Highs and Lows for Juventus in Champions League Return vs Chelsea
After two seasons, Juventus has returned to where they have been at home for so much of their history: the UEFA Champions League. Their first task was a stiff one: contend with the defending European Champions, Chelsea, at their home field of Stanford Bridge in London.
Their task looked even more difficult after 33 minutes, when Oscar scored his second goal in two minutes to give the Blues a 2-0 lead. But the bianconeri never panicked and were back in the game just six minutes later on a goal by Arturo Vidal. After a see-saw second half that saw both teams squander chances, substitute Fabio Quagliarella scored a brilliant equalizer with ten minutes left, and the spoils were shared in the 2-2 draw.
So who proved themselves today for the Old Lady of Italian soccer, and who showed that they are in need of immediate improvement?
Let's take a closer look at some of the key players in this game.
High: Claudio Marchisio
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Il principe was an absolute terror all night long at Stanford Bridge.
He continuously moved unencumbered through the channels in the penalty area. Neither the center-back pairing of John Terry and David Luiz nor any of Chelsea's midfield were able to contain him.
He nearly put Juve ahead midway through the first half when Andre Pirlo found him ahead of his defender with a typically beautiful long ball. It was a prime scoring opportunity, but Marchisio's first touch was much too heavy, and it exposed the ball for Petr Cech to smother before the midfielder could have a proper swing at the ball.
When he wasn't menacing the goal, he was providing for those who did. He provided the assist on both of Juve's goals today. In the 39th minute he slipped a mid-range pass to Arturo Vidal in traffic, who dribbled around a defender and put the ball through Terry's legs to open the scoring for the Italians. The goal put them back into the match when it looked like Chelsea had a chance to run away with the momentum.
Then, in the 80th minute, he was given all day after dispossessing John Mikel Obi, and caught Chelsea's defense completely asleep, finding Fabio Quagliarella's on a great diagonal run.
Marchisio is yet to score a goal this season, but so far his performance have shown that his breakout season last year was not a one-off. Marchisio has firmly established himself as one of the best midfielders in Europe.
Low: Leonardo Bonucci
Like Marchisio, Leo Bonucci took a big step forward in his development last year. Unlike his teammate, however, the central defender he has been unable to confirm that progress so far this year.
Bonucci was making his Champions League debut, and he looked the part. His first half was nervy and full of errors, topped off in the 31st minute when he was directly responsible for his team going down 1-0.
When Brazilian wunderkind Oscar took a shot from range near the center of the field, Bonucci reached out with his leg to try and block it—only to push it out of range of Gianluigi Buffon. Then flew into the back of the net to open the scoring.
It was exactly the wrong thing to do. Buffon looked as though he had the shot lined up, but Bonucci's touch put it definitively out of reach. Most of the match reports today are going to give Oscar a double, but it wouldn't surprise me if UEFA's technical commission changes that first one to an own-goal in the near future—to me Bonucci's touch was less of a deflection and more of a solid touch that put the ball into his own net.
To be fair, his second half was better. He picked out Sebastian Giovnico with one of his trademark long balls out of the back, and seemed much more solid in the back. Still, he needs to put together a full game to redeem himself after this one.
High: Fabio Quagliarella
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Two seasons ago, Quagliarella has made a mark in Italian soccer, when he scored one of the goals of the tournament in an otherwise forgettable 2010 World Cup run. Then he followed it up by running roughshod over Serie A defenses for the first three months of the season.
He was sitting on nine goals going into the winter break. But he tore his ACL in Juve's first match back against Parma and was shelved for the better part of a year.
Antonio Conte declined to use him until late in the season last year, when he was more fit. While most people have rightly decried Juventus' lack of a go-to striker coming into the season, I have maintained that a fit and in-form Quagliarella is one of the most dangerous strikers in Italy.
Given enough playing time to find that form, he could go a long way to solving Juve's problems in the front.
His 80th minute equalizer was a truly great goal, one that harkened back to his 2010 pre-injury form. He made a fantastic diagonal run against a sleepy Chelsea back line. Then he executed a perfect one-on-one with Chelsea keeper Peter Cech, anticipating the Czech international's move and sending the ball through the legs of one of the world's best goalkeepers.
About five minutes later, he turned on a dime from the top of the box and fired a curling shot that had Cech praying it would stay up—which it did, pinging off the top of the crossbar and barely missing a fantastic potential winner that would have been even more impressive than his first.
Antonio Conte and Massimo Carrera would do well to give Quags more playing time. They will likely want to add someone like Fernando Llorente in the winter regardless of whether he returns to form.
But if he does, Juve could be a dangerous team indeed.
Low: Andrea Pirlo
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Andrea Pirlo did not have his usual dominance in the midfield today.
Roberto Di Matteo gave Oscar the task of keeping close to Pirlo and limiting his room to operate, which is one of the reasons why it took the Brazilian half an hour to really get into the game offensively.
But it was more than just being well marked that sapped Pirlo's effectiveness today. Something just seemed off. He gave the ball away several times, sometimes uncharacteristically cheaply. He did just play in Sunday's matchup against Genoa, and it may be more important that previously realized for Juve to keep Pirlo, now 33, fresh for midweek fixtures in Europe.
Juve was able to get the edge in possession even without their architect in midfield, a testament to how good they are as a team.
But if they are to go far in this tournament they have to figure out a way to keep opponents off of Pirlo. That way, he can lead their forward-by-committee attack until the bianconeri add that game-changing striker to their lineup and ease the burden for the midfielder.
High: Giorgio Chiellini
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Giorgio Chiellini showed that his memories of the last time he played Chelsea—when he was sent off in a Round of 16 clash between the two teams during the 2008-09 season—are dead and buried with a fantastic performance on the left side of Juve's three-man back line.
For all the horrible luck he has had on an international level, the three-time Serie A Defender of the Year showed his quality today, repeatedly anticipating through balls from the midfield and beating his man to the ball by large margins.
Having Chiellini, A throwback to the down-and-dirty Italian defenders of old, all the way back will be crucial for the team, especially with new signing Lucio out for an extended period due to injury. Chiellini will have to keep healthy and on-form.
Low: Sebastian Giovinco
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The Atomic Ant did little and less today. He drew a couple of fouls with his diminutive frame, but when he got the ball he was unable to either finish or put a teammate into a dangerous position.
Without a go-to striker on the roster at present, Giovinco must be a presence at the top of the line for Juve to score enough goals to make an impact in this tournament. He must either make use of the ball in space or get it to someone who has it.
Otherwise this tournament could be a short one for the bianconeri.