Champions League: Can Juventus Go All the Way and Win Europe's Biggest Prize?
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The Frenchman's view that his former team were too strong for Celtic was not held in isolation. His thoughts echoed the communal in European football.
At this level of competition, there are no easy games, and the Bianconeri's trip to Glasgow is likely to be a fiery encounter. But compared with the alternatives, it's the one you'd have been hoping for if your name was Antonio Conte.
Barcelona? Real Madrid? Bayern or Dortmund? No thank you. Even stuttering Manchester United and struggling Valencia have the ability to cause Juve problems should they rise to the occasion. And though they might not have the same international standing, the likes of Shakhtar, Malaga, Porto or PSG are no pushovers.
No, Celtic was the one. No disrespect to the Hoops, but even their diehard fans would admit that this year, Neil Lennon's remarkable side is punching above its weight. They were able to deal a surprise blow to the greatest club side on the planet right now, but only the most romantic fan could see them repeating the trick across two legs with Juventus.
In Europe's other footballing capitals, there are plenty with sympathy for Celtic, even if that compassion is tempered with relief for the fact that their sides avoid Conte's for at least another round.
“I’ll be honest," Jose Mourinho told the Italian sports daily Tuttosport. "I don’t like Juventus because I fear them. I think they can win the Champions League. They represent an extremely compact collective, like an almost unsinkable vessel.
“This Juve really reminds me of my Porto side in 2004. And, if anyone has forgotten, let me remind them that Porto won the Champions League that year.”
A compact collective. Different in style and approach to the Bayern and Barca—Europe's two great collective sides—but no less daunting. Mourinho might have told Tuttosport that Conte reminded him of himself, but how he'd wish that his Real dressing room reminded him of Conte's.
That's where Juve's strength lays: in their collaborative efforts. In the understanding that starts with Gigi Buffon in goal, flows through the likes of Pirlo and Pogba in midfield and finishes with Giovinco and Vucinic at the other end. The understanding that they must play as a team to succeed, and the understanding that if there is a first among equals in Turin, it's not any of them: it's Conte.
Difficult times lay ahead. Munich, Barcelona and even Mourinho's tempestuous Madrid are still the favourites to lift the trophy in Wembley, but Juventus aren't far behind. After a slow start to this year's competition, the Italian champions have developed a taste for the continent's top tournament and have shown the ability to be utterly devastating. 2012's winners Chelsea can attest to that.
The only question hanging over Conte's Juventus is whether or not they can consistently reproduce top performances. Already this season they've fallen to surprise draws and defeats in Italy, the loss at home to Sampdoria in January being the most obvious example.
If Juve are to reach the final and lift the trophy come May, they'll have their work cut out for them. Adding options up front in the shape of Nicolas Anelka will help, but the other European giants aren't exactly short on firepower.
Real and Barca score for fun in Spain and Bayern have shown their ruthlessness in the Bundesliga, thrashing VfB Stuttgart 6-1 at home, Dusseldorf 0-5 away and then putting another five past Hannover 96 in the Allianz Arena in a season that's seen them concede just seven in the league, and lose just once.
Before Munich can think of the final, however, they must face Arsenal. Barca have to deal with Milan, and Real face a tricky visit to Old Trafford.
Elsewhere, Celtic's Neil Lennon might be excited at the prospect of getting a shot at the Italian champions, but the Italian champions will be pleased that it's Celtic doing the shooting.
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