The last time Chelsea embarked on the defence of the Champions League title, they made history. An unwanted history. It turned out to be the briefest attempt to retain the title since the modern format of the European Cup was introduced. Chelsea went out in the group stage, their exit all but secured by a 3-0 walloping at the Juventus stadium.
Nine years on, Thomas Tuchel’s champions go to the same venue looking a good deal more resilient than Roberto Di Matteo’s 2012 title-holders. But their manager was still warning on Tuesday that no visitor to Juventus can swagger into Turin assuming any privileges of status, whatever Juve’s rocky recent form suggests.
“Yes, they have had some troubles, a rough start, but they are reliable, a proud club” said Tuchel, who revealed some troubles of his own: Chelsea will be without N’Golo Kante, who has tested positive for Covid-19, and the injured Mason Mount, Reece James and Christian Pulisic.
Juventus won at home on Sunday for the first time in three attempts in what has been a wretched beginning of the season. It was a victory, 3-2 against Sampdoria which barely disguised ongoing flaws and had some damaging fallout.
Paulo Dybala, who had opened the scoring with a graceful volley, limped off the field midway through the first half, in tears. His muscle injury rules him out against Chelsea. Manager Max Allegri’s plans to find a way past Tuchel’s resolute defence were further thwarted when Alvaro Morata, the former Chelsea centre-forward, withdrew, clutching his thigh. Morata will not play again until the second half of October.
Juventus leaked two goals as well, and have now gone 20 Serie A matches without a clean sheet, a startling statistic for a club whose domestic reputation over the last decade has been in large part built on an inviolable, rugged defence.
The poor recent record pains the long-serving warriors, Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci more than anybody. That pair, outstanding contributors to Italy’s triumph at Euro 2020 in the summer, are still the leaders of Juventus, deep into their 30s.
The choice of who plays behind Bonucci and Chiellini in what may well be a back three including Matthijs de Ligt is one of several vexing issues for Allegri. He dropped Wojciech Szczesny, his senior goalkeeper, against Sampdoria after the Pole had made some high-profile errors.
Mattia Perin, promoted in Szczesny’s place, can scarcely be blamed for the two Sampdoria goals, but the bad habits at the back continued. Six league games into the campaign, Juventus have shed 10 goals, and sit 10th in Serie A.
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They finished fourth last season, only scraping into the Champions League spots on the last day, and waving goodbye to a record-breaking streak of nine successive titles, and, inevitably, to their novice coach, Andrea Pirlo. Allegri’s return to the job two summers after he was sacked, having just guided Juve to the top of the table for the fifth time, is an acknowledgement that the club have made poor executive decisions.
Some believe signing Cristiano Ronaldo for over €100m in 2018 was among them. The fee, coupled with the player’s huge salary, made Ronaldo a financial risk. Given that Juventus bought him from Real Madrid with the specific target of a Champions League triumph, CR7 also fell short of being the full Midas-touch magician Juve had hoped he would be.
But he was Juventus’s major source of goals for his three seasons in Italy. There were 36 Ronaldo goals last season, and he outscored everybody, including Romelu Lukaku - then of champions Inter, now of Chelsea - in Serie A. “It is no secret that any team without Cristiano will, in some parts of the game, be weaker,” said Tuchel. “But they have a deep squad.”
How deep will be examined on Wednesday. Take away Ronaldo, and Morata and Dybala - both of who scored in Juve’s 3-0 opening group phase win at Malmo - and Allegri is obliged to field a makeshift attack.
He hopes Federico Chiesa, attacking from wide positions, can provide some of the electricity he gave to Italy during the summer, and that Moise Kean, who rejoined Juventus in the summer, can test Chelsea’s back three with his acceleration and threat in the air.
Tuchel expects the stand-ins to up their game. Being European champions means “there is a higher value and motivation to play against us,” he said. “We have to accept this.”