When the draw for the group stage of the UEFA Champions League was made at the end of August, I doubt many people were expecting Juventus to be in the position they are currently in headed into Round 5.
Indeed, few, even most Juventini, were expecting the Bianconeri to steal a win against defending champions Chelsea in Round 2. That win was the second of four straight to begin the European campaign, and the Old Lady of Italian Football are now qualified for the knockout rounds.
Just what position they’ll qualify for will largely come down to what happens on Tuesday.
Juve sit three points above the Blues in the Group H table thanks to that 1-0 win in Turin, and with two games remaining, a draw at Stamford Bridge will be enough to send them through as group winners.
Winning the group isn’t the ultimate boon that used to be before the seeding rules for the group stage changed and distributed the biggest clubs a little more evenly throughout the tournament. Look no further than the 2018-19 season, when Juve topped their group only to be confronted with Atletico Madrid, who had finished second in their group to Borussia Dortmund, in the round of 16.
Still, a group win tends to be a major morale boost, especially when you’ve gone into the tournament as the consensus second-best team in the way Juve did. Plus, a lot of the biggest of the big — think Liverpool, Bayern Munich — are in fact topping their groups this year, and a group win can kick that can a little further down the road.
If it’s going to happen, it’s likely going to happen the same way Juve upset Chelsea in September: defense, defense, defense. Juve clammed up and denied Chelsea any real purchase in attack, with the margin of victory provided by a smash-and-grab goal by Federico Chiesa in the first 10 seconds of the second half.
Juve was severely depleted going into that match, which unfortunately is still the case headed into Tuesday night’s contest. With Giorgio Chiellini — who made a late substitute appearance to seal the win in September — and Danilo both out injured, the margin of error at the back will be even thinner than it was, and there are questions as to how long Paulo Dybala will be able to play after sustaining a minor calf strain on international duty.
Chelsea aren’t exactly at full strength, either, with Romelu Lukaku a doubt with an ankle injury that’s kept him out for a month now. Kai Havertz has also been ruled out with a hamstring injury. The bad news for Juve is that one of the Chelsea players who missed the first game will be very much present for the second: N’Golo Kante, who might be the best midfielder on the planet right now, was placed in COVID protocol just before that match, but he’ll be back and on a mission in this one to get Chelsea back into the group.
Despite their shaky domestic form, Juve have been very much on top of things in the Champions League, the late away win against Zenit St. Petersburg notwithstanding. Going into the first game most people who followed the team would have been happy to simply avoid being embarrassed. Now, after good European form and a highly effective defensive display against Lazio on the weekend, it’s not hard to believe that the draw they need to finish first is well within reach.
- On Monday, Danilo was officially ruled out for two months with a thigh injury. Obviously, that means he won’t be seen until well into the new year.
- Giorgio Chiellini remains out after suffering a leg injury during warmups for the Fiorentina game before the international break. Mattia De Sciglio also remains a long-term absence.
- Paulo Dybala has been named in the squad for the game, but Massimiliano Allegri said in his pre-match press conference that it remains to be seen how many minutes the Argentine can play.
- Aaron Ramsey is injured. Water is wet. However, it’s interesting to note that in his press conference Allegri said that when it came to his midfielders, “everyone is available except Bernardeschi.” Now that could be a simple oversight or Freudian slip, but it could also be an indication that Ramsey is not longer being counted on as part of the squad.
JUVENTUS PLAYER TO WATCH
The midfield are candidates as whole for this spot, because Chelsea’s midfield is a formidable unit and will now have Kante back in his usual spot. But the injury bug has caused a lot of focus to shift out toward the flank.
With Danilo and De Sciglio out, Juan Cuadrado’s importance level to the team — which was really high already — is now over 9,000.
The Colombian is now the only player on the roster who can play at right-back. In a game like this that is likely to see Juve playing some serious defend-and-counter tactics, his play will be critical to how the game goes. He’ll most likely have to tangle with Marcos Alonso on the left side of Thomas Tuchel’s 3-4-2-1 formation, along with the array of attacking midfielders the German tactician has at his disposal, including Hakim Ziyech, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Mason Mount, and the newly-healthy Christian Pulisic, who was also injured for the first game between the two in Turin.
Cuadrado is obviously not a natural fullback, but he’s grown into the position over the last two years and at this point is a fully competent player there. I’d certainly rate his defensive abilities far higher than I would other men who have played the position in the past. He’ll have to do exactly what he did on Saturday in order to help lock down his flank and keep Chelsea from creating danger. He’ll also need to stay healthy, because if he falters physically Allegri will be down to the talented but super-raw U-23 product Koni De Winter.
If Juan can replicate the performance he turned in over the weekend, Juve could be well positioned to get the point they need. If he becomes a liability, Chelsea will have a big leg up in the match.
When: Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2021.
Where: Stamford Bridge, London, England.
Official kickoff time: 9 p.m. local time in Turin and continental Europe, 8 p.m. in the United Kingdom, 3 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, 12 p.m. Pacific Standard Time.
HOW TO WATCH
Television: BT Sport 2 (United Kingdom), Sky Sport Uno, Sky Sport 252, Canale 5 (Italy)
Streaming: Paramount+ (United States), DAZN (Canada), BTSport.com, BT Sport app (United Kingdom), SKY Go Italia, NOW TV, Mediaset Infinity (Italy).
Other live viewing options can be found here, and as always, you can also follow along with us live and all the stupid things we say on Twitter. If you haven’t already, join the community on Black & White & Read All Over, and join in the discussion below.