There’s nothing quite like the thrill of a last match with everything still to play for. When two or more teams rely on the events squeezed into 90 minutes of action. Fans are on the edge of their seat. Everybody keeps an eye or ear on other relevant matches. Tonight, Group E will give us such a scenario. Juventus face Shakhtar Donetsk knowing they require a positive result to advance, while Chelsea need the hosts to triumph. The Bianconeri have twice before traversed a similar situation.
In 1997-98 Juventus were one of the favourites to win the competition. After failing at the final hurdle to win back-to-back European crowns there were key summer alterations. Filippo Inzaghi – and later Edgar Davids – arrived, while Christian Vieri, Alen Boksic and Vladimir Jugovic departed.
They were once again paired alongside Manchester United, plus Feyenoord and Kosice. A shock loss to Feyenoord on Matchday 5 put qualification in jeopardy. The nature of the competition meant the six group winners would be joined in the last eight by the two best runners-up. Juventus (nine points) trailed Bayer Leverkusen (12) and Rosenborg (10), while level with Paris St-Germain.
A win at the Stadio Delle Alpi versus Sir Alex Ferguson’s men was a must. And talk about taking it down to the wire. The necessary goal only arrived in the 84th minute. Inzaghi nodded in a Zinedine Zidane cross, just after Andy Cole was denied when one-on-one thanks to a last ditch effort. Even so, Juve were not yet through.
Bayer had done enough to earn a place and PSG were out of the running thanks to Juve’s superior goal difference. Eyes were focused on Rosenborg. The Norwegians were on the verge of advancing, leading 2-1 against Olympiacos. Captain Antonio Conte – waiting for news pitch-side – would erupt in joy along with the rest of the stadium at the news Predrag Djordjevic had equalised in the 88th minute. He would liken it to a miracle. Juve were saved by the skin of their teeth on the way to contesting their third successive Final.
A season later the Bianconeri found themselves in another prickly conundrum. While they started in fine form domestically – winning five of their opening seven matches – Europe proved a tougher proposition. Like this season, Marcello Lippi’s side habitually drew. Grouped with Galatasaray, Rosenborg and Athletic Bilbao, the Bianconeri drew their first five matches. A last-minute Suat Kaya goal for Gala was the last in this sequence and ensured a final day victory was the bare minimum.
As they welcomed the Norwegian champions to Turin, Juve started in third, three points behind the Turkish club and their Matchday 6 adversary. There was no Alessandro Del Piero, who a month earlier suffered the terrible knee injury which ended his season. Two first half goals from Inzaghi and Nicola Amoruso was enough to eliminate Rosenborg – who must loathe the Bianconeri – but was not yet sufficient to qualify.
They required help in Bilbao. A point for the Turkish giants would be enough to see them through. And since Juve would only have tabled the third best runners-up record, they would be eliminated. But the Basque club played their part, earning a 1-0 win. Conte stood in virtually the same spot as 12 months prior, listening to coverage from San Mames. He grimaced as Galatasaray had one last chance, but leapt high into the air seconds later at the sound of the final whistle. Juve were through on goal difference.
Tonight’s scenario promises to be just as nail-biting, although this time Juventus have destiny in their hands. As they enter Donetsk’s Donbass Arena, Conte knows his side advance if they avoid defeat. They may qualify with a loss, but only if Chelsea fails to win. A draw is enough to send Shakhtar and Juve through, but Coach Mircea Lucescu has warned his side are playing to win. Angelo Alessio has also said the Italian champions can only think about claiming three points. It sets up an intriguing finish to what has been an exciting group. And if nothing else, Juventus have history on their side in such a situation.