When you want to make a run in the UEFA Champions League, some luck when it comes to the draw is usually a factor at some point.
Over the last few years, Juventus has had some pretty decent luck in the group stage draws of the Champions League. While they’ve had big-name opposition in the form of teams like Barcelona and Chelsea the last few years, they’ve ultimately been placed in groups that they could comfortable be expected to advance from. The fact that they’ve had the breaks go their way enough to win the group the last two years has been an added bonus—albeit one that they haven’t been able to take advantage of in the knockout rounds.
But when the names came out of the hat this past Thursday, their luck had finally run out a bit. While they weren’t put in the Group of Death — that unfortunate distinction belongs to Inter, who were placed with Bayern Munich, Barcelona, and a poor, poor Viktoria Plzen team that likely did absolutely nothing to deserve their fate — Group H is perhaps the Group of Serious But Stable Condition. Drawing Paris Saint-Germain is never fun these days, while the Pot 3 team they picked up, Benfica, could, unlike previous years, give Juve a serious run for their money in terms of advancing from this group, especially with Juve in the form they’re currently in.
So, how does Juve stack up against their UCL opponents in 2022-23? Let’s take a closer look at PSG, Benfica, and Maccabi Haifa to find out.
Last year did not go as planned for PSG.
The 2021-22 season was supposed to be The Year for the nouveaux-riche side from the French capital. They had reinforced in major ways, splashing €60 million for Inter’s star wingback Achraf Hakimi and assembling an impressive group of free transfers, including Sergio Ramos, Giorgino Wijnaldum, Gianluigi Donnarumma and, after La Liga’s strict new financial rules prevented him from signing a new contract with Barcelona, Lionel Messi. The latter signing formed what was supposed to be a Murderers’ Row forward line of Messi, Neymar, and Kylian Mbappe that was expected to grind opponents into the dirt in all competitions.
But it didn’t turn out that way.
Messi never settled, Neymar was injured again, and a timeshare at goalkeeper between Donnarumma and Keylor Navas left both men dissatisfied. They finished second to Manchester City in their Champions League group before crashing out in the round of 16 after they threw away a 2-0 aggregate lead against Real Madrid with half an hour to play in the second leg. The expected Ligue 1 title did little to ease the pain of the debacle, and manager Mauricio Pochettino was let go at the end of the season.
Now led by Christophe Galtier, who guided Lille to an improbable league title two seasons ago, PSG seem to have picked up their new coach’s ideas relatively quickly. They won their first three Ligue 1 games by a combined score of 17-3 before being slowed up in a 1-1 draw with Monaco this past weekend. Galtier has deployed the team in some variation of a three-man defense, with 3-4-3, 3-4-1-2, and 3-4-2-1 formations being used. The latter was deployed in each of the last two games, with Mbappe playing as the striker and Messi and Neymar supporting him from behind. The results have been frightening to behold. Neymar already has six goals and six assists in four games. Messi’s three goals are already half as many goals as he scored in domestic competitions all last year, and Mbappe has scored four times in four games as well.
For a Juventus defense in transition, this is a nightmare scenario. While Bremer seems to be settling in well, Massimiliano Allegri still has a lot of sorting out to do at the back, and the fullback situation remains unaddressed, especially on the left. Add that to a general lack of pace on this back line that the likes of Mbappe can clearly exploit, and Juve will have their hands full defensively.
The midfield is likewise going to be an area of concern. The only midfielder Juve have that can truly match Marco Verratti in quality is Paul Pogba, and that’s only when he’s actually healthy and on form. We saw on Saturday that the midfield can improve if Allegri decides to take some initiative and shake things up, but between the Verratti and twin young Portuguese midfielders Renato Sanches and Vitinha, PSG probably has the edge in this department unless a couple of Juve’s midfielders make a development jump.
Juve’s attack, at full strength, can almost be a match for PSG’s. But it’s unclear whether or not Angel Di Maria will be ready for the UCL opener next week, and it’s possible that the club keeps Federico Chiesa out of the group stage entirely so as not to rush him back after his knee injury. Filip Kostic and Juan Cuadrado will be taking charge of the wings until they’re gone, and Dusan Vlahovic is a match for any center-back, although with Sergio Ramos around one always has to be sharp to the possibility of thuggery as opposed to football, and the big Serbian is going to have to overcome his distressing tendency to be easily erased by physical marking.
It’s hard to see Juve as a match for PSG right now. They’ve never lost a competitive game to the Parisians, but they’ve also not played them in the 21st century, so suffice to say things have very much changed. Allegri can always pull one of his cattenacio specials like he did in the home game against Chelsea last year, but I see that as less likely against this PSG team. One has to hope that qualification won’t be riding on the return match in Round 6, because this will be a very difficult team for Juve to beat in its current form.
Honestly, this is the team that scares me.
Benfica have a history of being pesky AF, and Juventus have only ever beaten them once in a competitive game. That win did come in a triumphant year, in the 1992-93 UEFA Cup, when they overturned a 2-1 loss in the first leg at the Estadio da Luz with a 3-0 win in Turin. Ironically, they then went on to beat PSG in the semifinal before sweeping Borussia Dortmund away to win the trophy, the prelude to their magical mid-90s run under Marcello Lippi.
But after two years of having Pot 3 teams that were still, on paper, games that one would absolutely expect to win, having Benfica in the group could be a bit of a wrench in the plans. While they no longer possess the threat of Darwin Nunez, who scored 34 times in 40 games in all competitions last year, his replacement from the youth ranks, 21-year-old Goncalo Ramos, is already showing signs of his own breakout, scoring four times in four games in Champions League qualifying and registering a goal and an assist over Benfica’s first three league games. He’s supported in attack by David Neres, who had more than a hand in eliminating Juve from the Champions League when he was at Ajax three years ago, and the experienced Joao Mario. That pair of wingers will be the major concern with the full-backs being what they are.
It seems to be a theme for Portuguese Champions League teams to boast an experienced old hand in central defense, and Benfica is no different with Nicolas Ottamendi. That could be something of a shatterpoint for this team, though. The Argentine was always somewhat mistake-prone even when he was at his peak with Manchester City, and now at age 34 he’s lost a step of pace. That could be exploited by Vlahovic the way he did Raul Albiol against Villarreal last year. If there’s a matchup that could decide the two games between these clubs, that might be it.
Playing well against Benfica is critical to making the knockout rounds. A slip-up in either could be fatal, and you have to think that four points is a minimum to take between the two.
Maccabi Haifa is one of Israel’s Big Four clubs and was the first Israeli squad to ever qualify for the group stage of the Champions League when they did it in 2002-03. This will be the third time they’ve ever competed in the group stage, a record for Israeli sides. Unfortunately for them, the last time they did, 2009-10 saw them set a bit of dubious history, becoming the first club ever to lose all six of their group games without scoring a goal. Two of those six games were against Juve, a pair of 1-0 Juventus wins that constitute the sum total of competitive matches between the two clubs.
(Ironically, Juve were also involved in the only other group to have a team go winless and scoreless, in the 2016-17 season, when Dinamo Zagreb propped up the group.)
Haifa was perhaps the biggest surprise to come out of Champions League qualifying. Over the course of three rounds they beat a couple of teams with a lot of pedigree, including Olympiacos, who they actually wiped the floor with in Piraeus, and Red Star Belgrade. Unfortunately, it’s usually now when reality comes crashing down on teams like this, and there is absolutely zero excuse for Juventus not to come out of their back-to-back in Rounds 3 and 4 without two wins.
Players to look out for include winger Omer Atzili, who scored a hat trick in Maccabi’s Israeli Premier League opener, and striker Frandtzy Pierrot, who scored five times in Champions League qualifying. Center-backs Shon Goldberg and Bogdan Planic have seen the most time together in defense, but they’ll certainly have their hands full with Vlahovic and Di Maria, who should be ready to play by the time the games here come around.
These two games need to be wins if Juve intent to make it out of a tricky group. Anything less than six points here is simply unacceptable.