Claudio Ranieri welcomes his former club Chelsea to the Stadio Olimpico di Torino on Tuesday evening hoping to scupper their desperate chase for European glory. Didier Drogba’s 13th minute strike handed the Blues a slender advantage going into the second leg, but the Bianconeri will be in confident mood after impressing for long periods at Stamford Bridge.
Both sides head into Tuesday’s match on the back of excellent away wins in their respective domestic competitions as well as a decent run of form. The Old Lady were unbeaten in Serie A throughout March, although the loss at the Bridge coupled with a disappointing midweek Coppa Italia defeat at Lazio proved setbacks. Nevertheless, Ranieri’s men bounced back in the Derby della Mole on Saturday, with a late Giorgio Chiellini header proving enough to dispatch neighbours Torino and give them a boost going into Tuesday’s crunch clash.
Meanwhile, Chelsea is in their best form of the season. Guus Hiddink has turned things around monumentally in West London, with the Dutchman still holding a 100% record after five games in charge. Make no mistake, they were impressive wins too, with tough away trips to top four-chasing Aston Villa and struggling Portsmouth, both beaten by a single goal, with many calling it the Chelsea of old – referring to a certain José Mourinho-led era. Another plus point that was so prominent under the Special One was an in-form Didier Drogba. The Ivory Coast striker was a lacklustre waste of space throughout Luiz Felipe Scolari’s rein, but Hiddink has gotten the turbulent forward on his side and is reaping the rewards. He has bagged three goals in the five games under his new Dutch master and if his display against Championship side Coventry on Saturday is anything to go by, then the Bianconeri backline will be in for a torrid evening.
However, the best bit of news to come out of the Chelsea camp at the weekend was the return of midfield powerhouse Michael Essien. After over six months on the sidelines, the Ghanaian was handed 25 minutes on Saturday and Hiddink will now have the option of introducing him once again in Turin. The former PSV Eindhoven Coach is set to field the same starting eleven as he did against the Sky Blues on Saturday, even with the return of Essien, although Nicolas Anelka returns from injury and will compete with the horribly out of form Florent Malouda for the wide left berth. The French winger has suffered a horrible campaign but with Joe Cole’s lengthy lay off and Ricardo Queresma cup-tied – he is their only natural wide man along with Salomon Kalou. In contrast, Anelka clearly dislikes playing out wide but the 4-3-3 system clearly suits Chelsea and with Drogba in form, it is the only way ‘Le Sulk’ can get in the side.
Elsewhere, the Tinkerman lived up to his name on Saturday leaving out some big names for the upcoming Champions League encounter. Alessandro Del Piero and David Trezeguet were both rested for the game with Toro, leaving fans and journalists alike to fill in the gaps and presume this as the starting pair up front for Tuesday. Ranieri, however, refused to be drawn on the issue, instead joking, “You can consider it a clue if you like”, leaving us guessing once more to the likeable Italian’s team selection. Pavel Nedved was also rested and is certain to reclaim his role whilst Zdenek Grygera is set to return after missing the win over Torino through injury. A potential blow for the Old Lady comes in the shape of Momo Sissoko who is believed to have suffered a broken metatarsal with Christian Poulsen favourite to start instead of the Mali enforcer.
Tuesday will certainly prove to be a massive occasion, as both sides aim to edge closer to being crowned Kings of Europe, but it will not just be about getting through to the next round for Ranieri, as he looks to get one over on his former employer. When Roman Abramovich first took over at Stamford Bridge he charged Ranieri with the almost impossible task of bringing home the Barclays Premier League or the Champions League trophy. The Tinkerman had been on the cusp of both, with a second place finish in the league along with falling just one stage short in Europe, most would have afforded the former Valencia Coach another shot especially with his special bond with the Stamford Bridge faithful. This apparently counted for nothing and he was unceremoniously sacked leaving a sour taste in the mouth of the dignified Italian. He is still widely loved in West London and although he only wishes well for Chelsea fans and players, the way the Russian billionaire treated him must give him a little extra satisfaction if indeed Juventus do manage to turn around the first leg deficit.
Much was made of the apparent English superiority after the first legs of the three Anglo-Italian ties, but the Bianconeri were the most impressive of the sides from Serie A – despite losing. They suffered an uncomfortable opening half an hour at the Bridge before eventually finding their rhythm and largely dominating proceedings from then on, although they only managed to create half-chances and failed to find that precious away goal. With the tie finely balanced at 1-0, we are likely to see a tight affair. Chelsea just need a clean sheet to progress (easier said than done), while the Old Lady cannot afford to concede an away goal as they will then need an unlikely three in order to secure a passage into the last eight.
Chelsea are strong favourites with the bookmakers to progress but Ranieri would have seen enough two weeks ago to know his side have an excellent chance to put one over on his former boss. It is not likely to thrill if you are a football purist but for sheer tension, passion and drama it makes for what will surely be a stunning spectacle and a tie almost certain to go down to the wire – expect a long night.