What a difference a day makes, goes the old adage. Only a short while ago, the talking point of the Old Lady taking on the Russian-owned west London club was the fact that Big Phil Scolari would be able to resurrect his dwindling tenure in the Stamford Bridge hot-seat with the premier scalp of Juventus.
However, Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich does not suffer draws at home with Hull lightly and now Claudio Ranieri will be pitting his Tinkerman skills against fire-fighter supreme Guus Hiddink. The Dutchman, who is more famous for propelling unfancied national teams into the latter stages of international tournaments, has been away from the club game for a while but nobody is naïve enough to think he is out of his depth in Europe’s leading club competition.
Hiddink’s most recent foray into the Champions League saw him take the – again unfancied – PSV Eindhoven to the semi finals of the 2004/05 competition, where they were narrowly dispatched by Milan on away goals. In Chelsea he has a much more cohesive unit and if Saturday’s victory over a buoyant Aston Villa side is anything to go by, Hiddink means business.
One of the things that the temporary Chelsea Coach has taken on as his first port of call is the imbalance caused by having to placate both Nicolas Anelka and Didier Drogba. The two tantrum-loving-hitmen were both vocal in their discord over Scolari’s reticence to start them alongside each other and if the 89 minutes they shared at Villa Park is anything to go by, then Hiddink seems more than willing to accommodate the sulky duo to match-winning effect. Not everything is peachy in London though – centre-half Ricardo Carvalho and Ghanaian workhorse Michael Essien are still out of contention, which provides a potential headache for Hiddink in such a high profile clash.
The worst kept secret in the Premier League is that the Portuguese defender is the better half of the centre-half partnership with John Terry at the heart of the Blues’ defence, and an in-form Amauri could prove problematic for the flat-footed Alex or the untested Branislav Ivanovic. Similarly, the long-term loss of the imperious Essien has been a major factor in Chelsea stalling thus far and John Obi Mikel is still a relative rookie, which Juve will look to take advantage of with its seasoned professionals.
Despite the loss in personnel, the win against Villa could be seen as a direct response to foul mood that has hung over Chelsea since their resounding thrashing at Old Trafford. Following the departure of Scolari and the leap-frogging of Martin O’Neill’s impressive Villa outfit, the Blues have set things up neatly ahead of the visit of the Old Lady.
Thankfully for Juventus, they too are bringing some momentum to Wednesday night’s clash. A Momo Sissoko-inspired performance saw the Bianconeri collect three points in the intimidating surroundings of the Renzo Barbera and Ranieri will be looking to project the same smash-and-grab mentality into his first eleven when the ball starts rolling against Chelsea.
Two key points came out of Saturday evening’s win for Juve to give them a much needed confidence boost ahead of the trip to England. The injury-hit David Trezeguet returned to the starting side – and bagged a late goal to seal the win – and Momo Sissoko showed some of the promise that he seemed unable to harness while lining up for Valencia and Liverpool.
The Malian midfielder, who suffered through unfair expectations of being a young Patrick Vieira during his short stay in the north west of England, could become pivotal in breaking up Chelsea’s intricate passing game and has already gone on record about how he intends to boss Frank Lampard off the park. However, the clumsy defensive midfield can at times be his own worst enemy and a reckless clash and an early yellow could render Sissoko more of a liability against patient Chelsea build-up play. Ranieri may need to ensure that the gangly midfielder is aggressive and disruptive but without scything down Lampard before it is deemed wholly necessary.
The return of Trezeguet could be seen as something of a false dawn, as the former Monaco man is still not 100% fit and Ranieri will be thankful that he has Vincenzo Iaquinta and passport-juggling No. 8 Amauri currently enjoying a hot streak. Ranieri may look to introduce Trezegol as an impact sub if things start off badly and will be grateful that he took the wise decision to rest the experienced legs of Alessandro Del Piero for the trip to Palermo.
However, Ranieri – like Hiddink – is still short on some of his leading lights with Mauro Camronesi still not back to match fitness despite putting in a shift under the hot Sicilian lights, while the calming authority of Cristiano Zanetti is set to be missed through injury which could see former Chelsea man Tiago in the running for a starting berth alongside Momo Sissoko.
In what is easily Juve’s biggest fixture since the demise of the calciopoli debacle, Ranieri does not need to go hell for leather and win the tie on Wednesday night but leave themselves in a good position to win the tie in Turin. Expect a defence-minded performance from the Bianconeri, with Sissoko breaking up play and Del Piero coming deep to help press the Chelsea midfield leaving Amauri as something of a target man looking to get in behind the slower Chelsea centre-halves.
If Hiddink revealed his preferred strategy during Saturday’s early kick-off, then Chelsea will look to field another narrow 4-4-2 and play quick moving football, looking to hit players’ feet, while encouraging Ashley Cole and Jose Bosingwa to over-lap. Giorgio Chiellini and Nicola Legrottaglie will be unphased by Drogba’s physical prowess but may struggle with Anelka’s ability to peel off and finish.
Wednesday night will be a tentative affair, with both sides mindful of how much is at stake and the implications of even a simple mistake on the night. Smart money suggests it will be even or a solitary goal separating the sides when the second leg kicks off on March 10.