elections in the spring.
The result is a team that, despite Messi’s presence, could be beatable if Juve is on its form. There are questions on this team from the center of defense to the revamped midfield. New coach Ronald Koeman seems to be trying to address some of those by installing a 4-2-3-1 formation for their first competitive match last week, after multiple coaches over 15 or so years kept to a 4-3-3 setup at Camp Nou. The double pivot midfield may bring out the better side of Frenkie De Jong, who played in a similar system under Eric ten Hag, but the question is whether an aging Serigo Busquets will make a good partner, or whether any of Barca’s other midfielders — including former Juve mainstay — Miralem Pjanic will make a good partner for him. One big area of concern (non-Messi category) is winger Ansu Fati, who scored two brilliant goals against Villarreal on Sunday and could develop into one of the brighter lights in the sport.
Juve match up to Barca pretty well. Ronaldo and Messi practically cancel each other out, as do Wojciech Szczesny and Marc-Andre ter Stegen, while the supporting attackers and maybe the midfield are a push, perhaps actually trending toward Juve when they’re on their best days. Arthur is certainly going to go into the matchup motivated to prove to his old team that their decision to cut him loose was the wrong one. Barca are get the edge when it comes to full/wingbacks, while the center backs, especially when Matthijs de Ligt returns, probably swing back to Juve.
The deciding factor will be which of the two teams absorbs their new coaches ideas quickest and most effectively. If everything else goes chalk, the two head-to-heads will decide who wins the group, and the way these two clubs stand that’s going to come down to who’s better on game day.
For the record, Juventus and Barcelona have faced off 13 times, with Juve winning five games to Barca’s four, with four draws. The last time they met was in the group stage of the 2017-18 Champions League. Barca won the first match 3-0 at Camp Nou, and the return fixture ended goalless.
Pot 3 worried me the most in this draw. With all of the other Italian teams in this pot, it left only five possible teams Juve could be drawn with, including last year’s quarterfinalists RB Leipzig. Thankfully, fortune was kind and skipped over the Germans, instead handing Juve Dynamo Kyiv.
Dynamo is one of those teams whose history deserves more than the hand that modern football has dealt them.
The Ukrainian outfit has been a force in domestic competition for generations. When Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union the team won the top league 13 times, and has won a further 15 titles when Ukraine gained independence after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Both of those numbers are records. In the 1970s and 80s they were managed by Valeriy Lobanovskiy, one of the greatest coaching minds to ever sit in a dugout, and won the old Cup Winners’ Cup twice, including once against their group-mates Ferencvaros. Lobanovskiy helped revolutionize tactics in that era, though he fell short of the ultimate prizes for both club and country.
The modern day has seen the team’s fortunes decline. Shakhtar Donetsk won eight of 10 domestic titles in the 2010s (Dynamo did have the other two) and they’ve only gotten over the group stage hurdle in the Champions League once since the year 2000. With little money or drawing power (at least from the perspective of the European mainstays) it’s dang near impossible for them to compete at the big kids’ table on the continent.
It’s hard to get stats on the Ukrainian league, but Dynamo is leading the table after four games, tied with Vorskla with 10 points with Shakhtar lurking. Their roster is made up almost entirely of domestic players, with only six non-Ukrainians in the squad. That includes leading scorer Viktor Tyshankov, who scored 17 times in all competitions out of midfield last season.
It’s never easy going to eastern Europe for Champions League ties — just look at Lokomotiv Moscow last season — but Dynamo is a team that Juve should be able beat on quality alone.
Juve have played Dynamo four times, with Juve winning three and drawing one. In the 2002-03 Champions League group stage, Juventus won both games, 5-0 at home and 2-1 away. In the 1997-98 edition of the competition, they faced off in the quarterfinals, with Juve winning 5-2 on aggregate en route to a runner-up finish in the competition.
Ferencvaros is the Juventus of Hungary. They’ve blown the rest of the country’s clubs out of the water, winning the Hungarian title a whopping 31 times. They also have some history with Juve, beating the Bianconeri 1-0 in the 1964-65 Inter-City Fairs Cup, the predecessor of what is now the Europa League.
That game was the only ever meeting between the two sides, and it’s hard to see the Hungarians repeating that feat this year. They were the lowest seed in the group stage draw, with a UEFA coefficient of only 9.0. A year ago they fell two rounds short of making the group stage, and only won one game after dropping to the Europa League and qualifying for the group stage of that competition.
This team simply isn’t on the level of either of the group’s top teams. Their top scorers a year ago, Tomac Nguen and Franck Boli, each notched 12 in all competitions, though as a team they managed 83 in 50 competitive games, including two from former Juve academy product Davide Lanzafame before he moved to Budapest Honved on loan. That might count for firepower in domestic competition in Hungary, in the upper echelons of the Champions League it’s like fighting an iron sword with a bronze one. Expect a parked bus either a couple of ground-out results or a curb-stomp.