This time next week the Italians will be arriving to herald the start of a 10th consecutive Champions League season at Chelsea. With that in mind, former player Pat Nevin shares some thoughts on our three opposition sides…
With the internationals still dominating the scene there is maybe a chance here to look a little further forward than usual. Football folk tend to ‘take every game as it comes’ and it has to be said this is more than just a cliché, it makes perfect sense. Putting some of your thoughts into the next-but-one game usually means taking your eye off the ball and the outcome most of the time is a loss or a draw.
That however is for the players and the managers, not necessarily for you and me. So the defence of our title as champions of Europe started to come into focus when the groups were drawn. Shakhtar Donetsk, Juventus, and FC Nordsjaelland were the teams and I am sure most would agree that qualification is anything but a certainty.
With all due respect I think FC Nordsjaelland will be huge outsiders within the football fraternity and the bookmakers will reflect that with their odds. They will of course be afforded the utmost respect by the team but any less than six points out of six against the Danes will be considered a huge disappointment. It is however heartening to see them getting this far because they are made up almost entirely of homegrown players.
The one name the immediately jumps out is that of Andreas Laudrup (pictured below left), the son of one of the greatest European players ever, Michael. He started off as a youngster on the books of Real Madrid youth, but following in the footsteps of a football great can be hard at a top club, just ask Jordi Cruyff. So maybe now he can begin to maximise his own potential, even if he will always be unfairly compared to his dad as well as his uncle Brian, who was clearly an outstanding player as well.
The real focus will however be on Juventus and Shakhtar.I say Juventus, but you might as well call them the Italian national team because they currently provide the lion’s share of the first 11. Juve have had an incredibly successful time built these days around the colossal talent that is Andreas Pirlo. For all the quality they have around the pitch, including Buffon who would claim to be the world’s greatest goalkeeper, it is the midfield maestro who will attract most attention.
For a player who isn’t blessed with great pace, some would argue any pace; he has an amazing ability to control games. It is not as simple as saying close him down and you stop the Italians, but they are certainly a much lesser side when he is subdued. He hasn’t got this far however be being easily marked out of games. It sounds a simple enough task; he isn’t quick so just get young legs to close him and his space down quickly. Unfortunately it isn’t that easy because his football intelligence has been getting him out of tight situations like that these past 17 years. You don’t get to win a World Cup, get named as the fourth best player in Europe last year and earn the nickname l’architetto (the architect – obviously) by being easy to pin down. He will grace the Bridge when he arrives here next Wednesday, but there is one problem he will have to overcome.
I think Chelsea’s style could be a bit of a nightmare for him. He likes to play mostly as the deepest lying midfielder just in front of the two or three centre-backs, precisely where Mata, Oscar and Hazard do most of their damage. He will have to use all of his guile and experience to cope with the skill buzzing around him and if he wants time to hold on to the ball, then he might just find himself the architect all right, but of his own downfall.
Having said all that and accepting that Chelsea are European Champions, I will not be surprised if most people put Juventus down as favourites to win the group. I would go so far as to say that a win for the Blues even at home at the Bridge will be seen as something of an upset. The real upset could however come in the shape of Shakhtar Donetsk. Football in that part of the world has been on the up for quite some time, but Shakhtar in particular have raised a few eyebrows due to the strength of their squad and the blistering start they have made in the domestic season in Ukraine.
Generally the defence is Ukrainian with the exception of the captain Srna from Croatia and they are usually rock-solid. The midfield and forwards are however expensive imports mostly from Brazil with Willian, Ilsinho, Teixeira, Douglas Costa, Luiz Adriano and Fernandinho giving the front third a distinctly samba style.
Eduardo of Arsenal fame might play for Croatia but he was born and bred in Rio de Janeiro. However of late he has been overshadowed in the squad, as has everyone else by the Armenian Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Eleven goals in eight league matches already is fantastic, but when you add that he is a midfielder, it is phenomenal. You may not have heard of him yet, even if all the scouts at the top European clubs have, but you soon will.
He has pace, skill, a rocket of a shot and the ability to arrive in the box like Frank Lampard. This all singles him out as a player who must be watched or more importantly marked.
In short this is not an easy group for Chelsea by any manner of means but it will be entertaining because each of the three favourites are very attack-minded, yes even Juve. I can’t wait but I suppose I will have to because there is the small matter of QPR to deal with on Saturday and the job of retaining our 100% record to the start of the league season. I suspect that will not be a quiet, uneventful affair.
Last week’s quiz asked how many goals will be scored by Chelsea players on international duty before they come back to the club. Well of course they aren’t back yet, so I will announce the winner next week along with the winner of this week’s quiz, are you confused yet? I know I am.
In the mean time I watched Scotland play Serbia at the weekend in a rather disappointing 0-0 draw; it got me wondering how many Serbian-born players are in the current Chelsea squad? So that is this week’s question – how many are there?
Answers as ever to firstname.lastname@example.org and the lucky winner chosen randomly from the correct answers will receive a Champions League review DVD, signed by one of the players involved.