Consecutive draws against Sporting Lisbon and Barcelona have left Juventus in danger of their Champions League campaign being cut short should they fail to win in Athens.
Though Sporting face the more difficult task of defeating Barcelona at Camp Nou, Olympiacos will want to end their brief spell in the competition with victory in front of their own fans. A hostile atmosphere at the Georgios Karaiskakis stadium won’t make it any easier for Max Allegri’s men.
Juventus will likely go through, but for a team that has achieved two finals in the last three years, their performances haven’t looked wholly convincing this time round. They left it late against Olympiacos and in both legs against Sporting, and although they deserve credit for their mental fortitude in coming away from these games with positive results, it was indicative of their start to the season as a whole and the general uncertainty in their performances.
In a season where the Bianconeri fans hoped that they could put last year’s final defeat behind them and make this year their own, they must have been underwhelmed with the start they made.
The loss of Leonardo Bonucci hasn’t helped them. Although his troubles at Milan this season have been well documented, he gave the team a different dimension with his range of passing and excellent reading of the game. In the Euros, with Antonio Conte lacking a playmaker in his Italy squad, Leo pulled it off with aplomb. When Juventus play a back three without him, they lack so much dynamism, as neither Mehdi Benatia nor Daniele Rugani have similar ball-playing abilities.
It seems that Allegri was keen to use the blueprint of Bianconeri success from last season’s European adventure. Prior to their humiliation at the hands of Real Madrid in the Final, their famous triumvirate of Andrea Barzagli (playing at right-back), Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini, and the ever-present Alex Sandro shipped an astounding four goals throughout the whole of the competition.
He stuck with the 4-2-3-1, and with the acquisitions of a few options in wide areas such as Douglas Costa and Federico Bernardeschi, the case had never been stronger to continue with it. However, although their tactical flexibility should be applauded, reverting back to a back three in the 0-0 draw against Barcelona in Turin highlights a certain reluctance from Allegri to commit to playing their own football in this competition, even more so without Bonucci sitting at the heart of it.
There’s a fine balance between being pragmatic and asserting your own style of play in Europe’s elite competition. Jose Mourinho had success with Inter by grinding out results against in their Treble season, as did Roberto Di Matteo in Chelsea’s almost comically defensive performances en route to the Final in 2012.
Although the 0-0 against Barcelona wasn’t by any means a bad result, it presented a missed opportunity for the Old Lady. In winning, they could have leapfrogged the Blaugrana and taken top spot, but as Allegri would rightfully argue, had they lost, Sporting would have pinched second place. But for a club as ambitious as Juventus, and with the squad they possess, they shouldn’t be intimidated by Europe’s big guns. Perhaps they were rattled by their comprehensive 3-0 defeat in Camp Nou in the opening game, but in front of their home fans, you would have hoped for a bit more positivity.
Fittingly, with this being the last Champions League game before the new year, Juve are expected to field a Christmas tree formation against Olympiacos, with Allegri acknowledging that this is a game that they can’t afford to lose. For them to be mentioned in the same breath as the other giants of the European game, they should comfortably sweep aside an already eliminated Olympiacos and progress to the next round. After all, that’s what the big teams do.