It’s Italy vs. England in the Champions League knockout stages later this month, with the old masters of the peninsula taking on the big boys from Britain in three mouth-watering ties. To kick-off Football Italiano’s coverage of this tantalising trio of games, resident writers Chris Sloley and Andrea Tallarita share their views on which nation will come out on top.
Chelsea vs. Juventus – Kick off 19:45, Wednesday February 25
Chris Sloley: The difference between Chelsea and Juventus – and what will define this titanic clash over two legs – is pedigree. No question, Juventus are formidable representatives of the Italian game on the continental stage and have a rich history in the competition but Chelsea in recent years has shown that added drive in the Champions League.
Admittedly, they have failed to win the competition but progressing past the knockout stages has become second nature to the West London club regardless of their opponent and added to that Juventus hardly fair well on British shores.
Taking into account that history isn’t cyclical and Chelsea won’t just win because they have won before, the Blues have the upper hand on another front – urgency. Whilst Juventus has all but recovered from the ignominy of dropping down a flight, Chelsea has had to tighten the coffers in the credit crunch and compete on the field rather than in finances. In addition to watching Manchester City flashing the cash – albeit wildly and embarrassingly – Chelsea stare down the barrel of a third placed finish in the league.
For a club with two league titles in the past five years this will not do, and the Champions League remains the one shining beacon of hope that can pull Chelsea’s army of glory hunting supporters back from despair. Expect all the stops to not just be pulled out but ripped from their sidings and hurled onto the pitch by Big Phil Scolari in what could be his one realistic chance of saving his employment in West London.
As for actually tête-à-tête, Chelsea and Juventus have very similar constructs – formidable keepers, talismanic clubmen (Del Piero and Lampard) and enigmatic frontmen. But what Chelsea has that Juventus doesn’t is pace down the flanks, and the game could easily be won through the incision of Jose Bosingwa and Ashley Cole outstripping Zdenek Grygera and Paulo De Ceglie, while the young Nigerian Jon Obi Mikel has upped his defensive game over this past season and will render Pavel Nedved redundant with his pressure game.
Andrea Tallarita: Juventus is going through. No question. However much Chelsea may have been hyped as ‘the best team in the world’ last semester, they were thumped 3-1 by Roma at the Olimpico and ended up second in their group. Now they are coming up against Juventus, a team much more powerful than Roma. What is going to happen?
Some see Chelsea as favourites because they have a (marginal) technical advantage. They roll their eyes at the idea that Claudio Marchisio could hold a candle to Frank Lampard. They were doing that in Madrid too, before Alex Del Piero slaughtered them 2-1 at home and away. Which brings us to the main point. Del Piero didn’t win those games because he is ever so much better than, say, Raul. He won them because he had something to prove. Juventus is an entire team with something to prove. Chelsea is not.
In terms of quality, Juventus are not that far behind Chelsea. But as far as the psychological factor goes, the confrontation is frightfully imbalanced in favour of Juventus. Keep in mind that this is the first post-Calciopoli Champions League for one of the most glorious clubs in Italy, which makes them at once the newcomers and the veterans. They possess a combination of humility and pride which is nothing short of devastating – they face every opponent with the respect of the underdogs and the confidence of the champions. Regardless of the slight technical difference, Juventus will fight like a typhoon. Will Chelsea do the same?
The first game is in London, where goals for Juventus count double. This means that the surprise factor for Juventus counts double. And when Chelsea will have to make up for that, they will be faced with the best defence in Italy in terms of goals conceded, backed by Gianluigi Buffon – the best goalkeeper in the world. Good luck with that.
Arsenal vs. Roma – Kick off 19:45, Tuesday February 24
Chris: Roma, like Juventus, suddenly come to England and forget what they are doing there, stumble about and end up losing 7-1 in front of a howling Old Trafford faithful. Even the most ardent Gunner – and most definitely all salivating British commentators – will be quick to cut open that psychological wound for i Lupi. I’m sure Daniel De Rossi will shudder uncontrollably when he steps up to the check-in desk at Leonardo da Vinci airport fully aware he has to enter England again.
Roma has another player who will suddenly forget how his feet function in British shores in Julio Baptista. The Beast has hit an incredible run of form for the Giallorossi in the past few weeks but back when he lined up for Arsenal on a short loan from Madrid, the bulky Brazilian looked like he had won a competition to represent his favourite North London club and spent 90% of his time apologising for spooning teed-up efforts into neighbouring boroughs.
Even without Fabregas, the continental flavour of the former Highbury residents means that they are quite well attuned to the higher-paced, passing focused Champions League football. And, Arsenal’s knack for gaining important scores on foreign soil, such as the crushing defeat of Fenerbahce and the last gasp draw with Kiev, which is experience that will prove invaluable and leave them open to win the tie at Ashburton Grove.
Andrea: Normally I would give Arsenal as favourites. Roma are still psychologically unstable, they have suffered severe injuries and they play a comparatively ugly game. The thing is, though, that all of these problems subsist for Arsenal as well, and in much more serious iterations. Roma will be walking into this with some players still regaining form, but at least they can keep their best player in Francesco Totti. Arsenal has lost Cesc Fabregas whilst several other players will have returned from injury but will lack proper match fitness. Roma has been limping but Arsenal has been falling apart, and this is not the right place to try getting back on their feet.
The loss of Fabregas has been devastating to the game of the London team. For weeks (months?) they have seemed stinted, slow and mechanic. Granted, Roma has had similar problems as well (there is something uncanny about the parallels to be drawn between these two teams over the last few years, including the current struggle for Champions League qualification), but they seem to be rising better and more quickly. Furthermore, they seem to have adapted themselves to the kind of trudge-in-the-mud game that Arsenal tends to offer – if anything, it is a shame that this match-up should not have taken place last year, when both teams were playing fast-paced, beautiful football and would have offered a delightful spectacle. In addition, with the final being played in the Stadio Olimpico, Roma have the psychological edge as much as Juventus do with Chelsea – the teams may be technically not that distant, but Roma just want this much more fiercely than their adversaries.
It might be a dreary match if both teams decide to play defensively, and there will be uncertainties on both sides. But with their current crisis, it is hard to see such a patched-up Arsenal beating such a resolute Roma. Provided that Totti is on the field, i Lupi are tough meat to bite into. Just ask Chelsea.
Inter vs. Manchester United – Kick off 19:45, Tuesday February 24
Chris: By definition, the two best teams in each respective country will prove a tantalising prospect but it has come at the wrong time for Inter. Struggling with stuttering league form, the Nerazzurri has been found out as a one-dimensional, Ibrahimovic-dependent side built on Mourinho’s best ‘win-ugly’ policy.
In stark contrast, aging and belligerent Scot Sir Alex Ferguson has embraced attacking, free-flowing football to build the foundations of his exuberant United side. Currently blazing through the Premiership with a frontline packed by any three of Rooney, Tevez, Berbatov, Nani and that other guy…oh yeah, World Player of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo. Even with his somewhat indifferent form in the Champions League, Ronaldo is a foreboding presence in any team and one which Internazionale cannot overlook.
Not only are they formidable at putting the ball in the back of the net but the Red Devils have taken measures to shore up their defence. Young Brazilian Rafael da Silva looks promising and Northern Irish centre-half Johnny Evans looks like he has been fending off world class forwards for decades. The jewel in the United defence being Nemanja Vidic, who has proven himself to be an imperious wall at the heart of the United back four. Quick-footed but often aloof Swede Zlatan will be lucky to get a sniff with the totemic Serb breathing down his neck.
Another important aspect of this match is the mutual respect between Mourinho and Ferguson, something harboured when the Portuguese egotist gave Ferguson a battle worth fighting in the Premier League. However, this is not the league and surely the Manchester United manager will take some sort of perverse pleasure from thwarting Inter at Old Trafford if only to gaze down at the corner flag where Mourinho rubbed Ferguson’s red-tipped nose in it after Porto knocked them out of the competition in 2004.
Andrea: This is the tricky one. I predict that at least two Italian teams are certainly going through this February, and I expect it’ll be Juventus and one between Roma and Inter. But all three? Tricky – but no, even this is not impossible.
While my money is on Roma rather than Inter being that ‘second team,’ chances are that both will pass through. Inter match Manchester United in terms of professionalism and depth. Cristiano Ronaldo is fearsome, but he is not impossible to deal with, and he is not particularly decisive against big teams when it comes to the Champions League (at least, Barcelona and Chelsea weren’t torn to pieces last year by any means). Outside of the Portuguese, and considering Wayne Rooney’s recent injury, the two teams are technically very balanced.
Much will come down to tactics, then. Jose Mourinho and Sir Alex Ferguson know each other well, so expect an intriguing battle there. What may tip the balance between two similar teams, in the end, may be simply a matter of fortune – and therefore of statistics. Manchester United are the holding champions. Consider the last three reigning champions in the last three Champions leagues – Milan , Barcelona and Liverpool. None of them reached the quarter-finals. They all stopped at exactly this point. There seems to be something about the hubris that results from winning this tournament that automatically handicaps the champion when it comes to defending the title – at the very least, we may say that Manchester are not going to win it. But it is also statistically unlikely that a team like Inter Milan will fail to reach the quarter-finals for three years in a row. Do the maths.
Unlike the Juventus and Roma games, I would not call Inter the favourites for this one. I will stick to my prediction of two Italian teams out of three. By most standards, Inter and Manchester United are simply equals, so the match will be decided by tactics and fortune. But the numbers say Inter, and numbers are always unbiased.
Chris: When it comes down to the actual results it doesn’t look good for the boys from the peninsula. Chelsea should be able to hold their own in Turin and win the tie in London, while Arsenal have proven that they are not unable to get the job done in Italy with their 2-0 dispatching of AC Milan in the San Siro last season. Manchester United have enough firepower to take both legs and out-do a downtrodden Inter at their lowest point.
Andrea: Juventus is my definite favourite for the clash against Chelsea, while Roma face a team that is just too riddled with uncertainties and misfortune to expect a victory. Inter and Manchester United are the only two teams where the chances seem equal on both sides, but whatever happens, it is very improbable that anything less than two Italian teams go through this round. There is a possibility that it will be Juventus and Inter rather than Juventus and Roma, but the substance remains the same. And those of you who wish to live dangerously can place an accumulation bet on Juventus, Roma and Inter all going through. The chances of this happening are not one in a hundred and not even one in ten – they are, by this writer’s estimation, a solid one in three.