“The best is yet to come,” promised Antonio Conte after his Juventus side’s demolition of Chelsea two weeks ago. And how right he was. Last night’s 1-0 victory over Shakhtar Donetsk at the Donbass Arena was less comprehensive than the 3-0 win over Chelsea at the Juventus Stadium, less stylish, but it was in many ways more impressive. It was more of a statement.
The Bianconeri overcame one of Europe’s form outfits, a side they were comprehensively outplayed by in the previous fixture in Turin. They did so at one of Europe’s most intimidating arenas, the Donbass, where it took Shakhtar two years to suffer their first defeat after making it their new home in 2009.
They also overcame the scepticism of those who insist upon ascribing Machiavellian motives to every Italian team that steps on to a pitch, with suggestions of a ‘Biscotto’, or agreed draw, rife before the game.
Shakhtar are nicknamed the Miners, but in fact it’s Juventus who have proved more adept at digging theirselves out of a hole.
At the halfway stage in Group E La Vecchia Signora’s long awaited return to the Champions League was beginning to look like a crushing anti-climax, Conte’s men trailing Chelsea and Shakhtar by one and four points respectively after drawing their first three fixtures.
At that point most observers had less confidence in Juve’s chances of qualifying for the last 16 than Conte has in Nicklas Bendtner.
The thrashings of Nordsjaelland and Chelsea boosted hopes, but winning the group? That still seemed a thoroughly outlandish proposition until 11 minutes into the second half last night, when Olexandr Kucher diverted a cross into his own net under pressure from Sebastian Giovinco.
Giovinco has endured plenty of stick since his return to Turin, and whilst he’s netted in big games, they’ve tended to be ‘cherry on the cake’ strikes, scored when the game was already won. Donetsk felt like the first occasion the Atomic Ant had been truly decisive, even if the goal wasn’t his, as Stephan ‘Pinocchio’ Lichtsteiner made sure to point out during the celebrations.
It was a night for unlikely heroes, with Angelo Alessio another of them. The stand-in boss has – perhaps unfairly – had most of the blame for the Serie A defeats to Inter and Milan piled on top of him, but on his last touchline outing before Conte’s return on Sunday, got to oversee one of the most significant victories in the club’s recent history.
“It was difficult to do without Antonio, but the team knows what it has to do and how it must move, so they helped the situation immensely,” stated the unassuming assistant.
“I want Real Madrid in the next round,” announced Leonardo Bonucci, which sounds like bluster but actually makes a modicum of sense. Juve cast the big boys asunder, but toiled against the likes of Bologna and Lecce on their way to the Serie A title last year, and it’s a theme we’ve seen repeated in this Champions League campaign.
This Juventus side performs best on the big occasions, with the odds stacked against them, so getting Lichtsteiner’s wish and drawing Celtic, or a team of that ilk, may not necessarily be a good thing.
The players might not be able to agree on what opponent they want to see pulled out the hat in Nyon later this month, but uniformity of opinion can be found on the other side of the draw. Because after their performance last night, no one wants to face Juve.