Juventus juggernaut searching for top gear

This week’s Champions League matches have the feel of accidents waiting to happen, writes David Shonfield.

Juventus juggernaut searching for top gear

Number One on the list of potential casualties has to be Chelsea. In their current fragile state it will almost be a surprise if they secure the three points they desperately need tomorrow night against Dynamo Kyiv, but Chelsea are not the only title-winning side in difficulties.

Juventus have been struggling in Serie A almost as much as Chelsea in the Premier League. Their pre-season went badly, key players left, other key players suffered injuries. An uneven start has continued, with only seven wins in their 15 matches and league points dropped at home against sides they would usually expect to crush. The juggernaut that won four consecutive titles reached a new low in midweek with defeat at Sassuolo.

Italian clubs have a drastic remedy for this sort of thing which is known as the ritiro, the retreat. Everyone goes monastic, including the manager and the coaching staff and sometimes the football director, although usually not the owner. Cut off from the outside world the players are forced to focus on their failings, forgo the comforts of home life, undertake double training sessions and subject themselves to a regime of cold showers and gruel.

OK, I made that last bit up but you get the general idea.

On Saturday the Juve squad reappeared for the derby game against Torino duly purged. Still not very convincing, they did win, thanks to a scrambled finish by Juan Cuadrado, on loan from Chelsea. Paul Pogba looked more like his old self, scoring a spectacular goal.

However, their midfield worries continued, with Sami Khedira, just back from injury, forced off again after only ten minutes. Their Croatian striker Mario Mandzukic still looks very ring-rusty.

The Juventus problem has basically been their finishing. In the home match against tonight’s opponents, Borussia Monchenglabach, they had a lot of possession, but only occasionally troubled the German defence: 0-0 was the right result.

Gladbach, after a disastrous start to the season, suddenly look like a side that could cause a surprise.

Since Lucien Favre was fired and replaced by caretaker head coach Alex Schubert they have raced up the Bundesliga.

Saturday’s 4-1 win at Hertha Berlin was their sixth in a row with Schubert in charge. They have scored 21 times in those games and the goals are coming from everywhere. In midweek they also won away at Schalke in the cup.

Arsenal’s opponents Bayern Munich suffered their first league setback of the season in a goalless draw in Frankfurt.

It was the first time in 13 league games that Pep Guardiola’s Bayern have failed to score, and probably the most significant statistic from the game was that they only managed two shots on target, even with Thomas Muller on as a substitute to join Robert Lewandowski and Arjen Robben in the attack early in the second half.

Arsenal’s record in Bavaria gives them some genuine grounds for optimism in this match, although Bayern’s undoing on previous occasions has been overconfidence, which won’t be the case this time. Perhaps the key point is that even defeat will not be terminal.

As Arsenal showed in 2003, even teams with just a point from their first three games can go through.

In the years since then 14 sides have qualified for the last 16 after managing only three points halfway through the group stage. The odds are against it, but this is an unusual season. Only one side, Zenit St Petersburg, has the maximum nine points compared to the usual average of three: 38 sides have managed it during the past 12 seasons. So the groups are tighter than you would expect at this stage.

Teams on four points after three matches, such as Manchester Utd and Chelsea, normally have a 50-50 chance of going through. Those with six (such as Manchester City) are usually secure. But not always. As Liverpool fans will remember, they managed just one point from their first three matches in 2007, yet ended up with 10. Their group rivals Marseille were knocked out despite having 7 points at the halfway stage.

The way the groups are shaping up we may be due some upsets this time too.

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Saturday, November 28, 2020

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