Seven Years: Juventus Champions League draw preview
Juventus last advanced to the quarterfinals of the Champions League, prior to this season’s triumph, in the 2005-06 campaign. Taken in retrospective context, it was a simpler time. These were days when Fabio Capello paced the Bianconeri technical area, an era when a 21 year-old Giorgio Chiellini was cutting his teeth out on the left flank whilst Pavel Nedved dominated the midfield with mesmeric skill and David Trezeguet dazzled defenders with his innate killer instinct. But the Old Lady teetered precariously on the precipice above Calciopoli, moments away from plunging into the abyss and being condemned to a fate of relegation as the football world continued to turn.
The road back to prominence, as could have been predicted, was by no means a path without peril. Yet seven coaches, a new arena, and countless players later, the renowned Turinese team stands at the same juncture it did in Europe’s elite competition more than half a decade ago.
My, how things can change in seven years, whilst ending up in the same place they were before.
Seven years, seven coaches, and now on the eve of the Champions League quarterfinals draw, seven potential opponents standing in the way of ultimate glory. So without further adieu, let’s take a look at how Antonio Conte’s men match up with those separating them from the most prestigious crown in club football.
Where better to start than with the perennial favorites and Tuesday’s shatterers of Rossoneri hearts, Barcelona? Despite the bitter disappointment of the result of AC Milan’s two-legged affair with the Spanish giants for those surrounding Italian football, lessons were learned that could be of great value to the Bianconeri should they cross swords with the Blaugrana imminently. Namely, that defeating them takes an immense amount of resolve and organisation, but in turn that it can be done. Of course, all witnessed the monumental difference between home and away fixtures with the Catalan monster, as the Diavolo were able to stay focused and control the beast at San Siro, but failed spectacularly at the Camp Nou.
In the positive column for Juventus, discipline and defensive solidity are two qualities that Antonio Conte’s men have in spades, much thanks to the 43 year-old tactician himself. Additionally, the Turin outfit have demonstrated a certain resistance to hostile atmospheres between their domestic and European adventures this season, performing confidently on the road even when faced with the venomous hordes at the Stadio San Paolo, Donbass Arena, Stamford Bridge, and Celtic Park.
Tactically, the Old Lady’s 3-5-2 formation is an unknown quantity for Barcelona, and the flooded midfield and intense pressing could serve to disrupt the Blaugrana’s notorious passing triangles. Key would be allowing Andrea Pirlo adequate time in possession to launch counter attacks, as well as finishing any chances that arise with clinical lethality. Considering all factors, it is not an overstatement to say that if Juventus can execute with precision over two legs, they present as formidable a threat to Barcelona as any other squad remaining in the tournament.
Another intriguing matchup comes in the form of Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid, a side that has caught fire of late. It is no secret that the Special One is a tactical master and adept at bringing home Champions League trophies above all else. Los Blancos would present the issue of strong wing play to the Bianconeri through Cristiano Ronaldo and Angel Di Maria in their wide 4-2-3-1 formation, something that they struggled to contend with against Shakhtar Donetsk at home in the group stage. Winning the ball back at a high rate would allow Juventus’ wide midfielders to push forward at pace and suffocate their opposite numbers offensively by forcing them to drop deeper, in turn giving Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli more space to read the game and anticipate potential attacks before they can fully develop. Of course, one can never be sure of Mourinho’s tactical preparations, as Los Merengues have shown adeptness at both imposing their will on a game and playing on the break over the course of the season.
Champions League debutants Malaga boast a defence anchored by veteran centre-backs Martin Demichelis and Weligton that has conceded just six goals in their nine continental matches, whilst drawing their attacking inspiration from 20 year-old wonder kid Isco. Shutting down the young Spaniard would undoubtedly be the centrepiece of Conte’s game plan on the defensive front if his men were to clash with Manuel Pelligrini’s soldiers in the quarterfinals, as he is by far Los Boquerones most dangerous player yet could be susceptible to mental and physical pressure due to his inexperience.
Bayern Munich are technically dominant and on their day can be nearly unstoppable, boasting exceptional quality all across their starting lineup and having depth at each position. Combativeness and energy in the middle of the park would be Juventus’ best chance at disrupting Jupp Heynckes’ machine, as the Turin outfit lack the sort of central attacking midfielder that can run at opposition defenders to create panic and force the squad to lose its shape. At the back the Italians would require an exceptional performance both on the road and at home, as the creativity of Toni Kroos and Thomas Muller, not to mention the pace and trickery of Franck Ribery, constitute a deadly force in concert with Mario Mandzukic’s excellence in front of goal. The Bavarians, by all indicators, represent the most daunting possible test for the reigning Serie A title holders, being the most balanced team remaining in the Champions League.
Borussia Dortmund offer a threat built around a wonderful blend of industry and refined skill, whilst maintaining a high tempo and indomitable attitude. Robert Lewandowski’s ability to find the back of the net is unquestionable and poses an issue compounded by the presence of a talented midfield in support from back to front. Die Schwartzgelben are a young bunch on the whole but have shown a refusal to be intimidated by sides of historical esteem, referenced by their performance at the Santiago Bernabeu back in November, so Juventus would need to be wary of underestimating a side with a level of belief Conte himself would be proud of.
Previously unfancied Galatasaray, who suddenly were thrust into the limelight after January moves for Wesley Sneijder and Didier Drogba, feature the competition’s top scorer in Burak Yilmaz. The addition of such high profile teammates has made the Turkish hitman an even greater hazard, as defensive attention must be spread around the side’s attack. However, the Bianconeri do not lack in focus at the back, and are indeed experienced in taking on Sneijder given his previous service with Inter. A pair of extremely attacking full-backs in Fatih Terim’s 4-3-1-2 formation theoretically would also leave the Super Lig leaders constantly exposed against the 3-5-2 formation down the flanks, a detail which would provide Juventus with a great advantage that could force the hand of the opposition even before the opening whistle.
Paris Saint-Germain are the Old Lady’s final potential opponent, offering the added storyline of being the current employers of Andrea Pirlo’s anointed heir to the Italian regista throne in Marco Verratti. Moreover, PSG boss Carlo Ancelotti twice won the Champions League with Milan as Pirlo starred in midfield for the Rossoneri, whilst Zlatan Ibrahimovic was a member of Juventus’ last squad to reach the Champions League quarterfinals in 2005-06. These external storylines would threaten to overshadow the tactical battle beneath if the two sides met, with recent 4-2-2-2 advocate Ancelotti coming up against Antonio Conte, who developed his 3-5-2 out of the ashes of a similar system. Les Parisiens have struggled at times to find their backbone both in Ligue 1 and in Europe, the starting lineup often overloaded with offensive players, which could allow the aggressive Bianconeri the chance to dominate in midfield and push forward on the attack whilst cutting off supply lines defensively. Considering that Juventus’ greatest strength lies in a weakness of PSG’s, this potential matchup appears highly favourable for the boys from Turin, though Ancelotti could make adjustments to his set-up to compensate, should he deem necessary.
Of course, the Champions League frequently holds surprises in reserve and often scenarios in football fail to play out the way they are envisioned by the punditry and coaching staffs alike. What is for sure, nevertheless, is that Antonio Conte’s squad is disciplined, organised, energetic, and defensively sound. The Bianconeri midfield is rivalled by few throughout Europe in terms of quality, though its dominant stature is tempered by a lightweight strike force that lacks a pure finisher.
The side will go as far as resistance to conceding, hard pressing around the centre circle, and the picturesque deliveries of Andrea Pirlo will take it. At this stage in the competition, every ounce of quality needs to be summoned in order to progress to the next round, as the slightest mistake against such a level of opposition can make or break qualification.
On Friday, the storied club from the north of the peninsula will learn its adversary for the quarter-finals of the Champions League from a prospective pool of seven candidates for the first time in seven years. And at the moment of the much anticipated announcement, “seven” will with the blink of eye disappear into oblivion, to be replaced by a number far more concrete: one.
One opponent, one task, one goal: keep moving forward.
You can follow Ian Capasso on Twitter: @capasso10