UEFA Champions League: What We Learned from Juventus' Win over Shakhtar
Juventus travelled to Ukraine Wednesday night to take on Shakhtar Donetsk in a UEFA Champions League fixture that would decide whether or not the Bianconeri would still be active on the highest stage of European football after the winter break.
After a hard-fought game, Antonio Conte's men came away with a 0-1 win to secure the top spot in Group E.
The contest was a close affair, with both teams seemingly afraid to lose in a first half that saw few chances. Sebastian Giovinco came closest to breaking the deadlock, but his shot from the edge of the box went just wide of the post.
In the second half, the gloves came off and both teams exchanged blows before the Bianconeri finally found the net after 56 minutes of play.
Shakhtar tried pushing for a late equaliser but never really threatened the goal of Gianluigi Buffon.
Read on to find out what the Bianconeri can take away from this important win.
Juventus Top Group E
Savour the moment, Juventus fans. The Bianconeri are officially back at the highest level of football.
After years of mediocrity, Antonio Conte took control of the club during the summer of 2011 and transformed what had been an underachieving squad into a well-oiled machine.
Last year's title run was very impressive, but fans from other leagues often blamed Juve's unbeaten run on the "poor level of play" in Italy.
No more excuses, though. Juventus dominated the current European champions (eliminating them from the tournament in the process) before beating a team that had won its last 12 home games and had been held scoreless just once in its last 41 outings.
The first-place finish brings with it a nice cash reward, the chance for a favourable draw in the Round of 16 and most importantly, the prestige of topping your group.
That last bit might be more important than you think. In previous years, free agents and world-class players had little reason to join Juventus other than history or tradition.
After last season's performance and Wednesday night's win, you can add a brand-new stadium, an incredibly talented squad, an up-and-coming manager and an impressive record to that list.
Juventus Have the Best Defensive Unit in Europe
Yeah, I said it.
Juventus play defense better than anyone else in Europe, despite what the statistics may suggest.
Gianluigi Buffon's most memorable moment of the night came when he headbutted his own goalpost.
The defensive trio of Leonardo Bonucci, Andrea Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini was as solid as we've come to expect. They completely shut down whatever Shakhtar threw at them and didn't allow the opposing strikers to get into a rhythm all night.
As desperation time approached, every single Ukrainian cross was wasted because of the textbook positioning of Juve's back line.
The Bianconeri might not always play pretty at the back (Chiellini nearly put the ball in his own net in a move that looked like it came from a bad cartoon), but they are incredibly effective against teams that only employ a single striker.
And nowadays, that's nearly every top team in Europe.
If Juventus go all the way in the Champions League, it will be on the backs of the three Italy internationals defending Buffon's cage.
Paul Pogba Continues to Impress
Paul Pogba wasn't perfect. He had a bit of a shaky start and seemed overwhelmed early on. Which makes the rest of his outstanding performance even greater.
After 15 difficult minutes, the young Frenchman regained his composure and put in one of the best performances I've seen out of him so far.
He was instrumental in shutting down Shakhtar's Willian and contributed greatly to the buildup. When Juventus took control of the game during the first half, it happened because of his work in the trenches.
Filling in for the suspended Claudio Marchisio, Pogba reaffirmed what we've seen all season: This youngster is ready to contribute right now, and he's already close to the level of the stars currently in front of him on the depth chart.
Going into 2013, this is fantastic news for Conte.
Juventus are highly dependent on their MVP midfield, consisting of Marchisio, Arturo Vidal and Andrea Pirlo. But during a long season filled with midweek fixtures, it is important to have solid depth sitting on the bench in case of injury or a problem with form.
Pirlo had a fine game Wednesday night, but you could see he looked tired. He's one of the players who's been on the field almost every minute so far this season, and he's not getting any younger. And while his endurance or his tackling might not be his biggest assets (that would be his incredible distribution), those attributes are needed in the big games.
But like we've said countless times before: Pogba is ready to step right in to give some of the other guys a bit of rest, and the drop-off in quality will be absolutely minimal.
Sell Lichtsteiner? Not so Fast My Friend
I know, Mauricio Isla had a great run in the past few weeks. And Stephan Lichtsteiner would probably give the team a nice profit if he was to be sold during the January transfer window or at the end of the season.
But do fans really want the Swiss international to leave after what we saw Wednesday night?
During the first 45 minutes, the Juventus wingers were nowhere to be seen offensively, and as a result, the team struggled.
Mind you, they were doing a heck of a job on defense, but fans don't seem to notice that kind of thing (you should have read the comments on Twitter).
But as the second half kicked off, something changed. Lichtsteiner came to life.
What followed was a barrage of chances for the Bianconeri, and it was no surprise that Juventus were able to score on a cross from the former Lazio man.
Lichtsteiner might be better suited to the 4-4-3 than the 3-5-2, he still remains Juve's best option on the right wing.
His relentless motor and fighting spirit were on full display against Chelsea during the last Champions League matchup and serve as a reminder why Conte chose to utilise the 3-5-2 in the first place: to take advantage of the full strength of the MVP midfield, and because he believed that in Lichtsteiner, he had the perfect player to bulldoze his way through whoever he met on the wing.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, hasn't changed.
Vucinic Might Not Be Flashy, He Is Effective
Mirko Vucinic is one of the most misunderstood players in world football.
He's not a striker, but fans expect him to score like one, and he's not a midfielder, but fans expect him to defend like one.
What Vucinic brings is the ability to use his physicality to force things close to the box of the opponent, and to hold on to the ball as a link between the midfielders and the goal. And in that role, he was damn near phenomenal.
Sebastian Giovinco had a good game, playing with his typical energy and harassing defenders all night long, but it was Vucinic's hard work that provided the Atomic Ant with the best chance of the first half, when the Montenegrin shoved three defenders out of the way to get the ball to his partner up front.
The combination of Giovinco and Vucinic told me that Conte wanted to play things safe, as neither of the two really presents much of a goalscoring threat. And Wednesday night, that proved to be the right decision.
If Juventus are serious about bringing in another striker in January, it should not be at the cost of losing either player.
Arturo Vidal Is Juve's MVP
If you are looking for a player to crown MVP of the group stages, look no further than Arturo Vidal.
The Chilean is the prototype box-to-box midfielder, and he has been Juventus' best player in the Champions League so far.
From scoring the goal that started the comeback at Stamford Bridge (while playing injured) to shutting down Chelsea's attacking triangle during the return, to completely manhandling Shakhtar's midfield Wednesday night, Vidal has been all over the field for the Bianconeri.
Credit Pogba all you want, it was thanks to Vidal that he was in a position to succeed Wednesday night.
Vidal played a very aggressive game, and he was booked within the first 10 minutes for a challenge on star midfielder Willian, but that didn't stop him from tackling anything orange that came near him. He played with the tenacity of a guided missile and almost single-handedly put a stop to every breakaway that Shakhtar tried to set up.
Arturo Vidal is the real deal, and the rest of Europe better be aware.