WHILE Celtic’s joy at reaching the last 16 of the Champions League for the first time since 2007 was unconfined and unexpected, Juventus’ return to this stage for the first time in four years was marked with a sense of making up for lost time.
The two-time winners of the competition had recovered incredibly well from the Calciopoli scandal that had seen them relegated in 2006, to return to the last-16 at the earliest possible opportunity in the 2008/09 season before a 3-2 aggregate defeat to Chelsea imposed an unexpected European drought.
Elimination at the group stages the following year and two seventh-placed league finishes in 2010 and 2011 are not what Italian football’s grand old lady is accustomed to. Those wrongs and a five-year trophy drought were emphatically righted by an unbeaten march to the title last season in former captain Antonio Conte’s first year in charge and now with revenge also having been gained on Chelsea in arguably the hardest of all the eight groups this season, the expectation is for a team equally blessed with experience as youth and discipline as flair to go far.
However, expectation doesn’t necessarily deliver anything tangible as the Bianconeri know only too well from their experiences in January’s transfer window. It was taken for granted that the world-class striker needed to put them alongside the likes of Barcelona and Bayern Munich as real contenders for the Champions League would duly arrive. In the end, though, Didier Drogba chose Turkey over Turin and despite tying down Spanish international Fernando Llorente for the next four years on a Bosman deal, they couldn’t offer Athletic Bilbao enough to allow him to move before the summer. Therefore, it was instead Shanghai Shenua’s other mercurial over-30 striker in Nicolas Anelka who arrived in northern Italy. The Frenchman is unlikely to make an appearance at Celtic Park this evening with striking duties being shared between Mirko Vucinic, Alessandro Matri and Fabio Quagliarella in recent weeks. It was Vucinic and Matri who were on target in the 2-0 win over Fiorentina on Saturday, but ironically the fact Quagliarela didn’t play is probably a sign that it is he who will lead the line.
Quagliarella has certainly been Conte’s more reliable frontman in Europe this season, but when Neil Lennon spoke of Juventus being “clinical in the final third” this week it is the threat arriving from deep he was referring to. Conte’s preferred 3-5-2 system revolves around the midfield three of Andrea Pirlo, Claudio Marchisio and Arturo Vidal. Between them they’ve scored 20 times already this season and with another highly talented midfield option in former Manchester United prodigy Paul Pogba coming to the fore in recent months, it is here that the danger lies for Celtic.
While Pirlo’s majestic performances and ‘Panenka’ penalty at Euro 2012, allied to an already stellar career, have made him a more household name, it is the energy of Marchisio and Vidal that symbolise Conte’s Juve. Vidal in particular has been a revelation since joining from Bayer Leverkusen at the beginning of last season.
The burden of expectation at one of Europe’s biggest clubs hasn’t affected him and his return of ten goals and eight assists already this season makes him the Italians’ most productive player.
There is certainly hope, though, for Lennon’s men in other areas of the field. Just like the Scottish champions, Juve have been affected by the African Nations Cup as despite Ghana’s elimination at the semi-final stage, Kwadwo Asamoah played all 90 minutes of Saturday’s third-place play-off against Mali and won’t be involved according to Conte yesterday.
Moreover, Giorgio Chiellini officially misses the game through suspension but would not have been involved anyway due to a calf injury.
Perhaps the biggest threat of all though to Juventus’ chance of progression though is complacency. A 1-1 draw at Danish minnows Nordsjælland in the group stages nearly cost them their place in the last-16 and they also lost at home to lowly Sampdoria last month after surrendering a goal lead against ten men.