Deprived of Sergio Aguero, Manchester City’s task against Italian Champions and last season’s runners-up Juventus got that little bit harder.
But deprived of Pirlo, Tevez, Vidal and Llorente, Juventus will have a tough time of it themselves. The Bianconeri have made an awful start to their league campaign, and their draw with Chievo on Saturday saw them pick up their first point – a point which lifted them off the bottom of the table, giving you some idea of the woe befalling Max Allegri and his men so far this season.
The reason I mention those four players in particular is because of a fairly astounding stat: those four men scored 114 goals between them in the last two seasons, more than half of Juventus’s 210 goals over the last two years. I don’t know first hand the physical sensation of having your heart ripped out, but it must be close to what Juventus are feeling right now.
Their start shows their state: disjointed performances, a real lack of fluidity, and they’re leaking goals. Gianluigi Buffon’s remonstrations with the fans at half time in the Chievo game show it too, Juve fans have had it good for so long, their team has been so dominant for the last few seasons, and now they’re losing. They’re unaccustomed to such misery.
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But you still get the feeling that Juve will come good. They kept hold of Pogba, which was important, and the players they have lost have been replaced with able new bodies. But there are inevitable teething problems.
Firstly, losing Pirlo is probably the biggest hurdle to overcome. A Pirlo is not an easily replaceable player. Sami Khedira is the man tasked with doing it, but he’s not going to replace him like-for-like. He won’t simply sit in Pirlo’s old chair, he’ll take up a different position.
Juve have played with a regista ever since Pirlo arrived in 2011, but now they’ll have to adapt to a new style of play. No longer will they have Pirlo patrolling that area in front of the back four, looking for space to receive the ball and launch an attack. Khedira will get forward a little more and join in with the rest of the team whereas Pirlo liked stay on the outside and dictate the game from there. It’s just a different way of playing, and that’s hard to adapt to – especially after such a successful season last year.
Secondly it will take time for the new boys to settle in. Mario Mandzukic and Paulo Dybala are new men up front, and although they’re fairly like-for-like replacements for Tevez and Llorente, they’ll need time to settle in. Juan Cuadrado made his debut in the Chievo game and showed glimpses of why Chelsea bought him in the first place, but he too will need a little time to adjust fully.
So with Juventus weakened from last season – at least now at the start of the campaign – City have a real opportunity. Since their first crack at the Champions League in 2011-12, City have faced Bayern Munich and Real Madrid in the group stages leaving them with next to no chance of qualification as group winners. As a consequence, City were drawn against Barcelona twice, and a swift exit at the last 16 stage followed.
Each time the Champions League draw was made, City fans groaned. Every single time they were drawn in a group you could reasonably argue was the obligatory ‘group of death’. This time was no different. Sevilla and Moenchengladbach represented the ‘weaker’ teams in the group, but Spanish and German teams are rarely weak in Europe.
Yet City’s start to the season has been sensational, and more importantly, it’s not just Juventus who have been poor so far. Sevilla are third bottom in La Liga and Gladbach are rock bottom of the Bundesliga with no points and 11 goals conceded. City have never had a better chance to top a group.
There is just a word of warning, though: surely those teams won’t stay there for long. City have notoriously started slowly in Champions League campaigns, relying on their now-trademark ability to pull a result out of the fire when all seemed lost, as though they were simply hustling their opponents. This time they can’t do that. If Juve are weak now, they have to bet they won’t be in a few months.
The same goes for Sevilla and even Gladbach – although the Germans should still be the softest team in the group. City need to put points on the board now, while they are strong and their opponents are weak. Especially if they want to finish top and not scrape into the last 16 as they usually do. They play Juventus at home tonight and they play Sevilla at home first, too. Ideally, they’ll want points on the board before they have to travel to such difficult European cities.
This is a big chance for City, given their form and the form of their rivals, and given the fact that City have invested very well over the summer: Raheem Sterling and Kevin De Bruyne are additions that make City look good for Europe and not just the Premier League. City need a fast start, but even without Aguero City will still fancy their chances of doing it.