So, obviously nothing really big is going on in the Juventus sphere right now.
Just kidding! But how about we take a break from all the craziness surrounding the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo and take a look at the other important thing that happened this week: the draw for the group stage of the UEFA Champions League.
This was the first season since UEFA changed the seeding rules that Juve weren’t in Pot 1 as Italian champions. That, frankly, was almost a better deal, considering the fact that Pot 2 is always stacked with heavyweights and Pot 1 tends to have one or two champions of lesser leagues thrown in near the bottom.
Juve didn’t get that boon in this draw, but they still managed to pick up a pretty decent draw, eventually being placed in Group H along with defending European champions Chelsea, Russian giants Zenit St. Petersburg, and perennial Swedish winners Malmo.
Juve could certainly have hoped for a better group, but it’s not a bad beat for the Bianconeri all things considered. They avoided the true titans like Bayern Munich and Manchester City while also steering clear of the bigger pitfalls Pot 3 had to offer, like Benfica and RB Leipzig. It’s a group that Juve should, regardless of Ronaldo, be expected to progress out of, although winning it is likely a bridge too far unless Max Allegri makes quick work of turning the post-Ronaldo squad into a high-functioning team that plays well as a unit.
So, how will Juve stack up against their group stage opponents? Let’s look in on them to find out.
Fun fact: Both times Chelsea has won the Champions League, they have been drawn with Juventus in the group stage the next season.
Historically, Juve have only ever played Chelsea four times, with the results split evenly with a win apiece and two draws. Chelsea eliminated Juve 3-2 on aggregate in the round of 16 in 2008-09. When they were matched up in the group stage in 2012-13, Juve came back from 2-0 down to draw at Stamford Bridge before demolishing a by-then dysfunctional Chelsea side 3-0 in the return at the J Stadium.
The big headline in the Italian media when it comes to this pairing will be the return to Italy of Romelu Lukaku so soon after he fled the ashes of the Inter firesale to rejoin the club he broke into the big time with.
Lukaku is always a fearsome presence, but he’s never had much in the way of personal success against Juve. He’s played seven games against Juve in his career, two for Manchester United and five for Inter, but has never scored from open play against them. His only career tally has been a penalty in the penultimate game last season. His struggles against the duo of Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini go back even further, as in two games against Italy for Belgium he has similarly only netted from the spot.
Those numbers are heartening, but Lukaku is not the only firepower the Blues possess. This team won the Champions League last year for a reason. After a midseason coaching change with Thomas Tuchel replacing Frank Lampard, the team roared to life, making full use of its talent on both ends of the ball. It’s frightening to realize that they won the Cup With the Big Ears without a high-level striker, after last year’s marquis signing, Timo Werner, misfired for much of the campaign. Instead, they relied on the likes of Christian Pulisic, Mason Mount, Callum Hudson-Odoi, and the since-departed Olivier Giroud to pick up the slack. Fixing that weakness is one of the reasons Lukaku was brought back into the fold, and he makes them even more dangerous than they were before.
The real strength of the team last year, though, was further back. Chelsea’s defense was the best in Europe last year, allowing only four goals through the entire tournament. But the real gems are in midfield, where Jorginho and N’Golo Kante form one of the best tandems in the middle of the park anywhere. Kante is one of the best ball-winners in world football, while Jorginho’s metronomic ability to control the game with his passing was on full display for Italy during the Euros and was a key aspect to Chelsea’s title run as well. With the two of them playing as a double pivot in Tuchel’s 3-4-2-1, it will be tough to get control of a game. Competing against this midfield is going to be one of the biggest tests of how Juve are evolving as a club. If Manuel Locatelli can go toe-to-toe with his international teammate and hold his own, it’ll be a big sign of progress.
Whether or not Juve will be a match for Chelsea will ultimately depend on how well and how quickly Allegri adapts the team to the post-Ronaldo world. If he has this team humming by the time the two teams tangle (at the time of writing the schedule has not yet been released) Juve could well put up some competitive matches and compete for the top spot in the division. The more likely outcome, though, is a loss in London and a draw in Turin en route to a second-place finish, provided business is taken care of against the lesser competition in the group.
ZENIT ST. PETERSBURG
This will be the second time Juve and Zenit have ever been matched up against each other. Ironically enough, the last time they were also in Group H of the Champions League, in ’08-09. Juve won the first game 1-0 on an Alessandro Del Piero free kick before playing out a goalless draw in Russia.
Zenit have been the most successful team in Russia for the last 15 years or so. Since winning their first Russian Premier League title (their second overall when you count their time in the Soviet league as Zenit Leiningrad) they have finished in the top three every season but two and won seven league crowns, including three on the bounce. Last year they won the league by eight points, but because Russia has lost its spot in the UEFA country coefficients they weren’t in the top seed pot heading into the draw.
The fact that they were in Pot 3 comes largely from the fact that they were absolutely blitzed in last year’s Champions League, picking up only a single point while playing to a minus-9 goal difference. While they were easily the best attacking team domestically, their goal production was hugely top-heavy, with longtime contributor Artem Dzyuba and Iran international Serdar Azmoun picking up 20 and 19 goals, respectively. Midfielder Aleksandr Erokhin had the next most with only seven.
Manager Sergei Semak is a tactical chameleon. He used different formations in all six of his Champions League games last year and seven different ones over the Premier League season. He’s going to have to match up as best he can to try to nullify the likes of Federico Cheisa and a revved-up Paulo Dybala, especially with a defense light on high-level quality. The only name of note, Dejan Lovren, ceased to be on that level a long time ago, so it’ll take a major team effort to keep Juve at bay.
That being said, a trip to Russia is never easy, especially if the away game ends up deeper into the winter. These games will be the trap games of the group stage, and slipping up in one of them could have consequences.
Sweden’s most successful team and the European runners up in 1979, Malmo have faced Juventus twice, during the group stage of the 2014-15 season. They were the very first team Allegri ever faced in Europe as Juventus coach, and his teams won both legs 2-0 en route to a runner-up finish of their own that year.
These are the games that Juve absolutely must win in order to ensure they go through to the round of 16, much like the two contests against Ferencvaros last year. Of course, Juve always seem to need a stoppage time goal against these Pot 4 teams at least once in order to take all three points, whether it be Alvaro Morata’s last year or Douglas Costa’s mazy run against Lokomotiv Moscow the year before.
The Allsvenskan is an April-to-December league, so Malmo’s domestic season is already half over. They’re currently tied for second, a point behind Djurgardens after 16 games. Their most recognizable name is probably center-back Niklas Moisander, who had some success at Ajax in the 2010s and spent a year at Sampdoria in 2015.
That really tells you a lot about the gulf in quality between these two teams. Even as a team in transition, there’s really no excuse for Juventus to drop points in these games. These are necessary wins. If they don’t get them, they don’t really deserve to be in the next round.